A very scary headline about kindergartners

(By Matt McClain / FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
(By Matt McClain / FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Rob Saxton is Oregon’s deputy superintendent of public instruction. Jada Rupley is the early learning system director within the state Department of Education. Together they wrote an op-ed in The Oregonian that was published online with this headline:

Kindergarten test results a ‘sobering snapshot’

What could possibly be sobering about test results from kindergartners? What kind of tests are they giving to kindergartners anyway?

It turns out that every public school kindergartner in Oregon was given a kindergarten readiness test last September to see how many numbers, letters and sounds they knew. The Oregonian reported that kids on average entered kindergarten knowing 19 capital and lower-case letters and seven letter sounds of at least 100 possible correct answers.

Kindergarten readiness tests are nothing new. What is is the ever-increasing focus on turning kindergarten, and now preschool, into academic environments with the aim of ensuring that children can read by the time they are in first grade. In fact, kindergarten is the new first grade when it comes to academics.

Saxton and Rupley wrote in their piece that the results of the testing of the kindergartners in Oregon “provide a sobering snapshot of the skills our children possess as they enter kindergarten.”

A working paper called “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade? The Changing Nature of Kindergarten in the Age of Accountability,” by Daphna Bassok and Anna Rorem of the University of Virginia’s EdPolicyWorks, a center on education policy and competitiveness, notes that kindergarten has been transformed over the last decade, with academic skill-being taking center stage.

For some kids, learning to read in kindergarten is just fine. For many others, it isn’t. They just aren’t ready. In years gone by, kids were given time to develop and learn to read in the early grades without being seen as failures. Even kids who took time learning how to read were able to excel.

Today kids aren’t given time and space to learn at their own speed.

Writer Alfie Kohn wrote in this post about concerns he has about the new calls for universal early childhood education. Why? Because when people talk about “high-quality programs,” they often mean academic programs, meaning the academic focus is being pushed down to younger and younger kids.

Very few people are talking about the kind of education that would be offered — other than declaring it should be “high quality.” And that phrase is often interpreted to mean “high intensity”: an accelerated version of skills-based teaching that most early-childhood experts regard as terrible. Poor children, as usual, tend to get the worst of this….

… The top-down, test-driven regimen of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiatives in K-12 education is now in the process of being nationalized with those Common Core standards championed by the Times — an enterprise largely funded, and relentlessly promoted, by corporate groups. That same version of school reform, driven by an emphasis on global competitiveness and a determination to teach future workers as much as possible as soon as possible, would now be expanded to children who are barely out of diapers.

That doesn’t leave much time for play. But even to the extent we want to promote meaningful learning in young children, the methods are likely to be counterproductive, featuring an emphasis on the direct instruction of skills and rote rehearsal of facts. This is the legacy of behaviorism: Children are treated as passive receptacles of knowledge, with few opportunities to investigate topics and pose questions that they find intriguing. In place of discovery and exploration, tots are trained to sit still and listen, to memorize lists of letters, numbers, and colors. Their success or failure is relentlessly monitored and quantified, and they’re “reinforced” with stickers or praise for producing right answers and being compliant.

This dreary version of early-childhood education isn’t just disrespectful of children; decades of research show it simply doesn’t work well — and may even be damaging.

Bassok, one of the authors of the research paper mentioned above, noted that while there are fun and engaging ways to teach young kids academic material, she worries that so much emphasis will be put on learning to read that other things, like play and social interactions, will be lost.

It’s already been happening for years, and it appears to be getting worse. The end result will be kids who hate school even earlier than they do now.

Kids like to play. Kids learn from play. Why it doesn’t make sense to just let them play is beyond me.

Here’s a position paper on the testing of young children by Defending the Early Years, a non – profit project of the Survival Education Fund, a 501(c)(3) tax – exempt educational organization based in Watertown, Massachusetts. (Find more information at deyproject.org or write to geralynbywater@gmail.com.)

 

What is the problem?

Today, the majority of classrooms for preschool, kindergarten and primary age children are required to address content standards that prescribe what children are expected to learn. These standards are intended to insure that worthwhile subject matter is taught. Performance standards have been developed to find out if children have learned the prescribed content.

While standards are helpful for identifying valuable content, they can also have a negative impact on children and programs. Some of the problems with standards are that they are not always based on knowledge of how children grow and learn, and often do not take into account children’s needs, capacities, cultures, and unique characteristics. Standards can lead to teaching of skills in ways that are not effective or meaningful, to the narrowing of the curriculum, and to less time for play and hands-on learning experiences that are important foundations for later school success.

It is useful to find out if children have learned the prescribed content, but the way this is most often done is through testing – which also can have a negative impact on children and programs. One of the major problems with the tests is that they are often not based on knowledge of child development and are therefore not suited to the developmental abilities of young children. Another problem is that tests can only measure a narrow range of knowledge and skills, so they often miss important objectives of early childhood education like creativity, problem-solving, and social and emotional development. Teachers who want children to do well on tests may eliminate worthwhile learning experiences, introduce skills too early, or narrow the curriculum in order to “teach to the test”.

Research shows that children learn best when they have hands-on learning experiences, engage in structured play, experience facts within meaningful contexts, invent their own problems to explore and solve, and share their own solutions. The current emphasis on standards and testing has led many schools to over-focus on assessment at the expense of meeting children’s developmental needs and teaching meaningful content. Play and activity-based learning have been disappearing from many early childhood classrooms, and – along with them – children’s natural motivation and love of learning.

What could be done to address this problem?

Program practices:

1. Promote programs that are based on current research on how young children learn best.

2. Promote meaningful, hands-on learning experiences in classrooms for young children.

3. Work to ensure that teachers provide well-thought out educational experiences that demonstrate knowledge and respect for each child.

4. Work to ensure that children have literacy experiences that include storytelling, quality children’s literature, and acting out stories rather than activities that isolate and drill discrete skills.

5. Help teachers skillfully build curriculum from what children can do and understand instead of direct teaching skills that are disconnected from children’s understanding.

6. Encourage schools to respect the language and culture of children and their families, to encourage families to take ownership and to make sure that their history and experiences are included and valued.

7. Encourage schools to design schedules that provide ample time for families and school personnel to meet and work together.

8. Work to ensure that teachers who have specialized training in early childhood education are placed in classrooms for young children.

 

Assessment practices:

1. Encourage policies that protect children from undue pressure and stress and from judgments that will have a negative impact on their lives in the present and in the future.

2. Promote the use of assessments that are based on observations of children, their development and learning.

3. Work to ensure that classroom assessments are used for the purpose of improving instruction.

4. Support efforts to eliminate testing of young children that is not intended to improve classroom practice.

5. Eliminate labeling and ranking of children based on standardized tests.

 

What family members can do at home

1. Provide young children with space and time to play at home and in the neighborhood.

2. Read good quality children’s books and limit screen time.

3. Resist reinforcing the school’s agenda – drilling for skills – and replace it with opportunities for meaningful learning

RELATED: In their own words – Children’s six-word memoirs

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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