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Education leaders are considering implementing standards outlining what children should know before they enter kindergarten in hopes of helping them be better prepared, but some say the state is creeping into an area where it does not belong.
The idea behind the new standards is to help make sure young children are ready for kindergarten by giving preschools and parents an idea of what to teach 3- and 4-year-olds. The standards would be mandatory for public preschools, but not for private preschools or parents.
The state school board voted Thursday to seek public comment on the standards over the next month or so before voting on whether to approve them.
Brenda Hales, state associate superintendent, said the standards can help preschools, parents and kids.
"If someone enters kindergarten behind and it's not simply a maturity problem, then they are less likely to be successful in succeeding grades," Hales said.
Among many other things, the standards include skills such as retelling stories with simple plots, recognizing that text is read from left to right and top to bottom, and recognizing some letters of the alphabet. Until now, many have only been guidelines.
Tiffany Hall, K-12 literacy coordinator at the State Office of Education, said the standards acknowledge that parents are children's first teachers, that children are individuals, that the preschool years are a time of rapid growth and development, and that young children learn best through play.
"The learning activities emphasized here should capitalize on children's natural curiosity," Hall said. Hales said the standards are not recommending, for example, that 3-year-olds be given workbooks.
Still, some expressed discomfort with them Thursday, saying they're not sure it's the state's place to tell anyone what to teach children before kindergarten.
"This seems to be outside the realm of public education," said state board member Craig Coleman. "I'm a little uncomfortable with the state injecting itself into a realm in which it does not have constitutional authority."
And Amber Peck, who runs and teaches a private preschool in Lehi, said she's not sure statewide standards are necessary.
"I just wonder, if you make a standard like that, if it's too confining," said Peck, who attended the school board meeting Thursday as part of the education coalition of the Family Action Council Team, a coalition of conservative groups.
Board member Joel Coleman said he worries that standards open the door to possible future enforcement, though he likes the idea of knowing as a parent what a child should know before kindergarten.
"My concern was just, I don't want to start having this type of enforcement regulating private preschools or families," he said.
Hales said that's not the intention. But she said as districts create their own optional preschools or offer preschools for special-education students, and as lawmakers legislate early-childhood education programs such as UPSTART (an at-home software program available to preschool-age children passed into law several years ago), statewide standards become more important.
Plus, she said, many parents are interested in knowing how they can prepare their children for kindergarten at home.
"From my perspective, we have lots of parents who ask for this, who want to know this … and there are lots of preschool programs out there that want to know this," said Dixie Allen, board vice chair and a former school principal.
Janice Dubno, who served on the state advisory committee that helped develop the standards, said they would help prepare children for school.
"There are fundamental skills that children need to have in order to be prepared to succeed in school," said Dubno, senior early childhood policy analyst for Voices of Utah Children. "And early childhood standards will facilitate the school readiness of all children, and particularly at-risk children."
The preschool standards would flow into new academic standards now being implemented in grades K-12 called the Common Core.
Those early childhood standards likely will be available within the next week or so on the State Office of Education's website, http://www.schools.utah.gov.
Examples of early childhood standards
The state school board is considering implementing early childhood standards to help prepare kids for kindergarten. The standards would be mandatory only for public preschools. Some of the standards:
Be able to identify the front cover, back cover and title page of a book.
Recognize there's a relationship between illustrations and text in a book.
Recognize that letters are grouped to form words.
Recognize one's own name in print.
Use a combination of drawing, dictating, scribbling and attempts to write letters to represent and share feelings.
Recite numbers in order from 1 to 20.
Be able to respond to the question "How many?" by counting.
Help, share and cooperate in a group; demonstrate sharing and turn taking.
Know parents' and caregivers' names.
Use fingers to button and zip.