Education

An Educator's Wishlist for the New Year

How one long-time educator hopes to change the education landscape in 2015.

This New Year will mark the 12th anniversary of my becoming a grandparent. It is also sure to be a year where I will continue to examine how education reform has impacted the lives of my now eight grandchildren, in ways I could never have imagined in 2003.

2014 was my year to worry about student and teacher burnout as well as joyless learning and teaching. I began the year writing about how incorrect implementation of standards and meaningless assessments hurt babies and toddlers, and ended it writing about how the current educational climate also hurts teachers. In between, I wrote many times about the unintended consequences of Common Core Standards and the over testing linked to those standards.

As we look toward beginning a new year, resolutions always seem appropriate. So In 2015, I pledge to advocate, in the following ways, for the kind of educational experiences my grandchildren, and all children, deserve.

Resolution #1: I Promise to Fight for Developmentally Appropriate Education for Young Learners

For my three little ones not yet in formal school, I promise to continue fighting against developmentally inappropriate expectations, materials, and lessons. In an effort to prepare preschoolers for kindergarten, we have lost sight of the importance of meeting the needs of our youngest children in the here and now.

Back in March, I wrote a post about ExceleRate Illinois, a new grant from the federal government to create a system for rating and improving the quality of all early learning and development programs statewide. I shared my fear that, despite everyone’s good intentions, such an effort would devolve into nothing short of “The Diaper Olympics,” where the competition for “excellence” would take precedence over more developmentally appropriate concerns.

I would hate to see my youngest grandkids caught up in a preschool version of Race to the Top (RTTT). When policy makers think it's a good idea to want very young children to "excel" in their early learning, supposedly to ensure success in school down the line, I see that as a red flag. And I'm even more worried about young children being "rated" in their skill development.

So I pledge to continue highlighting just how wrong it is to expect preschoolers to learn and develop according to a timetable. Anyone who knows anything about young children understands that their development is not linear; it is, by its very nature, all over the map. Some walk at nine months, and others at 18; some toilet train by age two, and others at age four; some talk when they are one, and others are not intelligible until they are almost three. Ask any parent who has worked hard to accelerate any of these not when the parent thinks it should.

I accept that standards are a valuable tool for understanding what typically happens at a given stage of development to inform teachers' curriculum planning and to watch for children who do not meet developmental milestones. But I have also seen the downside. From personal experience writing community standards for early education, I witnessed the misguided implementation of those standards. Educators who did not understand that young children still learn best through play and hands-on experience were incentivized to "teach to the test." This was precisely the unintended consequence I feared—which is why I will continue to emphasize that how young children learn matters more than what they learn, in the hope that someone out there will listen.

Resolution #2: I Will Work to Ensure More Joy and Creativity and Fewer Tests for Kids in Grade School

For my three grandkids in elementary school, I promise to do everything in my power to expose the damage caused by narrowing the educational focus to reading and math, using high stakes testing in place of meaningful assessment, suppressing creativity, and not respecting children’s unique learning styles.

In September, I shared three important questions my grandson asked before starting kindergarten:

  1. Will my teacher be nice?
  2. Can I get cookies?
  3. Do they have a tiger robot in their toys?

Great questions, but I was worried for him because kindergarten has now become the new first (or even second) grade, with kids anxiously filling in bubbles and receiving reading instruction when many can’t even decode words yet. And my grandson was a young, exuberant boy entering an environment that would demand a lot from him. Luckily, the answer to the first question (the one about his teacher) was a resounding yes.

Sadly, though, he quickly discovered that cookies were not served for snack (unhealthy), and that there were no tiger robots in the classroom. Years ago, the play kitchens and imaginative free play areas disappeared, followed by the blocks and easel paints and most other toys. Time for socialization and play have also vanished. Here too, we seem to have forgotten that how children learn at this age matters; facts drilled into their heads that have no connection to their life experience, or regard for their development, are both meaningless and quickly forgotten.

