New Preschool Program in Oregon is a Model for the Nation—But Challenges Remain

By Mary King and Lisa Dodson

In November 2020, voters in Multnomah County, home to the city of Portland, resoundingly approved the creation of a new, universal preschool program—a program that could serve as a model for desperately needed preschool and childcare investments for the entire country. All three- and four-year-olds in Multnomah county will be able to attend a free, year-round, universal, high quality preschool program that meets their needs as well as those of most families, providers and staff, and local businesses. Key elements include a wide range of choices for families as well as living wages and professional supports for providers and workers. The program is slated to be equitably funded by a local income tax on the highest income households.

Two big challenges remain: ensuring that families with “non-traditional” work schedules are included, and significantly increasing public investment in facilities to allow preschools to expand well beyond church basements and providers’ homes. Those working non-traditional hours are disproportionately low-income, women, people of color, and often “essential workers” without whom our society and economy would not function. Federal childcare initiatives must address the needs of families with such work schedules, or the families that most need public child care will be left out.

A Universal Model that Serves Diverse Needs

Universal preschool programs benefit all children and lead to better outcomes than means-tested programs for the most disadvantaged children. Means-tested programs such as Head Start seek to deliver services only to households with low incomes. Although means-tested programs “target the poor,” universal programs bring children and families from across the socioeconomic spectrum together, challenging ongoing race, ethnic and class segregation that erodes democracy. Universality also inspires broad support to maintain adequate funding. After fifty well-regarded years, Head Start is still available—but only for a fraction of eligible families, and even then, often only part-time and part-year. High quality preschool and child care is out of reach for the large majority of families who already face the high cost of housing, health care, and student debt with stagnating wages. Importantly, universal preschool is both a two-generation anti-poverty program and a powerful boost to economic development, because it returns $9.45 to the community for every dollar spent.

Families raising young children are diverse and need a wide range of options. Multnomah County’s new Preschool for All program will offer choices of:

  • language and cultural contexts, including Afro-centric and other alternatives,
  • types of setting, including family childcare providers, public schools and free-standing centers, and
  • schedules, including school year and year-round, full and part-time, weekend days as well as week days, with up to 50 hours a week for families that need or want longer days

Children with disabilities will be included, facilitating earlier identification of health issues and treatment. Expulsions, now too common in preschool settings particularly for children of color, will be prohibited, requiring that the system provide supportive interventions to meet all children’s needs.

Fair Pay and Professional Support for Providers and Workers

Currently, U.S. family childcare providers, preschool teachers, and childcare workers earn poverty wages with few benefits and often cope with difficult working conditions. The result is high turnover; the loss of skilled, experienced and dedicated workers to jobs that better support their families; and damage to the quality of care. High quality child care depends on the ongoing relationships caregivers develop with families, children, and co-workers.

Multnomah County’s new Preschool for All program will pay teachers comparably with kindergarten teachers, doubling their current salaries. The wage floor for assistant teachers and other classroom staff will be set at nearly $20 an hour when the program starts in Fall 2022, with pay levels adjusted to reward increasing skills, training and experience. Continuing professional development will be geared to the schedules of the low-income working parents who are over-represented among preschool workers. Should workers wish to join a union, employers will be required to remain neutral.

Funding universal high quality child care is within reach. Over the past 40 years, U.S. economic gains have been concentrated on an ever smaller group of the wealthy, while responsibility for paying for our infrastructure and public services has been shifted from the affluent to the working and middle classes. Reversing such trends, Multnomah County’s preschool program is to be funded by a county income tax on approximately eight percent of households at the top. Combined federal, state, and local income tax rates for such households will still fall far below the top tax federal income tax rates in place for the much of the 20th century, from the 1930s through the 1970s.

