Features

The Ready School

Ensuring schools are prepared for the children and families who are counting on them by Gerald W. Bracey

In recent years, as various agencies have stressed standards, assessment and accountability in schools, more and more attention has been given to getting students ready for the tests or the instruction.

For an extreme if wrong-headed indicator of the concern for readiness, consider a December 2004 article in The New York Times. The article described the Time Tracker, a multicolored, flashing-lights device that signals when a defined time period has elapsed and/or how much time is left before a period ends. It was a popular Christmas “toy” for parents concerned about getting their young children “ready” for timed tests in school.

This story reflects what most people consider when they think about readiness—that it is something the child possesses or doesn’t. (It also reflects the absurd power people currently ascribe to tests.)

Recent Concept
A more appropriate and humane approach to readiness considers not only how ready the child is for the school, but also how ready the school is for the child. The implicit idea of the Ready School has probably been around as long as the idea of school itself. Administrators and teachers get their schools ready for the start of the year. The explicit, and increasingly important, concept of the Ready School is more recent.

It grew out of President George H.W. Bush’s 1989 Education Summit in Charlottesville, Va., with the National Governors Association, then headed by Gov. William Clinton of Arkansas. That meeting produced the National Education Goals and the appointment of a National Education Goals Panel consisting of eight governors, four congressional representatives, four state legislators and two members of the Bush administration.

The first national goal stated: “By the year 2000, all children in America will start school ready to learn.” Since 1989, the focus of most educators has been on ensuring that the children were ready for school.

For example, in October 2004, Washington State Gov. Gary Locke and Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson made public the Washington State Early Learning and Development Benchmarks (www.governor.wa.gov/earlylearning). According to a joint press release, these were the “first-ever statewide guidelines for kindergarten readiness to successfully prepare children for kindergarten and beyond.” They cover five primary domains of learning for young children: physical health, well-being and motor development; social and emotional development; approaches toward learning; cognition and general knowledge; and language and communication.

The guidelines are organized in three time frames: birth-18 months, 18-36 months and 36-60 months.

A Resident Quality
One can scarcely fault Washington for these guidelines, although some are so general they have little concrete meaning—for instance, “children collect information through observation and manipulation,” the first guideline under scientific thinking. But the assumption is that if children do well in these areas, they are ready for school.

The guidelines do not ask whether the school is ready for them.

Historically, American early childhood educators and education reformers have considered readiness primarily or solely a quality resident in the child. Parents and preschool teachers often are told how to prepare children, to get them ready for the transition to kindergarten or 1st grade.

The best-known book about readiness, Ernest Boyer’s 1992 Ready To Learn: A Mandate for the Nation, starts with the National Education Goals Panel’s first goal and focuses squarely on the children with its opening sentence: “American is losing sight of its children.”

Boyer mentions the notion of a ready school (“While we get all children ready for school, we must, of course, get schools ready for children,” he writes), but he neither specified concretely what that meant nor extended his exposition further. He said only that schools must be “ready to accept with hope and enthusiasm every child who comes to the schoolhouse door.” The teacher awaits the children; there is no indication the teacher and administrator should be visiting parents and getting to know the community before the children arrive.

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Transition Study of 1992 found only 13 percent of schools had a formalized written policy and only 21 percent reported a wide range of transition activities. The report states that of the sites the research team visited: “We found none that could be thought of as having a comprehensive, articulated transition ‘program.’”

Some of this lack the researchers attributed to teachers’ beliefs that few children have trouble with the transition. With the recent increase in academic demands of kindergarten, teachers might now perceive a larger proportion of students having difficulty. Even in 1992, teachers felt the area of greatest difficulty for children was the academic demands of kindergarten. In recent years we have seen standardized tests for 4-year-olds, increasingly formal instruction and homework in kindergarten. The May 2004 edition of the Vermont Society for the Study of Education’s newsletter, Broadside, characterizes the current condition with a headline playing on English and German: “Kicking KINDER out of the GARTEN.”

10 Suggestions
Although the first national goal refers to children ready to learn, the National Education Goals Panel had seen the flip side of child readiness: “To the National Education Goals Panel, ensuring that children start school ready to learn is vitally important. But ensuring that schools are ready for children is important as well.” The panel established the Ready Schools Resource Group led by Asa Hilliard of Georgia State University and Sharon Lynn Kagan of Harvard.

In February 1998 the Resource Group expressed its concerns in its report: “While other efforts are now under way to determine how we can better prepare young children to enter our schools, this report asks: How can we prepare schools to receive our children? How can we make sure that schools are ready for the children and families who are counting on them?”

The report identified 10 keys to ready schools:

1. Ready schools smooth the transition between home and school.

2. Ready schools strive for continuity between early care and education programs and elementary schools.

3. Ready schools help children learn and make sense of their complex and exciting world.

4. Ready schools are committed to the success of every child.

5. Ready schools are committed to the success of every teacher and every adult who interacts with children during the school day.

6. Ready schools introduce or expand various approaches that have been shown to raise achievement.

7. Ready schools are learning organizations that alter practices and programs if they do not benefit children.

8. Ready schools serve children in communities.

9. Ready schools take responsibility for results.

10. Ready schools have strong leadership.

Obviously, substantial interpretation is required to determine what actual actions might be called for by teachers, administrators and parents. In addition, items 4 through 10 would apply to any good school and are not qualities unique to ready schools. That is, these are surely qualities we would want our schools to display, but they are not directives that lead to actions by the schools to prepare themselves.

One State’s Example
Until recently, little had been done to move the keys from statements of goals and desiderata to indicators one could apply to decide whether a school was a ready school or not or to provide some information to tell schools what they need to do. Although many informative websites list the 10 keys, the citations of the keys seem to be the end of it.

