Monday, April 28, 2014

Response to the Claim that K has Become the New 1st Grade

This post is a response to a rather poorly drafted article in the Washington Post lamenting that Kindergarten has become the new 1st grade.  Before reading this post, I strongly suggest you skim the article to better understand my response.

First off, I will be blunt, I hate this article and literally most everything it stands for.  It is so ignorantly opinionated, paints "the research" as godlike and of a single view, and states generalities of what "early childhood experts" believe that is totally wrong.  Kids gaining a rigorous education in K is not a problem.  The real problem is that kids in poor areas come into school having no early childhood education and are hence often unprepared for school.   Our nation and the left over 1960's hippies continue to promote non-educationally sound ideas that don't prepare our kids, or the poor, to really succeed anywhere.  the focus on the beauty of childhood is noble but incorrect because it creates delayed development.  While it is true that not all kids will be readers at the end of K, it is certainly a good idea to introduce rigor and reading then.  This is not new and has been done since the 50's in private schools.  Also, elementary school should not be unstructured lacking a scope and sequence of learning or curriculum.  It needs to have a sequential curriculum and assess the performance outcomes of student growth to begin to target any students who might be at risk to fall behind.  The younger we do this, the better chance we have at catching them up.  Testing, for evaluative purposes, can be done in a zillion ways, and not everything is "standard" and many times kids don't even know they are being tested.  When they do, it is often a great learning experience for them, their parents, and the school.  

Valerie Strauss, the author of this article, claims wrongly that rigor of any kind in K is a change and problem.  She says that K kids are now expected to read by the time they finish K and are in general held to the same standards as what traditionally, 1st graders were held.  (From the tone of this article not only is this a claim and that it is new, but that it is a bad thing)  The article then goes on to say that some kids will learn to read in K and others will not, but by the end of early elementary school most will.  This is absolutely true.  However, it then sneaks in a subtle phrase "without being seen as failure."  Like kids in kindergarten who aren't fluent readers someone feel like a failure and kids who can't read in 2nd grade feel fine?  I honestly doubt that.  If anything, if reading is taught in K and teachers are able to spot learning issues early on (sometimes even in preK) kids can be given remediation or in class support to prevent it from ever becoming an issue.

Done early, it not only often solves the issue, but is less social damaging and psychologically damaging than being a student who is still struggling with basic reading in 2nd or 3rd grade can be.  As a purely anecdotal example, I was a late reader.  My school, PDS, started rigorous reading instruction in K.  However, I didn't get it.  They identified this quickly and I was given pull out remediation for it.  My parents also hired a tutor.  I learned how to read fluently by mid 1st grade.  It might have taken much longer without that support and quite frankly, it might have caused me a lot more heart ache.  I honestly think my teachers and the school did the right thing.  I would want the same for my child or any of my students if they needed it.  Delaying assessment and support simply delays fixing an issue or denying one exists.  It does not actually help the child.  I am sure I could find plenty of studies suggesting the benefits of early interventions, but, more importantly, I can also attest to this in schools I have worked in.

The author then goes on to blast the notion of high quality programs for early childhood because they connote academically rigorous programs.  The author claims this is the same approach as the Common Core, which he/she trashes as top down driven and corporate.  The major offense is that apparently academic programs are "villainous" in that they emphasize global competitiveness job skills at too young an age.

While there have been countless studies, one often quoted, on how Head Start kids even out with those who did not attend k by 2nd grade, this does not mean rigorous K instruction is a bad or damaging thing.  Those studies don't address the reason the advances fizzle out.  Those students, who excelled because of an early childhood education and then fell back behind did so for a variety of reasons.  Reasons we all need to find out and address head on.  But, the program itself, the notion of a providing K to all students (and probably also preK) is not really the attacked.  There is a foreseeable benefit.  It might not be quantitative long term because of poverty related issues like lack of continued learning in the summers, lack of parental involvement, decreases in school attendance, excessive moving, and hunger.  However, those and the other issues often believed to decrease poor students original strides, are the ones that need to be addressed.  Failing to provide students, all students, with rigorous preK and K experiences is not a solution.  I could care less whether they are top down or corporate driven.  I care whether they benefit the child and well, no study shows they don't.

