This was written by Larry Cuban, a former high school social studies teacher (14 years, including seven at Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in the District), district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, VA) and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for 20 years. His latest book is “As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin.” This appeared on his blog.

By Larry Cuban

The image of kindergartners touching iPad screens for letters of the alphabet makes concrete the promise of five year-olds reading soon. Another technological miracle.

“It’s a revolution in education,” Auburn, Maine superintendent Tom Morrill, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. Auburn schools, he predicts, can reach its goal of 90 percent of third grade students meeting the state standard in reading by 2013 -- “and this is the time to do it,” according to the Sun Journal.

Watch here the 5-year-olds with iPads and listen to the superintendent and kindergarten teacher talk about the “phenomenal” device that is “truly redefining how we’re going to teach and learn.”

That a Maine district with 3,600 students (less than 300 in kindergarten) could capture national attention (on April 22, searching Google registered 77,000 results) with the $200,000 purchase of iPads for kindergartners and teachers at a time of cutting school budgets suggests something beyond the deep faith Americans have in new technologies. It points clearly to a strong belief about what should happen in kindergartens.

Early childhood education has experienced value-driven ideological cycles in preschools, kindergarten, and primary grades since the late-19th century alternating between programs that are child-centered (i.e., play,exploration, discovery) and academic learning (i.e., basic reading and math skills).

Even though in 2011 there are many child-centered (and hybrid) kindergartens and preschools that include age-appropriate academic knowledge and skills, in the past three decades, kindergartens and preschools including Head Start (established in the mid-1960s) have shifted toward academic boot camps for the primary grades.

Why? Since the 1980s, federal and state reformers adopted a business-inspired reform model pressing for academic rigor in schooling. States overhauled their high school graduation requirements, raised curriculum standards, expanded testing, published school-by-school scores, established accountability rules, and expanded parental choice to steer schools toward producing graduates matched to a labor market anchored in a knowledge-based economy. With No Child Left behind (2002) standards, testing, and accountability went on steroids.

Since NCLB, the sole focus on academically preparing high school students for college and the labor market has filtered down into middle schools (got to take Algebra!) and elementary grades with increased homework and testing. And, finally, slammed into kindergarten and preschool.

Now kindergartners have homework. Five-year-olds are tested for recognition of letters, colors, and counting numbers. Just as high school is now supposed to prepare graduates for college, preschools and kindergartens are supposed to prepare children for the rigors of reading, math, science, and testing in elementary school. That is the academic press that has trickled down to preschoolers and helps to explain the embrace by Auburn (MA) superintendent and school board of iPads in kindergarten.

Many early childhood educators, researchers, and parents criticize this emphasis on academics for young children as both unwise and harmful. Deep concern over the amount of time young children spend watching and interacting with TV, computer, and cell phone screens (see jgcc_alwaysconnected) rather than interacting with parents, siblings, and peers adults.

Child-centered educational organizations (The anti-technology Alliance for Childhood and National Association for the Education of Young Children with moderate positions on technology–see PSDAP-2) are critical of the academic press in preschools. They want children to experience real life, not a virtual one.

In contemporary child-centered schools free play, exploration, and teacher-directed activities combine in learning about the seasons, national holidays, daily events–all with attention toward developing personal responsibility and work habits in preparation for elementary school. Phonics, numbers, colors, and other academic skills are integrated into these activities. Telling stories, show-and-tell, free play, dancing, singing, drawing, group conversation, using concrete materials, choosing what activity to do–all activities enhance the social and emotional development of the whole child.

Yet there is also evidence that much math and reading can be learned by both preschoolers and kindergartners through direct instruction and new technologies. See here, Preschool_Math_in_TCM, and here.

In coming to understand how and why academics are currently dominant in public school early childhood programs, the swings of the ideological cycle between child-centered and academic content point to the perennial value-based question: what should young children do and learn in preschool and kindergarten. Which is why iPads for 5-year-olds in Auburn, Maine, provoked a storm of attention and, again, uncorked ideological divisions among adherents of child-centered and academic content inkindergartens. In such instances, facts help not a bit in finding an answer.

Except for the central importance of the teacher. None of the cycling back and forth over the past century between child-centered and academic orientations (including hybrids) erases one fact: well-prepared teachers knowledgeable about child development and skilled in engaging young children in interactive activities have in the past and continue today to blend exploration, discovery, self-regulation, and learning basic skills into a seamless, worthwhile experience for young children.


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