Harriett Krein-Hart: A Bright Light on the Hudson

When my firstborn was a toddler, his father and I began the search for child care. The project was daunting, the price tag exorbitant. To whom could we entrust our child? What were we looking for? Would we know the right program when we saw it? Would he be loved and treasured? The questions nagged at us as we moved through this agonizing rite of passage for the American parent.

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We found Purple Circle, a parent cooperative established in 1972 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Soon, we were part of the village it takes to raise a child. Who were these amazing people, our new lifeline in this task of rearing the next generation?  I was awed by what they knew and their dedication—for which they received little respect and recognition, some of them paid on par with embalmers and parking attendants.

Three decades later, north of the city, up the Hudson River, Sam and his life partner, Camille, would embark on this quest—for their own firstborn.  They found Harriett.

The country has come to the end of the season of appreciation. A time dedicated to the stewards of our children’s development and education. When I checked the website of the National Retail Federation on Friday, May 12—the designated day, since 1996, for recognition of child care providers and teachers—total spending on Mother’s Day, was expected to reach $23.6 billion.

Yet the demanding, essential work of caregiving and educating remains invisible on the ledger sheets for our Gross Domestic Product, the practitioners ignored.  “Just babysitting,” the work is often described by those, still too many, who are clueless.

“No society oriented exclusively toward individual success—to exclusion of care for the next generation—can reproduce itself,” economist Nancy Folbre warned in The Invisible Heart, a critique of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, animus of the free market. And to think he was a prime mover of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Smith lived long before Harriett, who “dumped blood, sweat, money, and time,” as my son put it, into her venture of early care and education. Two parents had found a crucial partner, an extension of their family, with whom they share the joys and sorrows of raising their boys.  Folbre’s heart was steadily beating.

At the end of March, with a batch of gluten-free blueberry muffins, I headed north to “school,” as the family refers to Bright Tykes, Harriett’s early childhood program, to celebrate my older grandson’s fourth birthday. There was a damp chill in the air. But this private home, retrofitted to accommodate children ranging in age from two months to five years old, was warm and cozy.

I arrived just before lunch. The productive hum of “organized chaos”—as an early childhood educator I once met defined “rigor”—filled the rooms.  The tracks of Brio trains, those wooden staples of my own kids’ childhood, were strewn on the floor, to disappear soon, during cleanup time, with perfect choreography that still leaves me awestruck.  To get a group of children at various stages of development to follow directions is not easy, and it is something that kindergarten teachers have long prized as a key indicator of readiness.

Fox, the birthday boy, was taking in the scene.  He’s a child with special needs—blind, with two diseases so rare they call them “orphans,” and a diagnosis of autism.  I like to put the adjective “special” in a different place in the sentence, before “child.”

He’s a connoisseur of music, whose rhythms evoke intense concentration and unalloyed delight.  Moving out into the world, exploring through his senses, Fox sings and whistles as he feels the contours of the family’s Volvo station wagon, and licks the clapboard wood siding of his grandparents’ house. He’s discovered pockets, sticking his hands in, with an impish grin, to find an iPhone, the grownup’s toy.  His development is deeply enigmatic, his spirit divine.

“We’re celebrating Fox’s fourth birthday today,” Harriett said to the children over lunch. He had reluctantly agreed to wear the gold crown, removing it quickly.  “What is it you like best about him?” she asked.  “He loves to give us hugs,” said two of his friends. And they return the gift with gusto: one morning, upon Fox’s return after a sick day, a gaggle of children had descended upon him in a group embrace.

Bright Tykes is a nutritious haven in my grandchildren’s ecosystem. Fox has been joined by his little brother, Hawk, their bond tightening over time. Uncannily precocious, as observant as his avian namesake, and joyful in temperament, Hawk looks out for “Foxy,” as he affectionately calls his sibling.

Here, the two boys who have hiked the trails of Columbia and Greene counties on their father’s back and in a sturdy mountain stroller, continue their exploration on field trips to a nature preserve within walking distance of the center.

“I’m so happy when the boys come home dirty, and Hawk’s built a bird’s nest out of stuff he’s found in the preserve,” Camille recently texted, with a link to “Running Free in Germany’s Outdoor Preschools,” in the New York Times.  She understands, intuitively, how this freedom fuels cognitive growth.  As a child of an imaginative, single woman living in poverty, Camille made toys and art out of sticks and street treasures. “The world is your playground, if you make it so,” her mother used to say.