Unmet Challenges

Multnomah County intends to offer preschool up to ten hours a day and on weekend days, but has not committed to other “non-traditional” hours. Employers demand “non-traditional” work schedules for the three occupations expected to add the most jobs between 2019 and 2029: home health and personal care aides, fast food and counter workers, and restaurant cooks. Many retail and hospitality positions also entail low wages and employer insistence that workers maintain “open availability,” and healthcare, construction, and gig workers struggle with work schedules that make it very difficult to find child care.

Multnomah County will pay fair wages to everyone working in the classroom, but will not supplement the pay of people working in Head Start and other public preschool and childcare programs that pay too little to retain skilled people in the face of a more attractive alternative. The county plans to support some infant and toddler programs, but won’t be able to overcome the severe shortage of affordable, quality care for these age groups, likely to be exacerbated by competition from a preschool system offering better compensation. Finally, preschool and child care is now crowded into inexpensive or public spaces; serving all children well will require a significant investment in physical facilities.

Despite such continuing challenges, Multnomah County’s Preschool for All offers a national model, with its variety of choices to families, living wages for all classroom staff, and an equitable approach to public funding. Each of these aspects needs to be included in any new federal program. In addition, a new federal program should aspire to offer high quality child care to families struggling with difficult work schedules, until labor legislation is revised to place limits on such unpredictable schedules. Strategies will also need to be implemented to improve the wages of workers in Head Start and other public preschool and childcare programs.

Essential Building Blocks for Reading Comprehension

Many of us don’t actually remember learning how to read. We may remember sitting on our kindergarten carpet squares, picking out new picture books at the school book fair, or feeling the excitement of turning the final page of a book read independently for the first time. Those fond memories are certainly associated with the skills one must acquire in order to first learn to read; however, we cannot necessarily remember the actual process of learning how to comprehend the words on the page. Thinking about it now, reading almost seems like an innate skill, as though reading just happens. If only that were the case…

Struggles of Reading Comprehension

Sadly, reading comprehension can be a labor intensive task for many young learners. Some children can fool us on the surface; they may learn to read fluently, briskly, and accurately, as though they are natural-born readers. However, reading fluency and comprehension do not always go hand in hand. Children may acquire the necessary skills to read clearly and accurately, but, try as they might, these same kids may simultaneously struggle with the ability to digest or comprehend a text. So, if it is not a natural or innate skill, what goes into reading comprehension anyway?

Part of the reason why reading comprehension can be a struggle for many learners is the fact that the process involves a compilation of other complex skills. Such foundational skills necessary for children to begin to master reading comprehension include: fluency, phonemic awareness, accessing prior knowledge/making connections, vocabulary, syntactical rules/conventions, working memory, and attentiveness. With that being said, let’s look at strategies for how to build each of these foundational skills.

Fluency Strategies

Review sight words and high frequency words regularly. Turn fluency practice into a game by setting timed records, racing against the clock, and matching spoken sight words with word cards. Practice pronunciation by modeling and rehearsing. Use clap period stops and snap comma pauses to improve punctuation recognition.

You can also repeat readings to help with word recognition. Be sure to always read aloud to and with your child. Model and practice reading with expression. Give your different characters a “voice” while reading aloud to your child. Preview or expose children to the new or unfamiliar words before giving them the reading passage. And finally, utilize poetry, nursery rhymes, and songs to practice fluency

Phonics Strategies

Use photos/images to match objects with corresponding beginning sounds. Practice sorting words into “like” sound piles using word cards. Create a word wall in your child’s bedroom or playroom. Play “blend bingo” using bingo cards and corresponding images of words that include each consonant blend.

You can also use Scrabble tiles to “build” sounds. Or even use rhyming strategies to group/categorize words. Try playing “which one of these is not like the others?” using word cards. And finally, use tapping, clapping, or any other kinesthetic method for sounding out words.

Background Knowledge Strategies

Expose your child to a variety of text types and different genres to create a repertoire of background information. Incorporate alternate media, such as movies, art, news, television, etc. Teach new words in categories to help solidify new terms with prior knowledge. Practice word mapping to build connections.

