Category Archives: child development

How Far Have We Sunk? Pretty Far.

At the end of April, Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss wrote in her Answer Sheet blog that the Harley Avenue Primary School in the town of Elwood, N.Y. recently canceled its annual Kindergarten play so they could dedicate more time to making certain the children are prepared for “college and career.”  The cancelled show was to be performed in the middle of May, and a letter to parents explaining the rationale was dated April 25th of this year – so there is little chance that this is actually an elaborate April Fool’s prank.  In the text of the letter, the school told parents:

The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers. Please do not fault us for making professional decisions that we know will never be able to please everyone. But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.

A Kindergarten play. Canceled. Because Kindergarten children need to be prepared. “For college and career.” And the play would taken too much time away from THAT.

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We can certainly start with the obvious – for five year olds, putting on a play DOES help them learn “valuable lifelong skills.”  Working together, learning dialogue and songs, taking direction, expressing themselves, pushing their boundaries, taking risks — in what possible universe are these not fantastic learning experiences for Kindergarten children?  If there is a better recent example of missing the forest for the trees, I haven’t seen it.

On a more serious note, this also rings horribly of how terribly awry childhood has been going in this age of standards and “rigor” and high stakes.  Not only are we pushing academic tasks to younger and younger ages where they are simply inappropriate, there is growing evidence that it actively harms children to do so:

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

Very young children need play.  This is hardly in dispute.  But in recent years, there has been increasing focus on test based performance by third grade that has created pressure to ensure children are “ready” by increasing academics in earlier and earlier grades.  While very young children are capable of learning skills and knowledge that will feed into academic performance later on, they need to learn it in ways that actually meet their needs.  By the time a Kindergarten class cannot spare the time to put on a show — which, incidentally, will teach the children a lot – because of pressure to focus on “college and career” readiness, then something is horribly, horribly wrong.

It is also bizarre that a community like Elwood would feel this kind of pressure.  According the United States Census,  47.9% of the community residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared with statewide number of 33.7%.  Median household income in Elwood is $108,401 compared to a statewide median of $58,687, and only 2.7% of the population lives below the federal poverty line while the average is 15.6% statewide.  The median value of owner occupied homes in Elwood is $478,300 while the statewide median is $283,700.  Elwood also compares favorably to Suffolk County on Long Island as a whole.  In Suffolk County, 37.5% of the population has a B.A. or higher, the median household income is $88,323, and the median home value is $376,800.

Elwood’s public schools appear to be doing well also.  The New York State Education Department’s data portal shows exceptional performance on state standardized tests in Elwood.  Harley Avenue Elementary is a K-2 school which feeds into James H. Boyd Elementary’s 3-5 program. Although 25% of students opted out in 2015, the proficiency numbers between the 2014 and 2015 tests do not appear different in any appreciable way.  In the 2014 tests, 15% of students scored a level 4 in the ELA exams, and 38% scored at level 3 while statewide averages were 9% and 22% respectively.  In math, James H. Boyd students also out performed state average with 23% scoring level 4 and 34% at level 3 in 2014 while statewide those numbers were 14% and 22%.  While these numbers are not the highest in Suffolk County, they are well above the average.

So – we have a small town.  Better educated, wealthier, and performing better on state assessments than other communities in its county and state.  But they cannot spare time in Kindergarten to put on a play.  And while this example has raised many eyebrows, it goes without question that the high stakes environment has taken an even heavier toll on minority students in the form of narrowed curricula and ever increasing pressure to teach to the test.  Sadly, we knew this even before No Child Left Behind was passed as evidence from the so-called “Texas Miracle” showed diminished quality in education at all schools, but especially at Latino majority schools. Our ethnic minority and economically disadvantaged students were the canaries in the coalmine showing us how high stakes testing diminishes educational quality.  By the time towns like Elwood are figuring it out, we’ve pretty well killed every canary we have.

