Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Worst Education Money Can Buy

Everyone who has ever studied it, everyone with early childhood teaching experience, will tell you that unstructured play is the developmentally appropriate way for young children to learn. The work of people like Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget proved this over a century ago, and nothing has happened since then to disprove the basic principles of the educational centrality of play.

Otherwise responsible, thoughtful people, however, from all corners of the political spectrum, today continue to push for more and more high stakes academic testing at younger and younger ages in the face of absolutely zero evidence to indicate that this approach can have any kind of positive outcome for kids. In fact, despite the mountain of evidence that this type of testing has negative effects on real learning and normal development in young children, half of US states now test kindergarteners, and others are planning to follow suit. If you listen to what they're saying you begin to understand the forces that are warping their best judgement, choosing not what is best for children, but what is best politically and economically (at least in the short term).

This week New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was the latest to jump on this crazy train bandwagon, coming out in favor of subjecting kindergarteners to standardized testing. According to Newsday:

The proposed new requirement . . . aims in part at helping the state win an estimated $100 million in grants offered by the Obama administration . . .

And Cuomo's spokesperson, puts it in even harsher economic terms:

"Investing in early learning programs could return as much as $7 for every dollar spent," . . . referring to possible savings in remedial education.

Cold economic rationale aside, what really jumps out at me is the phrase "remedial education." What? These are 5-year-olds. What kind of remedial education are they talking about? I suppose it's literacy and math, but what can they possibly be doing to determine that incoming kindergarteners need "remedial" anything? If they're talking about social skills, maybe I get it, but I'm confident this isn't what they're talking about. No, they are talking about continuing the dangerous trend of force-feeding very young children on a curriculum of math and literacy that is totally inappropriate for preschoolers.

One hope is that the state can use some of the money to establish quality ratings for such centers, which would serve as useful guides for parents.

And there you have it, the bottom line. We will now be putting pressure on even preschool teachers to start in on the drill-and-kill approach so favored by the corporate education reformers. Now even our 3 and 4-year-olds will be subjected to the dull tedium of a test-prep curriculum, the kind that has been steadily pushing history, social studies, civics, humanities, arts, PE, language, drama, music, dance, and science onto the fringes, if they are even taught at all any more. The kind of "education" that is about filling empty vessels instead of igniting flames. The kind of "education" that narrowly focuses on math and literacy, while killing off every spark of creativity. The kind of "education" in which thinking for oneself is a detriment, where test taking skills are the highest value. The kind of "education" designed to indoctrinate workers rather than produce citizens capable of taking full part in their own self-governance.

This is just another example of how money is perverting our democracy. This is the kind of indoctrination (it can hardly be called education) that large corporations want as they prepare for the low-wage, long-hour future that they predict for us. As the middle class continues to disappear, as social-mobility (at least upward social mobility) becomes the stuff of legend, and as the gap between haves and have nots widens, there becomes less and less need for actual citizens who might think too creatively, voice their own opinions too loudly, or otherwise object to calls of "austerity" from us and prosperity for them. That, like the Occupy Wall Street movement, would be bad for business. For the same reason, we will never get meaningful environmental legislation (despite poll after poll showing Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of it) because those paying for our politicians don't want it. For the same reason, we will never make any progress on social justice, poverty, health care, or infrastructure, all things the American people want. We will never get those things until we force corporate money out of politics and the only way I see that happening is public financing of elections. That way our political representatives can spend their days actually serving the people instead of dialing for dollars. This step won't by itself completely eliminate the corporate influence, but it will mean that those representatives who actually want to serve the people are freed up to do so, and those committed to serving corporate interests will no longer be able to hide.


