We interview Kym Vanderbilt, Lecturer and Professional Development Liaison in the Early Childhood/Childhood Department at CUNY/Lehman College. Kym describes her students’ concerns about meeting the needs of teacher assistants and parents as well as children. She talks about the test-heavy teacher certification process, which is both intimidating and expensive for aspiring teachers of limited means, and how she tries to create a more welcoming and supportive environment for her students, staying in touch with them long after they become teachers themselves. To give us context, Kym gives us a fascinating overview of the complicated history of early childhood education.
*Overview and transcript below.
Photo by Christina Morillo
During our conversation, Kym mentions the episode with David Kirkland about the Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework. Click here to listen to it!
01:00-06:06 “What do you mean by ‘ethics’ and why is it important?”
06:07-09:42 Age of “We’re not sure we want you in the classroom”
09:43-11:59 Attrition rates among early childhood teachers
15:13-18:03 Pearson Education
18:04-18:51 Cultural assets
18:52-19:26 Culturally responsive-sustaining education
19:27- 25:38 History of early childhood education and how it has changed
25:39-29:51 Universal preK (UPK)—possibilities and cautions
29:52-32:52 Current state of SEL and culturally responsive education, critical care in early childhood education; Chancellor Carranza’s impact
32:53-34:51 Transition from preK to elementary school
34:52-37:10 “Early childhood educators should be high school principals”; early childhood educators as leaders
Jon M: 00:15 Hi, I’m Jon Moscow.
Amy H-L: 00:17 And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools where we discuss strategies for creating inclusive and equitable schools and youth programs that help students to develop a commitment and capacity to build ethical institutions.
Jon M: 00:29 Our guest today is Kym Vanderbilt. Kym Vanderbilt is a full time lecturer and professional development liaison in the early childhood/childhood department at CUNY, Lehman College. Kym has taught in public schools, Head Start ,and private early childhood programs. She’s also a student in the Urban Education Leadership and Policy doctoral program at the CUNY Graduate Center where she’s researching the history of early childhood programs in the Bronx. Welcome, Kym.
Kym V: 00:59 Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. I’m so pleased to be here.
Amy H-L: 01:01 Kym, you’ve spoken about ethics being central to your teaching at Lehman. What do you mean by ethics and why is it so important?
Kym V: 01:09 So I think ethics is something that’s really important to our students because our students, who are all becoming teachers, and some of them currently working as teachers, ethics is really just a conversation about how teaching plays out in a real classroom. So we know that students care deeply about this issue. Our students want to do the best possible job they can do for their students. So thinking about this in an ethical context, in who are the stakeholders that you’re responsible to when you’re a teacher, is really important to our students.
Jon M: 01:59 Can you elaborate a little bit more about that? Because you’ve also said that it’s what your teachers really want to talk about. So when they talk to you about it, what did they say or what do they ask?
Kym V: 02:12 What our students are concerned about in their classrooms is they want to know how to be the best possible teacher they can for the students they actually have in their real classrooms. So in early childhood education, what that looks like is considering all the different stakeholders in an early childhood program. So that means the students, their colleagues, the teams that they’re working on. Because in early childhood education, a teacher is not usually the only person in their classroom. There’s usually a teacher. An assistant teacher, sometimes an aide. And in early childhood education, we work closely with parents. So the typical questions that our teachers have are how do I help the other people in my classroom? How do I work with them? How do I make sure I’m meeting the needs of my students? How do I communicate clearly and effectively with the parents of my students? There are a lot of different stakeholders and in a teacher preparation program right now, I teach a history of education class and I ask my students to try to look as they’re looking backward, to look to the present and decide what era are they going to name the time in which we are living, what are they going to name this era. And recently one of my students said something that was fascinating, interesting and also really disturbing when she said they’re going to call this era the era of “we’re not sure we want you in a classroom.” And thinking about those four principles that David Kirkland was talking about in a previous show, that’s something we have to contend with as teacher education, as teacher educators. There are a lot of certification tests that teachers need to take in New York State. And as teacher educators, what we need to be thinking of is how do we model, with our student teachers, the kind of work we want them doing with their students, things that David Kirkland was talking about, these four principles, belonging in an environment. So at Lehman, we’re working really hard to create a community of learners, to make sure that our teachers see us as a resource for them when they’re in their classroom. But also after they’re not at Lehman anymore, we want them still staying in touch with us and contacting us. That’s also important for us as teacher educators because if we’re just on our campus at Lehman, we know we’re not going to be very effective for very long. We need to be out in the field, working side by side with our students in classrooms. So Lehman College in fact pioneered some of the work in professional development schools. This goes way back to the work of John Goodlatte and people like Nick Macelli who was from the the Grad Center, understanding that universities need to really be partners with the schools in their communities. So Dr. Cecelia Espinosa and I, we go out to schools in our community and in fact all of our faculty supervise students in the community because in addition to us wanting to work with the students and help our students, this is how we learn what’s going on in schools, by actually being in the schools.
