If there’s one place where it’s clear that the world is full of possibility — and also that the world is fundamentally unfair — it’s kindergarten. The glorious first chance to be a “big kid.” The last bastion of play before you hit those rows of desks. The place where fortune can determine what you’re learning, and how.
Some kids walk into kindergarten armed with preschool training, exposure to books, rich language at home. Some come with none of that. All face a looming deadline: Read fluently by third grade, or struggle in school forevermore.
How do you get them on the same footing? Standards, right?
Well . . .
Welcome to the latest battleground in the war against the Common Core. One of its leaders is Nancy Carlsson-Paige, the Lesley University professor emerita who is a nationally known expert in child development. Her organization, Defending the Early Years, co-issued a recent report that takes aim at the Core’s kindergarten reading standards — a long list of goals, ranging from the need to recognize upper and lower case letters to the expectation that, by year’s end, students should be able to read the simplest texts “with purpose and understanding.”
Carlsson-Paige says those guidelines defy widespread research about how young children learn — through play. She says there’s no research that documents long-term gains for kids who can read by the end of kindergarten.
But hers isn’t just a gauzy recommendation to let kids find their bliss. It’s also a warning about what hard-and-fast goals can do to the classroom. Send a firm directive that kids should identify letters, she warns, and you’re likely to get hours spent on flashcards and drills. The kids not only aren’t having fun; they’re not learning the way they’re hard-wired to learn.
“That’s so well-known in our field of early childhood that it’s disturbing to see it mandated in this form,” she told me. “We know that’s not the best way children would even be prepared to be good readers by third grade.”
I took Carlsson-Paige’s concerns to the source: Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts’ commissioner of K-12 education. He helped develop the Common Core, based largely on Massachusetts’ curriculum standards — and he chairs the PARCC consortium that is translating those standards into tests.
Chester clearly cares about the poorest kids, and his counter-argument is compelling: With no sense of direction or pressure, we’d wind up with cruelly different expectations. Kids from affluent backgrounds would likely be fine. Their parents might push for more ambitious learning goals. Low-income kids, left to learn at their own paces, would risk falling further behind.
“Too often, in the name of developmental readiness, it’s the students from the other side of the tracks — students often from low-income backgrounds — who are the ones we decide aren’t ready for more ambitious instruction,” Chester told me. “We feed an inequality that expands.”
And yet, when it comes to the experience of school, well-meaning goals can have the opposite effect. It’s “one of the cruel twists” of education reform, Carlsson-Paige said. Poor kids, pressured to get up to speed, are more likely to spend time on worksheets and drills, while richer kids get more time for creativity and play.
That’s a whole different kind of inequality, and Chester acknowledges the possibility. “Things worth doing can be done poorly,” he said. “It really does boil down to the sophistication of the teacher, the repertoire of instructional strategy.”
Teacher skill is important, he’s right. Carlsson-Paige’s report recommends training teachers well, and sending experienced teachers to low-income communities.
But there’s more to the equation, which has as much to do with politics as pedagogy. Another unintended consequence of the Core is the pressure put on administrators, passed to principals and teachers, fed by a vicious feedback loop of scores and evaluations, until guidelines are taken as gospel.
This doesn’t happen in every school. But it happens. And the people who promote the Common Core need to send a message, fast, that this isn’t their intention.
Hold up, as models, the kindergarten teachers who know how to work effectively through play. Find concrete, public ways to reward methods of instruction, instead of just results. Find ways to expand pre-K to the kids who most need that foundation.
The alternative? Joyless kindergarten. For some.