Here is the post. If you look on line, you’ll see a lovely picture of two children playing.


The bank robber’s secret to early childhood education

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman

September 10, 2015


In the vast “how-to-fix-education” universe, early childhood programming seems to be the new elixir. Governors and mayors push it, as does our president, viewing it as a smart investment in the future. Many children come to school unprepared to learn, so we have to intervene earlier. Right? An instinctive response is to advocate for more early childhood education. Who can argue with that? Some seek universal full-day programs for three- and four-year-olds, while others focus on babies from birth to age two.

As an early childhood observer (though not a practitioner), I suggest we step back to ask whether a different, more direct approach might be better. Before we create new programs, let’s consider Sutton’s Law. This delightful decree is named after Willie Sutton, who robbed banks because, as he put it, “that is where the money is.” Thus, when diagnosing challenges, consider the obvious first. “When you hear hoof beats behind you, think horses and not zebras.”

When children come to school unprepared, think home! Build on the reality that home is where children reside with their first teachers, their parents and caregivers. The road to improve early education—especially in the area of language skills, so vital to school readiness—surely begins at home and branches out from there to daycare centers, preschools, or schools.

The research basis for this approach is powerful. In 1995, Professors Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley turned early childhood education on its head. Frustrated by their experience with programs that did not have a lasting effect on children’s language and growth, they sought a different approach. Now, some twenty years later, their landmark research remains strong.

Hart and Risley tracked verbal interactions in forty-two “well-functioning” families of infants and their parents living either in poverty, a working-class home, or professional comfort. Every month until the age of three, the researchers tracked conversations at home, counting the number of words children experienced. The numbers in the three groups varied widely, creating the now-famous “thirty million word gap.” Even if that oft-cited number is too high, the point is made: Children whose families were on welfare heard and processed far fewer words than did those in professional families. The researchers found that school readiness differences, much of which are centered on language and communication, were related to these disparate numbers from children’s earliest years.

Of course, the study was more nuanced, detailing the types of conversations and parental directives that children heard, but the above summary will suffice here. The importance of parent-child conversations—reinforced by recent follow-up studies and work at Stanford, the University of Chicago, and elsewhere—cannot be overstated, especially as we know that early gaps continue into the school years.

Given this reality, the latest push for early childhood programs seems to circle back to earlier, often-disappointing approaches. Shouldn’t we instead follow the language development research to focus on babies and toddlers at home first, pursuing the direct avenue of working with parents? It can’t be said often enough—proposed programs should be based on objective research of efficacy.

Also, and most unfortunately, current reform efforts put the entire burden of closing this gap on schools! Yet where is evidence that creating more programs outside the home will be effective on a large scale? Can we really expect public educational institutions to get us where we need to be, even if they start children earlier and they are truly excellent (a big if)? Why not look for horses instead?

The Economist cautions:

In January Barack Obama urged Congress and state governments to make high-quality pre-schools available to every four-year-old….

That is a good thing. Pre-school programmes are known to develop children’s numeracy, social skills and (as the term “pre-school” suggests) readiness for school. But they do not deal with the [language] gap in much earlier development that [research has] identified. And it is this gap, more than a year’s pre-schooling at the age of four, which seems to determine a child’s chances for the rest of his life. [Emphasis added.]

Simply stated, for early language development, school is too late. Home is where the work should begin. And if parents do not realize how important their role can be, it is our duty to share with them the value of talking with, reading to, and playing and singing with their babies from the earliest opportunity.

Let’s end on a high note and mention important efforts currently underway. For example, Rhode Island’s “Providence Talks” program sends trained visitors into homes to assist parents in introducing their children to more words. A group called Too Small to Fail has launched campaigns for children between birth and age five by in various cities; California’s First 5 initiative enrolls parents and caregivers in research-supported practices; Ten Books A Home sends volunteers into homes to help model literacy and language skills; and the Head Start’s National Center on Parent, Family and Community Engagement also helps parents and caregivers learn to talk, read, and sing with their children.

We should scale up these promising practices before (or along with) the early childhood push currently underway. Helping parents improve their communication skills with their babies and children will go a long way toward closing the thirty million word gap and improving school readiness. This is where we should put our creative national resources to work.

Willy Sutton robbed banks because that was where the money was. We should build capacity in the home because that is where young children and parents are. Let’s help children’s very first teachers be as effective as they can be! Then they can send their kids to school ready to learn.


Here’s a piece that was just posted on Diane Ravitch’s blog.  Lots of comments! Hopefully this will move the conversation forward t0 good public policy.

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, an attorney who represents public schools in education matters, including testing and special education—and is currently working to reform special education—posted this comment. Her website is


Can we really use student tests to measure teacher effectiveness?


Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, M.A., J.D.


This is the year! Tests related to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are launching across our country. They are designed to measure how well students are learning the CCSS. Meanwhile, some states, with federal encouragement, plan to use them also to measure teacher effectiveness. Is this use valid?