Jon M: 06:07 I want to go back for just a second. When you said that a teacher or student who is a teacher came to you and said that she or he, I think you said she, that it would be the age of “we’re not sure we want you in a classroom.”. What did she mean by that?
Kym V: 06:27 So I think what she meant was this is really, and she put it much better than I do in my head. I think of this era as the era of teacher accountability. And to her, what that looked like was, there are so many hoops to jump through. The message I’m getting is maybe people don’t want me in a classroom. And so here’s what I mean by that. In order to be a certified teacher in New York State in early childhood, you need to have your master’s, you need to get a masters, complete a series of workshops and documents, and take a whole series of tests. So to some of our students, these requirements are starting to feel like something other than preparation and possibly a way to keep them out of the classroom. This is not necessarily new. If we look at the history of teacher education, we see this in the old Board of Examiners down at the Board of Education. It’s not an entire new thing, but in the age in which 80% of our teachers are white teachers, and nine out of 10 teachers in elementary school level are female, we need to be thinking about, well who do we want in this profession and how do we educate and support them in becoming teachers? So at Lehman, the majority of our students, we are a designated Hispanic-Serving Institution. We have a lot of bilingual students, monolingual students, which we’re very proud of, and we know these are the teachers we need in the Bronx. We need to choose those who speak the language of the young children in their classrooms. So we’ve taken an approach that I think of as a critical care approach, meaning that a lot of what David Kirkland was talking about is what we’re trying to do in our teacher preparation program. Create a community for our students, let them know we know that they can do this work, and build a community so they feel welcome, so they know “you are a part of this and you belong here.” Create high standards for them. Make sure that our students, instead of just saying, “okay, you finished your your degree, good luck with those tests,” we make sure we have workshops for all of the tests. And for the test that’s very controversial, but I think in some ways can be very useful, the edTPA, we’ve taken an approach where we are really working very carefully with our students to make sure they submit by the end of the semester, but also to use parts of the edTPA as a tool for creating a thoughtful process as our students enter and continue in classrooms.
Jon M: 09:43 We know there’s a high attrition rate among teachers in the first few years, especially among teachers of color. Do you find this is as true in early childhood as it is in other grades?
Kym V: 09:54 I don’t have the statistics on this, but I have my own statistics and what I mean by that is I do keep in touch with all my former students. So if I look back at my first cohort of 14 students in the Bronx in 2014, all of those students are still there. Nobody has left the profession. They sometimes will move to another grade and maybe they’ll move to first grade, which is still considered early childhood education. We have a good track record of our teachers really staying in early childhood. We have a very committed force. One of the problems with that is early childhood tends to be very, very low paid. So traditionally after teachers get a few years under their belt, some teachers will leave to go into either higher grades or or another profession. New York City is working on pay parity. We’ve made some progress but not enough. Recently unionized early childhood programs, meaning teachers who have a union in early childhood programs, including some daycares who were in the union, will now be getting pay parity, and I celebrate that. It’s historic, it’s wonderful. But it’s still leaving out some teachers and right now, there are currently, if you’re working at a nursery school that’s part of a community based organization, you may be making two thirds of what a teacher doing the exact same UPK (universal pre-kindergarten) in a public school. You might be making two thirds of that salary. So that’s problematic and certainly that is a problem for for keeping teachers in the field. Personally, I have not experienced that. I have been really heartened at how in the five years I’ve been at Lehman, very few teachers have have left and the majority of our teachers are in the Bronx.
