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Teaching the littlest kids

Wanting to participate in the UFT’s “Toys for Tots” holiday drive, Saturday I found myself in my neighbhorhood toy store, staring without much joy at my choices. There were two kinds of toys I could get: ones that don’t do much but are fun to look at and imagine over, like action figures, and ones that require adult participation, or at least guidance, like Play Doh or board games or puzzles. I wound up buying the action figures, because I wasn’t sure anyone would be there to read the instructions or set up the board or do whatever was needed to make the “interactive” toys interactive.

These days, childhood is not for the faint of heart. Randi has been talking lately about the need for the union to put a renewed emphasis on pre-K. Michelle Bodden, our elementary VP, testified to the State Assembly education committee last week about the need to upgrade early childhood education. There are so many studies out there about the importance of the early years, yet ECE settings too often are overcrowded, or scripted, or look like mini test-prep academies.

Teachers College Record
online journal this week reports findings by Bridget Hamre and Robert Pianta of the University of Virginia that the quality of teacher-student interactions in first-grade classrooms can actually close the achievement gap for at-risk children.

What makes the difference is when the everyday instructional and social–emotional supports offered to young children are of real quality. The researchers found that in some classrooms they visited the children were engaged, productive and overseen by caring adults who consistently provided feedback and challenge. Yet for others a typical day found children sitting around, watching the teacher deal with behavioral problems, and participating in boring, rote instructional activities such as completing worksheets and spelling tests.

Clearly, teacher quality varied, but the authors’ conclusions are not the typical policy-makers’ recipe–that teachers need more education credentials or tougher certification requirements. “These proxies for teacher or classroom quality—which in fact are the indicators written into most NCLB regulations related to teacher quality—are very poor reflections of the ingredients of schooling that matter most for children,” they write. “The other option is to find ways to more directly change and improve classroom quality—the dimensions of instructional and social interactions teachers have with children—in large numbers of classrooms.”

I imagine most ECE teachers believe that the quality of their interactions with young students, rather than the curriculum or the classroom library or any other structural element, is what helps little kids grow and learn. From what Michelle says, ECE teachers often battle the school system to keep classes small enough and their day flexible enough to allow this interaction. But they often battle alone. We should be more vocal about what we know needs to happen in ECE classrooms. And for ECE teachers, the next time they hear about their supposed “deficiencies,” they should remember that current formulas for early-grade instruction can be downright impoverished. These teachers stand on the front lines of reclaiming childhood.