A 2004 media content analysis commissioned by the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media concluded that pre-K coverage is thin and dominated by political writers who dwell on issues of finance and politics. Rarely are reporters in the pre-K classroom writing about teaching and learning, says Richard L. Colvin, the Columbia University institute’s director.
The Education Writers Association found in a survey of education reporters last year that most devote only a fraction of their time to pre-K. But in contrast to Hechinger’s findings, “reporters were covering the classroom and quality issues,” says Lisa J. Walker, EWA’s executive director.
Here are some ideas that experts recommend for reporters as they cover both pre-K politics and the classroom:
- The pre-K payoff. Look for ways to compare the performance of children who attended pre-K with those who did not. Get numbers and interview elementary teachers about their students who did and did not attend pre-K. Teachers usually can tell the difference.
- Who goes to pre-K; who doesn’t. Often it is children from working-class families, too poor to afford quality pre-K and too rich to qualify for Head Start, who end up in low-quality pre-K and childcare. To show and compare preschool quality, reporters can find quality indicators at groups such as the National Institute for Early Education Research and Pre-K Now.
- Changing demographics. Pre-K classrooms are becoming increasingly diverse, with large numbers of non-English speaking children. What are the implications? Are teachers equipped to work with non-English speakers?
- Academics versus socialization. Are pre-K programs in your state putting more emphasis on academics than socialization or vice versa? Numerous early childhood education organizations such as Early Childhood Research and Practice, an on-line journal, offer research papers and policy briefs relating to this issue.
- Pre-K and brain research. How do pre-K programs exploit what we’ve learned from brain research? Preschoolers, for example, are neurologically wired to develop phonemic awareness, which can be bolstered with nursery rhymes and rich exposure to language. So say experts such as William Gormley Jr., co-director of Georgetown University’s Center for Research on Children in the U.S., and Pat Wolfe of Napa, Calif., author and education consultant on educational practices related to brain research.
- Quality teachers. Research shows that, to be most effective, pre-K teachers need a college degree – but as pre-K expands, the teacher supply is shrinking.
- Universal or targeted? Some states have launched universal pre-K programs, while others target low-income children first and then expand. What makes the most sense for your state? Or is your state among the 10 with no state-funded preschool? Pre-K Now calls these “the Pre-K Wilderness”: Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.
Bill Graves is a family and education reporter for The Oregonian. He has written for the Foundation for Child Development on the merits of PK-3 strategies that connect pre-K with primary grades. Read Graves' related article, "Preschool, Performance and Politics".