Amy H-L: 12:00 You mentioned the edTPA and I know you spend a lot of time preparing your students for that. The edTPA was designed by Linda Darling-Hammond as a progressive performance-based assessment. Could you describe how it works and what you like and don’t like about it?
Kym V: 12:23 Sure, yes. Great question. So the edTPA rolled out in New York in 2013 and hit Lehman a year or two before I came to campus. I had been teaching many years and it was before my time. When the first time I read the handbook I was really stunned because frankly I thought, “I don’t understand this at all.” So the edTPA has three parts to it, across all of the handbooks – high school, elementary school, early childhood. So for early childhood, it’s planning, instruction, and assessment. And what I like about it is there’s really nothing in the edTPA. There are five rubrics associated with each of those three sections. And there’s nothing in those 15 rubrics that I think anybody would really disagree with. Early childhood teachers, they should know this. The problems with it… Well, let me talk more about the opportunities. So there’s some, there’s some really important opportunities throughout the edTPA. Teachers are asked to take into consideration the personal community and cultural assets that their students bring into the classroom. So we’re asking our student teachers, our candidates, to view their students in a strength-based way. And we first say, you know, when you’re planning your three to five lessons, you need to write about how do you know the culture and community and personal assets your students are bringing into the classroom and how are you going to use those assets, planning your lessons? And then when they go on to instruct and when they’re doing assessment, we continue to ask them that. So first they plan three to five lessons, then they actually go instruct and they videotape themselves. And then they reflect on that video, those video teams. And then the last section is they look at the assessment and they reflect on how are they assessing? Did your students learn this, your objectives, or not? So the good news about edTPA is it really can, you can use it as a tool to help your students reflect on planning, instructing, and assessing. And those are things that we, that teachers really do need to do. There’s been a lot of criticism of the edTPA and some of it I agree with. The handbook can be really difficult to understand. It’s a little bit unwieldy. We’re not having local teachers necessarily scoring them. Pearson scores, and I have a whole other set of feelings about Pearson.
Jon M: 15:13 Can you tell people what Pearson is, or who Pearson is?
Kym V: 15:18 So Pearson is, it’s an education empire, and they hire people to score this test. They do publishing of some materials. Some are quite good, but I won’t get into the details of what Pearson does. I will say, I think it would be more helpful if we had scores locally based. But I saw when I came to Lehman an opportunity to use the edTPA to do what I wanted our students to do. So I say at the Lehman, “we are not going to spend our time complaining about the edTPA. We’re going to spend that complaining time figuring out how we can make it useful.” And I think it can be useful. It involves an enormous faculty buy in and it’s a lot of time for us to understand what the edTPA is and how we can use it in a way that’s successful and helpful for our students. The problem I have more is with some of these other tests, like the content specialty test, where our students are having to remember algebra that they taught and pass these tests. That test has three different sections in it and I believe we already teach those things. So there are a few problems with the test. One, they’re very time-consuming. Two, they do give some of our students, they’re sending them a message. “Why am I jumping through all these hoops? Do they really want me to do this?” And they’re spending over a thousand dollars. Our students at Lehman frequently take out student loans, so this is adding another thousand dollars. And that can be really stressful when you are working. Most of our students have children of their own. So those are some of the problems with the certification tests we’re looking at. I am happy to say the ALST, which was a writing test that students used to have to take, that’s gone. And that’s a good thing. I wish we just had two tests, the edTPA and the educating all students, the EAS. So we’re very test heavy and that can be really stressful to students who are trying to learn how to be teachers in classrooms, that they’re constantly shelling out money and taking the test. Now you have to make sure you know your algebra. It isn’t the best way to educate new teachers and it can be very stressful for them.
