First Person

Ask an Expert: At what age should my son attend preschool?

EdNews Parent experts Ann Morrison, Karla Scornavacco and Robert “Kim” Herrell respond to a question from Amy of Boulder:

Q. At what age should my son attend pre-school?  He is 2 now. We have a nanny take care of him during the day and I worry he is not getting the preparation necessary to help him acclimate in kindergarten.

Ann Morrison: Many parents wonder about kindergarten and how to prepare their kids. Although school attendance in kindergarten is not required by Colorado law, I think it is among the most important years of a child’s life.  Like Robert Fulghum’s poem that begins, “All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten”, some highly important lessons are learned there.  Many academic, social, and behavioral areas develop in this time of a child’s life. However I will only address literacy development here.

It can be easy to think that school is the first place kids learn conventional literacy, but actually literacy development begins at birth. For example, when you pull into the restaurant parking lot how does your son know whether he is getting a Happy Meal or you are getting a latte?  He sees the “golden arches” of McDonalds or the green and black circle of Starbucks and knows that those logos have meaning, which is an area of literacy called logography.  Soon he will begin to notice the difference between text and pictures on his storybook page and come to understand that the words that you say when you read to him come from the text, not the pictures.  All of these experiences are part of a stage of reading development called emergent literacy.  A strong foundation in emergent literacy provides the foundation for instruction in conventional literacy taught in schools.

Regardless whether your son spends his days with an adult caretaker or in a pre-school setting, what is most important is that the interaction he is having is high quality.  High quality interaction includes lots of oral language experiences, extended time for play with a variety of toys, lots of “lap time” with an adult reading a wide selection of books, and plenty of “face time” with peers and adults for talking and eye contact.

You may want to work in a part-day preschool experience, but, if you believe that your son is having rich language and text experiences with his nanny already then I don’t believe there is any reason to change his care.

Several publications from the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) provide suggestions for developmentally appropriate language and literacy activities for parents and caretakers.  Two Shining Stars booklets, one for toddlers and another for preschoolers, and another booklet titled Literacy Begins at Home are all good examples of resources at the NIFL.

Karla Scornavacco: In the state of Colorado, children can start “preschool” at the age of 2.5.  Some preschools will save a spot for your child, and welcome him into the school the day he turns 2½.  It’s the first “half birthday” that many parents of young children celebrate…while others dread, and others aren’t quite sure what to make of it. Preschool is indeed a path to kindergarten preparation. The trick, though, is figuring out what your son needs right now as a 2-year-old, and what works best for your family and work situation. A 2-year-old’s needs can be quite different from a 5- or 6-year-old’s needs.

The notion that there is one perfect, “it-must-be-this-way-path” to kindergarten is absurd.  So, take a breather. We, as parents, are going to be dealing with all sorts of parents who are going to choose school options for their children that do not match what we want for our families.  We may second-guess ourselves.  We may over-think options.  That’s OK. It’s part of the journey of being a parent.

So, what does your 2-year-old son “need” in order to be prepared for kindergarten?  Here’s a brief list.  There are multiple ways to meet these milestones.

  • Recognize rhyming sounds
  • Identify rhyming words
  • Follow two-step directions (e.g. get out the scissors, then fold the paper).
  • Cut with scissors
  • Trace basic shapes
  • Begin to share with others
  • Start to follow rules
  • Manage bathroom needs
  • Button shirts, pants, coats, and zip up zippers
  • Separate from parents without being upset
  • Speak understandably
  • Talk in complete sentences of five to six words
  • Look at pictures and then tell stories
  • Identify the beginning sound of some words
  • Identify some alphabet letters
  • Recognize some common sight words like “stop”
  • Sort similar objects by color, size, and shape
  • Recognize groups of one, two, three, four, and five objects
  • Bounce a ball

How can we know that children are ready for school?  According to national studies, teachers are more likely to expect your son to be able to pay attention and communicate his needs when he enters kindergarten.  Other parents, though, are more likely to focus on academic skills, such as counting to 20 or knowing all 26 letters.  There are two overlapping priorities at work here: your child’s socio-emotional development, and his academic development. You and your nanny can take care of most, if not all, of your son’s pre-kindergarten “academic needs.”  The socio-emotional part, though, requires that your son be around kids his age at least a few times a week. See this pamphlet from the Colorado State Library on kindergarten readiness, or this longer document on the same thing from the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Robert K. Herrell: As recent education summits/conferences have pointed out, preschool has an incredibly positive effect on the success of a student in school.  Yet opinions remain mixed on the best age for children to begin preschool.

Most preschool providers have a checklist of readiness behaviors. You might check out websites of preschools to see if they provide any guidance. And, as you visit and observe different preschool centers, ask to see their list of preschool readiness traits.

At the top of the list is usually, “Must be potty trained.”  Preschool staff know that accidents will happen, and many will have you leave a change of clothes for your child.  They are not interested, though, in taking the time away from the other children to perform this service for you.  Please don’t rush or force potty training, though. Your child will do it when he/she is ready.

It is so important to go and visit preschools.  Look for a clean, warm and caring environment.  There should be lots of talk, but not yelling.  Is the staff up with the children modeling behaviors, or are they sitting on one side of the room chatting?  And if you liked a preschool an older child went to, go and observe it again.  The staff and atmosphere may have changed.  Take the time to select what is best for your child.

Many preschools have options for the amount of time a child can attend:  half-day, full-day, two days a week, etc.  Let your child build up their “time” as they are ready, at their individual developmental pace.  “Can I go see Ms. V. and my friends today?”  This would be a signal for more time at preschool.  Some also have a late shift for those parents who work later hours. Ask about what options they offer.

If you are looking for a pre-kindergarten program, it is a slightly different decision process. Does the preschool understand the kindergarten readiness skills at your local school district? How exactly will the pre-K program work with your child to build his readiness?  A quality pre-K program will be able to give you specific examples. Many such programs will only allow your child to participate for one year, so it is best to begin such programs when your child can seamlessly move right into kindergarten.

When to send your child to preschool depends a lot on your own child’s development in those wonderful years between 2 and 5.  Selecting the right environment for him is also crucial. Is it as important as the college they will go to?  Maybe more.  It ranks up there with books and reading in the home as favorable indicators of future success. As parents, one of our jobs is to open as many doors for our children as we can.


First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.