DEY’s Nancy Carlsson-Paige receives Hero in Education Award from FairTest

This evening DEY’s Nancy Carlsson-Paige was awarded the Deborah W. Meier Hero in Education Award by our colleagues at FairTest. We are deeply honored to share Nancy’s acceptance speech here:

Thank you FairTest for this Deborah Meier Hero in Education Award. FairTest does such great advocacy and education around fair and just testing practices. This award carries the name of one of my heroes in education, Deborah Meier—she’s a force for justice and democracy in education. I hope that every time this award is given, it will allow us to once again pay tribute to Deb.  Also, I feel privileged to be accepting this honor alongside Lani Guinier.


When I was invited to be here tonight, I thought about the many people who work for justice and equity in education who could also be standing here.  So I am thinking of all of them now and I accept this award on their behalf—all the educators dedicated to children and what’s fair and best for them.


It’s wonderful to see all of you here—so many family and friends, comrades in this struggle to reclaim excellent public education for all– not just some–of our children.


I have loved my life’s work– teaching teachers about how young children think, how they learn, how they develop socially, emotionally, morally. I’ve been fascinated with the theories and science of my field and seeing it expressed in the actions and the play of children.


So never in my wildest dreams could I have foreseen the situation we find ourselves in today.


Where education policies that do not reflect what we know about how young children learn could be mandated and followed.  We have decades of research in child development and neuroscience that tell us that young children learn actively—they have to move, use their senses, get their hands on things, interact with other kids and teachers, create, invent. But in this twisted time, young children starting public Pre-K at the age of four are expected to learn through “rigorous instruction.”


And never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that we would have to defend children’s right to play.

Play is the primary engine of human growth; it’s universal–as much as walking and talking. Play is the way children build ideas and how they make sense of their experience and feel safe.  Just look at all the math concepts at work in the intricate buildings of kindergartners.  Or watch a 4-year old put on a cape and pretend to be a superhero after witnessing some scary event.


But play is disappearing from classrooms.  Even though we know play is learning for young kids, we are seeing it shoved aside to make room for academic instruction and “rigor.”


I could not have foreseen in my wildest dreams that we would have to fight for classrooms for young kids that are developmentally appropriate. Instead of active, hands-on learning, children now sit in chairs for far too much time getting drilled on letters and numbers.  Stress levels are up among young kids.  Parents and teachers tell me:  children worry that they don’t know the right answers; they have nightmares, they pull out their eyelashes, they cry because they don’t want to go to school.  Some people call this child abuse and I can’t disagree.


I could not have foreseen in my wildest dreams that we would be up against pressure to test and assess young kids throughout the year often in great excess—often administering multiple tests to children in kindergarten and even Pre-K.  Now, when young children start school, they often spend their first days not getting to know their classroom and making friends.  They spend their first days getting tested.  Here are words from one mother as this school year began:


My daughter’s first day of kindergarten — her very first introduction to elementary school — consisted almost entirely of assessment. She was due at school at 9:30, and I picked her up at 11:45. In between, she was assessed by five different teachers, each a stranger, asking her to perform some task.


By the time I picked her up, she did not want to talk about what she had done in school, but she did say that she did not want to go back. She did not know the teachers’ names. She did not make any friends. Later that afternoon, as she played with her animals in her room, I overheard her drilling them on their numbers and letters.


The most important competencies in young children can’t be tested—we all know this.   Naming letters and numbers is superficial and almost irrelevant in relation to the capacities we want to help children develop: self-regulation, problem solving ability, social and emotional competence, imagination, initiative, curiosity, original thinking—these capacities make or break success in school and life and they can’t be reduced to numbers.


Yet these days, all the money and resources, the time dedicated to professional development, they go to tooling teachers up to use the required assessments.  Somehow the data gleaned from these tests is supposed to be more valid than a teacher’s own ability to observe children and understand their skills in the context of their whole development in the classroom.


The first time I saw for myself what was becoming of many of the nation’s early childhood classrooms was when I visited a program in a low income community in north Miami.  Most of the children were on free and reduced lunch.


