Saturday, March 30, 2013

Policy Perspective: The Poles

(Heidi's perspective, suburban, private school teacher)

First off, I just have to say how much I admire Meg’s passion, interest, knowledge and experience on the topic of Policy. She has inspired and fueled me to begin this journey into policy-land, although thank goodness I’m not a blogger as it has taken me this long to write a response to her wonderful piece! (Though I’m afraid our March blog bookends are in no way in like lions and out like lambs!) :D

One of the things I love the most about Kinderchat is how it brings together many different voices and experiences. Each one of us brings a unique perspective and set of tools to the table. It’s as if each week we return to the table to unload and share the newest gems stored up in our pockets. Meg’s first hand experience in a Head Start classroom is extremely valuable to the community and to this conversation in particular. And even more so, because my own experience pretty much cannot be more different!

I have taught in an upper class community in a private school my entire teaching career. So not only is it a low/no poverty community, coincidentally with excellent public schools, I teach in maybe the top 10% economic bracket of that already top tier. Private school tuition makes your eyes water if you are a person of average means. The cost per pupil is staggering in comparison to public school cost per pupil, in some cases private school tuition literally doubles or triples what even high spending districts are spending per pupil. And private schools are fundraising pretty much all of the time. It seems it’s never enough.

In contrast to mine and more in line with Meg’s experience, my Mom teaches Special Education in the neighboring high poverty town and is well versed in how policy makes its way into the classroom. She’s had to switch curriculums pretty much every other year for the last 10 years while I’ve had time to craft and perfect my own. Her students might get beat for losing a mitten, my student’s Mom owns a mitten-making boutique. Her students have parents in jail, my students have nannies and housekeepers. Her students get beat up everyday walking home from school until they relent and join the gang, my students are picked up in Range Rovers and driven to horseback riding lessons. She juggles students with severe emotional and learning issues, my students are asked to leave if there’s too severe an issue for the school to handle. She writes multi-page detailed lesson plans all weekend while I just keep a monthly desk calendar. Mom and Meg, I’m not sure I could do it!

There seems to me to be some very dangerous and sad trends in policy making of recent, with labels being thrown out of “failing schools” and “bad teachers”. Everyone is failing it seems, except the folks out there creating the “bad policy”. I always go back to this quote from W Edwards Deming "The problem is not the worker, the problem is at the top." Everyone seems to be racing there, but those actually at the top certainly aren't talking about the Common Core.

These facts of disparity are not secrets and if they are, well, they shouldn’t be. The facts may not be as sexy as big data, but data are just a bunch of numbers when not contextualized by the facts of life for millions of Young Children. I hope through these discussions with Meg we begin open up a more honest and in depth dialogue of the reality and impact of policy and the reality of school experiences for our youngest learners.

Heidi is from New Jersey and can be found on twitter at @hechternacht She blogs for kids here.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Policy Perspective: A Beginning

Before Amy and I began Kinderchat, we outlined five clear goals. Goal one reads: To facilitate discussions among Educators, Parents, Policy Makers and the Public about Best Practices in Early Childhood Education. I know I speak for Amy when I say how proud we are to have helped facilitate almost three years of dialogue among so many dynamic, professional and talented educators. 

I have always subscribed to the belief that form follows function when developing this world of, by and for educators. When we were overflowing with links to incredible Early Childhood Blogs, we made the Kinderchat Early Childhood Blog Directory. It is from this place of timing and authentic need that we spring to action. 

So, somehow, somewhere, we are being called to action to begin more authentic and engaged dialogue in the world of Early Childhood Educational Policy. I know, I never thought I'd be saying it either, but here we are. We have decided to undertake this endeavor in stages, the first being an ongoing dialogue led by US teachers Meg Sexton and Heidi Echternacht with comments encouraged by all in the International Kinderchat community.

To help you (and me! watch out! I'm learning!) we have created a Directory of US Early Childhood Organizations. We encourage your comments and participation to help us begin an authentic dialogue in this area. Please let us know if you'd like to contribute to the conversation in a guest post! 

@TeacherMeg opens the dialogue here:

Meg’s Perspective (the urban United States Head Start teacher and child development grad student perspective)

When I graduated undergrad with my teaching certificate and big plans of moving to Chicago to teach, I was quite unaware of the policy world.  I thought that policy was something that applied strictly to the government world, was dull, and had nothing to directly do with me. As I spent my first two years teaching (and struggling!) in an underserved neighborhood school, I began to think that there was more to the story of teaching than my students and my classroom, but couldn’t piece it together.  

I later transitioned into teaching within a community center in a Head Start classroom. This is when policy pushed (shoved!) itself right into my practice. Head Start is a federally funded preschool program directed towards children and families who have the biggest economic need. It’s a 2 1/2 hour program that incorporates meals, parent education and involvement, health services and more into the requirements. This is where it begins to get tricky. Since it is a 1 1/2 hour program and most of the children we serve need full day care, Head Start is very often combined with state and/or private funding within one classroom, not to mention child care licensing standards.  All of these various stakeholders who fund the program have different requirements of the teachers and administration in terms of documentation. Also? Not every child in a classroom falls under the same funding source. So I had to know and follow procedures for several different funders and provide documentation (read lots of paperwork) for each one of the stakeholders. That’s policy pushing its way into the classroom.  And the thing is this happens not just in the childcare centers and Head Start programs. Policy pushes its way into the public and private schools as well.  Policy is what dictates what we must teach, how much we must teach, how much prep time we get and on and on. Because the requirements from funders dictate so much of our day, it is necessary for teachers to understand policy, it has everything to do with us, contrary to what I once believed.

Part of what drives me to try and make sense of policy is that logistical piece of it; if I want the programs I work in to keep getting funding, I had better comply with the paperwork they request. I’ve also recently come to the realization that policy also directly connects to the social justice of early care and education. We need to know where the money is coming from so that we can advocate for our families when budgets are cut and our programs are threatened.  As a part of that, we need to make ourselves familiar with the organizations that provide policy guidance and advocacy. Beyond that, we need to forge relationships with these organizations so that we can engage in dialogue with them.  These organizations have a lot of influence over how policy is structured and enacted and many of them provide guidance on what is developmentally appropriate practice. It is our responsibility to be aware. We must learn who the major players are behind funding sources. Not only so that we are able to see who is driving education and social service policies, but so that we can dig deeper and look at the different agendas that may be behind the many policy shifts.  

I strongly believe that we need to practice being reflective and critical consumers of policy.  Whether it be a new program initiative, a curriculum mandate, or a new assessment, we need to look at the issue in a more intimate manner and tease the different strands apart. We also need to be open to the grey area; we need to look at an issue and know that not everything is polarized to either side, but that every issue is extremely complex and multidimensional.  It is not comfortable in the grey area, it’s a bit squirmish, but we need to be okay with that. Policy is complex and just like life, there is no black or white-only grey. Worry not! It is within this grey area of discomfort that conversations emerge, and from those conversations ideas, and from those ideas, action.  

Meg Sexton comes to us from Chicago and can be found on Twitter @teachermeg and blogs at She is a certified PreK-3rd grade teacher with experience teaching preschool, kindergarten, and first grade. She is currently a graduate student studying child development within the context of both changing the nature of teacher professional development and focusing on the whole development of the child in helping teachers reflect on the choices they make within their classrooms.