WENDY LOCKER: NOTHING ABSTRACT ABOUT THE LESSONS OF PLAY
WHY PLAY IS VITAL IN PRESCHOOL: DEY’S RESPONSE TO THE NEW YORK TIMES REPORT SUPPORTING FLASH CARDS OVER FREE PLAY
DEY Senior Advisor and Wheelock College professor, Dr. Diane Levin, writes DEY’s response:
At Defending the Early Years (DEY; www.deyproject.org) we work to promote appropriate educational practice in early childhood. Dana Goldstein’s May 30th article, “Free Play or Flashcards? New Study Nods to More Rigorous Preschools” (NY Times, 5/30/17) not only left us puzzled but raised several important questions.
Should a study that found a 2½-month gain in academic skills when taught in preschool influence early childhood policy and practice? How can one argue for giving up big chunks of playtime for academic teaching to make such minimal gains in academic performance—with little consideration of what other areas might have lost out because of the focus on academic skills? Studies of Head Start programs that taught academic skills to preschoolers in the 1960’s and 1970’s found that gains made in academic performance over children in more play-based Head Start programs were generally gone by second grade (i.e., “fade-out effect,” as mentioned in the article). Furthermore, research in many European countries, which do not start formal reading instruction until age seven, shows that starting formal teaching of reading earlier has little benefit.
Play-based early childhood programs are all-too-often misunderstood. Just having played in a preschool is not enough, as all play is not the same. When a child dabbles from one activity to another, tries out one material and then the next, and/or does the same activity day-after-day, this is not quality play or, necessarily, even play. And, even when a child does become more fully engaged in an activity that develops over time and is meaningful play, teachers have a vital role in facilitating the play to help the child take it further. The teacher also makes decisions about how to integrate more formal early literacy and math skills into the play—for instance, by helping a child dictate stories about his painting and pointing out some of the keywords and letters involved, etc. The teacher can then help the child “read” the story at a class meeting. With block building, the teacher and child might discuss shapes, as she tries to find the right shape for her structure.
This kind of intentional teacher-facilitated learning through play contributes to the many foundational skills children need for later school success, including self-regulation, social skills, creativity, original thinking, oral language development, eye-hand coordination, pre-literacy and math skills, and positive attitudes toward problem-solving. And, in the long run, these foundational skills are much more important for how children will feel about and perform later in school than the 2½ months gain they might obtain from the early skill instruction received in preschool, as reported in the New York Times article.
Rather than debating over free play versus flashcards, perhaps we should be asking the bigger questions:
- Why are years of research on the benefits of quality play in preschool programs so often ignored?
- Why is it assumed that academic skills are so important to emphasize in preschool rather than a focus on the development of the “whole child” and foundational skills that prepare children for school success in the later years?
- Why are play and learning so often treated as if they are dichotomous, as they seem to be in this report?
NETWORK FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION RELEASES ITS NPE TOOLKIT: SCHOOL PRIVATIZATION EXPLAINED
This comprehensive toolkit will answer questions about charter schools and school privatization.
HIGH SCHOOL SHOULD BE MORE LIKE PRESCHOOL
Secondary education is now borrowing ideas from early childhood. Published April 7, 2017, in The Hechinger Report, read the full article here.
KINDERGARTEN READINESS ASSESSMENTS
DON’T USE KINDERGARTEN READINESS ASSESSMENTS FOR ACCOUNTABILITY
More than 40 states either have or are in the process of developing Kindergarten Readiness Assessments (KRA), a tool to measure children’s readiness for kindergarten. While KRAs have several benefits for teaching and learning, the results can also be used inappropriately, according to a recent Ounce of Prevention Fund report, “Uses and Misuses of Kindergarten Readiness Assessments.”
Read the entire article here.
STOP HUMILIATING TEACHERS
“Stop Humiliating Teachers” by David Denby was published in the Feb. 11, 2017 issue of The New Yorker.
DEY ISSUES A STATEMENT OPPOSING BETSY DEVOS’ NOMINATION FOR SECRETARY OF EDUCATION
DEY is issuing a statement in opposition to the nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education.
DeVos showed in her hearing testimony on January 17th that she is profoundly unqualified to serve as Secretary of Education. She was unable to answer basic questions or address controversial issues. But, most importantly, she is against public education and, instead, wants to privatize public education. DeVos has a proven history of supporting efforts that discriminate against low-income communities and communities of color. At DEY, we support the equal opportunity of every young child for an excellent education. We are especially concerned that DeVos will undermine the national and state efforts to promote universal preschool public education.
For more information about advocacy for appropriate public education, visit DEY’s website at www.deyproject.org.
ECE POLICY MATTERS’ SUSAN OCHSHORN DISCUSSES BETSY DE VOS NOMINATION AND DEY’S LATEST REPORT, “TEACHERS SPEAK OUT”
THE POWER OF THEIR VOICES: EARLY CHILDHOOD TEACHERS TALK SCHOOL REFORM
A former preschool teacher carried the torch for democracy at the confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, Donal Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. “The Senate should to be a rubber stamp, Patty Murray said. We owe it t the American people to put families and children first, not billionaires.”
Those were fighting words from the mild-mannered senator from Washington State, and senior Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee. Especially with Microsoft and Amazon among her top campaign contributors from 2011 to 2016. But as the results of our recent election attest, women’s ascent to power is convoluted. The pacts we make can be Faustian: these days, a former Microsoft executive runs Washington’s department of early learning.