Last night I was at Westlake Center as I have been almost every day for the past two weeks, where the Seattle branch of the Occupy Wall Street movement is holding its own. I knew I would run into my teenaged daughter and a few of her friends there, but I was both shocked and pleased at how many of them had come down to check things out. It was heartening. As we waited for the General Assembly to start, I started chatting with Mallory, a young middle school teacher from a well-regarded school who teaches "remedial" reading. I asked her about her students. Every one of them, as I could have predicted, either have parents who are illiterate, have learning disabilities, or come from homes where English is a second language. I asked, "Do you ever have students who don't fall into one of those categories?" She answered, "Never." In other words, we don't need tests to figure out which kids are at risk, which is what the kindergarten testing advocates claim they are for. Teachers already know who these kids are. If children don't fall into one of these categories, they will learn to read, standardized test or not. If logic prevailed, we would put our efforts into identifying these children early and help them, rather than instituting an entire regime of testing that warps the entire educational system and results in a strict and narrow educational experience for all.

I used to think that we were just dealing with misguided crusaders and dilettantes, well-intended folks striving to give back, but no longer. There are powerful, wealthy people who want our children to be less well-educated, more obedient, and less likely to question; they are looking to our schools to create a citizenry that is so hard at work keeping their heads above water that they don't have the time, or even the ability or knowledge, to speak for themselves. And now they are attempting to teach those nose-to-the-grindstone habits to our youngest citizens. I say no.

This is why I continue to stand with the 99 percent. 

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Saya said...

I cannot agree with you more. I just don't understand why... I mean, I do understand, that money talks, but... I just don't understand why anyone would subject their children to this type of "education". If you want the best proven thing for your children, why would they put this type of system in place, money or no money?

I am facing kind of sort of same thing at my work. They are looking at money so much that they don't care about the children who we are serving. Children are not just numbers! What's more frustrating is our top bosses (I work for military facility by the way) are NOT education field. They are business people, who has no kids, or has children but they take them elsewhere. How messed up is that?

We have to keep fighting, keep raising our voices for our children!

Anonymous said...

Teacher Tom, you are powerful when you get political. This is amazing stuff. I hope you will keep it up.

Anonymous said...

Yep....I know exactly how you feel. And after all these years in a public school, I'm about ready to throw in the towel. I see where it's going and it's not looking good. I did figure out how to "prepare" my 4 year olds for taking the Dibels letter recognition test. "They" wanted me to teach the "hop over" strategy. Hmmmm...sounds like hopscotch to me. So every now and then we throw some letters down and hop scotch to them. Of course the powers that be did not make the connection. Oh well, new dogs don't learn the old tricks very easily either. Thank goodness I can retire someday soon :)

Aunt Annie said...

(Looking for the 'like' button, Facebook style)

I only wish that I could join you. Living in the middle of nowhere as I do, I can only see this happening from afar and weep, or despair. And resist mightily at the workplace.

Anonymous said...

As a Kindergarten teacher in NY state I can only bang my head in frustration. It has been so disheartening and I struggle to find a balance for my students. Sometimes I just don't know what to do.

Kristina Hansen said...

Teacher Tom, I share your frustration, we know better, yet we provide kids with short sighted education. I ran a small play based preschool in NY. I thought it would be good for my program to collaborate with my local elementary school to become a state funded UPK program. THe RFP that was put out was based on DAP principles. When it came time to sign the contract one stipulation was added : I would have to bus all the 4 year old (3X year) to the local elementary school to have them take the computerized STAR early literacy program. I refused, and tried to educate them on DAP. But because they need the reports and pie charts to show 'progress'they would not relent. I told them my kids were not for sale. Unfortunately the local head start program did sell their kids and those poor kids are bussed over for testing on the computer. 4 year olds! Really?

Carrie said...

I think many of us feel as you do and many are fighting back at this point too I feel in our community the push down is now trying to push back up (though it's not going very fast). In Michigan all these things are occurring of course because everyone wants to get their hands on the "race to the top" money.

The kindergarten testing is supposed to begin this year at round-ups. Supposedly this information is only supposed to be used for creating a baseline of where the kids are coming in at. We are a little skeptical of that though and fear it will be used for placements.