Soon after that exchange, Sam sent me a couple of pictures of Hawk’s “fabulous bird’s nest sculpture.”  Just weeks after his second birthday, he had transformed into art the materials of his nature walk, constructing his knowledge, in the hands-on way of young children.

Yet more was to come.  The experience had provided the foundation for Harriet’s work. “We are learning about…birds, reptiles, fish, and mammals,” she wrote in a brief report. “Hawk is dedicated to the sorting process and the details about similarities and differences between species.” Curriculum objective organically achieved.

There you have it.

Photo Credit: (the) SAM LOGAN

 

 

 

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Bruce Fuller Weighs in, Again, on Pre-K for All: But Where Are the Real Experts?

Bruce Fuller has weighed in—yet again—on universal preschool. He’s had a lot to say over the past few years, as Bill de Blasio, New York City’s mayor, has pursued a bold experiment to combat inequality in a “Tale of Two Cities.”

A professor at Berkeley’s graduate school of education, Fuller is well known for Standardized Childhood, his ten-year-old book that tackles the thorny questions of access and quality in early childhood education, while sticking it to proponents of preschool for all.  “Institutional liberals in pursuit of political legitimacy and public dollars” he called them—marching down a dangerous path, well trodden

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by an aging group of white men: Hollywood’s Rob Reiner, Warren Buffett in Omaha, Tulsa’s George Kaiser, and the Nobel laureate and economist, James Heckman, out of the University of Chicago, ancestral home of Milton Friedman, the 20th century’s foremost advocate of free markets.

Fuller was prescient in his critique.  He highlighted the standardizing of classroom philosophy, the bane of the  modern teacher. This was not a movement bubbling up from the grassroots, he wrote, rather one led by “earnest elites who work from within foundation offices, state governments, and universities.”  Fuller excluded himself from this set.

Yet he, too, played for a brief time with the big boys of capitalism. Nowhere in the index of his book do we find the World Bank, where, from 1984 to 1988, fresh out of graduate school, he served as a research sociologist in education and socioeconomic analysis, his work focused on the political and policy determinants of school expansion in Latin America.

I’ve long been haunted by early childhood’s Faustian pact. The workforce got a raw deal in exchange for legitimacy and investment.  And who could blame them for hoping? Here was a group of women—many of color and living on poverty wages, with the toxic stresses that plague their children,  struggling to get the credentials they needed as stewards of the next generation.  They were sidelined, afraid to speak out against the depredations of standards-based accountability lest they jeopardize fragile careers.  Advocates, too, saw an opportunity for advancing the field, and happily embraced their new political capital.

This week, the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology  published a study, led by Fuller, which found that preschoolers, including middle-class children, benefited from academic classrooms that emphasize language, pre-literacy, and math concepts.  The gains were sustained through kindergarten, and were especially strong for the average Black child attending at least 20 hours a week.  The title alone would make an early childhood educator cringe: “Do academic preschools yield stronger benefits? Cognitive emphasis, dosage, and early learning.”

The headline for Dana Goldstein’s piece in the New York Times reporting on Fuller’s latest paper was even worse: “Free Play or Flashcards: New Study Nods to More Rigorous Preschools.”    Eliza Shapiro’s Politico piece focused more on the philosophical, wonky debate about universality, about which Fuller, apparently, may be changing his mind.  How convenient, now that he’s anointed himself the expert on best practice in the early childhood classroom.

The Times editors—it is they, not the writer, who bear responsibility for the headline choice—obviously had not read Einstein Never Used Flashcards by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff.  Nor must they be familiar with the research on didactic teaching of Fuller’s Berkeley colleague, developmental scientist Alison Gopnik, author of The Gardener and the Carpenter.  Short story: this is not how children—or even adults—learn best.

Child-initiated, hands-on inquiry, with scaffolding by teachers and caregivers, nurtures critical thinking, imagination and creativity—essential skills for 21st-century life. Parents of privilege who can transcend their own anxieties about academic achievement routinely spend thousands of dollars to buy preschool and early elementary experiences for their children that integrate literacy, language, and math concepts into a richer, broader curriculum with art, music, exposure to nature, and ample time for play. Their kids are not sitting at desks filling in worksheets.  For children living in communities where resources are scarce, however, such opportunities are off limits.

