The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at


Lately, every Wednesday afternoon, I find myself shoeless, kneeling on a foam mat, singing about wheels on a bus.

It’s nice to get a fun little break from the workday. But more importantly, my 2-year-old daughter responds well to songs in her speech therapy classes, which is the real reason I’m here singing.

My daughter attends these classes twice a week, and my wife and I alternate trips. We also spend an hour on Saturday afternoons with Ms. Robin, a pleasant and patient speech therapist who visits our home so we can all play games, complete puzzles and make animal noises.

Three hours a week, in addition to what she does in preschool, might seem like overkill. Our daughter doesn’t have a severe disability. She’s just a late-talker, meaning she has a smaller-than-typical vocabulary for her age. But as parents, my wife and I want to do everything we can to make sure she’s kindergarten-ready. These speech services are available, so we take advantage.

Motivating me is the fear if my child struggles in school, she’ll struggle later in life. I suppose on some level, I assume if she’s “smart,” life will come easier and she’ll have a better chance at happiness. I realize it doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s my instinctual pull.

Last week, I shared some of my anxieties about parenting, including whether I was sending her to the right preschool. I also looked at some of the challenges San Diego Unified faces trying to enroll more kids in its preschool programs.

After publishing, I was surprised – and frankly, kind of touched – by the number of parents, grandparents, teachers and experts who emailed to offer friendly guidance or just commiserate. I think there’s something powerful and universal about the fear, hope, pride and confusion that comes with the parenting experience.

One of our first major decisions as parents is when to enroll our kids in school – and what to look for when we do.

A lot of research shows the benefits of preschool, particularly for children from low-income families. Over the last few years, the drumbeat for expanded access to so-called Pre-k has grown louder. But whenever a politician or advocate picks up the bullhorn, the call seems to come with a kind of caveat: Access to high-quality preschool is the real key.

So what separates the high-quality schools from the bad, or even just the mediocre ones? That ties into a reader question.

Question:What is being taught to [preschool] kids?” – Mike Z., interested reader (This is a piece of a longer question; we tackled other parts of it last week.)

Before I get into preschool, let me back up to the speech therapy teachers who help my daughter. I get a lot out of watching them work.

At first, I found their animated styles to be a little corny. Until I realized my daughter was actually responding to them, and completing things I didn’t know she was capable of.

Where I’m more likely to give in to tantrums – which unsurprisingly, get worse the more I do it – her therapists have a gentle but firm way of resetting her and keeping her on task. It seems like my daughter has made more progress in three weeks than she’s made in the last six months.

I’ve come to realize that while there may be only one other person on earth who cares as much as I do about my child, that doesn’t make me as good of a teacher as someone who’s actually been trained.

This student-teacher interaction, it turns out, is actually the core of what we should be looking for in a high-quality preschool.

There are things we can see, even in a short visit to a preschool. We note if the place is orderly and clean, or whether chemicals and hand-sanitizer is out of reach for little hands. This is basic stuff – requirements preschools need to meet if they want to keep their licenses.

Preschool is essentially an extra year of school. If kids start at 3, it’s an extra two years. At this stage, the purpose isn’t necessarily to build up a knowledge base of facts and figures. It’s to develop the pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills that children need for later grades, said Lucia Garay, executive director of the early education unit at the County Office of Education.

Last year, NPR had a great story on the characteristics of a good preschool program in Tulsa, Okla., which is a leader in early childhood education. Some of what makes Tulsa’s program good can be seen here in San Diego County, one of several that has developed a quality rating system for preschools. The ratings go from 1 to 5, based on three main elements:

Assessments: how well preschool teachers assess students’ progress and physical well-being

Teachers and teaching: how much education teachers and staff have had, and student-to-staff ratios

Environment: if the physical surroundings are set up for play and interaction

What that means for parents, if their children attend one of the 40-plus preschools in the county that participate in the system (participation isn’t mandatory), is that they can walk into to preschools and ask to see their rating, and how they got their numbers.

But what if your child doesn’t attend a preschool that participates in rating system? Mine doesn’t. So, as a parent, how can I get a sense of how well my child’s preschool teacher is helping her develop skills she’ll need?

Parents are going to have to spend a little time at schools, paying particular attention to student-teacher interactions.

“I would recommend not just a five-minute visit, but an hour. Make yourself a fly on the wall. Assess whether that teacher is helping children build up that resilience, that ability to overcome frustration. That’s really the building block on which all learning is based,” said Garay.

Here’s an example of what that might look like. Say a child is playing with blocks, building a tower. The tower keeps falling, and the child gets frustrated.

Here’s an opportunity, if a teacher is present and attentive, to step in and ask open-ended questions: Why do you think the tower keeps falling? What do you think would happen if you put the orange blocks at the bottom instead of the blue blocks?

“These types of questions will invite the child to reason, to use language and develop the basic framework for what they’ll need later on,” said Garay.

If you’ve noticed a sort sub-theme here on the importance of play, you’re not mistaken. Kids learn through play, and play as they learn.

Which brings us back to good ol’ Ms. Robin, and something she told me last Saturday: “At this stage, kids’ primary job is to learn how to play, and to do a lot of it.”

That works out for me. This is also one of my main priorities.

Additional reading: Here’s a link to preschool foundations in California, if you’re curious about what young children should be learning. At the back, there’s an index that includes milestones, according to children’s ages.

Ed Reads of the Week

• The Problem We All Live With, Part II (This American Life)

This is the second part to an awesome story from “This American Life,” which deals with the challenges of integrating schools.

Last week, reporters visited one district, Missouri’s Normandy School District, which last year was forced to integrate, sort of accidentally.

As reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones pointed out, we hear a lot of talk about turning school districts around, but too often the strategies employed aren’t successful. Integration, on the other hand, is one thing that’s been shown to actually cut the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

This week, a reporter visits Hartford, Conn., which is taking a different approach to integration. Like San Diego Unified, Hartford was allowed to integrate voluntarily. To do so, Hartford is pushing magnet schools, which is really an effort to draw white parents to schools in black neighborhoods.

To sell that, they’ve taken a marketing-blitz that puts San Diego Unified’s to shame. But even with the concerted effort, district officials worry that they’ve about maxed the market on white parents who are interested in integrated magnets.

• Why Pinellas County Is the Worst Place in Florida to Be Black and Go to Public School (Tampa Bay Times)

Speaking of segregation, take a look at what happens when school districts fail to integrate. This is an outstanding piece of data journalism, almost dazzling enough to make you overlook the tragic subject of the story. In Pinellas County, 84 percent of black elementary school students are failing state exams.

• Hands-On High School Prepares Students for the Real World and Jobs, But What About College? (The Hechinger Report)

Blended learning, linked learning, project-based learning. There are so many types of learning happening now, sometimes I lose track.

This story should help, at least on the concept of project-based learning. A reporter visits San Diego’s own High Tech High, which is often held up as a gold standard for local charter schools.

There, small-class sizes and a unique curriculum allow student to take on a single project and delve deeply into it over time. The projects can draw from several disciplines, like math, science and engineering, and students apply concepts to real-world situations.

The concern highlighted here is that when students get accustomed to this approach, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to a large lecture hall environment of universities, they can flounder when they get to college.

The story doesn’t exactly pin down how big of a problem this is – or even if the problem has more to do with High Tech High than with universities. But it’s an interesting take.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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