Something else stands out here as well.  Administrators in Elwood have taken significant flack from all sorts of critics for both canceling the show and then for justifying it on the grounds that those tiny Kindergarten kids need to be subjected to more rigor and more college and career readiness.  And yet, those administrators did not invent the policy environment they work within.  In today’s zero sum game of education as competition, perhaps Elwood’s administrators are looking around at the nearby schools that “outrank” them and figuring they need to up their game in order to look good enough.  The pressure to think like that is not exactly new, but recently it has increased dramatically, and three men bear far more responsibility for that than the public school administrators in Elwood:

Gates

Bill Gates spent 100s of millions of dollar rushing the Common Core State Standards into public schools without anyone having time to prepare schools and teachers for them or even knowing if they were actually any good.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan famously said that he thought “We should be able to look every second grader in the eye and say, ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not,’ ” – signaling how obsession with standardized testing was only going to get worse in the country.  Chief architect of the Common Core, David Coleman, expressed his disdain for writing in school that detracts from analysis and his ideas of rigor, saying that “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a s— about what you feel or what you think.”  These three men, with their impatience, their obsession with standardized testing data, and their general disdain for anything that doesn’t match their priorities have inflicted great damage on American public education, wielding influence far beyond their wisdom.

So if Kindergarten children in Elwood, New York cannot have a play because they need to be “college and career ready,” we should aim our disgust at the people who invented that phrase and made 50 million school aged children chase it without a single public debate on the issue.

Kindergarten

 

ADDENDUM: When the article from The Washington Post was forwarded to me, I failed to notice that it was dated from April of 2014. Unfortunately, as an Elwood parents affirms in the comments, the annual Kindergarten play has not been reinstated.  I hope the children of Elwood get a return to sanity in the near future.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, child development, Common Core, Data, Gates Foundation, Testing

“Successification”

Another month, another Success Academy scandal.

This time it involves an undercover video of a first grade teacher in Success Academy Cobble Hill in Brooklyn that was shot by an assistant teacher who was unnerved by the ongoing abusive behavior of the lead teacher, one of the networks “exemplar teachers” who is considered so effective she trains her colleagues.  The video, submitted to the New York Times, was shot in 2014 and was given to reporters when the assistant teacher left the Success Academy network last year.  The video is hard to watch by anyone with a hint of empathy for very young children struggling with instructions and a challenging concept.  It begins with a room of Success Academy students sitting cross-legged around the classroom rug, hands folded, backs in fully upright posture.  The teacher instructs a little girl to “count it again, making sure you are counting correctly.”  The girl pauses, apparently confused, and the teacher commands her to “count” in a quiet but stern voice.  The girl begins to count and then looks at the teacher who immediately rips her paper in half, throws it at the child, and points sharply to a corner of the room:

Go to the calm down chair and sit.  There is nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper. Somebody come up and show me how she should have counted to get her answer done with one and a split. Show my friends and teach them. (a child does as she says)  Thank you. Do NOT go back to your seat and show me one thing and then don’t do it here.  You’re confusing everybody. Very upset and very disappointed.

Every bit of that was delivered in a loud and angry tone of voice.

Kate Taylor, who wrote the story for the Times, reported that a Success Academy spokesperson said the teacher’s behavior was “shocking” and had been suspended from teaching, but was then back only a week and half later and still in the role of “exemplar” teacher.  Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz cited network manuals that say teachers should never use sarcastic tones or humiliate students, and, as is typical, dismissed the video as an “anomaly,” telling Ms. Taylor that the teacher reacted emotionally because she “so desperately wants her kids to succeed and to fulfill their potential.”  Ms. Moskowitz went on to insist that the video meant nothing and questioned the motives of the former assistant teacher who took it.

