Thursday, February 5, 2015

"Which Of These Standards Is Bad?"

I've gone on record as not being a fan of Common Core, particularly the K-3 standards. Bookworm, the elder, was 2 cohorts ahead of our school district's Common Core rollout, while Monkey was the second cohort to get the shiny new Common Core-aligned Curriculum 2.0. While my kids have very different personalities, I actually expected things to go more smoothly for my younger child, whose capacity for perseverance was pretty high going into school, and whose natural inclination toward math and science seemed a perfect fit for the STEM emphasis that accompanies current US Public education approaches.

Hah. Not so much. Beginning in second grade (mostly toward the end) and for almost ALL of last year, there were increasing tears, hostility, argumentative behavior even out of school, tears, increased fidgeting, even the appearance of a vocal tic, and have I mentioned the tears? This from a kid whose second-grade teacher told me that she remembered her for her smile. And as a frequent substitute in that school and another school (where I saw Kindergarteners weekly), I have seen more than my fair share of Kindergarteners acting out in ways and to degrees that I didn't see when I left (I thought temporarily) teaching 12 years previously. I've heard from parents that I'm hardly alone in my concerns for my kid's emotional well-being; I've heard teachers talking to each other before and after school and in the lunchroom and being frank with each other about their concerns that this is too much too soon; I've seen the unguarded shell-shocked halfway-to-burned-out faces of K-3 teachers who didn't know I noticed, who thought they were hiding it from their classes and school volunteers (I'm ADD; I notice EVERYTHING except what I'm supposed to. LOL).

The first question that most pro-Common Core cheerleaders tend to ask is, "Have you read the standards?" My answer is "Yes, I have, actually." They're tedious reading; I have only gotten up through middle school as that's where my elder is at the moment, and I'm not thrilled about the K-3 standards. (For anyone who wants to see how innocuous they look, separated out, in writing - which as anyone who has spent ANY time in a classroom knows is not the same things as "in practice" - here is a link to the Kindergarten standards.) The next usual big red flag question/demand is, "Show me which of these standards is not developmentally appropriate for Kindergarten," often phrased as "Which of these things can't a normal 5YO do?"


This is such a brilliant strategy that it's VERY VERY easy for anyone looking at individual standards to end up second-guessing himself. "Look," the cheerleaders say, smiling broadly and non-threateningly, "none of these can possibly harm a child! Why, any teacher should be able to get these covered and still have plenty of time for children to play, and a Good Teacher can even make them fun, even for Kindergarten!" Next thing you know, you're watching the Common Core propaganda video and wondering what all the fuss is about, and even thinking that Common Core is good for our kids.

Anyone who reads what I jot down here knows that I think this is utter bull[manure]. Besides taking exception to the idea that anyone needs to know whether my kids are Learning Better Than More Competitive Than their agemates in some other town, state, or even country (which in effect reduces our kids, at the administrative level, to data points, because data is what is being compared here, NOT learning), I don't feel that the backward-mapping to Kindergarten of academic expectations by a bunch of admittedly-unqualified people who made NO effort to align the K-3 expectations to *actual* things that Early Childhood educators know to realistically expect from this age group (did you know that Early Childhood encompasses birth-8YO?), or what we know about what and how younger children best learn during this window, has created a set of expectations that will best serve our youngest children as they build social and emotional foundations of learning that they'll need not just in K-12 but for lifelong learning.

In isolation, it's harder to point to particular problems with any individual standard in K, in terms of "Can a 5YO learn to do [X]?" although a number of ECE professionals have done precisely this, including Dr. Megan Koschnick in this 26-minute presentation here.

My experience, mirrored by that of countless parents across the US, has been that it's the whole package is where it's problematic. As a whole, collectively, they tend to take an enormous amount of time and work to truly be able to confirm Proficiency (that word gets used so much I figure I may as well capitalize it) at any level. Is it mandated that children spend 4-5 hours of their school day doing seatwork? No, but in order to collect the data needed to prove that they've learned it, that's what's happening. (Don't even get me STARTED on the computerized benchmark testing in Kindergarten in some schools!) Is it mandated that Kindergarteners do 30 minutes or more of homework nightly? No, but if so much class time is being devoted to the teaching, that leaves Home Time for the reinforcement. Is there a law that says all children must read fluently by the end of Kindergarten? Actually, yes and no - the actual K standards for reading do set specific goals for mostly isolated reading skills, culminating with "Read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding." (For the uninitiated, "emergent" texts use lots of simple words, repetition, large print, and generally lots of pictures, with not much text on each page; more specifics here. How much "purpose and understanding" is realistic in the reading of these is not really specified, so how that relates to "fluent" isn't really clear.) HOWEVER.....many 4YO's and 5YO's simply are not yet ready for even many of these decoding skills (one reason that many school districts are now requiring that children be 5YO before entering K rather than turning 5 during the year; there are now places where children must have turned 5 even before August to raise the entry age by another few months!). Generally speaking, starting to teach reading later, like around 7YO, takes less effort than it does at 5YO - and by 11YO, both early and later-starting readers are at pretty much the same level, which is one reason that Finland doesn't bother until then.

