Published DateTo the editor,
If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. I thought about that quote from Abraham Maslow when I saw the announcement for an upcoming facilitated "community discussion" about implementing all-day kindergarten in the Winnisquam Regional School District.
Such a discussion took place in open session during the last annual school district meeting. All who wished to speak had a chance to directly address everyone in attendance. We then voted on the measure — estimated to cost us nearly $300,000 in the first year — and turned it down.
Now, school administrators are cooperating with an outside group of facilitators to "structure and focus" small group discussions on the exact same topic. Like Maslow's hammer swinger, district officials seem to believe that they've nailed down the answer to our critical education challenge: We need all-day kindergarten. All they need is the voter buy-in they didn't get 10 months ago.
What has changed? Only the method, not the facts. This new effort will apply Delphi-style techniques, famous for marginalizing dissenting voices, to a yes/no question. The fact that we've already addressed this question ourselves, without facilitators leading us around, seems immaterial to those who didn't like the answer we provided. So now outsiders will attempt to create a "consensus" which will determine whether or not our school board puts the measure back in front of the voters in March.
Providing the "answer" to questions that haven't been framed is a poor way to analyze a problem. Our district does indeed have problems, but this method of problem-solving isn't acceptable in the business world and we shouldn't accept it from our public school officials. Why are we not being presented with a clear problem statement, identifying an educational challenge to which a range of options might apply? Open-ended questions such as "Given that XX% of third grade students are more than one grade level behind in reading, how can we close that gap before these students enter middle school?" would be appropriate to a process that starts with research and analysis, and then leads to an informed dialogue.
Show me a school district with all-day kindergarten, and I'll show you a district in need of improvement, a district where middle-schoolers read at an elementary level and graduates receive diplomas even when their teachers know they are unready for college or career. We all know these are real problems, yet too many think that following the path that hasn't worked anywhere else — all-day kindergarten now, publicly funded pre-K programs later — might work here.
Does anyone believe that attending a Winnisquam kindergarten program will do what the flagship Head Start program hasn't managed to accomplish? The latest Head Start assessment was released by the government the Friday before Christmas. It clearly shows that whatever measurable benefits the program had brought to 3- and 4-year-olds were entirely gone by third grade. That's right: The Head Start kids were no better off than the kids in the control group, despite all the classroom and home attention the children received, at a cost of more than $8 billion last year alone.
Back in Winnisquam, the folks from Lakes Region Listens, a group whose objectivity is at least open to question, will attempt to shape our discussion while insulating our district leaders from the voice of the voters. Nearly a year after the voters spoke, the board and administration have not managed to develop a problem statement that could be debated and discussed, preferring instead to recycle the very warrant we voted down in open session. This borders on malpractice, especially in the light of the Head Start report. More classroom time is not the answer.
Winnisquam is a small district. We should be able to focus on children as individuals, identifying those with specific challenges that can't be met within the current system and providing tailored assistance to ensure they don't end up as the lost children of the Class of 2026. We could start by promising our district parents and taxpayers that no capable child will be more than a grade-level behind in reading when he gets to middle school. There are many ways to stand behind that promise, but we'll never get there if we only focus on a single one-size-fits-all program.
Come to the meeting Wednesday the 23rd (5:30 – 8:30 pm at the middle school) and tell the board and administration that our district's children deserve better than this.
Chairman, WRSD Budget Committee (2007-08)
WRHS Class of 1981