tiny. tutored. and ‘gifted’?

Maybe the “gifted” are actually the “just well-prepared”.

yes. yes. yes.

A child-care facility that charges market rates that allow workers with unconventional schedules to perform the demanding, round-the-clock tasks of caring for the region’s ill, injured or elderly while their children are nearby is not a perk. It is a human need to make this particular profession workable and to make the future taxpayers of our society healthy, happy and whole.”

Petula Dvorak of the Washington Post doesn’t normally mince words when it comes to policies and practices that affect children and young adults, so it’s not surprising that she has very few kind words for the way that childcare is handled by both private corporations and public entities. Dvorak recently singled out the Commonwealth of Virginia and its elected officials for the ways that the state fails to adequately regulate daycare providers and preschools and the many exceptions that allow some daycare operators to escape even the lowest-level inspections and regulations.

At the same time, because the Virginia legislature recently changed the licensing requirements for home childcare providers, the number of children allowed in each home care setting now drops to their county’s local zoning standard rather than the previously-recognized child ratios allowed under state licensing standards. This is an acute problem for Fairfax County, which has a huge population with many children and a large number of home care providers. (Fairfax County is coincidentally the home of several of the Inova Health Systems childcare centers Dvorak writes about.) Meanwhile, the manager of neighboring Arlington County is attempting to close the county’s budget gaps in part by getting rid of their high, highly-regarded county childcare standards and the county’s childcare licensure office and allowing providers to meet the less-stringent state standards. Both center and home care providers have objected to the proposals, both as a threat to the quality of childcare and education in the county and as an obstacle to providers who rely upon the local standards and licensure office to support them.

Yes, as everyone looking at the public sector of childcare and ECE will rush to add, quality of care does matter. But it is impossible to really address that question of quality before the issues of quantity and real access to affordable, reliable childcare for working parents are addressed, or as a separate, competing issue. Childcare and ECE in many locales is still a majority-private sector business, and simply finding an opening at a childcare center for a young child is already difficult; parents who can afford to pay for quality, location, or other additional conveniences also probably have to afford the time to look — and wait — for those few openings that do pop up. (Finding reliable, long-term infant care is on a another level of difficulty altogether, with much scarcer spots and fewer options for regular care, particularly at licensed centers.) Even the well-regarded on-site centers facing closure in Dvorak’s columns, for which enrollment is restricted to employees of the Inova medical center network, have extremely long wait lists.

Yes, religious organizations should most definitely not be exempt from state licensing standards for childcare. Other nonprofit organizations, as many preschools and early care centers are registered, are not exempt from those standards, which include protections for children and parents, as well as for employees. But folding currently-exempt childcare centers into the full regulatory scheme requires significant commitments at the state and local levels, which appear to be the opposite of what Virginia and several of its counties are doing now: coherent, meaningful state standards and adequately-funded licensing offices, with well-trained and qualified licensing staff and ongoing support for childcare providers to help them meet the standards.

Yes, the closure of the Inova childcare facilities for employees that Dvorak initially wrote about in March has since been reversed, but damage has already been done. With contracts with the previous operators already cancelled, Inova now has to find a new “third-party vendor”, making it less likely that there will be continuity of caregivers at the centers.

Yes, running a childcare center is difficult, with thin margins for profit. And working in one is physically and emotionally demanding, as well as low in job security, wages, benefits, and support for professional advancement. But the persistence of the mindset that people go into childcare and early childhood teaching for the intangible benefits, because of their innate affinity for the work and because of their love of children, still holds back working parents, caregivers, and their allies from demanding that these circumstances change. And the low prestige and marginality of the field and the people in it allow the topic to remain in the back of our collective mind instead of rising to the top of organizational and public policy agendas.

this week’s reads

are from all over the map, literally and in terms of topic:

1) Rachel Levy at All Things Education weighs in on all the various pieces of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s “education agenda”, including the teacher advisory board, chartering, school letter grades, teacher pay, Teach for America, and releasing local districts from certain regulations and requirements.

2) An article in last month’s edition of Nature found a ” ‘rich club’ effect” association between Spanish college students’ performance in a computer science course and their rates and intensity of online interaction with fellow students.

3) At Language Log, Mark Liberman discusses the “intriguing psychometric puzzle” of gender differentials on the 2009 PISA science test and the ways in which the New York Times’ reporting on the test results demonstrates common popular misunderstandings of variation, averages, and distributions in populations.

multiple-choice fun

The Progressive posted this multiple-choice quiz by education journalist Susan Ohanian and education professor Stephen Krashen on their site over the weekend. Take it — it’s short.

At about the same time, the Assailed Teacher posted a piece on “Stupid Questions” from New York State’s latest U.S. history course exam, with analyses of several multiple-choice-format questions. The gist of it is that the multiple-choice question, with a single correct answer, is an awful way to get at a student’s understanding of history, and it’s a similarly awful thing for teachers to have to prepare their students for. The high stakes attached to students’ performance on these tests — retaking the test, eligibility for graduation, incorporation of student scores into teachers’ records — encourage a single-narrative, single-reading approach to the subject which increases the likelihood of higher student “success” on the test but leads to a shallower, less-nuanced understanding of the events, people, and ideas involved.

Multiple-choice questions don’t really have a place for digression or alternative reasoning, much less for new evidence or for allowing students to explain the reasoning and evidence behind their choices. I assume that Ohanian and Krashen’s use of the multiple-choice format is a case of intentional parody, with the standardized-testing-dependent, single-narrative, single-reading approach to education policy and its “ed reformer” proponents as the intended targets.