This video is not an accident.  It was taken because the assistant teacher had become concerned about daily occurrences of abusive behavior and did not merely get lucky to begin filming the lead teacher at the precise moment when she anomalously lit into a very young child for a simple mistake.  While the network defended itself, Ms. Taylor interviewed 20 current and former teachers whose statements indicate the behavior caught on the video is far more widespread in Success Academy than Ms. Moskowitz and her defenders admit.  One teacher, Jessica Reid Sliwerski, who worked for three years as both a teacher and as an assistant principal said that embarrassing children for “slipshod” work is both common and often encouraged: “It’s this culture of, ‘If you’ve made them cry, you’ve succeeded in getting your point across.”   New York University education professor Joseph P. McDonald said he would hardly be surprised if the classroom was one where children were often afraid. “The fear is likely not only about whether my teacher may at any time erupt with anger and punish me dramatically, but also whether I can ever be safe making mistakes.”  This was confirmed by another former Success Academy teacher, Carly Ginsberg, who said she witnessed papers torn up in front of children as young as kindergarten, an assistant principal openly mocking a low test score in front of the child, and a lead kindergarten teacher who made a little girl cry so hard that she vomited.

None of this is surprising to observers who have long known how Success Academy uses staggering pressure and laser-like focus on standardized test scores to get their results and to drive away children who cannot quickly and totally conform.  Kate Taylor’s lengthy examination of the culture of the school last summer documents it,  John Merrow’s story on Success Academy’s hefty use of out of school suspensions confirms it, and the network’s scramble to explain away a principal who compiled a “got to go” list of children to drive out of the school pretty much sealed it.  Success Academy does not merely have high expectations and sets lofty goals; it single-mindedly pursues them with a near zero tolerance for mistakes and for any behavior outside its rigidly defined norms.  Children, and teachers for that matter, who cannot swiftly comply are subjected to mounting pressure until they either break or go away.

I’ve written previously that Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy are likely to continue to have bad press for the simple reason that there are too many former Success Academy families and teachers to keep the kind of message discipline and information control that the network has employed until recently.  If Success Academy were merely an extreme anomaly in our education system, it would be possible to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude over Ms. Moskowitz’s obvious discomfort and inability to keep up the convincing arrogance that has typified her tenure as an education leader.  The trouble is that while Success Academy may be an extreme instantiation of disturbing and unethical priorities in our education system, it is by no means alone.  To varying degrees (and predating the founding of Ms. Moskowtiz’s network), huge swaths of American education have fallen victim to Successification: creeping emphasis on the shallowest of measures as ends unto themselves, the steady assault on childhood as a time of play and exploration, growing intolerance for error in both answers and behavior.  We are doing this to ourselves and to our children.

Children of color have long known that schools in many cities show almost fanatical intolerance for misbehavior.  The proliferation of “zero-tolerance” policies has lead to a “school to prison pipeline” where minor infractions of rules are criminalized and school discipline is routinely farmed out to police enforcement.  In this video by the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Project Liberty, New York City students describe their experiences with these policies and the impact it has on their ability to even think about school success and their future:

Success Academy may be a pioneer in subjecting very young students to out of school suspensions and extreme levels of behavioral conformity, but schools throughout our vast education system subject students to direct contact with police and arrest for rules violations that should be treated vastly differently.  The cycle here is especially vicious as suspended students often have home environments that cannot provide structure and supervision while they are out of school, leading to far greater risk of dropping out and ending up within the criminal justice system.

Schools that serve students from economically and racially privileged backgrounds place their own forms of pressure on students.  Writing in The Atlantic magazine, Erika Chistakis explained how research is now showing that the increasing emphasis on academics at younger and younger ages, even to preschool children, is actually harmful:

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

That’s right. The same educational policies that are pushing academic goals down to ever earlier levels seem to be contributing to—while at the same time obscuring—the fact that young children are gaining fewer skills, not more.

Ms. Christakis also noted that many parents of preschool aged children approved of the new approaches because of palpable fear that their children would fall behind others and that an early stumble could have life altering consequences.  Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania teacher and blogger, notes a similar theme among his own students in this very important essay entitled “One Wrong Move.”   He describes a class of honors students in his small town school completely paralyzed by the fear of making errors that they could never do anything without complete assurance they would get it completely correct, all because of the outsized risks associated with ever being wrong.  It reminds me very much of my own college students who are bright, caring, eager, passionate – and who are geniuses at  completing four hours of homework assigned on a Monday and due on Tuesday, but who, by their own admission have very little experience with high risk work that requires them to embrace uncertainty and the possibility of instructive failure.