There is no shortage of controversy about educational testing and, unfortunately, this controversy includes the opportunity to file lawsuits. The use of student achievement data to also evaluate teacher effectiveness is certainly controversial. Notably, Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, gave states a year’s reprieve on implementing this practice. Across the country, teacher unions have called it unfair. My concern is far more basic. It’s about validity.


As an attorney who has represented public schools for more than 30 years, I am concerned about this multipurpose use. It may not get us what we need—a valid, reliable, fair, trusted, and transparent accountability system. The tests at issue include the PARCC and SBAC, two multi-state consortia that are funded by the U. S. Department of Education and private funders. They were charged with developing an assessment system aligned to the CCSS by the 2014-15 school year.


At last count, these consortia have 27 states and the District of Columbia signed up— affecting 42% of U.S. students according to Education Week.
The media remind us constantly that our ‘failing’ schools need fixing; that, to do so, we should assess student skills and knowledge to help teachers improve instruction; that we also need to evaluate and rate teachers and weed out poor performers. And we are told that these tests can be multipurposed to do all of the above!


Sounds good? Actually, it sounds too good to be true. Does this multipurpose use to evaluate teacher effectiveness clear a key psychometric hurdle: test validity?


What is test validity?


At its core, it is the basic, bedrock requirement that a test measure what it is designed to measure. Thus, if a test is designed to measure how well 3rd graders decode, we judge the test according to how well it does that. Can students decode? If it is designed to be predictive; say, to measure if students are ‘on track’ or progressing toward college or career-readiness, we judge it accordingly. Either way, we must ask if a test whose purpose is to measure what students learn or whether they are ‘on track’ can also be used to measure something else—such as how well teachers teach?


So what are these tests’ purposes? For answers, let’s review the PARCC and SBAC websites. First PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers:


PARCC is a group of states working together to develop a set of assessments that measure whether students are on track to be successful in college and their careers. These high quality, computer-based K–12 assessments in Mathematics and English Language Arts/Literacy give teachers, schools, students, and parents better information whether students are on track in their learning and for success after high school, and tools to help teachers customize learning to meet student needs.


PARCC is based on the core belief that assessment should work as a tool for enhancing teaching and learning. Because the assessments are aligned with the new, more rigorous Common Core State Standards, they ensure that every child is on a path to college and career readiness by measuring what students should know at each grade level. They will also provide parents and teachers with timely information to identify students who may be falling behind and need extra help. [Emphasis added]


Second, the SBAC, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium:


The [SBAC] is a state-led consortium working to develop next-generation assessments that accurately measure student progress toward college- and career-readiness. Smarter Balanced is one of two multistate consortia awarded funding from the U.S. Department of Education in 2010 to develop an assessment system aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)by the 2014-15 school year.


The work of Smarter Balanced is guided by the belief that a high-quality assessment system can provide information and tools for teachers and schools to improve instruction and help students succeed – regardless of disability, language or subgroup.


Smarter Balanced involves experienced educators, researchers, state and local policymakers and community groups working together in a transparent and consensus-driven process. [Emphasis added]


Clearly, these tests’ purpose is to (a) measure student progress on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and college or career readiness, (b) give teachers and parents better information about students, and (c) help improve instruction. No mention is made of gauging teacher effectiveness.


Yet, questions about the validity of using these tests in this multipurpose way seem to be missing from national discussions, even as other validity issues are raised. For example, questions are raised about score validity when tests are administered in different ways (on a computer or with paper and pencil) and at different times of the year.


Also discussed are questions about whether these tests are aligned to the CCSS. The media reports battles among states, unions, and others about how to measure teacher effectiveness through these tests; e.g., through value-added models, student growth percentages, or other approaches. But, questions of basic test validity from the get-go about this multipurpose use of these tests are not part of today’s public discourse.


They should be.


If we continue on this track of creating high stakes for teachers with tests designed for a different purpose, we may well end up with unintended consequences, including distrust of the system, questionable accountability, and lawsuits.


My suggestion? Given the reprieve for states and growing concern among the public about these tests and the CCSS themselves, test consortia and our federal and state governments should take a deep breath and do two things.


First, the consortia should remind the public that the purpose of these tests is to measure student achievement on the new CCSS and career and college readiness, provide better information to teachers and parents, and improve instruction.


Second, the states (with federal approval and encouragement) that intend to use these results also to evaluate teacher effectiveness must inform the public explicitly about how they intend to validate the tests for this new purpose. They need to provide solid proof that their proposed use, which differs from the stated purpose of these tests, is valid, reliable, and fair. The current silence is worrisome, not transparent, and unwise.


This test validity issue needs to be fully aired and resolved satisfactorily before we can begin to tackle the larger issues about the multiple uses of testing. Otherwise, in our litigious land of opportunity, the ensuing battles may be costly and not pretty. Let’s not go there

I just read an excellent piece by Jonathan A. Plucker, “Common Core and  America’s High-Achieving Students.”  It is on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute website.