ADDENDUM (2/8/2013): The Assailed Teacher has another post about bad multiple-choice questions on the most recent NYS Regents exam, this time in World History. There is also the promise of more to come.

stereotype threat and teachers

Stereotype threat was back in the news recently, this time in the context of gender and pursuits in the sciences and math. Research and reporting for the past several decades has consistently uncovered differences in assessment scores, degree achievement, and self-reported opinion in specific academic disciplines, social contexts, and career fields, according to whether gender and ethnic stereotypes of aptitude, behavior, and performance — “girls are bad at math“; “Asian students do better in science”; “Black students get low scores on standardized tests“; “middle-class students are better behaved” — are reinforced and made explicit, or whether those stereotypes are deemphasized, defused, or contradicted.

One report from last year opens up an interesting sociological and linguistic angle on the question of why fewer women work in and stay in university research positions in science and technical fields and how to determine which women are at highest risk of leaving. In short, women who talk with colleagues mostly or only about their research are more likely to disengage from and eventually leave their work than are women who engage in more talk about non-work topics, which are usually not charged with stereotype threats. According to the study’s authors, the remedy for women’s disengagement from scientific work is to increase the number of women in the sciences.

That study got me thinking about another field which evidences rampant gender stereotypes as well as an outrageous gender imbalance in the workforce: early childhood education. There is no question that there are very few men working in preschool and child care settings. Commentary from the 2000s cites a figure of 5% for male teachers and aides in preschools and daycare in the U.S.; in New Zealand and Australia, respectively, men represented less than 1% of the 2005 early childhood workforce and 2% of the 2002 workforce. (Excluding aides, substitutes, and support staff, to count only lead classroom teachers, would most likely make these percentages even lower.)

Two broad factors probably account for most of the gender imbalance in early childhood: economics and societal attitudes. Childcare and preschool work is almost invariably low-wage, low-benefits, low-security, and low in opportunities for career and salary advancement. The costs of certification and education requirements for continued employment are normally borne at the outset and over an extended span of time by individual workers, rather than by their employers, and research indicates that the cost of regulation of early childhood care and school settings, too, are ultimately borne by workers in the form of lower compensation and benefits. It’s hard for anyone to live on just a full-time preschool or childcare salary, and those who can leave those positions for higher-wage occupations often do so, further contributing to the high turnover and attrition rates in ECE workplaces. Within the already-high-turnover ECE workforce, the turnover rate for men is consistently higher than that for women or for men in other fields.

At the same time, attitudes toward male ECE workers, whether teachers or aides, can be suspicious and downright hostile, making it harder for those men who enjoy and are good at their jobs to stay in the field. This 2011 article by a male daycare worker in Portland, Oregon — a place not generally thought of as uptight or highly convention-bound relative to other parts of the U.S. — describes the extra precautions taken by some men in the field in order to protect themselves from biased parents and coworkers and accusations of inappropriate behavior. While some of their strategies are good universal practices in terms of physical safety and responsiveness — redundancy in staffing; not being alone with children; remaining mindful of children’s physical space, privacy and autonomy — the specific concerns about accusations of sexual abuse are acute for men in a way that they are not for women in the same settings.

This is a clear instance of stereotype threat: the widespread belief that the roles and aptitudes of men and women in caring for young children are different leads to a common, durable assumption that there must be something off about a man who voluntarily chooses to work with young children, leading to defensive adaptations in the workplace by men who work with young children and a low number of men in the field, which reinforces the conspicuous gender imbalance in the ECE workforce and increases the potential for hostility toward those men who enter that workforce.

So, if we recognize stereotyping and also recognize its negative effects on the subjects of the stereotype and the other people around them, what do we do with that knowledge?

First, there’s the bad news: gender stereotypes and their consequences for real people are strong, old, and apparently fairly stable across cultures. Other venues outside education and the sciences are not immune to gender bias and imbalance, and several prominent men and women in those fields have written recently about the mismatch between the myth of the self-made (wo)man in an environment of broad opportunity and the reality of irrevocable trade-offs demanded in ambivalent-to-hostile environments. And for teachers in the U.S. at present, gender is also not the only locus of stereotype threat: “accountability” culture and complaints about public-sector workers contributing to suspicion about the intentions and personal qualities of classroom teachers, which in turn lead to diminished autonomy and a sense of inadequacy and alienation.

But, to quote Rosa Brooks from this piece on gender and power in the field of foreign policy, “It doesn’t have to be this way, and it shouldn’t be this way.” Fortunately, research with older children and young adults shows that gender stereotype threats can be reduced and neutralized in school settings, through purposeful selection and design of activities and materials. NAEYC, the largest national organization for ECE centers and teachers, has come up with several resources on the topic of gender equity, with a strong emphasis on the connection between the presence of men in the ECE workforce and children’s developing conceptions of gender equity and gender stereotypes.

The rationale for actively pursuing gender balance among early childhood teachers is quite clear, particularly given the explicit emphasis upon developmentally-appropriate goals and practices in the early childhood field: doing right by all young children requires treating them and the adults around them fairly and equitably, which in turn requires intentional, sustained efforts to confront gender bias in all its forms. Providing young children with caregivers and teachers who are both “like them” in many respects and unlike them in many others is one part of those efforts.


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