I was recently walking my own children to school in our New York City neighborhood when we were passed by a father and son walking together.  The child looked to be about in 4th or 5th grade and was saying to his father, “You know in my school a one or a two are really not looked at as something good.”  It took me a moment, and then I realized he was talking about the level indicators on the New York State assessment system that are baked into elementary school report cards as the numbers 1 through 4.  At what point does it become painfully absurd for an elementary school student to have internalized the language of academic standards performance levels, and at what point does it become unethical for him to know what is or is not approved of in his school?  But this is just another example for where we have come in our education system by making performance to cut levels on standardized exams more important than actual learning.  We have normalized this, and our children know it.

As is typical for Eva Moskowitz, the Success Academy leader lashed out at The New York Times in an email circulated to all of her employees where she claimed the newspaper has a “vendetta” against her and called her critics “haters” who are trying to “bully” the network.  While it may be desirable, even necessary, to deflate the self aggrandizing mythology of Success Academy by documenting reality, it is also important to remember that the charter network is not actually the illness.  It is merely an extreme rash that has broken on the surface.  Looking deeper, it is evident that much of our schooling today suffers from “Successification”.  Whether it is black and brown children subjected to zero tolerance policies that send them on a collision course with the criminal justice system or it is students terrified of making errors because their education has no time for learning from mistakes and genuine discovery, we are slowly building a school system where the worst priorities are granted full control.

It is time for a good, long, hard look in the mirror to see if Eva Moskowitz is staring back at us.

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Filed under charter schools, child development, Media, racism, schools, Social Justice, teaching, Testing

Chris Christie Calls Mandatory Recess Bill “Stupid”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took time out of his busy schedule as a failing Presidential candidate this week to veto a bill that would have mandated 20 minutes of recess for all New Jersey schoolchildren between Kindergarten and 5th grade.  Speaking with Fox News, the Governor said that “part of my job as governor is to veto the stupid bills. That was a stupid bill and I vetoed it.”  He also characterized the bill as “crazy government run amok” and mischaracterized it as requiring outdoor recess regardless of the weather conditions; the actual language of the bill expressed a preference for outdoor recess when possible.  Governor Christie further berated the legislators who passed the bill by saying, “With all the other problems we have to deal with, my Legislature is worried about recess for kids from kindergarten to fifth grade?”

I think we need to clarify some points:

Collaborating with private donors to transform the city of Newark’s school system in an unproven experiment, turning the city schools over to an inept and defensive administrator who planned to close schools that were meeting their improvement goals and sending families across the city whether they wanted to go or not?  That is not “crazy government run amok”.

A $108 MILLION contract with the Pearson Corporation to provide an unproven and disruptive state assessment system whose results were thoroughly misrepresented by the state’s highest education appointee?  That is not “crazy government run amok”.

Granting a “graduate school of education” that is primarily a collaboration of charter school networks training their own teachers in the “no excuses” methods the sole contract to provide continuing education for teachers in the state’s largest city while increasing the requirements for traditional teacher preparation programs?  That is not “crazy government run amok”.

Ramming through a major overhaul of the state’s pension fund, refusing to actually pay the state’s agreed upon contribution, but giving management of those funds to politically connected Wall Street firms who jacked up the fees to over $600 million a YEAR?  That is not “crazy government run amok”.

“Crazy government run amok” is making certain that state education law requires that very young children get a daily chance to play outside while they are in school.

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Governor Christie’s mocking of the legislature for spending time on something so frivolous is also sorely misplaced.  Far from being unimportant, the American Academy of Pediatrics has called recess “crucial” and cites tangible benefits of regularly scheduled play for children attending school:

Just as physical education and physical fitness have well-recognized benefits for personal and academic performance, recess offers its own, unique benefits. Recess represents an essential, planned respite from rigorous cognitive tasks. It affords a time to rest, play, imagine, think, move, and socialize. After recess, for children or after a corresponding break time for adolescents, students are more attentive and better able to perform cognitively. In addition, recess helps young children to develop social skills that are otherwise not acquired in the more structured classroom environment.

