Education reform is making little children sick.
So says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, professor emerita of education of Lesley University and a renowned early childhood development expert.
“Never in my wildest dreams could I have foreseen the situation we find ourselves in today,” she said recently in a speech to the nonprofit National Center for Fair and Open Testing, “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 four are expected to learn through ‘rigorous instruction.’”
She describes observing kindergarten classes where children were forced to sit most of the day and were berated if they talked or moved, where children wept silently, where children pulled out their eyelashes from the stress of drill and testing. The Department of Education reports more than 8,000 preschoolers were suspended last year, suspensions Carlsson-Paige argues are the result of asking small children to comply with demands beyond their ability, such as sitting quietly for hours.
Carlsson-Paige is not the only one to sound the alarm about the changes in early childhood education. In a recent segment on PBS Newshour, John Merrow asked Eva Moskowitz, CEO of the charter chain Success Academy, about the high suspension rates of kindergartners. The discipline code at Success Academy includes sending children home who get out of their seats without permission, who give a right answer in class without being called on, or who wear the wrong color of shoes to school. Moskowitz defended the suspensions, but critics argue that their real purpose is to force low-performing children out.
I remember kindergarten as a very different kind of place more than half a century ago. We had no chairs or desks or books. All around the edges of the room were different play centers that we visited at will – a corner piled high with blocks, a pint-sized mock kitchen, a sand table, easels with tablets of art paper and bins of fat crayons. We took no tests. We sang a lot. We played outside in a grassy area that occasionally attracted startled lizards and snakes that the braver children picked up to examine.
Not until first grade did I learn to write the alphabet, and even then the teacher turned forming letters into a game.
“Here’s the train going around the track!” she called out as we watched and practiced making capital O’s.
As far as I can tell, my life wasn’t harmed by my tardy introduction to academics. In fact, my positive attitude about school was enhanced by spending my earliest years at play.
With the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, frequent, onerous standardized testing in elementary schools became a primary driver of curriculum and educational pedagogy. What gets tested gets taught, and play isn’t tested. That’s why early childhood education shifted from a place of play to a place of work – with an emphasis on getting very young children “career and college ready.”
Sadly, the rewrite of NCLB rushing through Congress reaffirms that commitment to testing. Despite the harm to our children, as long as the education reformers – and the testing industry – have a heavy hand in influencing public policy, time for play will be all too rare.
Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.