TTU early childhood development and education experts speak about proposed pre-K education plan

A proposed education plan for every four-year-old in the state could be a positive investment in Tennessee’s future — but only if its funding and content issues are carefully considered.

That’s what two Tennessee Tech University experts in early childhood development and education say about a possible plan that would be funded with excess lottery dollars if state lawmakers approve a measure outlined by Gov. Phil Bredesen last month in his State of the State speech.

John Wheeler, associate dean of education, and Dean Richey, professor of curriculum and instruction, both say the proposal is theoretically a good idea, but they add that lawmakers need to study the plan’s details carefully before reaching a final consensus.

“I’ve seen many programs either wither or degrade in quality or fail altogether because the providers are asked to do more with fewer resources,” Richey said.

Systematic planning to ensure that the funding base is stable and dependable is the first step for the governor’s proposal to be successful, he said — and it needs to be able to accommodate gradual cost increases and changing needs as the program evolves.

But Richey expressed skepticism that a long-term reliance on excess lottery money could serve those funding needs. “I don’t really know if or to what extent the lottery money meets that criteria,” he said.

Insuring a proper financial investment in the plan, however, would also help it result in “an investment in human capital,” Wheeler said.

“Many criticize spending efforts in education as being less than efficient, but the first five years of a child’s life are critical to his or her lifelong learning and development, so from the moral and practical sides of the issue, [this sort of program] is the best investment we can make as citizens,” he said.

To make it the best investment possible in terms of program quality, the plan’s primary focus should be to improve school readiness for four-year-olds, Wheeler continued.

“Transitions for young children from early childhood to kindergarten should be as seamless and smooth as possible,” he said.

Richey agreed, but expressed concern that the aim of the state’s proposal might simply be to push down the academic content of kindergarten rather than educate preschoolers.

“Young children need to move, play, socialize, manipulate, initiate, practice and apply what they learn and problem-solve together,” he said.

“I’m concerned that we may not be prepared to implement programs for four-year-olds — and their parents and families — that reflect what we know from research and experience to be the most effective for educating preschoolers,” Richey continued.

That’s because school readiness is about more than just the child’s readiness, Wheeler said. It’s also about creating proper learning environments — communities ready to support children — and providing families with the necessary supports to enhance the growth and development of their children.

A current trend in K-12 education that emphasizes classroom outcomes and standards-based assessments, however, pushes academics further down in grade and age in spite of children’s developmental needs.

Implementing such an approach in preschool programs would be detrimental to the overall development of young children, Richey said.

“I believe preschool programs must focus on the overall development and health of the child through a genuine partnership between professionals and families,” he said.

“If we simply push down the academic content from kindergarten to four-year-olds — in a misguided attempt to improve academic performance as measured by test scores — then we could ultimately be doing more harm than good,” Richey said.

Wheeler agreed, saying, “The bottom line is that if we intelligently invest in our children, we as a society are the benefactors of their success.”

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