More is Less

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Sometimes I wonder if we’ve lost our collective minds when it comes to early childhood education.  This morning, I found this well-written article, from January 2016’s Atlantic: “The New Preschool is Crushing Kids“.  Thoughtfully written by author Erika Christakas, the idea that our education system has shifted from a “protected” childhood to a “prepared” one resonated. Ask educators and you will hear that what used to be taught in second grade, is now a requirement for first grade. First grade expectations are have moved down to kindergarten. And preschool? Yes, preschool is filled with academic skills.  It’s the trickle down theory of education.

According to Christakas though, all of this new “rigor” may not translate into academic success.

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.

Could it be that by forcing young children to perform academic skills at such an early age is killing their curiosity and love for learning?

Our schools seem to focus on the “cognitive potential” learners, even those of a very young age. When test scores are published and reported, we hear about gaps in achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged learners.

In my experience, such gaps are a function of a child who needs more time to experience the world, to learn the language used in school, to converse, to listen, and to experiment. It troubles me that in place of deepening and enriching the experiences of young children, young learners are subjected to more seat/paper/desk work. In an impatient rush to boost test scores and school ratings, there has been a misguided effort to push academic skills and concepts earlier and earlier at the expense of learning that is developmentally appropriate.

I was taught that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I believe our edu-crats need to take heed of this adage. More is definitely less for our youngest learners.

Early Childhood Education Insanity (my rant)

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Our first grandchild arrived in August, and as many grandparents come to understand, things have changed since we raised our own children. Babies don’t sleep with crib bumpers, or on their tummies. Children don’t wear winter coats in car seats. I most definitely have zero applicable knowledge when it comes to infants. Times have changed, research has changed, thinking has changed.

My wheelhouse, though, is education. I wonder – often as it turns out – if my own thinking as a teacher is outdated. I was reminded of this when a colleague shared the school district’s current Early Childhood (PreK) progress report with me – which was over 10 pages long. These 3- and 4-year-olds have been “in school” barely 5 weeks and already their teachers are tasked with assessing their progress.

Progress in what, exactly? When one is 3- or 4-years old, shouldn’t the ultimate goal be to learn to love learning? To get along with others and take turns? Socialize?  A 10-page checklist of skills – by category – seems ridiculous for a little one who has only been on this planet for less than 5 trips around the sun.

It did make me curious: what exactly is being asked of young children, so I did some browsing through Boston Public School’s Early Childhood page. Check out the “robust questions” intended to spark conversation with 3- or 4-year olds in Centers found in the vocabulary section of this document,  “What is the inspiration for your work?” “What is your plan for structure?”

Looking at the assessments recommended for this age group, there are a number of screening and assessment tools recommended and required.  Some would be useful as a child’s language development progresses; one that seems “optional” but noted in use in some school PreK programs is Fountas & Pinnell benchmark testing. That’s right, some schools endeavor to find a 3-year-olds “independent” reading level. No, they are not kidding. Shouldn’t we be reading to children this young and not expecting them to read to us?

Here’s my question as a new grandparent and a retired educator:

When do young children get to just be young children?

Is there such a driving need to prove children are “learning” at such young ages that reasonable expectations, developmental appropriateness and an emphasis on developing social skills and love of learning been replaced by assessment, evaluation, and checklists?

My hope is that the pendulum swings back to more child-friendly early childhood education before my granddaughter reaches school-age.

 

Teacher

2014-11-25-lincoln-024I started reading Meditations from the Mat this weekend. The writings are daily practices in mindful meditation written by Rolf Gates and Katrina Kenison and had come highly recommended by a group of yogis I’ve encountered in an online group.

In explaining his own yoga journey, from a weekend retreat at Kripalu to yoga teacher training, Rolf Gates relayed a story about an encounter with Baron Baptiste, renowned yoga teacher and author.

…”Are you a teacher?” I said I was, but the words didn’t ring true. I taught classes, but I was not a teacher.

For a while I puzzled over how that could be true; if one taught, one must be a teacher, right?

As Rolf explained, the act of teaching is the act of drawing out. In yoga, that means drawing out what the student may already know about breath, alignments, and postures.

In education today, do we have the flexibility to draw out of our students what they already know and can connect to? Can we lead them to knowledge without having to force it in before the students are ready for it?

Standards in a general sense, are good end-goals for education and educators. Where standards and standards-based education go awry is when those end points are unreasonable or developmentally inappropriate or, in some cases, designed to foster failure. The purpose of early childhood education should not be a dress rehearsal for intermediate grade level standardized testing. Yet it sometimes is.

As an example, I have heard from participants in the graduate level literacy class I led tell of kindergarten students writing or keyboarding.  This is wrong. Forcing young learners toward skills that are outside what is developmentally appropriate for them is a disservice to them.

Teachers want to teach, to draw out, what their students know to make connections. We want learning to be relevant, to spark curiosity and to stay with our students. We want to teach.

 

When we push children to learn before they are ready…

There is a cost for pushing readers! We don’t just TEACH readers – we help them to BECOME readers.