Restrictions or even loss of recess time is a national phenomenon, and the New Jersey law would have protected students from districts who felt the pressure to spend more time on academics and test preparation from stealing that time from recess — and yes, this has happened in New Jersey.  Far from being something that the state’s lawmakers should not have bothered with, protecting children from well-intentioned but ultimately damaging policies is absolutely something that needed to be done.  Mounting evidence suggests that this generation of schoolchildren are being pushed into more and more academic focus at younger and younger ages to their detriment. Even children as young as Pre-Kindergarten are losing play based learning that is developmentally appropriate and actually crucial to their long term social and academic well-being.  Writing in The Atlantic, Erika Chistakis notes:

Preschool classrooms have become increasingly fraught spaces, with teachers cajoling their charges to finish their “work” before they can go play. And yet, even as preschoolers are learning more pre-academic skills at earlier ages, I’ve heard many teachers say that they seem somehow—is it possible?—less inquisitive and less engaged than the kids of earlier generations. More children today seem to lack the language skills needed to retell a simple story or to use basic connecting words and prepositions. They can’t make a conceptual analogy between, say, the veins on a leaf and the veins in their own hands.

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

That’s right. The same educational policies that are pushing academic goals down to ever earlier levels seem to be contributing to—while at the same time obscuring—the fact that young children are gaining fewer skills, not more.

This isn’t complicated.  This isn’t disputable.  Children need play.  Very young children cannot learn without opportunities to play.  The only flaw with the New Jersey legislation Governor Christie vetoed is that it doesn’t go far enough to protect our youngest school children from misguided efforts to increase their academic “performance” by denying them what they need to thrive.  Our children need recess.  They also need more play oriented learning premised on discovery and social interaction, and they need far less emphasis on tasks that look “rigorous” to adults but which stifle their development and steal time from genuine learning.

Governor Christie isn’t merely wrong; he is cruelly wrong.  The “stupid” thing is the steady chipping away of what our children need.  Perhaps the Governor could remember that as he is trying to score points with primary voters who are not interested in his candidacy.

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Filed under Cami Anderson, child development, Chris Christie, classrooms, Cory Booker, Newark, One Newark, PARCC, Pearson, politics, Testing

Reading at Frustration Level with J.K. Rowling

One of the more esoteric and interesting debates centered around the Common Core State Standards for English centers around text complexity and the concept of reading at “frustration level.”  The general idea behind instructing children at this level of text is that in order to improve as readers, children cannot only read texts that are within their current skill level and should be instructed using materials that challenge their reading.  As this article at Education Week notes, this is hardly a new concept, and it recapitulates debates that have gone on in reading circles for some time about the “best” ways to encourage young readers to develop.

On the one hand, the idea of instruction at so-called “frustration level” should not be exceptionally controversial if done by skilled teachers using high quality materials and carefully planned instruction.  After all, education theory has long accepted the idea of a “zone of proximal development” where a learner can accomplish a particular task with guidance and scaffolding and which exists between what the learner can do comfortably and what the learner cannot do yet.  Within this concept, we accept the likelihood that a learner will experience some degree of frustration and will make mistakes which can be actually instructive.  Movement from one “side” of the zone to the other is a matter of real accomplishment for learners, and since reading is a skill where learners move from simpler tasks to ones that are far more complex, it makes sense that teachers would have to use texts that push their students.

However, what the exact balance of “frustration level” texts should exist within the curriculum is a matter of healthy debate.  Proponents of the Common Core standards have generally believed that current popular reading programs in recent decades have allowed students too much “comfort” in instructional reading and have made significant increases in the amount of time students are expected to spend with texts they cannot read entirely independent of scaffolding.  For the record, researchers who I admire both personally and professionally have voiced support for increased text complexity, and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity and expertise of P. David Pearson, for example.  At the same time, I tend to agree with other critics who have rightly questioned the quality of materials aligned with Common Core for classroom teachers, the depth and quality of development for teachers expected to adapt the standards to their classrooms, and whether or not it is appropriate to TEST students at “frustration level” on the Common Core aligned PARCC examinations.  As Russ Walsh notes:

What happens when students are asked to read very difficult text? For those students who find the text challenging, but doable, they will redouble their efforts to figure it out. For the majority of children, however, who find the text at their frustration level, they may well give up. That is what frustration level in reading means. The ideal reading comprehension assessment passage will be easy for some, just right for most and challenging for some. The PARCC passages are likely to be very, very challenging for most.

