Guess What? Common Core Kindergarten Is Not the Savior of the Poor

Erika Sanzi recently published a critique of Sarah Blaine’s article about the Common Core standards for early education, particularly kindergarten, being “developmentally inappropriate. Sanzi starts off her article stating that she felt torn and wished that she could side with Blaine since, “Like Ms. Blaine, I look at all of this from a place of privilege.”  Yet Sanzi goes on to support the developmental appropriateness of Common Core for the early grades.

Sanzi claims, “There is much wisdom to be found in the voices of educators on this question of developmental appropriateness.” Then she cites one English arts specialist, Pat D’Alfonso, as evidence. It makes me wonder if Sanzi ever read the Joint Statement of Early Childhood Health and Education Professionals on the Common Core Standards Initiative Issued by the Alliance for Childhood that was issued March 2, 2010. This joint statement was not signed by one  “English arts specialist” but rather over 300 educators and health professionals, many highly renowned in their fields, see their statement, names and credentials here.

Simply stated, Sanzi just like many legislators, education businesses like Pearson, school boards, and administrators have ignored the wisdom of those who understand early learning best. These standards were not designed with any regard to our youngest and most impressionable learners and only time will tell the true damaging effects of these irresponsible reforms.

But what makes me angry is the claims that these Common Core standards, despite being deemed inappropriate by over 300 highly knowledgeable people, who have experience studying and working with young children, have been touted as the savior of the poor in America. It is utterly ridiculous to suggest that somehow these standards are the antidote to the vast achievement gap between rich and poor, between people of color and those of European descent (or however you want to word it), and even between regular education and special education.

Poor children in America are in crisis and kindergarten is where major triage begins in order to compensate for what most agree is a 30 million word gap during their early years. Reading early and often is the antidote that can fill the gap and put students from widely different backgrounds on much more equal footing.

In addition, by requiring students from the beginning to use evidence from the text when writing and speaking, Common Core allows for students to depend far less on their prior knowledge and, in turn, quickly begins to mitigate the impact of having had less conversation or vocabulary rich experiences in early childhood.

In addition, by requiring students from the beginning to use evidence from the text when writing and speaking, Common Core allows for students to depend far less on their prior knowledge and, in turn, quickly begins to mitigate the impact of having had less conversation or vocabulary rich experiences in early childhood. (Sanzi)

Reading early and often does help. But sadly there is less and less time for reading in classrooms where rapid skill acquisition reigns.  What the kids are doing in most kindergartens is a far cry from children making up for lost time being read to and engaging in conversations. It is dominated by worksheets and assessments  If the PARCC test does extend to kindergarten next year, then you better believe kindergarten will also include typing practice.

Most schools with low-income students don’t have many books.  Especially since so much money is being spent on technology upgrades and training in order for the kids to be tested by the new PARCC test. Chicago public schools are refusing district wide, because it simply costs more money than they have to lay out. Sanzi is naive to think that this new set of standards and the inevitable (profitable) tests that will be tied to them will have the power to magically lift children out of poverty. In fact, it runs the risk of turning children off to reading, learning and school at an early age. The best motivating factor for reading success is the desire and love of reading. Children need positive associations not close reading and critical analysis when they are 5, before reading becomes work it must be loved. Why squander the opportunity?

But simply waiting until our children reach a testing year, and refusing the test will not solve the problem either. There has been a fundamental shift in how education is viewed and sadly that view is inextricably entwined with money. The real savior of the poor in this country will not come from the Common Core or lack there of. It will not come from taking the PARCC or refusing it. Starting from day one of kindergarten developing the skill of citing the text, will not make up for less conversation, but teaching parents how important it is to speak and read to young children will.

If we want all children to have a quality education, it will only come from the parents and teachers working together with their communities to demand better. Better schools and better education only comes with sustained hard work. Each community has its own strengths ans weaknesses that the people who live there know all about. The key is to start small and gradually grow more community education associations, parent groups, committees, and have those groups work together to create positive change one step at a time.

It isn’t a magic bullet but rather a long battle that will take blood sweat and tears. But then, with every small victory the community, school, and children grow stronger…together.

Common Core lays out the goals, but certainly doesn’t dictate how to get there. It’s hard to believe that beginning to read early ever hurt anyone but it’s near impossible to deny that failing to do so can quite literally ruin a child’s life. (Sanzi)

The goal needs to be less about when or how a child learns to read and more about how we can inspire and motivate children to want to read and to want to go to school everyday. No one would argue that not learning to read can ruin a child’s life. But I would argue that it is almost as bad to not show children how to love to read.

