A Qualified “Yes” to Obama’s Preschool Proposal

President Obama’s proposal for expanding high-quality preschool education to poor families, first mentioned in his State of the Union speech, deserves our support, but only if programs are truly “high-quality” and only if the teachers are well-prepared and compensated as professionals.

Is there evidence that preschool education, for 3 and 4 year olds, makes a long-term difference to the prospects of the students? Yes.  Longitudinal research over several decades shows that well-designed preschool programs with strong curricula raise academic achievement, improve social adjustment, and increase students’ chances for gainful employment. Notable studies, for example, have come from the Nemours Clinic in Florida (the Bright Start Program), the Chicago Longitudinal Study (Reynolds, Temple, Ou, Arteaga, & White, 2011), and the Perry Elementary School study by James Heckman (2011) in Ypsilanti, Michigan.  For example, the Chicago Parent-Child Preschool Education program study (Reynolds et al., 2011) found that:

  • Children who participated in CPC programs achieved a higher level of education, income, socioeconomic status and health coverage than comparable non-participant children.
  • Overall, CPC participants had 22% lower rates of felony arrest, 28% lower rates of incarceration or substance abuse, and were 20% more likely to enjoy increased socioeconomic status.
  • Participation in an extended CPC program (4-6 years) led to a 55% higher rate of on-time high school graduation (than for those in a 3-year CPC program), and was associated with an 18% increased chance of moderate or better socioeconomic status.

James Heckman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, concluded that each $1 invested in the Perry program had returned a value of $7 to $12 to society.

So, well-designed preschool programs more than pay for themselves by giving young children the skills they need to move ahead, and reducing later burdens on society. But what is a well-designed program?  Given what we know about early language gaps in children at risk for reading failure, high quality programs directly stimulate language, cognitive, motor, and social skills, and diminish the wide gaps in vocabulary and background knowledge that characterize students at risk.  Language development – listening, speaking, vocabulary acquisition and linguistic awareness – is a daily emphasis. Teachers are trained to use a proven curriculum to accomplish explicitly stated goals.

Unfortunately, however, federal dollars routinely flow through to programs such as Head Start without sufficient accountability, guidance, or training of providers. Early childhood programs can make a difference but will not if the program is a glorified baby-sitting service.  I remember seeing a lot of wasted time and money during my years in Washington, D.C., where supervision was so lax that no teaching or learning occurred in some preschool rooms, and no connections were forged with parents.  Yet the dollars kept flowing.

Mr. Obama has proposed a federal partnership with states that would be required to offer programs with well-trained teachers paid comparably to those teaching in kindergarten-through-12 classrooms, small classes and rigorous statewide standards for early learning. This is a step in the right direction – and a 90 degree turn from the mediocrity and ineffectiveness of many existing preschool programs.  The proposal deserves our support if “high quality” can be defined, measured, and aligned with standards for effective preschool education.




Heckman, J. (2011) The economics of inequality: The value of early childhood education. American Educator, Spring 2011, 31-36.


Reynolds, A.J., Temple, J.A., Ou, S., Arteaga, I.A., & White B. A. B. (2011) School-Based Early Childhood Education and Age-28 Well-Being: Effects by Timing, Dosage, and Subgroups

Science, 333( 6040) pp. 360-364.


March 4, 2013 at 1:32 am Leave a comment

Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science

Excerpt from Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science

Reading is the fundamental skill upon which all formal education depends. Research now shows that a child who doesn’t learn the reading basics early is unlikely to learn them at all. Any child who doesn’t learn to read early and well will not easily master other skills and knowledge, and is unlikely to ever flourish in school or in life.

Low reading achievement, more than any other factor, is the root cause of chronically low-performing schools, which harm students and contribute to the loss of public confidence in our school system. When many children don’t learn to read, the public schools cannot and will not be regarded as successful—and efforts to dismantle them will proceed.

Thanks to new scientific research—plus a long awaited scientific and political consensus around this research—the knowledge exists to teach all but a handful of severely disabled children to read well. This report discusses the current state of teacher preparation in reading in relation to that research. It reviews and describes the knowledge base and essential skills that teacher candidates and practicing teachers must master if they are to be successful in teaching all children to read well. Finally, the report makes recommendations for improving the system of teacher education and professional development.

In medicine, if research found new ways to save lives, health care professionals would adopt these methods as quickly as possible, and would change practices, procedures and systems. Educational research has found new ways to save young minds by helping them to become proficient readers; it is up to us to promote these new methods throughout the education system. Young lives depend on it. And so does the survival of public education. The urgent task before us is for university faculty and the teaching community to work together to develop programs that can help assure that all teachers of reading have access to this knowledge.

February 25, 2010 at 10:41 pm 1 comment

How Should Spelling Be Assessed?

When testing students’ spelling, it’s important to go beyond simply marking words right or wrong. The assessment should be an opportunity to evaluate students’ understanding of sounds and conventional spelling patterns. The kinds of words that students miss and the types of errors they make are important in evaluating their spelling achievement and their understanding of language structures.24 For example, by carefully reviewing students’ errors, a teacher may see that some students are confusing /b/ and /p/. Figuring out what to do requires some follow-up. Many students confuse /b/ and /p/ because the letters that are used to spell them are visually similar. But some students who consistently confuse /b/ and /p/ may not be aware that even though the positions of the tongue, teeth, and lips are the same when pronouncing /b/ and /p/, one sound is voiced (i.e., /b/ activates the vocal cords) and the other is unvoiced.25 This difficulty can be corrected by having the student place two fingers on his or her vocal cords as the word is pronounced in order to feel whether or not the vocal cords are activated.

