We’ve come a long way from Fredrich Froebel’s “Children’s Garden” in the early 19th century. Froebel’s kindergarten was based on the belief that play is the real force in children’s learning. Froebel focused his kindergarten on play and activities…and in the century and a half since then researchers have found that he was correct — activity and play are essential parts of learning.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, in a report titled, The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds, wrote
Play is important to healthy brain development. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them…As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges.
The first kindergarten in the United States was founded in the mid-nineteenth century in Watertown, Wisconsin, and for the next approximately 150 years kindergartens in America combined play, activities and the arts to foster children’s growth in a developmentally appropriate atmosphere.
Fast forward to the 21st century and the picture in kindergartens across the country is very different. Many 4, 5 and 6 year old children in kindergartens around the nation are now asked to participate in long periods of large group instruction where they might be required to sit for long blocks of time working at desks completing worksheets. Experienced kindergarten teachers are scrambling to adjust the new curriculums in ways that are developmentally appropriate.
The most difficult barrier faced by the teachers was related to some mandate, expectation, or policy issued by the school system that teachers believed to be developmentally inappropriate for children. Mandates included the implementation of literacy programs, math programs, or writing programs. Inappropriate expectations for all children to master the kindergarten-level math skills…that all children would be reading by the end of the kindergarten year and would reach specific reading levels…Excessive assessments were required in several school systems.
WHAT IS “DEVELOPMENTALLY APPROPRIATE”?
The National Asssociation for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has written a 30 page Position Statement on Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8. It includes a dozen “principles of child development and learning,” and guidelines for developmentally appropriate practice in five different areas. The five areas are,
- Creating a caring community of learners
- Teaching to enhance development and learning
- Planning curriculum to achieve important goals
- Assessing children’s development and learning
- Establishing reciprocal relationships with families
There’s too much written about developmentally appropriate practices in early childhood education for me to cover in a short blog post (or even a long one!). The 8 pages of notes and references in the NAEYC position paper ought to satisfy your curiosity if you choose to explore the issue further.
I do however want to focus on one area that NAEYC highlighted.
ASSESSING CHILDREN’S DEVELOPMENT AND LEARNING
Here’s a quick look at what NAEYC says about assessment…
Teachers cannot be intentional about helping children to progress unless they know where each child is with respect to learning goals.
Sound assessment of young children is challenging because they develop and learn in ways that are characteristically uneven and embedded within the specific cultural and linguistic contexts in which they live…sound assessment takes into consideration such factors as a child’s facility in English and stage of linguistic development in the home language. Assessment that is not reliable or valid, or that is used to label, track, or otherwise harm young children, is not developmentally appropriate practice.
Let’s look at how they describe appropriate assessment…
- Assessment of young children’s progress and achievements is ongoing, strategic, and purposeful.
- Assessment focuses on children’s progress toward goals that are developmentally and educationally significant.
- There is a system in place to collect, make sense of, and use the assessment information to guide what goes on in the classroom…
- The methods of assessment are appropriate to the developmental status and experiences of young children…Methods appropriate to the classroom assessment of young children, therefore, include results of teachers’ observations of children, clinical interviews, collections of children’s work samples, and their performance on authentic activities.
- Assessment looks not only at what children can do independently but also at what they can do with assistance from other children or adults…
- …input from families as well as children’s own evaluations of their work are part of the program’s overall assessment strategy.
- Assessments are tailored to a specific purpose and used only for the purpose for which they have been demonstrated to produce reliable, valid information.
- Decisions that have a major impact on children, such as enrollment or placement, are never made on the basis of results from a single developmental assessment or screening instrument/device…
- When a screening or other assessment identifies children who may have special learning or developmental needs, there is appropriate follow-up, evaluation, and, if indicated, referral…
Keeping in mind the 4th, 5th and 7th bullets above (highlighted in red) look at this…
Because of a tough new curriculum and teacher evaluations, 4- and 5-year-olds are learning how to fill in bubbles on standardized math tests to show how much they know about numbers, shapes and order.
In one sentence, the Daily News has encapsulated the complete inappropriateness of the assessment used.
- The assessment is not appropriate to the developmental status of young children.
- The assessment is not only used to evaluate children’s progress, but to evaluate teachers as well
- The assessment supports a curriculum which hasn’t been researched or validated, therefore the validity of the assessment is questionable.
Reading further we learn that the assessment doesn’t allow children to collaborate or get help from adults.
School officials said that the test was a good way for teachers to get information about their students. Teachers, on the other hand, didn’t find the assessment useful…
Administering the exams is a complete headache, teachers said. “They don’t know how to hold pencils,” said a Bronx kindergarten teacher…“They don’t know letters, and you have answers that say A, B, C or D and you’re asking them to bubble in…They break down; they cry.”
The test isn’t appropriate for children. It doesn’t help teachers. Of what benefit is it, then?
One of three tests obtained by the Daily News is created by Pearson — which made the New York State third- through eighth-grade exams, including a ridiculously worded question about a talking pineapple last year. Pearson also makes the Common Core materials that most city schools have recently adopted. [emphasis added]
Just out of curiosity I checked out the math curriculum at one of the nation’s most elite private schools. There’s nothing about the Common Core. There’s nothing about bubble tests. Unless they’re hiding something those things aren’t being used. The description, on the other hand, does sound developmentally appropriate. Do the educators at Sidwell Friends School know something that the State of New York doesn’t?
Math: Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten
Through a variety of teacher-planned activities and self-directed learning stations, the pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten math program offers a stimulating environment for fostering emergent mathematical thinking. Teachers encourage the free exploration and manipulation of classroom materials, including pattern blocks, Cuisenaire rods, buttons, coins, shells, and seeds. Children are exposed to practical “daily life” math. Many activities involve counting, such as “counting around the circle” to determine daily class attendance. Classroom calendars are dated and tracked by students. Classrooms provide opportunities to sort, classify, and compare objects. Students work on assessing attributes, duplicating and creating patterns, building recognition of numbers and geometric shapes, estimating, and graphing. Group work and free choice activities offer times to practice number concepts, number writing, and oral number tasks. Skills such as exhibiting one-to-one correspondence, sequencing, and linking numeric symbols with quantity are regularly practiced in classroom programs.
A rich curriculum, appropriate instruction and developmentally appropriate assessment is good for the nation’s wealthy who can send their children to schools like Sidwell. Money meant for students in public schools, on the other hand, is misspent on inappropriate materials and assessments which don’t benefit the students…or teachers.
Follow the money from the taxpayers…
…and back to the politicians making the rules for public education.
Remember this when someone complains that “we already spend too much money on education” in the US.
All who envision a more just, progressive and fair society cannot ignore the battle for our nation’s educational future. Principals fighting for better schools, teachers fighting for better classrooms, students fighting for greater opportunities, parents fighting for a future worthy of their child’s promise: their fight is our fight. We must all join in.