The author claims these high quality programs leave little time for play by replacing it with rote, teacher directed learning.  This is completely not true, if anything K teachers are rather well known in rigorous schools for infusing learning through play.  It is extremely myopic to believe that a school cannot focus on both learning to read and social development.  If a school is using a balanced literacy approach, it necessitates group learning and hence social skills.  Regardless, there is still tons of time spent in other learning centers and conducting playing. The Valerie Strauss then states that students successes and failures are actually monitored, which the author seems to think is terrible. For the life of me, I cannot seem to understand why monitoring progress and therefore holding everyone accountable is a bad thing.  The author claims that this is drill and kill and therefore can be damaging to the child and go against "research" out there. I have not seen this.

This is an opportunity for me to address this issue of claiming "the research" or "educational experts say" head on.  Newspaper reporters and even others use this term in the singular.  This irks me to no end.  The research is never a thing.  On any popular topic, there are tons of studies.  It is pretty rare that all studies say the same thing.  Even if they do, it is pretty rare that every expert agrees to a certain point.  In fact, it barely ever happens.  Educational research is not scientific in the truly classical sense.  It deals with real human beings and is conducted in a social science way.  Which means, it is not entirely objective.   It will never be as objective as hard core science research can be.  In looking at cell development, you can objective "see" certain things under a microscope.  "Seeing" success in education is a whole different ball of wax.  If it were able to operate with a similar level of objectivity as a science experiment, we would all then have the recipe for how best to teach our child and every school would look identical, which clearly it does not.   Students are not great research tools because there are tons of external factors that go into any measured results created by them.  Even the "tests" when best created can never be entirely objective.  The environment is far from a sterile testing ground, even if one tries to create the best most objective study out there.

In fact, this is precisely why over the past 10 years, teacher action research has become far more popular.  Having teachers in a grade or school get together and create internal studies that help guide their practice with similar practices to funded professional studies, but have the added benefit of being within the building.  The advantages here are that any results from such studies are more useful to that building or community simply because they are evidence based.  Evidence that is actionable on immediately and directly related to their population of use.  I am a huge fan of this practice and believe online testing like MAP testing, that can be short and skills based, are one of the essential elements in conducting internal studies objectively and with added rigor (see my earlier post about this).

Who the "experts" are is also not as universally recognized in the field of education as it might be in the field of nuclear physics or molecular chemistry.  Many claim to have expertise with little to no experience.  One persons expert is anothers politician or failed educator.  Let's be honest, most schools of education simply do not have the same standards of admission as most medical schools or PhD in any science programs.  Hence, the resulting experts or those in that institution are just not held with the same regard.  Even if someone is an "educational expert" other experts can firmly and justifiably disagree with their methodology in conducting studies or their educational philosophy in general.  So, this definitely needs to be considered when discussing studies conducted or expert viewpoints.  So when Valerie Strauss, the author of this article, blasts increased rigor in early childhood education by citing studies and experts it makes me eyes roll.

Another point she makes is that content standards do not take into account the way in which students learn.  This too is a classic non educator remark.  Content standards are not instructions how to teach a child, they are the what.  The school and the teacher create the how and why.  She assumes that the assessments conducted will be dogmatically driven by one singular method and that are devoid of the differentiation and technique that is common in an early childhood assessment.  She is correct that kids learn best through doing (this actually goes back to Dewey and Piaget), but she seems to fail to realize that most reading assessments are precisely that, kids learning through attempting to read, the doing.

So, is K really now an attempt to replace 1st grade?  I don't think so.  I still think there is a huge jump between K and 1st grade in terms of rigor, intellectual development, content standards, and even structure of the day.  It's crazy to think otherwise.  However, it is true that rigor in many kindergarten rooms is increasing and I, for one, am thrilled to hear it.  Our children can only benefit from this.  What are people really afraid of, that our kids, G-d forbid know more than we did in Kindergarten? Personally, I applaud that, and I am willing to bet many parents agree.