In the week before the hearing, as opponents of DeVos signed petitions, called their senators, and entreated members of the HELP committee to dump her, Defending the Early Years, a nonprofit organization based in Boston, released “Teachers Speak Out.” The report highlights the concerns of early childhood teachers about the impact of school reforms on low-income children. Authors Diane E. Levin and Judith L. Van Hoorn culled their data from interviews with 34 educators in California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and Washington, DC.
The link between socioeconomic status and academic achievement has been firmly established in research. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 47 percent of children under six years old lived in low-income families near or below the poverty line in 2014. The level rises to nearly 70 percent for Black and Native-American children and 64 percent for Hispanic youngsters. In a recent survey conducted by the Council of Chief State School Officers—which helped design the Common Core standards—teachers across the United States listed family stress, poverty, and learning and psychological problems as the top barriers to student success.
Yet the mandates of the Common Core are exacerbating the problem. As Levin and Van Hoorn point out in the report’s introduction, “recent reforms…have been developed and implemented by people with good intentions but often little formal knowledge of early child development.” Those with the expertise now face a “profound ethical dilemma.” As top-down mandates dictate the teaching and assessment of narrow academic skills at younger and younger ages, early childhood educators are forced to do the “least harm,” rather than the “most good.”
In an exchange at the hearing, between DeVos and Todd Young, a Republican senator from Indiana, she crowed about our “great opportunity…to really empower [teachers] in a new way to do what they do best.” She horrifies educators. They’ve been leaving the field, exhausted and dispirited, in record numbers. Respect for the profession and morale are at an all-time low, as teachers have picked up the slack for a society that starves its schools and communities, and blames them for all its ills. But out of this malaise, a new activism has emerged, with great energy dedicated to defeating her.
Early childhood teachers—with some notable exceptions—have been missing from the action. The reasons are complex. This is a workforce that has long been marginalized, their work devalued, and expertise ignored. “It’s just babysitting,” New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, said some years ago, of his state’s prekindergarten program—a perception shared by many, and internalized by those in the field. Salaries for educators working in community-based programs are significantly less than those of their colleagues in the public schools. Many are living in poverty, and afflicted by the toxic stress common among their students. The newest practitioners are worried about putting their careers at risk. Few have been willing to go on the record with their critique.
As I read through the report, I kept underlining the quotes from the teachers, as if to amplify them, to lift them off the page. They’re struggling to honor early childhood’s robust evidence base, but they’re undermined by a lack of agency and autonomy:
The trust in my expertise and judgment as a teacher is gone. So are the play and learning centers in my classroom. Everything is supposed to be structured for a specific lesson and rigidly timed to fit into a specific, tight, preapproved schedule.
The negative impact of reforms on children’s development and learning can’t be overstated. Practice has become more rote, and standardized, with less time for deep relationships—among children, and between them and caring adults. We’re stealing the heart of high-quality early education, as the individual strengths, interests, and needs of children get lost:
With this extreme emphasis on what’s called ‘rigorous academics,’ drills are emphasized. It’s much harder for my children to become self-regulated learners. Children have no time to learn to self-regulate by choosing their own activities, participating in ongoing projects with their classmates, or playing creatively. They have to sit longer, but their attention spans are shorter.
The authors bring us into the classrooms studied by Daphna Bassok, Scott Lathem, and Anna Rorem, of the University of Virginia, who used two large, nationally representative data sets to compare public school kindergarten classrooms between 1998 and 2010. More formal, directed instruction in reading, writing, and math, once the province of first grade, has trickled down into kindergarten. Close reading is becoming part of the expected skill set of 5-year-olds, and the pressure has extended, in some cases, to prekindergarten, where children are being asked to master reading by the end of the year. The repercussions are severe:
It’s essential for every kindergarten child to feel welcomed and included, to be part of the class. Instead, we’re separating the cream from the milk. From the beginning, we’re telling kids who are poor, ‘You’re deficient,’ instead of helping them become competent and feel successful and part of their class. Then it’s ‘remedial this, remedial that.’ It’s discrimination.
The report concludes with a series of recommendations—from the real experts in the room. The first calls for the withdrawal of current early childhood standards and mandates. Another urges the use of authentic assessment, based on observations of children, their development, and learning. Number ten addresses child poverty, our national stain:
Work at all levels of society to reduce, and ultimately end child poverty. To do this, we must first acknowledge that a narrow focus on improving schools will not solve the complex problems associated with child poverty.
Breaking the silence was never so sweet. Now it’s time, as John Lewis says, to get in good trouble.
DEFENDING THE EARLY YEARS RELEASES ITS LATEST REPORT: “TEACHERS SPEAK OUT: HOW SCHOOL REFORMS ARE FAILING LOW-INCOME YOUNG CHILDREN”
NETWORK FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION MOUNTING A CAMPAIGN TO DEFEAT BETSY DEVOS AS SECRETARY OF EDUCATION
Senate hearings on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education begin on January 11, 2017. Many educators have grave concerns about Mrs. DeVos. See “A Sobering Look at What Betsy DeVos Did to Education in Michigan – and What She Might Do as Secretary of Education” from The Answer Sheet in The Washington Post and “Betsy DeVos and God’s Plan for Schools” in the Dec. 13, 2016 New York Times.
Network for Public Education is mounting a campaign and encouraging educators and other concerned citizens to contact their Senator. Find a sample letter and the addresses of all Senators at https://actionnetwork.org/letters/tell-your-senator-to-vote-no-for-betsy-devos?source=facebook&. Or write your own letter, in your own words.
Another option is to call 202-225-3121 and be connected with any congressional member, both Senators and Members of the House of Representatives. Tell the staffer who answers that you are opposed to Mrs. DeVos’ confirmation as Secretary of Education. They will ask for your name and zip code and tally your call as a “yay” or “nay.”