It is a crime not to inspire them to do more than perform well on the arbitrary, poorly designed tests that we allow for-profit companies to create for them. No child should feel like a failure at age 5, 6 , or 7. They shouldn’t cry when it’s time to do their homework. They deserve more and it is up to the adults to give that to them.

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My older son’s story about reading to his baby sister.

A Response to Rob Furman: Elementary Education Reform is Big Business

Access to universal preschool sounds like such a lofty idea.

What better way to level the playing field than making sure that our youngest learners get an equal opportunity to have a good head start in life? Who could deny that some children in America are experiencing preschools that are nurturing environments of play-based learning, while others are getting nothing but shoddy day care centers or babysitters with TV remotes in hand? Anyone who wants to deny children quality preschool must be out of touch with reality, right?

Wrong.

Yes, children come to kindergarten with vastly different abilities and habits as elementary principal Rob Furman suggests in his article, “4 Surprising Reasons Why Preschool and Kindergarten Must Change” published by Huffington Post. ” As an elementary principal I have seen the difficulty kindergarten students have starting school when they have had no Pre K experience. Most students are soaring academically, while others (those without Pre K experience) are trying to learn how to hang up their coat or to sit and raise their hand if they need the teacher’s attention.” 

But the reason that some kids come to school unprepared has more to do with the experiences they are receiving at home, not at preschool. Some children are read to every night before bed, are taken to Mommy and Me music classes like Music Together or Gymboree, are fed healthy food regularly, are able to safely play outside in their backyards or at nearby playgrounds, are spoken to with kindness and encouraged to ask questions, and are raised in peaceful supportive home environments. Those kids excel. They would excel academically and behaviorally regardless of preschool, because they feel safe, loved, and are free to explore.

Other children are not so lucky. Without paid maternity leave in America, many moms and dads who want to stay home with their young children are not able to afford it in today’s economy. Therefore, more and more children are placed in day care centers from an early age than ever before. Many American children of all financial situations live in homes where stress levels are high. Parent expectations are high from choosing the safest car seat to looming college tuition.

High stress careers, financial woes, marital problems, health problems, depression,drug abuse, an endless pursuit of perfection and so many other issues drive many parents into survival mode. Families aren’t eating dinner together anymore and children aren’t playing kickball in the streets like I did as a child. Older siblings are inundated with extracurricular activities and sports that demand more and more of our children’s time at younger and younger ages. The younger children in families are raised on fast food in car seats, watching DVD’s as they are shuffled from practice to practice and activity to activity. Television and other electronic devices have become a savior to busy parents. They keep the kids busy, so they can check Facebook or watch whatever is on the DVR to decompress from their own stress.

And what about our nation’s poorest families? Child hunger and homelessness are rarely spoken about unless it is the holidays, yet for too many children it is a daily struggle. Gang and drug violence plague poor neighborhoods where the media rarely reports on the harsh reality of youth growing up there. I know because I have taught in an elementary school where kids had to leave out of the back door because there was a shooting out front and a teacher and a principal were assaulted inside during school hours.

Universal preschool would help those kids yes, but what would help more would be real progress in the war on drugs and real solutions to ending gun violence. It would help if their parents were educated and read to them or just spoke to them with  patience and kindness. It would help if they had safe places to play without fear of abuse, abduction, or violence. It would help if they had books in their homes and in their hands. It would help if they were sung to or hugged and told that they are special.

Furman’s article speaks volumes about how misguided even some elementary school principals are about how children learn best.

“Given the new expectations for our kindergarten students, Pre K programs must develop the pre-learning experiences necessary for reading and math readiness. I often hear our parents saying, ‘What has happened to play time in kindergarten?’ Well, sadly playtime in kindergarten is gone. But playtime is perfect for our Pre K programs ( Fact Check) Pre K should now accommodate all those very important social skills so necessary for student success in later years. That is not to say that our children will not have fun in kindergarten. We always want to be mindful of developmentally appropriate learning experiences for our children. Pre K experiences will be more focused on imaginative play, appropriate social skills and academic readiness.”

You cannot say “Well, sadly playtime in kindergarten is gone,” and, “We always want to be mindful of developmentally appropriate learning experiences for our children,” in the same breath and not be a hypocrite.

