Chester E. Finn, Jr. has been an influential figure in American education reform for a long time now. President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank supporting most elements of today’s reform environment, former fellow at the Manhattan and Hudson Institutes, founding partner with the for profit school turned for profit school management organization Edison Project, former Assistant Secretary of Education for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, former Professor of Education at Vanderbilt University, and former chair of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) governing board, Dr. Finn has been a staple of the education reform landscape for decades. According to his former colleague, Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University, Dr. Finn has long held a low opinion of the quality of achievement in American education and has long wanted Americans to realize how poorly educated our children are.
Writing for the Fordham commentary website, Dr. Finn reports on the results of Maryland’s new “Kindergarten readiness” test administered individually by teachers and now available for the general public. Dr. Finn, recently appointed to the Maryland State Board of Education, describes the results as “revealing and sobering”:
The assessment is individually administered by kindergarten teachers and was given this year to all of the Old Line State’s sixty-seven thousand kindergartners. The results are sorted into three bands, politely labeled “demonstrating readiness,” “developing readiness,” and “emerging readiness.” But only the first of these means actually ready to succeed in kindergarten—and slightly fewer than half of Maryland’s entering kindergartners met that standard.
Which is to say that more than half are not ready. This report candidly displays the results not just for the state as a whole, but also for each of Maryland’s twenty-four local districts—and further disaggregated in all the ways we have come to expect and demand in the NCLB era.
Every which way you look, you see gaps. And often the gaps are alarmingly wide—by district, by race, by income, and more. You may not be surprised, but you ought to be alarmed and energized. Children who enter school without what they need to succeed in kindergarten are destined to have great difficulty catching up, even in schools that do their utmost. It’s not impossible, but it’s very hard.
Allow me to give Dr. Finn half of a loaf here. Early advantages matter for long term educational outcomes, although many critics have written about whether that is because of specific deficits in certain student populations or because schools systemically valorize the cultural capital already possessed by society’s elites. It is curious to me that Dr. Finn calls the results of the Kindergarten readiness test “revealing” because the finding of gaps between subgroups of students is entirely predictable based on what we know about poverty and its long lasting impacts. Maryland has a total poverty rate under 10%, but 14% of its children live below the poverty line and another 17% live between the Federal Poverty Level and 200% of the Federal Poverty Level ($47,700 for a family of four). So that is 31% of the children in Maryland living either below the poverty line or within striking distance of it. The 1997 Princeton Study, The Effects of Poverty on Children, clearly documented how poverty in early childhood has long lasting impacts on physical, cognitive, school achievement, and emotional/behavioral development, so for Dr. Finn to say the results of the new Maryland assessment are “revealing” rather “confirming what we already know” is rhetorically nonsensical.
It is also nonsensical for Dr. Finn to say that HALF of Maryland’s children are not “ready” for Kindergarten (a term that is not actually defined or defended in his article), when the scale as reported is “demonstrating readiness” – “developing readiness” – “emerging readiness”. According to the actual state report, not provided by Dr. Finn, 47% of Kindergarten students were found to be “demonstrating readiness”, 36% were “developing readiness”, and 17% were only at “emerging readiness”. These terms are defined in the report as follows:
Demonstrating Readiness – a child demonstrates the foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.
Developing Readiness – a child exhibits some of the foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.
Emerging Readiness – a child displays minimal foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.
And how does a teacher giving this assessment determine that? Maryland provides a vague and unhelpful website for the public, but there are a few sample rubrics. Here is one for an observational item:
So, a five year-old child “requires adult guidance to select the best idea and then put it into action” and to Dr. Chester Finn, THAT is evidence that the child is “not ready” for Kindergarten – rather than just normal evidence of a 5 year-old.
Interestingly, just one year ago, 83% of Maryland Kindergarten children were found to be “ready,” the precise sum of this year’s combined “demonstrating readiness” and “developing readiness.” I’m sure THAT wasn’t deliberate at all.
And that’s the crux of the matter. It would be one thing to develop high quality individualized assessment instruments that Maryland Kindergarten teachers could use to get snapshots of their incoming students and to fully individualize instruction or to use targeted interventions for some students. It is an entirely different thing to redefine “Kindergarten readiness” to mean that 5 year-olds must engage in complex problem solving with no adult assistance and select “the best idea” (note the use of a definite article which narrows the number of correct ideas down to one) and then to publicize this as “evidence” that over half of our 5 year-olds are deficient. In the pursuit of observing “the best idea” to solve a problem, how many entirely appropriate but fanciful ideas were set aside as evidence that a child was “developing readiness” rather than “demonstrating readiness”? How many teachers will now use the results of this assessment to take the Kindergarten curriculum and try to push children into very narrow boxes of “correct” and “incorrect” ideas that stifle the kind of play based learning and experimentation that is entirely appropriate and healthy for very young children?
Professor of physics at Loyola University Maryland Joseph Ganem took the results of the Kindergarten assessment to task in the pages of The Baltimore Sun, faulting unrealistic and narrow expectations of the Common Core State Standards for the redefinition of readiness:
However, for skills in what Bloom calls the “cognitive domain,” the school curriculum has become blind not only to the progression of normal child development but also to natural variations in the rate that children develop. It is now expected that pre-school children should be able to grasp sophisticated concepts in mathematics and written language. In addition, it is expected that all children should be at the same cognitive level when they enter kindergarten, and proceed through the entire grade-school curriculum in lock step with one another. People, who think that all children can learn in unison, have obviously never worked with special needs children or the gifted and talented.
I agree with Dr. Ganem, and I will add that Dr. Finn’s attempt to portray these results as widely dire, rather than as indicating a specific population of children in poverty may need additional services, risks a deeper erosion of Kindergarten and early childhood education into narrow and unimaginative academics. In their 1995 history of education reform, Tinkering Toward Utopia, David Tyack and Larry Cuban noted how the ideal of the “Children’s Garden” was quickly subsumed into preparation for the academic curriculum of grade school:
A much more modest bureaucratic rationale became central: that the kindergarten would prepare five year-olds for the first grade in a scientifically determined developmental way. Some of the features that had made the kindergarten exotic were slowly trimmed away or changed to fit the institutional character of the elementary school. (p. 69)
Dr. Finn proposes that we once again double down on this. His solution to the problem created by rewriting the meaning of Kindergarten is “intensive, targeted early-childhood education for the kids who need it the most” which almost certainly means further pushing academic skills development to children as young as three. While I am a proponent of universal pre-K, I am mindful that “high quality” programs are far more than academic preparation and will often cloak such preparation in a focus upon learning via play. In communities with high poverty, a focus on the family and whole child requires the existence of robust community-based social services that blunt the negative impacts of poverty on child development. But if Dr. Finn believes that a 5 year-old who needs some adult guidance to select the ONE “best idea” in problem solving is not “ready” for Kindergarten, then I have little hope that an accompanying push for more early childhood education will preserve learning by play and attend to what we actually know children need.
For fifty years, we have continuously strangled the idea of free time and free play out of childhood in an academic arms race with our neighbors and other nations. The consequences have been negative. While we do have children who have needs that require specific interventions and resources, all of our children need time to grow and explore in their earliest education.
Turning pre-K into the new first grade the way we have already done to Kindergarten is not the answer.