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Expert Says Letter Grades Could Threaten Pre-K Education

Tegan Wendland

The full house will consider a bill Monday that would overhaul early education in Louisiana. The bill, part of Gov. Bobby Jindal's education reform package, would challenge child care centers to prove that very young children are learning.

WRKF's Tegan Wendland talked with Renee Casbergue, interim assistant dean of Education at LSU and a specialist in early childhood education, about the proposed legislation, which she says is being overshadowed by the governor's bids to change how teachers get tenure and support private school vouchers.

CASBERGUE: I think in general anybody looking at these bills would say "Oh, it's a wonderful idea to try to merge what we're doing in early childhood and have some statewide sense of how we're providing for young children," so I think these bills probably are seen as much less controversial.

WENDLAND: The legislation actually assigns letter grades to schools and ties that to licensing. How does that work and is it possible, is it effective? What is your take on it?

CASBERGUE: There are certainly a few issues that will need to be considered with that. The whole assignment of letter grades, if it follows the model of elementary and secondary schools, letter grades are very much tied to the outcome - how well the child will do on the standardized tests that are administered, I think that's a little bit problematic or a lot problematic, especially with young children.

That's in part because we really don't have a strong research base on what readiness looks like. We certainly know what readiness looks like for preschoolers in four-year-old programs - we know about the number of letters they need to recognize and so on. When we start talking about children three and younger, the research is really about developmental milestones for children; do they have adequate language development and fine motor development and broad gross physical motor development, and those things are much harder to assess than a test to see whether kids know their letters.

WENDLAND: BESE, at this point, is responsible for overseeing the streamlining effort and questions remain over whether they've even got the constitutional authority to do that...

CASBERGUE: Yes. I have to say I can't answer the legal question over that, but BESE is the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and so, whether legally they can be charged with talking on early care, especially going birth-to-three, is a question for someone else. But, I think this legislation does reflect a huge shift in what BESE has typically been concerned with, they've been concerned with elementary and secondary education and that certainly is where they have a lot of expertise. I think the same applies to the Department of Education.

WENDLAND: The legislation also calls for pulling funding from "under-performing programs." What kind of programs will be the most at-risk and what might the implications be?

CASBERGUE: I think some programs certainly will be under-performing. There's no question that there is widely varying quality in childcare available to families.

I think we need to think about tying this letter grade process to licensing, as one part of the bill indicates would happen. Up until now licensing has largely been about health and safety of children. It looks at fire codes, building codes, sanitary conditions and the ratio of adults to children to ensure that children are properly supervised and so on. And it is a struggle for many centers, even under the STAR rating system that the state has developed, it's a real struggle for many centers to even meet those minimum health and safety standards.

I would say the vast majority of children in Louisiana, especially birth-to-three, are not in licensed programs already. So one thing I think we need to be careful of, as we make licensing even harder to achieve by imposing new standards, one possible outcome is that we'll end up with fewer licensed options for parents. Given the shortage of licensed, high-quality childcare providers anyway, especially in urban areas and in a lot of the rural areas, I think this bill that's intended to raise the achievement of all children may, in fact, push more of the poorest children into even lower-quality, less regulated childcare settings.

WENDLAND: So are you afraid of the speed with which some of these bills are going through the legislature?

CASBERGUE: Yes, I am. I would have to say I think they could have been considered more carefully. The start date for the bills is the start date for the bills, regardless of whether they were improved in a week or whether we took six weeks to really think about them and amend them and craft them in ways that make sense. So the argument that there is really such an urgency to change education - I don't think that urgency has to translate into passing legislation very, very quickly without discussion and without thought. So, I am concerned about how quickly some of the legislation has moved.

WENDLAND: Thank you so much for your time today.

CASBERGUE: Alright, thank you.