The fact is that universal preschool and compulsory “advanced” 1st grade kindergarten are not going to do anything to advance the academic potential of ANY child. Not if the curriculum is based on reading and math readiness that comes in the form of worksheets, computer programs and testing and at the expense of recess.

Kids learn math, reading, and social skills by having a safe and nurturing environment to play. All these new mandates and reforms has brought is exactly the opposite.

Florida parents are fighting to keep recess in their elementary schools because the districts are claiming that with the new rigorous Common Core standards that there is no time to play.

 http://insider.foxnews.com/2015/01/14/florida-elementary-schools-cut-out-recess-blame-common-core

(But really, I think this is Jeb Bush posturing for a presidential run and coming out against the Common Core. Once again, our children have become a political springboard.)

Education reform is full of rhetoric right now,so parents need to be more informed and vigilant than ever. If you are not sure if this is true, just take a moment to read what an executive at Pearson (the company that makes and reaps huge profits from the PARCC assessment and many other high stakes assessments) has to say about why it is worth it for our nation to have spent $1.7 billion on testing in 2012. With the new obsession with expanding and redesigning high stakes tests, that number will only grow.

http://researchnetwork.pearson.com/educator-effectiveness/is-1-7-billion-a-lot-or-a-little-to-spend-on-testing

Remember in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz what happened when Dorothy finally saw who was behind the curtain. It was not at all what she expected.

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”
― L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Pay attention to the motivation behind these education reforms. Make them take off their masks. They don’t care about our children.

P.S. Rob Furman makes a lot of money off of education reform too. http://www.furmanr.com

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Common Kindergarten

Today I had a conference with my second oldest son’s kindergarten teacher.

On Back to School Night, when I first laid eyes on her, I knew she was a kindergarten teacher that I would like my son to have. Her warmth radiates from her like a little yellow sun in a child’s drawing. The sound of her voice singing, “Stop, Look, and Listen,” makes you want to stop wiggling in your chair and pay attention.

The conference went well. My boy knows his letters and numbers. He is a beginning reader. He has even started writing stories!  I was so happy to see his invented spellings describing penguins from the classic story Mr. Popper’s Penguins that we have just finished reading at home. The teacher readily explained how she was challenging him to grow even though he has progressed past what the class is learning as a whole.

I was a proud mother, but I had to ask about the testing. Had the PARCC test impacted the way kindergarten was being taught? She said, “No but the Common Core has.” She described how now the children were expected to learn so much more in such a short period of time (our district still has half day kindergarten).

Well, education reformers would see this as progress. They claim that kids need to start young preparing to be college and career ready. But when I mentioned science to my son’s teacher, she admitted that there just isn’t really time for it, nor for social studies either. (Do people not study these subjects in college or have careers in these fields?) These subjects have long been marginalized in elementary school, but with so much stress being put on children learning more and more reading and math skills earlier and earlier; these subjects are getting even less attention.

Curriculum companies know this and have started marketing “integrated” science and history literacy programs. This means that instead of a cohesive science or history curriculum these textbooks include a passage here and there of science and history-related topics. So if they read The Hungry Caterpillar by, Eric Carle, .they might then read an informational text about caterpillars. That ought to cover it, right?

Wrong.

The best part about science is inquiry. Experience, experiments, and observations pique a child’s imagination and sense of wonder. Those raw feelings are the most effective impetus of learning.  Let a child hold a worm, feel moss, or build a house of sticks. Those experiences lead to questions. They drive children towards books about nature. They give them something real to write about rather than the same canned prompts.

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The same is true for history. A love of history comes from experience and wonder about people and places. Map skills are best learned by following a map. And field trips and artifacts have the ability to transport children to other worlds in ways that a short informational text cannot.

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Am I unhappy with the job that my son’s teacher is doing? No, because given the pressures of time and the demands of the Common Core, she has managed to inject joy and authentic learning into her classroom. She said that she is grateful that she is still able to give the kids some time to play. But I have to wonder what will happen to the pockets of joy that she is able to create, if and when the PARCC testing begins in kindergarten. How long until the block corner becomes a long table of laptops and recess a stand and stretch break?

In the race to get ahead, America is only falling behind. The answer to how to get children to be critical thinkers and higher achievers is to get them excited about learning, not shut them down with tests and test prep.

When I see articles like this one about forest kindergartens, it makes me ashamed that I settle for sending my child to school everyday, knowing that his “trouble focusing” has little to do with his behavior, being a boy or even his maturity.

It is his body and mind crying out for more.