Also consider comparing and contrasting words and concepts while reading. Preview new texts or frontload unfamiliar information using references or just casually discussing the topic. Use KWL charts to track knowledge of new concepts/topics. Utilize picture books, regardless of age, to pair images with new words. And finally, take virtual field trips.

Vocabulary Strategies

Instruct children about specific vocabulary terms, but make sure that the new words are connected to something they are currently reading, seeing, hearing, or learning about. It is important to avoid teaching vocabulary “in a vacuum.” Vocabulary words taught at random or with little context or connectivity to prior knowledge is not likely to make it into a child’s lexicon.

Pre–teach new vocabulary terms by relating them to concepts and terms that your child already knows. Then, when she encounters the word in a text, she will have prior exposure to the word and some sense of understanding.

Utilize root word instruction and practices. This might include creating root word charts with examples, opposite T-charts, visual word tree trunks with various prefixes and suffixes. Practice making new or nonexistent words using roots as a silly way to grasp root word meanings. Also consider using synonyms casually when speaking to your child.

Create a word web wall and add to the web as you make connections between new words. And finally, emphasize context clues while reading aloud; model how to actively engage with new words by making comments like, “I wonder what this might mean in the sentence given the surrounding information…”

Syntax Rules and Conventions

Ask your child to rearrange the words in the sentence, but maintain the same meaning. For example, given the sentence “You can watch a show after you have finished your homework.” Your child should rephrase by saying something like, “You must finish your homework before you can watch a show.”

Demonstrate different ways in which sentences can be combined, separated, or punctuated. The key is to show them that, even with variations in sentence structure, the phrases mean the same thing. Try modeling the process of summarizing a short excerpt or sentence. Then explain how paraphrasing is slightly different. Practice this process aloud together.

Exaggerate the purpose of punctuation while reading aloud to emphasize each punctuation mark’s function. Provide examples of how punctuation can drastically change the underlying meaning of a sentence. One favorite example is, “Let’s eat, Grandma!” vs. “Let’s eat Grandma!” And finally, find fill-in-the-blank reading options, where children are provided with word banks or suggestions on each page, but must use the context of the story to correctly complete each missing word.

Working Memory and Attention Strategies

Purposefully chunk down larger sections of text while reading aloud. Then ask clarifying questions or practice summarizing the section before moving to the next passage or chunk. Ask your child to make predictions while reading to practice recalling and utilizing details that have already been mentioned in the text.

Plan for engaging questions while reading. Parents should preview the text and think about ways in which to connect the details to other aspects of a child’s life. Ask critical thinking questions as well, such as, “Why do you think the character did that?” “What do you think she meant when she said…?” “How would you have reacted differently if you were in the story?”

Sketch a visual timeline of events while reading. This doesn’t have to be a detailed, moment-by-moment recollection; you can use bullet points on sticky notes, a small white board, or index cards with events 1-3 on them. Be sure to deliberately emphasize the use of transition words, especially when focusing on chronological summaries.

Listen to an audio version of the text while following along with the physical book. When reading together, once you reach the bottom of a page, ask your child which detail stands out to her the most. If she’s unable to recall a significant detail, encourage rereading. And finally, remove all distractions while reading, including background noise, cell phones/screens, etc. You can also find texts with larger print, reduced text per page, and print with extra space between paragraphs to help children visually focus on one aspect of the text at a time.

On the Inherent Ableism in Thinking You’re a Good Teacher

I taught special education in a sub-separate classroom for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I’ve also worked as a paraprofessional in inclusion classrooms with students with learning disabilities, health disabilities, and mental health disabilities. I’ve planned lessons and units and activities. While I’m far from the most experienced teacher in the world (and far from the best, as well), I think I’ve gained a few insights along the way that I hope will shape how I see the world and how I approach practice as a social worker in the years to come. In my time as a teacher, I came to see that myself and other teachers had a tendency to engage in Ableism, and that needs to change. Allow me to explain what I mean:

There’s a point in a lesson, when you’re looking out at a group of tiny faces (or not so tiny faces, depending who you teach) and it becomes obvious that they’re just not getting it. But, you think, I wrote a good plan. I broke everything down three times over. I had all my materials prepped. We’ve covered all of the necessary background information in class.