There were ten classrooms–kindergarten and Pre-K.  The program’s funding depended on test scores, so—no surprise—teachers taught to the test.  Kids who got low scores, I was told, got extra drills in reading and math and didn’t get to go to art.  They used a computer program to teach 4 and 5 year olds how to Bubble.  One teacher complained to me that some children go outside the lines.


In one of the kindergartens I visited, the walls were barren and so was the whole room.  The teacher was testing one little boy at a computer at the side of the room.  There was no classroom aide.  The other children were sitting at tables copying words from the chalk board.  The words were:  “No talking.  Sit in your seat. Hands to Yourself.”

The teacher kept shouting at them from her testing corner:  Be quiet!  No talking!


Most of the children looked scared or disengaged, and one little boy was sitting alone.  He was quietly crying.  I will never forget how these children looked or how it felt to watch them, I would say, suffering in this context that was such a profound mismatch with their needs.


It’s in low-income, under-resourced communities like this one where children are most subjected to heavy doses of teacher-led drills and tests.  Not like in wealthier suburbs where kids have the opportunity to go to early childhood programs that have play, the arts, and project-based learning.  It’s poverty—the elephant in the room—that is the root cause of this disparity.


A few months ago, I was alarmed to read a report from the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights showing that more than 8,000 children from public preschools across the country were suspended at least once in a school year, many more than once. First of all, who suspends a preschooler?  Why and for what?  The very concept is bizarre and awful.  But 8,000?  And then to keep reading the report to see that a disproportionate number of those suspended preschoolers were low income, black boys.


There is a connection, I know, between these suspensions and ed reform policies: Children in low income communities are enduring play deficient classrooms where they get heavy doses of direct teaching and testing.  They have to sit still, be quiet in their seats and comply.  Many young children can’t do this and none should have to.


I came home from that visit to the classrooms in North Miami in despair.  But fortunately, the despair turned quickly to organizing.  With other educators we started our nonprofit Defending the Early Years.  We have terrific early childhood leaders with us (some are here tonight: Deb Meier, Geralyn McLaughlin, Diane Levin and Ayla Gavins).  We speak in a unified voice for young children.


We publish reports, write op eds, make videos and send them out on YouTube, we speak and do interviews every chance we get.


We’ve done it all on a shoestring.  It’s almost comical:  The Gates Foundation has spent more than $200 million dollars just to promote the Common Core.  Our budget at Defending the Early Years is .006% of that.


We collaborate with other organizations.  FairTest has been so helpful to us. And we also collaborate with –Network for Public Education, United Opt Out, many parent groups, Citizens for Public Schools, Bad Ass Teachers, Busted Pencils Radio, Save Our Schools, Alliance for Childhood and ECE PolicyWorks —There’s a powerful network out there– of educators, parents and students—and we see the difference we are making.


We all share a common vision:  Education is a human right and every child deserves one.  An excellent, free education where learning is meaningful– with arts, play, engaging projects, and the chance to learn citizenship skills so that children can one day participate—actively and consciously–in this increasingly fragile democracy.

Geralyn McLaughlin, Deborah Meier, Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Lani Guinier

Geralyn McLaughlin, Deborah Meier, Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Lani Guinier








DEY at NAEYC’s Annual Conference

Thursday, November 19th from 3 – 4:30 pm at the Orange County Convention Center, Room W110B.  DEY will be hosting a session titled Cognitive Development and the Challenge of Common Core Standards at NAEYC’s Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida. With the Common Core State Standards impacting many early childhood classrooms across the country, teachers are faced with the complicated task of meeting the needs of young learners who are challenged by the new expectations and the push-down of academics. This session will draw on the expertise of leaders in the field who will share their thinking around the math and literacy standards and how these relate to cognitive development theory and what we know about how young children learn. Diane Levin will be the facilitator and Lilian Katz, Constance Kamii and Joan Almon will be our presenters.
Dr. Denisha Jones will speak at DEY’s 3rd Annual Organizing Meeting for Early Childhood Activists
Vinetta C. Jones, Ph.D.Friday, November 20th from 6 – 7:30 pm in the Hilton Orlando Hotel, Lake Hart Room. Dr. Jones will share her expertise in organizing and advocating for young children. We will be hosting what promises to be an inspiring meeting! Download and share our flyer. Please RSVP to