As for the quality ratings, so far I don't see this system effecting curriculum. The way it's being implemented here is that you have to work your way up from a 1 rating to a 4. In order to get to the 4 rating you have to have a reviewer come to your center. At this point, "they" are using the PQA to determine if you are a quality program. So while they aren't pushing the math and literacy more they are essentially pushing a specific curriculum. There are many things rated by the PQA that our program does not do since we do not employ High Scope. There is talks that Head Start programs will be able to use the CLASS observation tool but that's hearsay right now. It's frustrating to say the least.

Emily said...

Thank you. Well said. I am in total agreement and stand with the 99%

Akemanartist said...

I don't like the idea of having my kids tested by anyone, because it's not like the testing I did as a kid, I scored high on language and reading but very low on the math, I got deeply agitated anytime I had to do math, I knew I was bad at it and I would fail, I usually did or at least a C since there was stuff I knew but it was a big self esteem blower. My daughter that I homeschool I would NOT have her tested in that way, I can tell she is learning in her way and having her focus on a test for a long time invites frustration so for her her learning cannot be measured in testing but in how she applies what she has learned. She counts money very well, and does math well, her reading is better but she doesn't read out loud very well but she has good comphrension she is obviously intelligent but any kid put through the stress of testing in the way they do now just ruins their desire to learn. And testing doesn't teach how to think, it just tells you to give the right answers. I teach her to buy smart, think about needs and wants, I don't want her to be a mindless consumer, I want her to make informed choices. I want her to think for herself. Schools would be much better if they taught kids to think, not just parrot out the right answers all the time. I don't like mass testing on any grade level.

kristin @ preschool daze said...


(and i know that has been my comment many times...)

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

Tom, It is saddening to read about the testing of kindergarten children.

Early childhood educators have the knowledge, and know how to access children's development and needs. Yes, sometimes of course certain children require help, for developmental or behavioral concerns, but this is not what you are describing.

The testing of young children academically is absurd, and so alien to ECE principals as to be bewildering.

I believe, that money should go into quality ECE centers, with more professionals, and more spaces for children. Businessmen have no place in accessing our young, precious children.
Thanks for this post.

I'm hoping government will start listening to the 99%.


K said...

Our kindergartner was expected to come to school knowing all of his letters, most of his letter sounds and counting to 20. Then, he sits in his chair almost the entire day - doing worksheets and coloring inside the lines.

We redshirted him... at not quite five, he was not mature enough to be successful in that environment.

He is supposed to be reading by the end of the year.

Neither of his well-educated parents were reading in kindergarten. We did ok. What did we do instead? Played a lot, explored, learned to like learning.

Which model seems better?

Jess said...

The change needs to happen from the inside out. Parents need to take a stand and show responsibility for their districts and their children's education. Behind the system there are real people, real people who have the capacity to think and reason. When parents lend a voice in favor of what's best for their children and their community's children, change can happen. Parents are the ones who start Charter schools, Parents are the ones who are responsible for being their children's first teacher, parents are the ones who have a right to choose what kind of education is best for their child. Parent's need to stop complaining and start acting to effect change.

Research in neuroscience, psychiatry, psychology and education are all supporting early childhood development which includes exposure to academic components. The problem is that early childhood education isn't always based in scientific research. No, children should not be sitting around doing worksheets, education needs to involve movement, it needs to be holistic, connecting the mind and the body. For the development of the human personality, positive social characteristics, development of the will, freedom and independence all depend on the PROPER education of the young child.

There are great gains to be made by children who learn to read, write and manipulate numbers at a young age, but it has to be done in the right way. It is not forced upon them, and it does not replace PLAY. It is done in a way that cultivates life long learners, the kind of people who WILL CHANGE THE WORLD.

There is a lot of potential for good from the Race to the Top grants, if the money is put into the right hands. All the research shows that children who have preschool experience have more favorable outcomes in elementary classrooms, so why not make it accessible to all children? The first 6 years of a persons life are truly the most important. It is when the entire personality develops.

And lastly, as far as the bit with "remedial education" I doubt whoever that came from was talking strictly about kindergartners. Remedial education takes place on all levels, and it is a result of children who were poorly prepared in their preceding stage of development, and they arrive at the subsequent stage needing remediation. I think that was intended to be a positive statement that money could be saved by funding early childhood education as a preventative for remediation.

