Wednesday, February 20, 2013 • 11:21 AM Comments (2)

Why UPK is a Bad Idea

posted by Amy Pybus

Everyone’s all abuzz about President Obama’s mention of universal preschool (UPK) in his state of the union address. I’m totally against it, and it’s shocking all the people who know me as a dedicated early childhood professional.

But Amy, don’t you love the little children? Don’t you think they deserve the best start they can get? As an early childhood educator (ECE), don’t you agree this is a long time coming and should be a natural next step?

As an early childhood educator, I know what happens when government gets involved in education. It’s not pretty.

But before I begin on early education, let’s look at our track record with our existing school system. Which, globally, ranks somewhere in the middle. Just average, in the richest and most powerful nation on earth.

There are a million reasons for this, but I’ll just go on my family’s experience. Like the rest of the nation, my kids are getting a mediocre education. They’re being standardized-tested to death. They don’t have recess so they can have more test prep time. We’ve only been able to keep a music program because the music teacher is also the gym teacher. And THAT’S because my town is down fourteen teachers this year. I’m not talking luxuries here. We haven’t asked for an iPad for every student. We. Need. Teachers.

That’s not an outrageous expectation, is it?

So let’s apply this winning formula to preschool. In the decade I’ve been in this field, the more that “education” creeps into the picture, the less real care for children remains. That’s why I don’t like education reform in the manner it’s done today. Because as an ECE, I know what kids really need to learn, and it’s usually the opposite of what education reformers think it is.

When the regulations come down, they require child care providers to have degrees. I have seen my field be quietly but systematically stripped of some of the wisest, kindest, most sympathetic and caring teachers because they didn’t have college degrees.

These are the women who taught and helped me when I entered the field. I am living proof: you can NOT learn what you need to know to work with children in a college classroom full of adults. As my kindergarten teacher aunt said, “Amy, they’ll eat you alive.” She was right, and I had to learn the hard way, almost not making it past my third year. I had a master’s in education but was totally unprepared to work with children.

Some people are convinced that accreditation is the best route for ensuring quality programs. My kids went to the best preschool I’ve seen in my experience. But the director was forced to close after becoming nationally licensed, only to find out that the amount of work required to maintain that status cost too much to run her business.

Our closest relative to UPK, Head Start, is failing, with 100,000 children being cut out of the program this year. When the budgets come down and my child care friends are shocked at the programs we’re losing, I always remind them: Women and children first!

Add to all this the simple problem of staffing. A child care center is expected to provide nine to ten hours of care for an eight-hour working day. The pilot UPK program now being run in Massachusetts requires the same full-day, full-year services.

Think for a minute about how long schools are staffed. Half of a year, for six hours a day. And we are barely keeping them alive as it is.

So we would be asking our preschools to be something between a child care and a school, but so much more. Where will the staff come from? Child care worker is still one of the lowest-paid professions in the country, making less than minimum wage in some areas.

On top of her normal child care duties (which is enough work to kill an ox), a Head Start provider must do hours of paperwork, plan individual curriculum for each child, perform assessments and plan goals, meet with parents on a monthly basis, and have a state employee review her curriculum and facility every other month. For all this extra effort she earns an extra $8.40 per day. This is shameful.

I don’t even have the space to get into curriculum changes and the impact on programs – and the children they serve – here. I still have some semblance of control over my little world, and I’m holding onto it for dear life.

The fact that I can even let my kids swing is in jeopardy, as I’m barely allowed to keep my grandfathered-pre-new-regulations swingset. I won’t be surprised if they make me remove it after the next round of changes. And then I’ll tell the kids, whose best interests have been served, that the swings are just too dangerous and scary.

We, as a country, have never had the money to back up government mandates. Period. So our schools, preschools, and Head Starts struggle under the burden of unfunded regulations that can’t possibly be maintained. How is any of this, in any way, good for the little children? In fact, I do love them. That’s why I try to protect them from a system that puts their real, true educational needs last.

Many people have pointed out that we can only move forward with a first step, and Obama simply took the first step. That’s great. Of course kids deserve a real education and more than just pipe dreams being used as filler in political speeches. I hope that this will be done the right way someday. But let’s fix the educational system we have now before we drag our four-year-olds into the debacle.

By the way - between the time it took me to write this piece and post it, my town lost $700,000 in its school budget. Eh. Education's overrated.

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We may be able to make an argument for earlier education for our children, but we can make an even better one for letting our children have the time to be children. Speaking as a great-grandmother and former education writer, I view the time spent "being a child" -- playing, reading and being read to at leisure, and many other activities -- as vital. This is not to knock early education, but really -- is the rush to educate our children so important that we forego basic childhood experiences? Frankly, we are doing a terrible job in in our schools for a variety of reasons, and our standing in the world in terms of education is rock bottom. Those coming out of high school (and even college) can't fill out a basic job application form or make change without a register telling them how much to give back. We should expect much much more. The answer is not tossing our children into early childhood education at age three, with minimum wage childcare providers. We first need to fix our existing schools and that requires an infusion of skilled teachers, portfolios rather than or in addition to standardized testing, and support for teachers whose creative energy fuels our students. It also requires greater parental involvement in the educational process.

Posted by Christine Piesyk on 2.22.13 at 23:19

Thank you Christine!! Logic!! I agree, PREschool should be just what it says: the warm-up for school. Half days, maybe they stay for lunch but then they get to go home and just be a kid, as you say. They're only four years old, for God's sake! Everything you say is spot on, thank you for your thoughts.

Posted by apybus74@gmail.com on 2.23.13 at 7:03
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