Preschool Suspensions: Young Children Who Are Being Left Behind

DEY advisers Diane Levin and Denisha Jones have joined forces to write Preschool Suspensions: Young Children Who Are Being Left Behind, published this week at the Huffington Post. Here is a snippet:

Young children have now begun the new school year, many for the first time. How many will not be allowed to finish the school year due to being expelled or miss significant time in school due to suspension for unacceptable behavior or for violating some mandatory school policy? The most recent figures available come from a 2011-2012 study from the US Department of Education found that more than 8,000 public preschool students were suspended at least once, and almost half of those children more than once.


As early childhood educators who train teachers to promote the optimal development, learning, and overall wellbeing of all young children, we read these figures with deep concern. And we have many urgent questions that are not being adequately addressed at any level of society.


• Who are these children who cannot make it through a preschool program year? The Department of Education study found that a disproportionate number were black, low income, boys, disabled and/or English-language learners. These patterns represent many of the disparities that will continue throughout the school years and beyond.


We urge you to click here and read the entire essay at the Huffington Post and to join Defending the Early Years in working towards equity and the protection of the rights and needs of all young children.

DEY Fall Events and Information

DEY at NAEYC’s Annual Conference
 Here at DEY we strive to understand the complications and confusions that many of you are facing around the implementation of the Common Core. To support early educators and to help shed some light on this critical topic, DEY will be hosting a session titledCognitive Development and the Challenge of Common Core Standards at NAEYC’s Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida. Diane Levin will be the facilitator and Lilian Katz, Constance Kamii and Joan Almon will be our presenters. As soon as we know the time/date of this sessions – and other DEY related sessions – we will let you know. The conference dates are November 18 – 21.
Dr. Denisha Jones to speak at DEY’s 3rd Annual Organizing Meeting for Early Childhood Activists on Friday, Nov. 20th
Vinetta C. Jones, Ph.D.We are thrilled to have Dr. Denisha Jones of Howard University joining us for our third annual organizing meeting of early childhood activists. Dr. Jones will share her expertise in organizing and advocating for young children. We will be hosting what promises to be an inspiring meeting on Friday, November 20th from 6:00 PM – 7:30 pm. Exact location in Orlando, Florida to be announced – so stay tuned.
FairTest is pleased to honor Harvard Law Professor Lani Guinier and Lesley College Professor Emeritus Nancy Carlsson-Paige with the Deborah W. Meier Hero in Education awards. Please join us for the ceremony to recognize these two fighters for equity and high quality in education and society.

When: Nov 11, 2015, from 6:00 – 8:30 PM

Where: Multicultural Arts Center, Cambridge, MA
More details coming soon.
Look for an op-ed on preschool suspension from DEY’s Diane Levin and Denisha Jones – we will share the link as soon as we have it. Also, we will be publishing our Open Letter to NAEYC in response to their spring reportDevelopmentally Appropriate Practice and the Common Core State Standards: Framing the Issues. Stay tuned!
Many thanks to those of you who have already taken advantage of our summer special! This offer below will be available through September 21st – don’t miss this chance to support DEY and receive our research-based  advocacy reports!
  • Donate $50.00 – we will send you a copy of Lively Minds!
  • Donate $100.00 – we will send you two reports – Lively Minds and Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose
  • Donate $200 or more – we will send you all three reports! Lively Minds, Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose PLUS Kamii’s paper on the CCSS math standards K-3!

We thank you for your continued support!

Tell Congress: Keep Federal Accountability Mandates Out of a New Education Law

The following message from our allies at FairTest is a critical one:

Now is the time to make sure a new federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is the best possible replacement of “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) that we can win at this time.