Testing is another whole subject. Children should not be tested, but there should be qualitative and quantitative assessment in place of testing, particularly in early childhood.

Teacher Tom said...

@Jess . . . I agree with much of what you write, but you're going to need to actually provide links to the "research" that supports exposing very young children to "academic components." Those of us who work in education are still waiting for this supposed research to actually be produced, especially data that finds any benefit to early reading, writing, and math skills. All the research I've ever seen demonstrates the opposite of what you assert; that there is absolutely no connection between acquiring these skills early and future academic attainment/ability.

In case you are not aware RTTT funds are only being granted to districts and schools that buy into the entire RTTT testing regime, including basing the bulk of a teachers performance review on these tests. There are so many factors involved in these tests that have nothing to do with teachers and outstanding teachers have been and will be fired for results totally outside of their control. This stuff is WELL researched -- in fact, you can't find a single study that does not support this.

I completely agree with you about the role of parents, but I stand staunchly opposed to weakening our public schools by sucking money out to fund charter schools, most of which wind up being for-profit enterprises focused on money, not education, and that do not admit ALL students. Besides, the actual research done on charter schools shows that their students, on average, actually perform worse that children in regular public schools. I want our efforts focused on providing public education for all.

I share your commitment to a more holistic approach to education, one that involves things like movement, but RTTT, NCLB, and other corporate reform efforts are targeted at just the opposite, leaving our schools as places that teach literacy and math primarily, leaving out all those disciplines that would actually make education holistic.

Centuries of research and practice are being thrown out by these guys in favor of unproven, untried, and outright misguided efforts.

Anonymous said...

So if early learning produces absolutely no gains and does nothing, then what is happening to all these well-off kids of educated parents in early childhood that gives them this head start in school and life? Do you believe it's purely advantage and privilege? Because I think that's part of it, but that there is a lot more. The evidence is out there that good preschool is a good thing, if by a good thing you mean that it makes kids less likely to drop out of high school and enter the criminal justice system, which is good enough in my book. Abcedarian Project, Perry Preschool--I believe that is what is being referred to with the $7 for every dollar saved. These are high-quality preschool programs for poor kids, surely play-based (not arguing against play-based), but surely with an academic element as well. I hope they don't do gobs of testing, but I imagine they assess and I imagine they do introduce letters, counting, etc.

We know there's a big gap for kids, little tiny kids, starting before they even come to school. How do you think we should handle that? I'm very interested in your thinking and read your blog all the time, but I also am a social science writer and researcher, and I feel you are reading the literature selectively. Yes, yes, play and open-ended exploration are very important! But man, there is more to it, too.

Oh, and also--I think the statement that the only kids who ever need remedial reading are kids with "have parents who are illiterate, have learning disabilities, or come from homes where English is a second language" is just plain inaccurate. There are a LOT of kids reading at only a basic level. Heck, the average adult in the US reads at the 8th grade level. There are failures in teaching, there are kids who struggle, outside of those categories, for darn sure.

Teacher Tom said...

@Anonymous . . . Early learning, indeed does produce "gains," and a good quality preschool produces long term benefits. What the evidence shows, however, is that the early introduction of "academics" is not the reason for these gains. The researchers conducting the Perry School study, which you reference, have concluded that while IQ benefits fade with time, attributes like motivation, sociability, and the ability to work with others are the true gains that last a lifetime.

As for "more to it" than open-ended exploration, I'm still waiting to see the research that demonstrates that (i.e., research that comes from scientists and not think tanks). There is more than a 100 years worth of science supporting the primacy of play. I'm hardly reading the research selectively. There simply IS no research that demonstrates that the corporate, drill-and-kill model is in any way superior to a play-based model, except when it comes to passing standardized tests. I and others have been asking for this evidence for years, yet no one can produce it.

Also, the last time I checked, if you calculate our average reading level without including children whose parents are illiterate, those who have learning disabilities, or come from homes where English is a second language, the US reading comprehension level is 2nd in the world. I stand by my assertion.