April 20, 2013 8:00 pm

An open letter to Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan

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Dear Secretary Duncan:

Children gleefully line blocks end to end on a rug measuring its area, two girls huddle over a water table experimenting with liquid capacity, and several students use clay making sculptures as well as refining their small motor skills – this is the picture of a preschool where any of us would want to send our children.

As an early childhood educator, I was thrilled to hear President Obama’s strong focus on preschool education in the State of the Union address. We have a preponderance of research evidence that tells us quality early childhood education makes a difference in the learning lives of children, and providing expanded opportunities for parents and children is a step in the right direction.

Yet, there are many concerns as this policy unfolds.

It is understandable that when the government spends money on a program that there should be accountability to the public. It is a grave concern, however, that most of the policy you create uses standardized testing as the measure of success in education. A regimen of intensive testing is counterproductive and against developmentally appropriate early childhood practice. Children do not need to experience their first feelings of defeat at the hands of a test when they are three.

On the other hand, we have plenty of well-researched claims that can judge the quality of early childhood programs. The National Association of the Education of Young Children developed guidelines for accreditation that could easily be transformed into assessment of quality. I urge you, Secretary Duncan, to evaluate programs – not children.

Another concern is that the Department of Education promotes the use of testing data to drive instruction. Early childhood educators do not use standardized tests to guide our teaching. We use a wealth of well-founded knowledge of child development that we have accumulated over the years through highly respected psychologists and educators such as Montessori, Piaget, Erikson, and Dewey. We do not need tests to drive instruction – our instruction is driven by knowledge of childhood.

We also need to realize that high-quality early childhood education does not “just happen.” It takes skilled educators who fully understand child development and the needs of the whole child (social and emotional as well as academic). Please make sure that any government funded program insists on certified early childhood educators. Preschool should not be like elementary school for a reason, and it needs to be implemented by educators with specialized knowledge of young children.

I am sure you remember visiting your children’s preschool. Did it feel like the opening scenario of this letter? Were children joyfully playing and creating under the guidance and care of knowledgeable educators? This is the preschool we want for our nation’s children.


Michelle Strater Gunderson
Early Childhood Committee Chairperson
Chicago Teachers Union