Amy H-L: 18:04 Kym, on the edTPA, could you give us some examples of what would be considered cultural assets and how they could be incorporated into lessons?
Kym V: 18:14 Sure. So one of the biggest assets that our students in the Bronx come to school with is they speak more than one language. That’s a cultural asset. So we talk a lot about how are you going to plan if your students, you may have students who speak two or three languages in your classroom, how will you make sure that students are able to bring their full selves into the classroom? You are encouraging them to speak not one language or the other language, but their entire repertoire of languages.
Jon M: 18:52 You referred a couple of times to comments that David Kirkland made a few weeks ago when he was talking about the Culturally Responsive Sustaining Education Framework that New York State has developed and New York City and other districts are beginning to implement. How do you see this impacting the issues that you see as most important in your teaching and in the teaching that your students are doing in their classrooms? Especially as I would assume that early childhood has been well ahead of the curve in implementing culturally responsive education.
Kym V: 19:27 Well, I like to think we have, but there is some evidence that we’re not always. So yes, early childhood from the beginning because in many respects, early childhood was part of the progressive education movement in this country. But early childhood goes, we can back it up way back to before the common school movement where we had infant schools and dame schools. So early childhood has been around forever.
Jon M: 19:57 And when you say infant and dame schools, you’re talking about the early 1800s?
Kym V: 20:02 1700s. Yeah, we’re really talking 1780, way back from the beginning, we had these programs. And then in 1850, one of my favorite historical facts about early childhood is the kindergarten movement came from Germany, from Friedrich Froebel, really as part of the 1848 revolution in Europe, which we know was not successful. And kindergarten was one of the things they kicked out of Germany because they said, you know, they actually went into classrooms, true story, they went into classrooms and asked the children, you know, is your teacher Communist? So Froebel felt strongly that if this, if this kindergarten is going to succeed, we’ve got to send it to America. So what you had, all of these really brave young women going over to Germany to learn how to be kindergarten teachers. And in essence, it really was a bit of a feminist revolution, the kindergarten coming to this country. And by the way, kindergarten is, we think about when we say kindergarten, right, we usually think of it, oh, it’s five-year-olds. But it wasn’t for five-year-olds. It was three to five-year-olds. At a certain point, one of the first people, William T. Harris, who (the school I taught kindergarten in, PS 11 in Chelsea, was named William T. Harris School), he was the superintendent in St. Louis. And when he was convinced to get kindergartens, that was the first place where they had kindergartens in the public schools. It was really exciting. And the woman who made this happen, Susan Blow, you know, they were so excited. This is going to happen. Kind of like how we’re so excited to get UPK in the schools now. And very shortly thereafter he said, “Oh wow, these three and four-year-olds, they’re annoying. Let’s get them out. Only for five-year-olds.” So we’ve had this history of early childhood of, starting it and stopping it and starting it. We’ve been trying for a long time to get this right. And by right, I mean to get it for everyone because early childhood education has frequently too frequently just been for people who can afford it. So as far back as the 1800s, the day nurseries and Jon, the Hope Daycare in Harlem was one of these, these daycares were free. Well, actually it wasn’t one of them because they were really founded by black women. But the day nurseries were founded mostly by white women, the same women sometimes who were founding the settlement houses. And if you were a woman in need of daycare services, you had to prove to them that you were worthy of the services. And what that meant was you couldn’t be single, you couldn’t be divorced. You needed to prove that you were a married woman and your husband didn’t have a job and so you were worthy of daycare. So we see from the very beginning that many children and families in need of early childhood education have been left out from the beginning. So the UPK universal pre-kindergarten movement is exciting in New York City because from when DeBlasio came in, he started with “We’re going to give this to everybody” and that’s, that’s wonderful. And we fully support that, but there have been some problems along the way and one of them is the issue I’ve referred to before with pay parity. There is not room for all the four-year-olds and now the three-year-olds who are coming into public schools. So what happened is New York City is contracting with some of these community based organizations to give free UPK to the children in that school. All directors are thrilled that families are not having to pay out of pocket for this. I don’t think anybody is complaining about that. That’s a wonderful thing. But many of these programs, it’s been a financial hardship because the money that they’re reimbursed, I think right now it’s $10,000 per child, is not enough for them to do the work they’ve been doing. One of the biggest problems that I see is that if we don’t plan this well, if, if the Department of Education isn’t strategic, we’re at risk of losing some of our really important early childhood community based organizations. We know a lot of these early childhood programs have been created and reflect the needs and desires of the people in that community. We don’t want to lose them. Additionally, these programs frequently hire people from the neighborhood. The directors are almost always women. So it’s a way for people in the neighborhood to also get into this profession and have leadership roles.