But I want to set aside the testing and implementation questions and simply focus on a more fundamental question:  if we expect students to spend more time reading at levels that a truly challenging for them, what, apart from very careful and extremely skilled teaching, do they require?

This is not actually theoretical as my wife and I have been observing an exercise in this very question all summer long with our oldest child.  While a remarkably skilled and precocious verbal story teller, it has been a bit of a longer road for reading skills to develop.  Mind you, our child has had perfectly fine reading skills and is reading above most grade level assessments, but reading has not developed as visibly as spoken language skills.  What we found out a few years back after some examination was that many reading skills that we could not observe (such as segmenting and blending) were fully intact, but our child, being a perfectionist who hates displaying skills that are not completely independent, would hesitate to try them in front of others.  In fact, until our child had enough confidence to read reasonably interesting chapter books independently, reading together time was often a struggle between an adult trying to patiently coach breaking down unfamiliar words and a child stubbornly waiting for us to give up and read it ourselves.

Our child has progressed in school reading assessments using the “Fountas and Pinnell” leveled reading system. I have my suspicion that these assessments are tracking lower than our child’s actual reading level.  From reading together, I have noticed tendencies to read words that appear on the next page while trying to jump ahead when excited or having attention wander when bored.  Hardly surprising as this is not an exact science made a bit more problematic when working with a child who is easily bored by very strict academic tasks and who does not like feeling under scrutiny.  Regardless, one thing has been absolutely clear in the past year of schoolwork:  given a choice of free reading material, our child often selects books that fall into a very comfortable reading level and will sometimes opt to reread familiar books instead of branching out into new series.  This again is not especially worrisome for pleasure reading:  repetition can reinforce development of sight words and casual reading is best done by choice.

Which makes the past two months quite remarkable.

For family reading time, I often go to books above either of our children’s reading skills but with real potential interest as stories.  Our oldest child took to The Trumpet of the Swan this way and read it in bed for over a week after I finished reading it aloud.  Both of our children were rapt with attention to The Hobbit, although it did not become an adventure in self reading.  I have my eye on A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, and, just to really push matters a bit, The Sword and the Stone.  The reason I have some hope that one of those titles will become beloved in our home has to do with what we must only call The Summer of Harry Potter.

I tried reading the stories out loud for our children two years ago, but our oldest child, having a really empathetic nature and a difficulty with characters getting in trouble, did not want to listen past the first book.  But we began again in June, and as soon as I was done reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, both children begged to see the movie, insisted that I dive right into Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and our oldest child began taking book one to bed every night and devoured it.  The Chamber of Secrets  was quickly read, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkeban fell to a combination of night time reading and reading on the bus to and from camp before I could begin reading it out loud for both of our children.  I have just begun reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire aloud, and our older child is about two thirds of the way though Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  Our children go to bed around 8pm, and on more than one occasion, I have found our oldest child still awake after 10p, reading by headlamp.  I have been asked to turn off the television so more Harry Potter can be read.  The entirety of the supplemental Hogwarts Library series has been read independently, and my wife and I were bombarded with Quidditch facts and informational about magical creatures.

Now while I have said I believe our child’s tested reading level is below the actual skill level, it is also true that the advertised reading level of even the first of the Harry Potter books is probably still pretty high and that our child is spending at least some time reading at the so-called “frustration level” where the mechanics of the syntax and words not yet in sight word vocabulary will trip our child up.  Yet this is not slowing things down.  In fact, our child is reading with enthusiasm books that must occasionally frustrate mechanically and in situations that are increasingly scarier and more humanly complicated than anything read before.  Our child has had an historic dislike of main characters being mad with each other, but Harry Potter and Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger spend a good portion of Goblet of Fire angry at each other and that did not deter reading in the slightest.  From conversations, I know that the stories are understood.