To deliver more targeted instruction, researchers devised a seven-point rubric to judge kindergarten students’ spelling.26 A score of 0 designated a random string of letters with no alphabetic representations. Scores of 1 to 5 indicated increasing degrees of accuracy, and 6 represented a correct spelling. The scores of lowincome, inner-city students improved on this measure after 11 weeks of instruction on the sounds that make up English words, even though the trained students did not spell all of the post-test words correctly. However, their post-test spellings demonstrated improvement in segmenting sounds and sound-letter knowledge. Although the assessment of spelling using a validated rubric takes more time than marking words right or wrong, it provides a more complete picture of students’ linguistic knowledge and is helpful in designing appropriate instruction.*

* To learn more about assessing spelling, see: Kathy Ganske, Word Journeys: Assessment-Guided Phonics, Spelling, and Vocabulary Instruction (New York: Guilford Press, 2000); and Donald R. Bear, Marcia Invernizzi, Shane R. Templeton, and Francine Johnston, Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003).

24. R. Malatesha Joshi, “Assessing Reading and Spelling Skills,” School Psychology Review 24 (1995): 361–75.

25. Louisa C. Moats, Spellography for Teachers: How English Spelling Works; Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS), Module 3 (Longmont, CO: Sopris West, 2005); and Moats, “How Spelling Supports Reading.”

26. Darlene M. Tangel and Benita A. Blachman, “Effect of Phoneme Awareness Instruction on Kindergarten Children’s Invented Spelling,” Journal of Reading Behavior 24 (1992): 233–61.

February 25, 2010 at 10:31 pm Leave a comment

Don’t Computers Make Spelling Instruction Unnecessary?

Sometimes, spelling instruction ends up on the back burner because of the existence of computer spell checkers. Isn’t mastery of correct spelling within the reach of every computer user? Not really. Spell checkers do not eliminate the need to learn to spell accurately. When we used a computer spell checker for the sentence The bevers bild tunls to get to their loj, the spell checker gave correct spellings for bevers (beavers) and bild (build). However, the spell checker did not come up with the words needed to replace tunls (tunnels) or loj (lodge). Instead, for tunls it provided tuns, tunas, tunes, tongs, tens, tans, tons, tins, tense, teens, and towns. And for loj, it provided log, lot, lox, loge, look, lost, lorid, load, lock, lode, lout, lo, lob, lose, low, and logs. The fact is, computer spell checkers are mainly a tool for correcting typos. They are helpful for those who are reasonably good spellers, but they cannot compensate for poor spelling. Further, computer spell checkers cannot be relied on with homophones. For instance, a spell checker cannot correct the errors in the sentence Your sure glad to no for You’re sure glad to know. It also misses errors such as meet for meat and week for weak.

A study with two fourth-grade boys with learning disabilities reported that spell checkers provided the correct spellings of misspelled words 51–86 percent of the time.1 Other studies reported a wider range of performance in identifying correct spellings, between about 25 percent and 80 percent of the time.2 If a word was misspelled phonetically, the spell checker was able to identify it about 80 percent of the time. If a word was not spelled phonetically— something that commonly occurs among young children—the spell checker was able to identify it only about 25 percent of the time. Additional problems involving spell checkers include words spelled correctly but used inappropriately (e.g., then for them) and the fact that some children cannot pick the correct word from the list of suggested words.3 Thus, although computer spell checkers are useful, they do not substitute for explicit spelling instruction.

– R.M.J., R.T., S.C., and L.C.M.

1. Bridget Dalton, N. E. Winbury, and Catherine Cobb Morocco, “‘If You Could Just Push a Button’: Two Fourth Grade Boys with Learning Disabilities Learn to Use a Computer Spelling Checker,” Journal of Special Education Technology 10 (1990): 177–91.

2. Charles A. MacArthur, Steve Graham, J. B. Haynes, and S. DeLaPaz, “Spell Checkers and Students with Learning Disabilities: Performance Comparisons and Impact on Spelling,” Journal of Special Education 30 (1996): 35–57; and Donna J. Montgomery, George R. Karlan, and Martha Coutinho, “The Effectiveness of Word Processor Spell Checker Programs to Produce Target Words for Misspellings Generated by Students with Learning Disabilities,” Journal of Special Education Technology 16 (2001): 27–41.

3. Charles A. MacArthur, “Using Technology to Enhance the Writing Processes of Students with Learning Disabilities,” Journal of Learning Disabilities 29 (1996): 344–54.

February 25, 2010 at 10:22 pm Leave a comment

Meet the Experts: Dr. Louisa Moats (Teachers)

January 8, 2010 at 8:10 am Leave a comment

Meet the Experts: Dr. Louisa Moats (Spelling)

January 7, 2010 at 10:19 pm Leave a comment