Is Early Reading a Problem?

Robert Pondiscio of the Fordham Foundation (a thinky tank deeply devoted to the Common Core) appeared on US News this week to stick up for the Common Core's demand that kindergartners learn to read.

He's responding to the recent report from Defending the Early Years and the Alliance for Childhood. The report (which I covered here) makes a case that the Core ignores developmental experts.

Pondiscio engages in a subtle but significant misrepresentation of the criticism of CCSS's early reading requirement when he says "What critics seem to be saying is that Common Core is simply too hard for kindergarten."

Well, no. Not exactly.

I can't think of a single person I've encountered on any side who has said, "For the love of God, whatever you do, don't let kindergartners learn to read!! Don't even let them get ready to read!" Nor do I know of anyone in education who doesn't recognize the value of learning to read. I do look askance at statements about early reading success being predictive of "a child's academic trajectory" because it smells a great deal like one more person confusing correlation with causation. But even if I don't buy the usefulness of that observation, it doesn't make me value reading any less.

However, there is a world of difference between saying, "It's a good idea for children to proceed as quickly as they can toward reading skills" and, "All students must demonstrate the ability to read emergent reader texts with purpose and understanding by the last day of kindergarten."

The development of reading skills, like the development of speech, height, weight, hair and potty training, is a developmental landmark that each child will reach on his or her own schedule.

We would like all children to grow up to be tall and strong. It does not automatically follow that we should therefor set a height standard that all children must meet by their fifth birthday-- especially if we are going to label all those who come up short as failures or slow or developmentally disabled, and then use those labels in turn to label their schools and their teachers failures as well. These standards demand that students develop at a time we've set for them. Trying to force, pressure and coerce them to mature or grow or develop sooner so that they don't "fail" -- how can that be a benefit to the child.

And these are 5-year-olds in kindergarten. On top of the developmental differences that naturally occur among baby humans, we've also got the arbitrary age requirements of the kindergarten system itself, meaning that there can be as much as a six-month age difference (10% of their lives so far) between the students.

Saying that we want all students to grow up exposed to rich environments that promote reading-- that's a great idea. Setting an arbitrary cut-off standard and then labeling everyone who doesn't meet it a failure is a terrible idea. The Common Core does not present its reading standards (developed without input from any early childhood learning experts) as suggestions; it presents them as a list of Things Students Must Know By the End of the Grade. That's what Pondiscio tiptoes around in his piece-- that we are going to tell five year olds who aren't at the standard that they are failures (and probably on a path to be failures for life).

And I'm not even starting on how the Core encourages the use of standardized testing to show how students have met the standard. What earthly good does it do to subject a five year old to a standardized test?

Giving each child the earliest best possible shot at learning to read is an admirable and worthwhile goal, but demanding that each and every child meet a One Size Fits All standard is not, particularly when that standard has not taken into account the realities and varieties of early child development.

Originally posted at Curmudgucation

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