Fuller’s study implies, but does not address head-on, the problem of fade-out, or the diminution of gains in children’s cognitive and social emotional development sustained over time.   Early childhood educators across the United States are grappling with this disconnect, which highlights the urgent need to look at practice over the continuum of prekindergarten through third grade.

They’re watching as five-year-olds, forced to endure readiness tests at the beginning of kindergarten, and read with fluency by the end, are turned off to school. They see the hyperactivity of first and second graders deprived  of recess and other forms of unstructured play. With the benchmarks  of the Common Core back-mapped from high school, high-stakes testing the rule of the day, and evaluation of teachers based on metrics that have been widely discredited, they’re challenged to adhere to what they know is best.

Also pressing are the demands of a growing number of children in poverty, those of color, kids on Native lands, and the sons and daughters of undocumented immigrants, for whom trauma, racial and cultural bias, or the social determinants of health and well-being, as the pediatricians refer to them, are all too present.

While great teaching—including high-quality interactions and attunement to social emotional needs—can, and does, change students’ trajectories, it is insufficient, one piece of a broader, more holistic strategy that requires greater investment in marginalized communities and a reckoning with the institutional barriers and systems that have maintained the status quo.

For teachers of young children, this debate is hardly academic.  Like their colleagues in the K-12 system, they are asked to compensate for America’s woeful neglect of its children.  As EarlyChildhoodEd @LiteracyCounts tweeted: “140 characters is not enough to express my thoughts  on this subject. *sigh*” Melissa Westbrook, a K-12 public education activist and blogger for the Seattle Schools Community Forum, was puzzled about why the “Times didn’t ask early childhood experts what they thought.”  Why, indeed.

Goldstein did interview Joan Almon, the founding director of the Alliance for Childhood, a former kindergarten teacher and the founder of the Baltimore Waldorf School, one of the field’s revered advocates for play.  But a new generation has taken up the cause, and is clamoring to speak up.

I worked with Fuller around the time that No Child Left Behind was enacted into law, on a child care research project for the National Conference of State Legislatures.  His curriculum vitae reflects a deep commitment to diverse families and to confronting the challenges of the formal institutions that serve them.

But he is not on the front lines of this struggle.  While Fuller has an intellectual understanding of teaching and learning, he cannot speak to the lived experience of early childhood teachers nor to the complexity of play, its centrality in human development and learning, and the kind of curriculum that will preserve it for our youngest students.

In the preface to Standardized Childhood, Fuller wrote that his aim was “not to push a single philosophy of the child’s inborn nature,” nor to suggest a uniform institution to advance children’s development.  He hoped to spark and inform an essential debate about how young children should be raised and taught within a pluralistic society and who should decide on the goals and means.

Fuller has made his case.  Now it’s time to cede the floor to the experts at the grassroots.  Our public collective intelligence, as Dewey told us, is the bedrock of democracy. Especially in these times, we ignore it at our risk.

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Bianca Tanis on New York State Ed’s Shakedown of Early Childhood

Bianca School Bus

At EngageNY, a website maintained by the state’s education department, there’s a timeline for the implementation of the Common Core standards. As you might expect from a bureaucracy, it is not current, stranding us at the 2014-15 school year. A footnote, in red type, announces an update on November 18, 2013, available in a PDF file for downloading. We’re assured that the curriculum, instruction, and assessments are rigorous, that they focus on priority knowledge—whatever that may be—and skills to ensure college- and career-readiness.

Missing from the timeline is the sturm und drang of the process. Bianca Tanis, a . . . Read full article →

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Will Bill de Blasio Exile Three-Year-Olds from Play?

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My family held a Passover Seder in London this year. A feast of liberation in a city governed by Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim to preside over a major Western capital. Our haggadah, the guiding text, affirmed our solidarity with refugees across the globe. The meal was leavened by savory Indian delicacies, mashed up and sampled by the 8-month-old infant at the table.

I loved this version of our annual spring rite: short and unorthodox—a much-needed gaze beyond the navels of our own tribe. But my mind wandered. I was worried about young children, exiled from play.

On . . . Read full article →

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