The state of North Carolina is an exception. It appointed a Ready for School Goal Team to study the transition to school. Part of the team’s 2000 report contained a section on the ready school and included a 23-item Ready Schools Self-Inventory.

Not all items have to do with the transition to school (e.g., cultural and linguistic diversity of students is nurtured and celebrated), but most do and they emphasize creating a warm and welcoming environment that provides a wide variety of materials and where children are assessed through work samples, parent and student interviews, teacher observations and other devices. The checklist also emphasizes a mix of play and active learning experiences and structured as well as open-ended time.

The checklist strongly recommends that “a team including the principal, kindergarten teachers, parents and other personnel involved with children’s transition to kindergarten should work together to complete the inventory and develop strategies to ensure the school is prepared to receive all children.”

The North Carolina approach reflects an increasing trend toward building on the research and conceptual study of Robert Pianta and his colleagues at the National Center for Early Development and Learning at the University of Virginia. Pianta and colleagues have developed what they call an Ecological and Dynamic Model of Transition, which focuses on family-school connections, child-school connections, peer connections and community connections.

Set of Indicators
Without question, the most comprehensive attempt to use an ecology-oriented model to describe and assess the readiness of a school to date is the Ready School Assessment project of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation under a grant from the Kellogg Foundation.

Playing off the 10 key items referenced above, and after a year of literature review and instrument development, High/Scope used 2004-2005 to analyze the reliability, validity and usability of its Ready School Assessment instrument. A revised instrument will be released for wide dissemination in January. In addition, High/Scope is constructing a website, www.readyschoolsassessment.org, at which schools can enter data for the Ready School Assessment and receive an instant school profile. The website is expected to be in service by the end of December. According to High/Scope, “The ready school assessment is a planning tool designed to provide school improvement teams with a developmental profile of the strength of readiness features in their school setting.”

Like the North Carolina instrument, the Ready School Assessment, or RSA, is completed by a team representing the various actors in the school as well as parents and communities. The Kellogg grant also funds training and technical assistance to support the assessment. The RSA provides information on best practices across the curriculum, instruction and relationships between the school and families and the community.

For each dimension, the RSA provides a set of indicators. Some of these are checked off as yes or no, but most are measured by how often they occur. The names of the dimensions and the number of indicators in each are as follows: leaders and leadership (14), transitions (17), teacher supports (11), engaging environments (22), effective curricula (17), parents as teachers (19), reflecting diversity (20) and assessing progress (8).

In tryouts of the assessment, school districts as vastly different as Miami-Dade County, Fla., and rural Giddings, Texas, have reported that the RSA helps them determine where they are doing a good job and where they need to put more effort. They have been particularly struck by the need to increase their efforts in the area of parents as teachers and engaging environments.

School districts, not surprisingly, have devoted most of their activities to situations within and under the control of the school. The indicators on parents as teachers indicated to them the need to find better ways to reach parents and to bring them into schools, literally and figuratively. Both districts have substantial numbers of impoverished parents who do not often come to the school.

Several of the responses on the indicators for engaging environments have arrived from school districts in states with comprehensive testing programs accompanied by strong sanctions. Looking at the indicators for engaging environments indicated to administrators and teachers alike they needed to turn away from gun-barrel vision focused on tests and test scores and think about other aspects of education that would stimulate development.

“Maybe we lost some love in our instruction” said a 1st-grade teacher in Texas, reflecting on the impact of testing in that state. The district plans to reintroduce active learning on the part of children and to emphasize differentiated instruction.

Readiness Prospects
While interest in Ready Schools has been slow to develop, such interest is on the rise. In October 2004, the Council of Chief State School Officers sponsored a conference on the ready school. Arkansas, Connecticut, Indiana, Oregon, Washington and West Virginia sent 33 participants to discuss school readiness issues. In April 2005, CCSSO teamed with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to move toward the development of state and local plans for using the ready schools concept to improve schools.

The state of Vermont conducted school readiness surveys of its teachers and principals in four domains: smooth transitions, instruction and staff development, partnership with community, and resources. It is now awaiting resources to conduct a survey of these domains to obtain parents’ perspectives. (A PowerPoint presentation by David Murphey of the Vermont Agency of Human Services is available at www.ccsso.org/content/pdfs/SRMurphey.ppt.) Realizing that preschool and kindergarten are the first times most children are away from their parents for extended periods and that the Ready School is not contained by the school’s walls, the Harvard Family Research Project examined ways in which schools could reach out to families to ease the transition to kindergarten. The project identified 11 promising practices including a variety of outreach programs from school to families and community, partnering with local parent-teacher associations, disseminating home-learning projects, and inviting parents to the school.

In January 2003, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education established the National Early Childhood Transition Center, a cooperative venture headquartered at the University of Kentucky and involving several leading universities. The center’s five-year mission is “to examine factors that promote successful transitions between infant/toddler programs, preschool programs and public school programs for young children with disabilities and their families.” It seems likely that the activities of this center will have some importance for transition programs for young children without disabilities.

Sixteen years after the National Goals Panel called attention to the notion of the Ready School and seven years after the panel’s Ready Schools Resource Group delivered its report, many programs have come into existence and many organizations have become engaged in the issues surrounding it. Given the cost-benefit analyses from several early education research projects, some states have moved to provide pre-K education for all children as a sound economic investment. Ensuring that schools are Ready Schools will increase the payoff of that investment.

Gerald Bracey, a fellow of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University and an associate at the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, can be reached at 1797 Duffield Lane, Alexandria, VA 22307. E-mail: gbracey1@verizon.net. His book Reading Educational Research Between the Lines: How Not to Get Statistically Snookered will be published by Heinemann in February.