Investing in literacy



The educational landscape of America is littered with discarded teaching fads, lying about in expensive disarray like the random collection of Big Wheels, Barbie dolls and Play-Doh pots abandoned in the typical suburban family room.

We’ve had brain-based teaching, charter schools, constructivism, inquiry-based learning, No Child Left Behind, both phonics and whole-language learning, teach-to-the-test, multiculturalism, portfolio-based assessments and, of course, common core, to name but a few. Many, if not all, of these methodologies undoubtedly have merit. But the restless adoption of one teaching discipline after another is a little reminiscent of the relentless pursuit of enlightenment common among New Age seekers who drift from practice to practice like shoppers in a spiritual supermarket.

Those folks seldom find Samadhi and we, as a nation, are still searching for the educational holy grail as our children seem to be slipping ever farther behind the rest of the industrial world, especially in math and science.

So when someone offers up the latest teaching technology or promises another outcome-based curriculum guaranteed to double the college acceptance rate, a certain level of skepticism is in order.

All of which is a long-winded way to address the latest liberating gospel that promises to elevate school performance and achieve the new American dream of college or career for everyone. In a word, preschool.

For all the above reasons, skepticism is a healthy attitude. But preschool may well be one of the few magic pills we really need to swallow, because mounting piles of compelling studies demonstrate its value, when done properly, with properly-trained and properly-paid teachers who are recognized as the profoundly important specialists they should be, and not second-class educators.

The power of preschool to change the learning curve for lots of kids – both underprivileged and not-so – is pretty much beyond debate. Several studies conclude that preschoolers are less likely to be held back, have higher high school graduation rates, are less likely to spend time in jail, will earn more and, therefore, are a pretty safe investment. What isn’t so clear is how to pay for it, especially in California.

Far from leading the nation, California sits toward the back of the early-education pack (with 19 percent of students enrolled in 2011) and five states now provide (or plan to start) universal and free preschool. President Obama endorsed universal preschool last year, but for us in Sonoma, the outcome is still largely in private hands, including those of some generous community donors who have funded programs in local schools.

And, understanding that literacy is a key component of early education (88 percent of Valley third graders read below grade level), the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance and the Sonoma County Vintners, decided to make literacy a primary fundraising focus for the 2013 Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction. Last week the fruits of that effort were distributed, and three organizations, including the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, shared the extraordinary bounty of more than $700,000 to “Fund the Future” of childhood literacy.

Kudos to all involved.

  • Dee Test

    “But preschool may well be one of the few magic pills we really need to
    swallow, because mounting piles of compelling studies demonstrate its
    value…” This is utter nonsense. Long-term studies have consistently failed to demonstrate measurable academic performance improvements in children who are provided with preschool education – as compared with other children – beyond the second grade. Compelling “free” preschool education for all children is about governmental intrusion into families, and about demanding taxpayer funding for an expensive and ineffective form of childcare for all. The cost, per child, for government-run preschool services is obscene. Families with financial need would be better served receiving subsidies for childcare/preschool options for their own children, with the discretion to choose appropriate private childcare services or preschool options which meet their individual needs.

  • John Kelly

    David, you need to correct this incredibly sloppy editorial. 88 percent of Valley third graders read below grade level? Did you even check your own archives?

    The 88% number comes from Emily Charrier-Botts’ story on September 3, 2013. The sentence states that “Pasitos, a program of the Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County, is exclusively focused on English-language learners, 88 percent of whom are not proficient in reading by third grade.”

    You guys are capable of writing much better stuff than this.

  • John Kelly

    David, thank-you for correcting this. I want to thank-you and the I-T for your day-to-day reporting on the school district — it makes a big difference to our town that you put in the hours, through very long, oftentimes dense meetings to inform the voters. I appreciate it, and I’m sorry my comment got as adversarial as it did, I could have put it better. I think it’s cool that we live in a small enough town that we can run into each other in Safeway and talk it out.