So what is going on?  What would propel a young reader who has been reluctant to try out new books and who has never really taken to academic tasks with books to push so hard on known boundaries and comfortable texts?

Well, love.

Our child loves these books: the world J.K. Rowling created, the characters with depth and the ability to grow, the situations that test them.  Our child loves the overall arch of the story that is becoming evident as it progresses school year by school year.  The characters are at once entirely human and understandable while simultaneously inhabiting a world of surprising wonders.  If there is a reason to keep reading even though the books stretch on both a technical level and on an emotional level, it is because of love.

I think all of us, Common Core proponents and skeptics alike, want children to grow as readers — to stretch and to challenge themselves.  And we should all want children to have comfortable spaces within which to challenge themselves and within which they can just relax with the familiar and enjoyable.

But we should also remember what it is that inspires children to really push on their boundaries.  In school, it is with highly attentive teaching that provides sufficient modeling and supports and gives children a sense of agency to understand why they do what they do.  Outside of school, it is a deeply personal combination of factors with a lot of love in the mix.

And that’s something we ought to figure out how to get more of in school reading instruction as well.  Our oldest child loves what J.K. Rowling has created so much that just about nothing can deter total immersion in that world – not even how it pushes skills to develop.  That’s a good object lesson for school too.  Do we want children to really engage with their “frustration level”?  We ought to find out what they love…and maybe “frustration level” will seem a lot more like “a challenge I enjoy”.

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Filed under child development, Common Core, standards, teaching, Testing

Chester Finn and the Death of Kindergarten

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.

And now it is Kindergarten’s turn.

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:

K rubric

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.

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The New York Times or The Onion? “Is Your First Grader College Ready?”

Every now and again, a serious news outlet runs a story that requires multiple readings to tell that it is not someone trying deliberately to invoke Poe’s Law.  The internet axiom states that it is not possible to construct a satire of an extreme form of belief that will not be mistaken as sincere belief by a substantial portion of readers.  Poe’s Law is most often invoked to humorously highlight beliefs that are both fervently believed but so devoid of actual factual basis or a semblance of reasoning that they lampoon the person holding them.

Welcome to Poe’s Law: College and Career Readiness Edition.

“College and Career Readiness” is language that is plastered all over the Common Core State Standards and the accompanying standardized examinations offered by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).  In essence, the expression means that every student in the country should be taught a curriculum that prepares him or her with the essential mathematics and literacy skills necessary to succeed in entry level college courses or to successfully complete entry level job training in presumably desirable careers.  Proponents of the Common Core State Standards assure us that the common standards provide a proper and attainable platform from which elementary and secondary teachers can educate students to that level, and proponents of the accompanying PARRC and SBAC examinations, frequently the same people, assure us that exams will help us know that every child is on track to be college and career ready — or not.  Regardless of your assessment of those claims and the foundation that underlies (or fails to underlie) them, that’s the promise for standards beginning in Kindergarten and yearly examinations beginning in third grade.

So enter the New York Times with an article asking, and this is not a headline stolen from The Onion, “Is Your First Grader College Ready?” detailing various programs and efforts to raise preparation for college with children as young as first grade:

What is college? To Madison Comer, a confident 6-year-old, it is a very big place. “It’s tall,” she explained, outlining the head of Tuffy, the North Carolina State mascot, with a gray crayon. “It’s like high school but it’s higher.”

Elizabeth Mangan, who plans to be a veterinarian because she loves her puppy, pointed out that she, too, would attend North Carolina State. “Me and Madison are going to the same college,” she said.

And what is college? “It’s someplace where you go to get your career.”

Billy Nalls, meanwhile, was drawing curving horns and jagged teeth on Rameses the Ram on a paper pennant representing the University of North Carolina. “I’m drawing him as angry,” he said. In college, Billy wants to learn to make a Transformer (“It’s like a robot that comes from Cybertron”). And what happens at college? “You get smarter and smarter every day.”