Dr. Mary Howard

2016-sep-22_btubooks2As an educator, I find more often than not that I have conflicting emotions about the current state of curricula. The narrative, at least from much of the press and definitely from state and federal education agencies, is that our schools are failing. And while I think that education can always find ways to improve instruction and to reach all learners, I do not believe our schools are dismally inept at education.

Consider the current climate in reading instruction for example. There is almost an atmosphere of panic in making sure students are reading with rigor. Kindergarten children are expected to leave that grade level as five- and six-year old readers on F&P Level D. Did you leave Kindergarten reading?

What exactly does that designation “Level D” mean? Let me quote the introduction to Readers at Level D from Fountas & Pinnell’s Continuum (2016, p 428):

At Level D, readers process and understand simple fiction and fantasy stories and easy informational texts. They can track print with their eyes over two to six lines per page without pointing, and they can process texts with more varied and more complex language patterns. They notice and use a range of punctuation and read dialogue, reflecting the meaning through phrasing, intonation, and appropriate word stress. Readers can solve many easy, regular two-syllable words – usually words with inflectional endings such as ing and simple compound words. Pointing may occasionally be used at difficulty, but readers drop the finger when they are confident and are reading easily. The core of know high-frequency words is expanding. Readers consistently monitor their reading, cross-check one source of information with another, and often use multiple sources of information. Readers use text and pictures to construct the meaning of stores and nonfiction texts. They infer meaning from pictures and connect the meaning of texts to their own experiences. At level D, readers process and understand simple and some split dialogue.

Yes, these are the expectations for ALL KINDERGARTENERS as they leave to transition to Grade 1. In the beginning days of my teaching career, many of these characteristics were quite normally found in typical mid-first and early-second grade students.

So I ask again, were you reading in Kindergarten? I was not.  I don’t think I fell behind in my education because I wasn’t reading in Kindergarten. I do know that I have cultivated a love of print that has lasted a lifetime. I believe I was fortunate that when I was learning to read, my teachers worked not only on how to read, but also on development of a love of reading.

Because I was taught the skill of reading when I was developmentally ready to not only word-solve (decode), but also to comprehend, I learned to become a reader – exactly what Mary Howard speaks about in the quotation above.

The demands being placed on our youngest learners are unrealistic and oftentimes unattainable. My opinion? Children who are in Kindergarten need to learn to love learning: they need to practice social skills through play. They need to get used to school and learning.

Squeezing all children, ready or not into the same curriculum funnel makes me think that education policy makers need to realign their focus. When the goal of reading instruction is so skewed toward the mechanics of reading at a developmentally inappropriate age, is the opportunity to help a child become a reader sacrificed?

Square Peg, Round Hole

newbasketsHuffington Post published a blog entry by Gay Groover Christmus recently that resonated with me as a retired educator who taught pre-NCLB. The article, “4 Things Worse Than Not Learning to Read in Kindergarten” is well worth the read time for anyone wondering about the current state of education policy, and I would encourage you to do so.

Think about the absurd notion that every child leaving Kindergarten must be able to read at a particular, and I would call it arbitrary, level. And if the child does not, there is a “problem” that needs to be addressed immediately.

If your family is like mine, you can recall some family member who disliked and/or struggled with reading throughout K-12 schooling, yet, in adulthood achieved career and academic success. What would have happened had that family member had to endure the current state of early childhood “no exceptions” education?

I believe each child is different and comes to any academic task with different background, different motivation, different readiness levels. Yet, here we are in the 21st century attempting to industrialize and mechanize reading (and math and writing) so children don’t “fall behind”. Fall behind what? If a child doesn’t read F&P Level C by the end of Kindergarten, does that really mean the child needs to be labeled as academically failing for the next 12 years and beyond? I say no.

The collective and public “we” has a lack of trust in educators’ judgement and our public schools that didn’t exist when I started my career. Political expedience is reversing the narrative that our schools provide excellence in education for all students to a mantra-like chant of  a “failing” public education system (a post or two for another time, perhaps).

To me, this change in mindset which morphed over my career as an educator and my days as a parent of a school-aged child is most distressing. The narrative of failure and fear of failing to “effectively” educate students – even when the educational demands are inappropriate – is manufactured by ed-reformers with an obvious agenda.  Children, particularly early education students, are suffering for it. They are being taught academics before they are ready to retain and use them; we are forcing a square peg into a round hole.

What happens to those children when they are forced to perform academically before they are  ready and prepared to acquire academic skills like reading? Resentment, frustration, aversion to learning, and a missed opportunity to foster a love for the act of reading (or math, or writing) and discovering literature as that child matures. What learning is left to the side because there is no time to explore?

Yes, of course, there are some children who are ready to read as kindergarten students, and a skilled educator not only recognizes that readiness, but designs instruction to meet that child’s needs. Should a child need more support, or when there is a learning challenge, trust that the same educator will seek out solutions and work with parents to ensure that child receives that support that is needed.

What Ms. Christmus’ article reminds us is that unrealistic expectations and demands really should have no place in a child’s education.