They should be getting it, you think. You did everything right. You’re a good teacher.

So. You’re in the middle of the lesson and the kids aren’t getting it, or a few kids aren’t getting it, or one kid isn’t getting it, and maybe you decide I’m a good teacher, and if I follow my carefully thought-out plan, they will get it. This is ableism.

What is Ableism?

According to Disability: A Diversity Model Approach in  Human Service PracticeAbleism is the systemic devaluation, marginalization, and oppression of people with disabilities. The sort of ableism that I’m talking about here is cagey. It’s not explicit. If you asked me, when I was in the previously described scenario, whether I thought I was being ableist in deciding to continue with a lesson when I knew my students weren’t getting it, I would have been outraged. I would have argued that I loved my students, that I embraced their differences, and that I would never engage in any form of ableism.

But in the scenario above, I am deciding that I am superior in two ways.

How I Was Wrong

First, I am assuming that the way I understand, conceive and learn things is the ‘correct’ way to do so. My plan for a lesson is always, at least in part, based on my understanding of how learning progresses and on ‘best practice’ for a generalized population. Often my students learn in very different ways than I do, though. Some of them need music. Some of them need to see it all written down. Some of them need pictures. These ways of learning are not more or less ‘correct’ than the way I learn, or the way ‘best practice’ assumes that students learn. When my lesson isn’t reaching them, it’s because there’s a mismatch between how I am teaching and how they learn. It’s my job to teach, and therefore it is my responsibility to address this mismatch.

The second way that I am deciding I am superior is that I am choosing to believe that my ability to understand what the students need is better than their ability to understand what they need. This sort of paternalism, of thinking I know best is a hallmark of ableism.

Maybe you’re thinking but it’s a teacher’s job to know better, to instruct. It’s not, though. A teacher doesn’t know a child better than they know themselves, and when it comes to working with students with disabilities, the students are the experts, regardless of their age. My students typically had challenges with communication — they couldn’t always tell me, hey, you’re explaining this wrong or I don’t get it. They couldn’t always tell me what they specifically needed in order to do well, or what would help them understand better, so it was my job to pay attention to what they were communicating in non-standard ways.

If we as teachers always assume we know how to teach, then we’re inevitably going to fail to teach well. But, if we approach each student and lesson with flexibility and the willingness to say I messed up or this isn’t working then all of us will learn more. Teaching isn’t a set path and plan that we should always follow, rather it’s a tool box. It’s our job to invite the student to rummage around the tool box with us until we find the tools that work for them. Not to push this metaphor too far, but our specialized training doesn’t give us permission to build anything we want, it just teaches us to use a wide variety of tools. Some of those tools have the capability to do harm, especially in our hands.

Moving Forward

I’m not a social worker yet. I haven’t even had my first field placement, and I don’t have very much experience of the social work field at all. But I think there’s a lesson here for anyone who works in a ‘helping profession’ that places them in a position of authority in other people’s lives. This lesson is: it doesn’t matter how many letters you have after your name, or what you have studied, read, or experienced. You’re an expert only until you meet the next student, client, patient, and then you have to start from scratch. The worst teaching I have ever done is when I assume I know how to teach something. The best moments of teaching I have ever done have been guided by the students in my class — once they have shown me how they learn, then I can teach meaningfully. Each student is different. Each client is different. Each person is different.

When I start seeing clients, I think this will also hold: the best help I will ever offer will be guided by a person showing or telling me how they can be helped. I am not the expert, I will never be the expert — I’m just a person with a box of tools and a willingness to help.

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