For the most part, the piece uses terms appropriately–‘high achievers,’ ‘advanced.’ But, unfortunately, the terms, ‘gifted’ and ‘ high-ability’ also slip into the piece. Those are labels placed  on children.  Using those labels is not helpful in advancing the important argument of the piece–which is that we need to focus on the needs of advanced students in the roll-out of  Common Core.

As I see it, we go off the rails when we group students by ‘ability,’ or ‘giftedness’ as those concepts are fluid  and the labels create unnecessary divisions among students. Far better to group students by ‘current performance’ levels or by calling them ‘advanced.’  These terms relate to the academic tasks at hand.  They  are about the WHAT that is being studied and  mastered, not the WHO that the student supposedly has been labeled.

Terms related to current performance levels, skills and knowledge are also fluid and subject to change—which is a good thing. They don’t carry the baggage associated  with labeling children as gifted or not.

I just read this piece about needing a New Deal for testing… and add my voice to the conversation.
Using student test results to measure teacher performance is not just ‘starting to damage our schools.’  It is flawed in a far more basic way–it is invalid use of those tests.  These tests are designed to measure student performance against the Common Core–and to assess college and career readiness. They are NOT designed to measure teachers.  I’m afraid that using them for this invalid purpose (no matter how carefully the statistical model may be) invites litigation and further erodes support for education reform.


Who benefits from these laws?

Who benefits from these laws–the Common Core related testing, which is supposed to be implemented this spring,  and special education. I’m sure you can add many other laws that are presumably about schools and students but have huge unintended (or was it intended?) beneficiaries.

Without getting into the pros and cons of any specific law, we can all agree that it is intended to improve the education for students. Undoubtedly, the stated  mission. And surely, many students do benefit, BUT!

In my concerned–and cynical–moments, I see that two other groups benefit hugely!

About the Common Core tests, technology companies are now selling computers to ALL schools for these tests–whether the Partnership for Assessment Readiness for College or Career (PARCC) or  Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) or other tests.

About the special education law, that’s been around since 1975, lawyers (yes, like me) and others have created careers (and a huge cottage industry) around that law–with all its reauthorizations and parallel state laws.

Is this what we really want for our schools? Where are the students in these calculations?





The school year is starting, a good time to talk about favorite books and inspirations. 


My favorite book about children and education is Mindset—the New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychology professor.  She sets out the advantages of a growth mindset, instead of a fixed mindset. A growth mindset is based on effort, working hard, grit, believing that a student can learn, and, according to the book, even believing that a student who works hard can grow his/her brain!  A fixed mindset, on the other hand, is based on a label—you are smart. You are pretty. You are not smart. You are lazy. Whatever the label. Students get stuck there and believe their futures are pre-ordained. Even worse, smart kids don’t try new things where they might fail because then the grown ups will see that they are really not smart.  How liberating is the growth mindset—for all!  Praise children for the effort, not their adult-perceived label.  A great mantra for the start of the school year.


Some schools have adopted her approach, including, I believe, the Fieldston School in NY.  And see Salman Khan’s Huffington Post, “The Learning Myth:  Why I’ll never tell my son he’s smart.” 


Carol Dweck’s book tells me pretty much everything I need to know about what we are doing wrong.  Let’s hope we get it right this year.

 What is your favorite book? Who is your favorite inspiration?



It’s been a long while since I blogged…. for loyal readers, I do apologize for my absence.

The great news is that I’ve been hard at work–with much support from friends and colleagues– on an exciting project–writing a new law for special education!  It’s current title is Education for All:  Reaching High for Generation 2.  

Its mascot is the giraffe–who always reaches high!

The project started back in January… at the cafe when I was talking to Dave and his teen-age son about the law. Dave inspired me to just do it. And so I did–with much help on the way–laying out the basic principles for a new law. It’s short and sweet, and….

…almost ready for prime time…. If you would like to learn more and how to get involved, please let me know. Email me at 

Happy new school year and happy Generation 2 !

If you live long enough, you can see it all—if you’re looking.

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal in the Personal Journal section, ‘Never too Awkward to Ask:  Have You Washed Your Hands?’  Apparently only 50% of doctors do—and it’s dangerous to patients that so many don’t.  Who knew? I thought they had solved that one…

For me, I’ll have to change my presentations!  In speaking of the professionalism of teachers–that we need to honor–I used to  say that they are like doctors. We should not ask them ‘little’ things like have you washed your hands–or have you seated students where they will learn best (called ‘preferential seating’). We should assume they are doing what they are supposed to do–. Well, apparently not so fast. Fascinating.


My August 5  Wall Street Journal op-ed–that garnered many comments and letters–is all about getting everyone to the table–regular and special ed folks; teachers and parents and adminstrators; students and citizens.   We can’t just be talking to our friends and people who agree with us.  We need to talk to others, as well. In my view, we need to expand the national discussion.  In your  view?  Let us know!