Last year, as Harlem Village Academies prepared to open new elementary schools , our principals visited dozens of kindergarten classrooms. The upper-income schools focused mostly on active play, interesting discussions and crafts, including papier-mache projects that delighted children for hours. In the lower-income schools we saw regimented academics, reward-and-punishment behavior systems and top-down instruction. In one South Bronx classroom, the only time children spoke during the course of three hours was to repeat drills of the sounds of letters over and over.
Why the disparity? Many educators are placing the blame squarely on the Common Core — national learning standards recently adopted by 45 states and the District and supported by the Obama administration — and asserting that they lead to poor-quality teaching and take all the joy out of kindergarten.
One Brooklyn teacher who attempted to teach the Common Core told the New York Post that her kindergartners broke down in tears, anxious and frustrated. Early-childhood development experts such as Nancy Carlsson-Paige argue that the standards will lead to an increase in rote learning and a decrease in active play and exploration. If so, we should heed her warning.
The question, however, is whether the new standards should be blamed for poor quality instruction. It’s an important question, as the Common Core will be the reason for spending billions of dollars for new textbooks, state tests, teacher evaluation systems and more.
The standards were designed to elevate the quality of instruction in our country: to teach students to think independently, grapple with difficult texts, solve problems and explain their thinking in a clear and compelling way. This is a noble vision. But its attainment depends entirely on the execution. In fact, the authors of the Common Core write, “the standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.”
Take vocabulary, for example. The Common Core standards state that kindergarten students should be able to “distinguish shades of meaning among verbs that describe some general action (e.g., walk, march, strut, prance) by acting out the meanings.” Imagine a classroom full of 5-year-olds marching, strutting, walking and prancing for 10 minutes to different kinds of music while laughing and learning vocabulary. Imagine, further, that this activity is organically integrated into a meaningful project or a theme-based unit that lights up the child’s love of learning. So while some schools might choose to teach vocabulary in a rote, boring way, clearly the standards are not to blame.
As Zoltan Sarda, an elementary school teacher with 22 years of experience, said to me last month, “The textbook companies are trying to box the big ideas of the Common Core into little disjoined pieces. But just because they are written in a linear way, that doesn’t mean you have to teach in a linear way.” Sarda, who now guides teachers at High Tech High in San Diego, once had his kindergartners build a life-size paper model of how humans would need to be designed in order to fly. This project taught them gravity, anatomy, speed, addition and subtraction, and measurement — all included in the standards — and the children loved it.
When I told one of our kindergarten teachers that there was a growing concern that the standards were ruining kindergarten, she laughed: “I didn’t know standards had that much power!”
So the standards are neither the problem nor the solution. The issue is how to use the standards to teach well. How do we do this at Harlem Village Academies?
First, we hire the smartest people out there and, when necessary, let go those who are not up to par. This is more important than ever, because the Common Core is immensely challenging and requires teachers to make intelligent, nuanced decisions about instruction during every lesson, every day. The only way to teach at this level is for every school to empower its principal to select, nurture and develop an outstanding faculty and then to hold the principal accountable for results.
In our schools, we prioritize teacher development over curriculum development. You do not make teachers better by handing them a packaged curriculum and sending them to a few days of training. Instead, teachers need time to analyze the standards, practice different teaching strategies, learn from mentors, collaborate with colleagues, observe one another, look at student work together, reflect on why certain approaches work better than others, learn from mistakes and continually improve. None of this is fast or easy. But it is how teachers become great.
Above all, we share a vision of engaging, sophisticated education. When a friend visited recently, she saw 27 children dancing in one kindergarten classroom. In another, she saw children singing a song about numbers. And in a third, the children were spread out in different parts of the room — some sprawled on the floor reading, some coloring and others playing with blocks. During our reading and writing period, each child chooses which learning activities to pursue that day. “This looks just like my son’s kindergarten,” she said. “But I pay $37,000 a year!”
Our classrooms are less structured and less orderly, sometimes even a bit chaotic. That’s how kindergarten should feel. Play is not a break from learning or a way to fill time for the little ones: play, imagination and discovery are how kindergartners learn.
Those of us who spend our years fighting for social justice should be as passionate about pedagogy as we are about politics. And that starts with equal access to a quality kindergarten education.