Reformers as parents: the early years

I have to admit being wryly amused these days after conversations with colleagues who have been on the “reform” side of education policy conversations over the last four years. The reason? Many of them are now parents whose children are getting ready to enter preschool or kindergarten. People whose day jobs often entail wholesale advocacy of higher standards and accountability for schools, students and educators seem to forget these issues during conversations about the programs they are considering for their own children. A recent exchange at a social event is reflective of this general trend:

Ulcca: Wow, I can’t believe she’s already 4. What is she like?

Proud Dad: Yeah, it’s gone by so fast! She’s really independent and in the middle of a princess thing. I’m hoping it won’t last.

Ulcca: So is she in preschool?

Proud Dad: Not yet. We’ve looked at a few places. There’s this Montessori place not far from our house, but there is also a small preschool at our local church that we like. It’s small, really nice environment and garden outside. The teachers seem really good and the parents there really like it.

Ulcca: Do you think there’s enough academic rigor? Are the kids reading by the time they leave? What are their graduates’ test scores in third grade? Have you asked to see the teachers’ evaluations from last year? What about grit? Are the kids being taught grit?

Just kidding. Funny enough such issues don’t seem to come up when I am talking to these reformers-turned-parents. It seems there is something very different about the values and concerns parents talk about when it comes to their own kids than those reflected in abstract educational policy debates. Parents understand that their sons and daughters are unique little beings, and they are concerned with ensuring that their kids have access to preschool experiences that will allow them to thrive. They have a sense that these precious years are about more than developing the academic skills that so much of the education reform conversation right now centers on.

For this reason, I was pleased to see Valerie Strauss highlight this piece about why we should be concerned about the Common Core State Standards for K-3 students. For the record, I am not a Common Core hater. My concern is with the way we think about standards in general (upcoming post). One of my concerns, to simplify somewhat, is that we take a given content area and identify where we want students to be at the end of 12th grade. We then chop up the content to ensure coverage of all of the material over the thirteen years students are in school. Across the K-12 spectrum, there is very little consideration given to the fact that students are not developmentally in the same place at 13 or 10 or 7. But proponents of standards do not seem concerned about the fact that differences in neurological development, personality, disposition and interest may effect individual student accomplishment in particular content areas, especially as students get older and content becomes more specialized.

All of these issues are magnified tenfold when we consider the growth of students between the ages of 0 and 8, roughly birth through third grade. As a result of how we built our current standards, there is an increasing push on the early development of so-called academic skills as a pre-requisite for students to achieve later benchmarks. Unfortunately, there is an increasingly large research base to support the concerns that early childhood advocates have, namely, that children’s development between 0-8 is so complex, intertwined and variable that efforts to tie benchmarks to particular ages is not only bound to fail, but is starting to be harmful to kids.

I often try and reassure friends of mine who are worried about some aspect of their children’s development (more often than not walking or talking before age 2 and reading after the age of 4) that their worries are more likely than not unfounded. Imagine childhood development as consisting of large “tracks” with specific rails within those tracks. Some of these include:

  • Gross motor skills such as crawling, walking, skipping and hopping;
  • Fine motor skills such as grasping, pinching, cutting and buttoning;
  • Socio-emotional skills such as expressing and regulating emotion, empathy and conceptions of fairness
  • Cognitive skills such as language development and mathematical awareness.

It’s a lot to develop in a relatively short period of time, and there is a limited amount of energy that can be devoted to development within each area at any given time. Moreover, some areas of development are conditioned on or closely related to others so depending on the order in which individual students develop specific simple skills, mastery of more complex skills may take longer to achieve. An example is writing: a child can’t learn to write letters on paper unless he has developed adequate fine motor skills to hold a pencil. Similarly, a child won’t be able to understand basic math functions unless she has developed a sense of relative size.

Different children will undertake and demonstrate competency of different skills at different times. Gender is one factor. Parents of boys, myself included, will not be surprised to hear that boys tend to progress along the gross motor skill track earlier than girls. Girls are often earlier to develop their fine motor skills and are far more socio-emotionally aware at earlier ages. However, environmental factors, disposition and individual interests drive a lot of children’s development. A child with little exposure to books but a large and nurturing family life may well develop socio-emotional skills earlier than letter identification skills, but both sets of skills are critical. My son, who spent hours playing with Legos starting at 5, developed strong spatial awareness and fine motor skills. But his intense Lego interest meant he spent far less energy on books and learning to read. He didn’t become a really independent reader until he was closer to 7, and given his propensity towards independent play he is still working on emotional regulation and social skills. And this is OK.

What most child development experts agree on is that while children progress at different rates across these large developmental domains, most achieve proficiency within all of them by about the age of 8, or third grade. One of the huge problems with education reform right now is that there is an obsessive push to meet standards in the earliest years that do not account for developmental variation because they define “success” at the end of kindergarten, first and second grade quite rigidly. The K-3 standards and many kindergarten-readiness assessments as they are currently written also place far too much emphasis on “academic” literacy and math skills than is warranted in light of what is known about how children develop. Many of the cognitive abilities that underlie later academic success are harder to measure and require (subjective) assessment of individual children by trained teachers as opposed to standardized metrics.

The end result is that too many parents, educators and systems are labeling children as at-risk, developmentally-delayed and “behind” in ways that are fundamentally inaccurate. It also risks labeling teachers of students in the earliest grades as “ineffective” because the students they work with are simply developing in unique, variable but fundamentally normal ways. These trends certainly run the risk of dis-incentivizing teachers from working with our youngest students and students who may come to school demonstrating less “academic” development for cultural or socio-economic reasons.

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