Let me say that some of what is discussed in the article is not precisely off base.  Proponents of these approaches are correct that many students who will eventually go to college grow up in homes with college educated parents and with an underlying assumption that college is just a normal part of growing up.  When both of your parents had post-secondary education and career paths requiring that education, it is simply a background assumption in your life that college is likely compared to growing up in entire zip codes were very few of the adults have studied beyond high school.  It is also true that many first generation college students face challenges to their success that are not common among families with a history of college education, and that they often require support beyond the traditional college “bridge” programs.

So what is almost satirical about some of the approaches described in the Times?

It is one thing to talk to first grade students about what they want to be when they grow up.  For students who are growing up without many community models of post-secondary education, I can see potential in the middle school activities described that emphasize recognizing what would be needed to accomplish their ambitions.  However, the early elementary discourse transforms from surprising to comical to frustrating in very short order.  Six year-olds are not simply talking about what they want to be as grown ups; they are naming specific schools and filling out mock applications for the bulletin board.  The first grade teacher is quoted discussing that it is not enough to ask children what they want to be: “We need to ask them, ‘How will you get there?’ Even if I am teaching preschool, the word ‘college’ has to be in there.”  The approach is not simply being applied in districts with high concentrations of disadvantage; the article quotes a college planner from Westchester County, New York who compares college preparation to becoming an Olympic skater whose training begins in earnest at age 6.

A 6 year old future Olympian, however, is capable of understanding that she loves skating and perhaps that she is unusually good at it and wishes to spend a lot of time doing it.  It might not be a stretch for that 6 year old to know that the world’s best skaters can get a gold medal and to want that.  Her ability to visualize the path from being 6 to an Olympic medal?  Not there.  And it is pretty much guaranteed that future college graduates, at the age of 6, are simply incapable of envisioning something so distant and abstract.  This is the kind of “program” you get when a vaguely attentive superintendent hears the constant repetition of “college and career readiness” in reform circles and hastily writes a memo.

What is also close to farcical in the described approaches is how ways that students “prepare for college applications” in wealthier communities that first grade mock applications and middle school campus visits miss.  Those children have access to community recreation and athletic leagues.  They have schools with library/media centers that are funded and staffed.  They have community and school based arts and music education.  They have summer camps. Their homes have books and toys suitable for free play.  Their schools are often new or extremely well maintained and upgraded. Very few of them are food insecure or at risk of homelessness.

Everything I have listed is directly connected to students becoming “college and career ready,” so while I can support consciously organizing very young children to play “grown up” and following that with earlier than typical planning for certain students, that does not even qualify as a quarter of a loaf if we do not discuss the kind of cultural capital activities that have nothing to do with pinning mock college applications on a first grade bulletin board. Are we willing to embed resources in beautifully designed community centers that replicate what suburban kids have at home?  Are we willing to fully fund school and community libraries and art and music programs?  Are we going to expand recreation and summer camp opportunities?  Will we rebuild crumbling school infrastructure in our urban and rural communities?  Will we embrace, rather than cut, our obligations to keep people from being hungry and homeless?

Meanwhile I have a suggestion that would do a lot more for the first graders described in the Times article than a “cut and paste worksheet” describing the steps to get into college.  Give every kid in that class a good set of plain Legos, some dolls, and other toys that promote unstructured, creative PLAY — let them negotiate and explore their SIX YEAR OLD MINDS.  There will be plenty of time to stress them out and confuse them in only two more years when they take their third grade PARCC or SBAC examinations:

Ginger graduated high school college and career ready, and she got into Harvard University.  Her parents make too much money to qualify for needs-based financial aid, and they are underwater on their mortgage.  At $60,000 a year for tuition, room, and board, and at 8% interest, calculate for how many years SALLIE MAE will OWN Ginger if she begins her career at Starbucks.  Then recalculate how that will change if Ginger’s loans are bought by a securities bundler after five years and sold as bonds.  Show all of your work.

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Filed under child development, Common Core, Funding, Media, schools