My two granddaughters in second and third grade tell my grandson he’s lucky. At least he gets some free time and fewer high-stakes standardized tests. And he doesn’t have to spend all of his time learning to analyze non-fiction passages about boring topics like kidney transplants, using the close reading technique that I described in an April blog post. At least he hasn’t lost the joy of reading. In my granddaughters’ classrooms, enjoying reading is beside the point. The real point is for them to learn to achieve, both academically and personally. At this point, the math my grandson learns still makes sense. My granddaughters’ math curriculum and homework seem to have forgotten that 8-year-olds are not abstract thinkers capable of handling several variables at once or worksheets that flit from topic to topic without allowing children to master concepts.

And then there is the excessive testing they have endured. The third grader can look forward to nine hours of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (or PARCC) test this spring. The image of her and her classmates, some of whom only have access to computers in school, typing essays, highlighting and dragging, and using the keyboard to peck out how they got an answer to a math problem on the PARCC brings tears to my eyes. I know a good part of my granddaughter’s school year will be spent on the mechanics of taking the PARCC, and the rest on teaching very specifically to the things asked on the test. My guess is there won’t be much history, fiction, creative writing, or other interesting projects for her or her classmates this year.

So for these grandchildren, I will pledge to keep writing about how misguided it is to put all of the emphasis on the end goal and very little on the most appropriate way to get there. This approach to teaching young children ignores everything we know about child development and how kids learn best. And it leaves no time for all of the wonderful teachable moments all educators and students cherish and remember. 

Resolution #3: I Will Continute to Advocate for Better Adaptations, More Appropriate Inclusion, and a Continuum of Services for Children with Special Needs

For my two grandchildren with special needs, I promise to be their voice in advocating for the best possible educational opportunities. Sometimes, that means more inclusion. Other times, it means highly specialized and differentiated learning. But in all learning environments, it means teaching to their strengths while helping them to overcome their challenges.

My grandchildren join the ranks of the growing and staggering number of children with special needs. According to the recent report by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children is diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder, an increase of 30 percent from two years ago. In 2011, the CDC reported that 11 percent of children ages 3-17 are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Overall, about one in six children in the U.S. had a developmental disability in 2011, ranging from mild disabilities such as speech and language impairments to serious developmental disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, and autism. That's a lot of kids who need some form of special education.

As children mature, however, it can become more complex to meet their needs without adaptations (like having visual or written directions in addition to oral ones, permission to use a computer or iPad for writing, or the ability to take frequent breaks). Learning issues often emerge that are difficult to address in general education inclusion settings. An inclusion approach needs to fit the specific child, not the other way around. And resources may have to be increased to allow for this, rather than cut back.

Though the recent trend toward inclusion of children with special needs in general education classrooms seems to be the just and fair way to go, I increasingly find myself wondering whether inclusion is always the right way to go. Without sufficient resources, appropriate adaptations, well-trained staff, and a school culture devoted to inclusion, children may actually lose educational opportunities in these kinds of environments. Sometimes separate but better education serves special needs children best, depending on the complexity of the learning issues at hand. That’s why a well-planned continuum of individualized services is critical. Good intentions are not enough; inclusion plans only work if they are well thought out, highly individualized, and sustainable. 

In 2014, I found my voice as a blogger, and I am lending it to children like my grandkids. For the children who are too young to share how they feel, I will use my writing to let people know the developmentally appropriate ways to care for you and teach you. For the grade school kids whose spirit and creativity are oppressed by narrow expectations and joyless learning and testing, I will continue to advocate for different educational policies to make your time at school meaningful to you. And for children who are unable to share their educational experiences due to having special needs, I will continue to speak out for you. 

My wish for 2015 is that my grandchildren’s teachers are given the opportunity to honor the energy, curiosity, zest for life, and unique interests that is every child’s gift. I want my grandchildren, and their peers, to love learning and to be happy. It is what every child deserves.

Laurie Levy blogs regularly for ChicagoNow and her work has been published in Huffington Post and the Forward. She was the founder and executive director of Cherry PreschoolJoin her Facebook community and subscribe to her newsletter.

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