Jon M: 25:39 Let me cut in for a minute to explore that. Two things. One is, I know that one of the major fears when the Department of Ed started getting into everything from all-day kindergarten back in the 80s, to then pre-K and now there’s 3K for all, is that historically it’s tended to view three and four-year-olds as simply littler five or six or seven-year-olds. So I guess it’s a two part question. One is do you see this as a danger, or starting to change? Have they been doing a good job? And then it also seems to fit in with what you’re saying about the community based organizations, which ties back into this question about culturally responsive sustaining education. So I guess the real question is where things are right now, what do you see happening in the next few years and where do you think our listeners who are teachers, parents, some students can have an impact?
Kym V: 26:44 So many great questions there. So let me start with where things are right now. The lesson that we learned from the kindergarten movement was how quickly a program can be destroyed if the vision isn’t well articulated. So the kindergarten came into the elementary schools and promptly just took on the culture of those elementary schools and lost a lot of the vision that Froebel and these women, who were trained under Froebel, had for kindergarten. So I think for the universal pre-kindergarten, it’s a mixed bag. One thing that they’ve done really well, the Department of Education, is that they have articulated the need to have developmentally appropriate practice and a play based classroom, and they have something called instructional coordinators who go out to the programs and give support, and they’re really on the right track with that. They have hired Bank Street and other schools of education to do professional development with teachers and coaching. There’s a program called Building Blocks that’s had some real success in classrooms. So they have been trying to make sure these programs are play-based developmentally appropriate practice. and that’s a good thing. What we need to make sure of, though, is there are some really successful community-based programs and if we’re not careful in where we’re putting programs, they stand to possibly run some of these programs out of business. So, let me give an example. If you have a school that’s been around for a long time, that’s a very successful school, and you then place two or three universal pre-kindergarten in the public school next to that school and the parents think, well if I send my child to the elementary school that has a UPK, then they can stay all the way through through elementary school, then that’s going to put some pressure on that community based UPK. So I think we need to look to these community based organizations as the people who can really be models for what UPK should look like. Many of our principals in elementary school, their training is in the upper grades and they may not have the experience they need with three and four-year-olds. These community based programs, they are experts on this. They do have the experience. So think we need to look to them for some leadership. Did I answer both parts of your question, Jon? I feel like I might have just answered the where we are right now.
Jon M: 29:52 I think, and I tend to ask too many questions at one time, but you actually said that on the one hand there are principals in the elementary schools whose background isn’t early childhood, but that overall, if I’m understanding you right, the DOE has been doing a good job in looking at what good practice is, but still there are real dangers in terms of the impact on community based groups. So I guess the question I would have is what are you looking for as the State’s been putting out stuff about social emotional learning and now they’re putting out stuff about culturally responsive education? We’re really interested in how these things get from being documents written in Albany, or written in New York City but promulgated in Albany, to actually coming into effect in teacher preparation programs and then in classrooms.