The House and Senate conference committee to reconcile their respective versions of ESEA will begin work soon. A new law that ends federally mandated accountability will be an important step forward, even though neither house reduced the test-every-kid-every-year mandate.
There’s still a real danger that diehard test-and-punish proponents could insert destructive “NCLB-lite” accountability provisions into the compromise bill. We need to stop that threat in its tracks! At the same time, we need to protect the right to opt out and encourage better assessments. Your letter will help ensure victory on these critical issues.

Send this letter or call or fax your Senators and Representative today. (For Senate phone and fax numbers, go to; for the House, go to

Send your letter to Congress using this link:

Defending Play with Nancy Carlsson-Paige

Bob Greenberg of Brainwaves Productions has interviewed many thought leaders in education: Noam Chomsky, Diane Ravitch, Sir Ken Robinson, Linda Darling-Hammond, and more. This week he gave Nancy Carlsson-Paige the opportunity to add an early childhood perspective to these voices. Her talk is titled “Defending Play” and is available on YouTube. “Play is at the root of learning, ” Nancy explains. However…

“In this era of focus on testing and accountability, and emphasis on standards, we’ve seen this increasing pressure in the early grades in elementary schools, kindergartens and even preschools to get children up to speed to learn specific skills and sub skills that are identified by standards. This has led to much more teacher-led instruction and much less play in school and there is a dramatic disappearance of play across the country.” 

Testing in K: too much, too soon

Today’s blog post is written by a guest – Phyllis Doerr – a kindergarten teacher from South Orange, NJ. The original article was published in her local paper on July 2, 2015. We publish this updated version here with Doerr’s permission.

Testing in K: too much, too soon

Point of View

By Phyllis Doerr

As we wind down a year of tremendous controversy in the realm of education in the United States, I thought I would share some of my input given in January to a New Jersey Board of Education panel on testing led by Education Commissioner David Hespe.

As a kindergarten teacher, I find the trend to bring more testing into kindergarten not only alarming, but counter-productive and even harmful.

In the kindergarten at my school, we do not administer standardized tests; however, hours of testing are included in our math and language arts curriculum.  In order to paint a realistic picture of the stress, damaging effects and colossal waste of time caused by testing in kindergarten, allow me to bring you to my classroom for our first test prep session in late September for 5-year-old children.

The test for which I was preparing my students was vocabulary. I say a word that we had learned in our “nursery rhyme” unit.  Then, I read a sentence containing that word. If the sentence made sense, using the word correctly, the student would circle the smiley face. If the word were used incorrectly, they would circle the frown. This task requires abstract thinking, a skill that kindergartners have not yet developed — a foundational problem for this type of test.

My first sample vocabulary challenge as we began our practice test was the word “market,” from the nursery rhyme “To Market, To Market.” After explaining the setup of the test, I begin. “The word is market,” I announced. “Who can tell me what a market is?” One boy answered, “I like oranges.” “Okay, Luke is on the right track. Who can add to that?” “I like apples. I get them at the store.”  We’re moving in, closer and closer. A third child says, “It’s where you go and get lots of things.” Yes! What kinds of things?  “Different stuff.”  Another student chimes in: “We can get oranges and apples and lots of other types of food at the market.” “Excellent! Everyone understands market?” A few nod.

“Now, I will give you a sentence with the word ‘market’ in it. If the sentence makes sense, you will circle the smiley face, but if it is a silly sentence and doesn’t make sense, you circle the frown.” A hand goes up. “Mrs. Doerr, what’s a frown?” I explain what a frown is.

Next, I read the sentence: “‘I like to play basketball at the market.’ Now, does that sentence make sense?”

The students who are not twisting around backward in their chairs or staring at a thread they’ve picked off their uniforms nod their heads. “Please, class, listen carefully. I’ll tell you the sentence again: ‘I like to play basketball at the market.’ That makes sense? Remember we said a market is where we shop for food.”

