The Three R's and The Big P
Are political solutions getting good grades or flunking in the classroom?
Yet critics argue that pre-K programs actually hurt young children by taking them out of the home--where some say they learn best--too soon. In addition, even proponents point out that only children with few resources really benefit from pre-K. "For middle-class youngsters with a good economic basis, most programs are not able to show much in the way of difference," says David Weikart, president of High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich.
Yet, as with the smaller-class initiative in California, many parents are eager to give such programs a try. "I would have slept out for a week to get a slot for my kids," says Dede McClure, who paid big bucks for her two children to attend preschool in California before moving to D.C. six years ago.
Testing and accountability. At Casis Elementary in affluent West Austin, Texas, Principal Barry Aidman runs a school with an impressive academic history. And Casis has put together an excellent record in Texas's testing and accountability system, even though Aidman admits the system has its flaws. The state's initiatives are "useful tools," Aidman says, "but the data they give us only tell part of the story" because they don't measure important traits like self-esteem, academic basics such as knowledge of science, or student performance prior to the third grade, when many kids need the most help.
Yet the skills tests represent only one component of Texas's accountability system. Schools also must meet goals for dropout prevention and daily attendance, and performance standards for minority groups, poor students, non-English speakers, and special-education students. Based on those criteria, all schools receive a state rating: exemplary, recognized, acceptable, or low-performing.
True tests? Some critics say the tests are too easy. Others argue that educators "teach to the test" so students do well on the exams but don't master the normal curriculum. Says Betsy Davis, a fourth-grade teacher at Casis, "When this past legislature decided to have a separate test for each area [such as social studies, science, and history]--not just reading, writing, and math, the result is that you have a lot of knowledge tests, but you don't necessarily teach what's important."
Yet the Texas system has strong proponents. Across town from Casis, Principal Claudia Santamaria of T.A. Brown Elementary says the accountability and testing regimen has helped improve her once low-performing school. "Without accountability," says Santamaria, "we would have been in deep, deep trouble." Fourth-grade teacher Michele Trevino adds: "The program gives us a way to assess how our kids are doing. We have a running record of their progress, which means I can offer more individualized instruction."
And in quantitative terms, the system seems to be at least a modest success, as Texas students have performed increasingly well in recent years. Eighty-six percent of third graders passed the reading exam in 1999, for example, compared with only 77 percent in 1994.
Such an outcome may not impress education experts, but it looks like progress to a growing number of parents across the state.
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