Kym V: 30:44 Yes. So Lehman College I think has been in the forefront of this movement for very long time. My colleagues at Lehman, Zoila Morell, Cecilia Espinosa, Yasmin Morales-Alexander, they have been working on this for many, many years. So we’ve been trying to do this at Lehman for a long time. I’ll tell you where I do see some movement and it’s exciting. There’s a principal I know, who for a few years I’ve been talking about, you know, some of the work done by the organization that used to be called Border Crossers. Now I think it’s the Center for Racial Education, [Center for Racial Justice in Education] if I’m not wrong. And there wasn’t a big interest, but I will say when Carranza came in, this is, this is on his agenda and I am seeing some movement in the field with principals and teachers. So I think this is a really good thing. Change is hard. And I know it can be difficult for people, particularly since as, as Jon and I well know, chancellors do tend to come and go in New York, but I think that Carranza has really, I think he’s having an impact and I am fully supportive of what he’s trying to do now. The State work, I think I have nothing to say but good things about that. And this is what critical care looks like. This is what people like Gloria Ladson-Billings have been telling us to do for a long time. This is our work at CUNY Grad Center. So I think that’s a good thing. Again, some of the teacher accountability, the enormous amounts of pressure that we’re all under with some of these tests. Some of those tests are unnecessary and they take time out of our classroom time with students, but this stuff coming down the pipeline, I think this is good and I think it gives us the support that we’ve been looking for for a long time to get this work done.
Amy H-L: 32:53 Can you touch on the transition between early childhood or pre-K to elementary school? We’ve been hearing a lot about transitioning into high school, especially, you know, between eighth and ninth grade. Is there some concerted effort to coordinate the two, and especially in the SEL area?
Kym V: 33:17 I think that, I think there has been for a long time that articulation, certainly it can make it easier if we have these programs already in schools. You know, that articulation process could be a lot easier. But Jon said something so important a few minutes ago and it’s something we say a lot at Lehman, we remind our students of this. Being four years old is not a year of preparing to be five years old. It’s a year where they get to be actually four years old and do all the things that four-year-olds do or all of the things that three-year-olds do. This is not a race, it’s a journey. So one of the interesting programs I heard about when I came to Lehman, to the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute as a campus liaison in the UPK rollout. And as I was doing that work at PDI, I learned about how they did UPK in Boston. One of the things they tried to do was actually push early childhood education principles into the elementary schools. So all that social emotional work that we do in early childhood, that works really well in elementary school and middle school and high school. So there’s some real opportunity here for people to learn from what we do in early childhood education and really make the other grades, I think, better for students.
Jon M: 34:52 I think Debbie Meier, when we were talking to her said that she thought that early childhood educators should be the high school principals.
Kym V: 35:01 Yes! She said that years ago, too and I think that’s right. And you know, I would love to touch on that a little bit. At Lehman we have a really brilliant young woman who does a lot of work in the areas of critical care named Dr. Rosa Rivera-McCutchen and not only am I next to her in my office, but I was lucky enough, she let me take one of her courses at the Grad Center. And one of the things that we do at Lehman is we really are encouraging our early childhood teachers, “Get certified and I want to see you back here in three years or two years or one year if you’ve already been teaching for a few years in our leadership program.” If you asked me for my greatest wish for this profession right now, it would be to see our teachers in the Bronx take on leadership roles in early childhood education because they really understand children in such a profound way. And I think they are exactly what we need to create these environments of belonging with high standards and rigor and teacher development. So I think that is a really critical piece of this, making sure our teachers in the Bronx have opportunity and the education to be the next generation of leaders.
Amy H-L: 36:29 Well, thank you so much. Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t touched on?
Kym V: 36:36 I think that’s it. This has been so much fun. Thank you for giving me the opportunity. We have some really wonderful early childhood programs in the Bronx and we’re really happy at Lehman College to be learning from our students in the field and the leaders in the field. And we want to be out there, you know, giving opportunities to as many people as we can to make this profession a more inclusive one and one that really meets the needs of the community.
Jon M: 37:11 Thank you, Kym Vanderbilt ,for joining us and thank you for joining us. You can check out our podcast episodes and articles at our website, ethicalschools.org. We’re on Facebook, Twitter @ethicalschools, and Instagram. Till next week.