A hand goes up. Terrell says, “I like soccer.” “Okay, Terrell, that’s great! But did I use the word ‘market’ correctly in that sentence?”   “I don’t know.”

Another hand. “Yes? Ariana? What do you think?” “My dad took me to a soccer game! He plays soccer!” “Thank you for sharing that, Ariana.” The students picked up on something from the sentence and made what seems to be, but is not, a random connection. “Girls and boys, look at me and listen. I want you to really think about this. Would you go to a market and play basketball?”  At this point everyone seemed to wake up. Finally! I was getting somewhere! “YES!” they cried out in unison.

Of course! It would be a total blast to play basketball in the market!

So here we find another huge problem with this vocabulary test: a 5-year-old’s imagination. A statement that uses a word incorrectly sounds OK to a child whose imagination is not limited by reality. It is the same reason Santa and the Tooth Fairy are so real to kindergartners — unencumbered imagination.

After explaining why we might not play basketball in the market, I called on a volunteer to come up and circle the frowning face. She went straight to number 3 on my giant test replica, skipping 1 and 2, and circled the frown. Why? She’s 5 and has never seen anything like this. Give the same student a floor puzzle of ocean life and she and her friend will knock it out in 10 minutes, strategizing, problem-solving and taking turns with intense concentration.

The rest of my “test prep” for the 5-year-olds went about the same.

Then came the real thing.  As testing must be done in small groups since the children cannot read instructions and need assistance every step of way, I split the class into two or more groups to test.

The results of the administration of the test on the first group were mixed. Despite being the higher level students, their very first test was definitely not an easy task. Instructions for anything new in kindergarten are painstaking, but for a developmentally inappropriate task, it is nearly impossible. For example, making sure my little test-takers have found their place on the page requires constant teacher supervision. I cannot just say, “Number 2” and read the question. I must say, “Put your finger on the number 2.” Then I repeat, “Your finger should be on number 2.” Then repeat it. And repeat again, since some have difficulty identifying numbers 1 through 10. “Let me see your pencil ON number 2. No, Justin, not on number 3. On number 2.”  I walk around and make sure that each child is on the right number – or on a number at all. If you’re not watchful as a kindergarten teacher, it is common to have a 5-year-old just sit there, and do nothing test-related — just look around, or think, or doodle.

Next, I tested a second group. During testing, I walked around to see that a few students had nothing written on their papers, one had circled every face — regardless of expression — on the whole page, another just circled all the smileys and one, a very bright little girl, had her head down on her arms. I tapped her and said, “Come on, you need to circle one of the faces for number 5.” She lifted her head and looked up at me. Tears streamed down her face. I crouched down next to her. “What’s wrong, honey?” “Mrs. Doerr, I’m tired,” she cried. “I want my mommy.”  It was a moment I will never forget. I took her test and said, “Would you like a nice comfy pillow so you can take a rest?” She nodded.  I exchanged her paper for a pillow.

So this is kindergarten.

We force children to take tests that their brains cannot grasp.

We ignore research that proves that children who are 5-6 learn best experientially.

We rob them of precious free play that teaches them how to be good citizens, good friends and good thinkers.

We waste precious teaching and learning time that could be spent experientially learning the foundations of math, reading and writing, as well as valuable lessons in social studies, science and health.

I support and enjoy teaching much of our math and language arts curriculum. Teaching vocabulary is a valuable practice. However, I contend that testing in these areas at this age is not only meaningless, since it does not accurately measure a child’s academic ability, but it is actually counter-productive and even damaging.

Further, I contend that my students are no further along at the end of the year than they would be if we eliminated most of the testing. In fact, they might be further along if we eliminated testing because of the time we could spend engaging in meaningful teaching and learning. Finally, I believe that a child’s first experience with formal education should be fun and exciting, and give them confidence to look forward to their education, not full of stress and fear because they did not measure up.

Parents and educators must speak out against harmful trends in education so that they can be reversed immediately.

Phyllis Doerr of South Orange is a kindergarten teacher.