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Q-and-A: 'Building Blocks' are keys to learning

Maeroff pays lip service to the important tenet that play is a vehicle for learning, but then quickly shows that this is just lip service when he asserts that summer is a learning-free period and that what first, second, and third graders need in the summer is serious desk work. He seems to think that play is fine for kindergartners but after that, bring on the serious desk work.

by Greg Toppo

Even as Americans worry about low graduation rates in high school and college, education journalist Gene Maeroff says it's time to go back to the beginning. In his new book, Building Blocks: Making Children Successful in the Early Years of School, he says we should pay more attention to the benefits of preschool and consider creating more pre-K-to-third-grade (PK-3) programs that cater to children under 9. A former New York Times reporter, Maeroff was the founding director of the Hechinger Institute at Columbia University's Teachers College. He talks with USA TODAY reporter Greg Toppo:

Q: First, what's the basic thinking behind PK-3?

A: The PK-3 movement is based on the notion that early gains especially in preschool and kindergarten must be sustained. There is abundant evidence that gains can disappear unless education in the primary grades builds on those early experiences. Teachers should collaborate to provide an interlocking curriculum during the five years from pre-kindergarten through third grade, letting children advance at their own speed so that they reach fourth grade prepared to do the work. During my 40 years of writing about education, I have seen the results of the failure to fashion a proper foundation: children in the upper elementary grades who can barely read and compute, teenagers who drop out and college students who lack the motivation and work habits for success.

Q: It took most of the 20th century to make kindergarten available to most kids, as you note. What makes you think the effort to get universal pre-K education will take less time?

A: I expect that voluntary, universal pre-kindergarten will be adopted more quickly because there is far greater awareness and appreciation today of the benefits of early education. Economists have joined the fray, producing studies that show long-term savings from pre-K, especially to poor children. Fewer end up on welfare and in prison; more hold jobs and pay taxes.

Q: You may be the first writer to put positive spin on Shakespeare's "Words, words, words ..." as you describe the language-rich environment of a good kindergarten. Why do most people believe that kindergarten is mostly play? Does that belief hold kids back?

A: Some lay people who watch children at play assume that what they see is simply amusement, but experts in education and child development recognize that play is a vehicle for learning. It is the main way that the youngest children learn educational and social skills. As for words, words, words, the school and home environments of young children should be soaked through with language to make what they will encounter on the pages of books familiar to them.

Q: You probably won't make friends by describing summer vacation as a three-month "impediment" to learning. Why can't kids simply have their summer to relax?

A: There is no good reason, other than tradition, for making summer a learning-free period. The summer hiatus leads to learning loss for many children; teachers struggle each fall to get young students back to the point that they had reached at the end of spring. Ideally, summer learning for young children will include play for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten children as well as serious desk work for students in first, second and third grades. I concede that family vacation schedules must be considered.

Q: You praise President Bush's No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) but say its mandate to start testing in the third grade "infringes on the goals" of PK-3. How? Doesn't its insistence on early literacy make it appealing?

A: My approval of NCLB has to do with the imperative it provides for the achievement of minority groups, English-language learners and disabled students. It requires schools to separate data so that we know more about how such students fare. I'm less happy with the inflexibility of the law. I'd prefer to see NCLB take effect at fourth grade, not third. PK-3 should be a pressure-free incubator that gets students ready for the fourth grade, when learning to read becomes reading to learn.

— Greg Toppo with Gene Maeroff
USA Today
2006-10-14


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