Home > Uncategorized > The Perversion of Pre-School: Reformers’ Testing Favors “Rigorous Instruction” Over Play

The Perversion of Pre-School: Reformers’ Testing Favors “Rigorous Instruction” Over Play

December 20, 2015

Two recent articles describe the dismal state of pre-school education in our country, and lead me to wonder whether the expansion of today’s programming is a good idea.

The New Pre-School Education is Crushing Kids“, Erika Christakis’ article in the January-February Atlantic, describes the dispiriting atmosphere of today’s version of preschool where the regurgitation of facts is taken as evidence of academic preparedness. Early in the article she describes what the ideal pre-school program would look like:

According to experts such as the Yale professor Edward Zigler, a leader in child-development and early-education policy for half a century, the best preschool programs share several features: They provide ample opportunities for young children to use and hear complex, interactive language; their curriculum supports a wide range of school-readiness goals that include social and emotional skills and active learning; they encourage meaningful family involvement; and they have knowledgeable and well-qualified teachers.

Christakis then describes in devastating detail how far short of that standard we are currently falling…. and suggests that test-driven”accountability” is the reason why:

The shift from an active and exploratory early-childhood pedagogy to a more scripted and instruction-based model does not involve a simple trade-off between play and work, or between joy and achievement. On the contrary, the preoccupation with accountability has led to a set of measures that favor shallow mimicry and recall behaviors, such as learning vocabulary lists and recognizing shapes and colors (something that a dog can do, by the way, but that is in fact an extraordinarily low bar for most curious 4-year-olds), while devaluing complex, integrative, and syncretic learning….

The academic takeover of American early learning can be understood as a shift from what I would call an “ideas-based curriculum” to a “naming-and-labeling-based curriculum.” Not coincidentally, the latter can be delivered without substantially improving our teaching force. Inexperienced or poorly supported teachers are directed to rely heavily on scripted lesson plans for a reason: We can point to a defined objective, and tell ourselves that at least kids are getting something this way.

But Christakis emphasizes throughout her article, artful teaching, teaching that engages the young child’s mind in a Socratic form and encourages the child to explore on their own is far more worthwhile than accumulating names and labels. Interaction between the child and the teacher and among the children themselves is far more important than completing seat work:

Conversation is gold. It’s the most efficient early-learning system we have. And it’s far more valuable than most of the reading-skills curricula we have been implementing: One meta-analysis of 13 early-childhood literacy programs “failed to find any evidence of effects on language or print-based outcomes.” Take a moment to digest that devastating conclusion.

A few weeks ago Valerie Strauss published a speech given by Deborah Meier award recipient Nancy Carlson-Paige, a professor emerita at Emerson College and author of “Taking Back Childhood.” In her speech, Carlson-Paige laments the fact that she finds it necessary to defend play as part of pre-school:

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 4 are expected to learn through “rigorous instruction.”

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.”

And why is play being shoved aside? You guessed it test-based “accountability”:


 …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.

In our obsession with competition based on test scores we are denying our youngest children the chance to ask questions, to explore the world around them, to have fun without being judged. Maybe some states will come to their senses now that ESSA is giving them latitude in assessments and let four year-olds “…put on a cape and pretend to be a superhero after witnessing some scary event.” They will learn more from that than they will learn from finishing a worksheet a teacher prepared for them or completing an assessment on a screen.

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