I haven't even addressed the very real need for children (of any age but especially young children!) to PLAY. Open-ended, child-directed, active, sustained PLAY, and lots of it, is a necessary part of healthy child development. Children come hard-wired to learn this way, and when we reduce that time, when we substitute 5-minute "brain breaks" and "playful learning" for what should be multiple daily playtimes, with children (not teachers or other adults) selecting their own activities, outdoors when possible, we greatly reduce the possibilities for learning what children need to learn during play: body awareness, social skills, impulse control, perseverance, creativity, initiative, working with others, working alone - these are all the "soft skills" that employers say they want in future employees. These skills set the stage for ALL future learning, including (and maybe especially?) academic learning; researchers have gone so far as to say that these are necessary before academic learning can really take place; "Second, learning focused on emotional and social development is every bit as important as learning focused on the development of cognitive skills, and in fact is a prerequisite for all other learning. Learning requires that children be able to pay attention, be patient, persist, persevere, face their mistakes, and remain focused when frustrated. Each of these skills is rooted in the ability of children to understand, control and manage their own emotions (what developmental psychologists refer to as self-regulation). When children are better able to manage intense emotions including stress and anxiety, more of the brain’s energy is available to perform the intensive tasks of listening, concentrating, and problem solving – critical thinking skills necessary for learning." If we are truly committed to teaching the Whole Child, we won't close this window and try to make it up by adding lessons in "Social-Emotional Learning;" we'll allow the learning to occur in the way it occurs most naturally and efficiently in the first place. A play deficit is associated with negative consequences, not the least of which are childhood obesity and emotional and behavioral problems. And given that there are only so many hours in a school day, and that standards are tested and "recess skills" are not - guess what happens to the play? Yup - minimized, if not gone outright. In Monkey's elementary school, I was shocked to discover that this year, Kindergarteners aren't eating lunch until 12:30 and going outside for the first and only time at 1PM. 5-6YO, in school from about 9AM, and four hours before they get recess - no wonder the lunch staff is having a hard time "herding the cats."

*Update* During the 2015-2016 school year, Kindergarten recess is now at 1:55PM, so it's really 2PM before these kids FINALLY get to go outside and PLAY - weather permitting, of course.*

Add it all together and there are kids - a LOT of kids - experiencing tears, frustration, and symptoms of chronic stress that we associate more with adults or teens: depression, anxiety, disrupted sleep, even self-harm - in elementary school! (Early in this video, the clinician begins by describing symptoms also in teachers.)

 <--When a parent posted this photo, within half an hour there were hundreds of commiserating comments; by contrast, when Erika Sanzi wrote a piece about how "Common Core Can Be Good For Your Kindergartener" (not "is" good, mind you, but "can be"), the next day there are a grand total of 18 responses (only 13 of which are showing at this writing, although IME comments often don't appear for me until 2-3 days after they're posted) - one from me, and 5 from the author, many in support? None of the comments I can see so far. NONE. Hmm, I wonder which is the more common experience? OK, maybe that's not a fair summary, but the sheer volume of the responses, not to mention the consistency of them, speaks for itself as to the common, if not Universal, experience many of us parents and our children have had with Common Core, especially early on.

Debating this on Twitter with Erika, sure enough, the "Which of these is the problem?" question came up, not once but twice:

and in response to the link containing the photo of the crying boy above:

Let's review what Kindergarten was made for, shall we? Just to keep it simple, let's go to Wikipedia: "
A kindergarten (German (German pronunciation: [ˈkɪndɐˌgaːtn] ( )), literally children's garden) is a preschool educational approach traditionally based around playing, singing, practical activities such as drawing, and social interaction as part of the transition from home to school. The first such institutions were created in the late eighteenth century in Bavaria and Strasbourg to serve children both of whose parents worked out of the home.
The name kindergarten was coined by Friedrich Fröbel, whose approach greatly influenced early-years education around the world. The term is used in many countries to describe a variety of educational institutions for children ranging from two years of age to seven of age based on a variety of teaching methods."

It was not created to BE an early academic experience. It was created as a transitional year between being at home with parent(s) or caregiver and formal academics starting at 6 or 7. It was very much open-ended and play-based, as befits the emotional, social, and yes, intellectual needs of children of that age group. While young children's neurodevelopmental needs have not evolved significantly over the past several centuries, US public school Kindergarten certainly has. Tales abound of the disappearance of play kitchens, dress-up areas, blocks, clay, art, music, recess - and of the time to use these in the first place. While children at 5YO are still "hard-wired" to learn and internalize social skills and "soft skills" like creativity, impulse control, and "grit," primarily through play - where they are also learning about the world and about themselves, physically as well as socially and emotionally and intellectually - we are co-opting this window of time with early academics. Children aren't getting enough "down time" as half-day Kindergarten is almost unheard-of today - and nearly ALL the school time now is devoted to Early Literacy and Early Numeracy. We are literally perverting Early Childhood, twisting it, completely undermining what that window of time is for.

So, long story short: "Which standard is bad? What standards are unrealistic, or too high for kids?"

Quit the propaganda. Do some study into Early Childhood. YOU show ME the studies that prove that the K-3 standards are good for children.

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Please keep it clean. Differences of opinion aren't a problem for me. Rudeness is. Thankyouverymuch. :-)