How Our Backward Approach to Education Hurts Our Youngest Learners

When my daughter was in second grade, she loved performing in ice skating shows. But she regularly complained about a baby in her group who was ruining the performance. When I volunteered to help backstage, I saw that she was right: there was a tiny child in ice skates, still being nursed by her mother between acts, being pushed out on the ice well before she could possibly have been ready for such a feat. 

Clearly, this mother hoped that by starting her child skating at a very young age, she would produce the next Dorothy Hamill. I’m sure the folly of this plan is obvious: a child who toddles across the ice with no understanding of why she is doing it and no intrinsic motivation to skate does not guarantee a future champion. Not surprisingly, this child quit skating by age five, when she was finally able to advocate for herself.

I tell this story often to illustrate the importance of developmentally appropriate expectations. As an early childhood educator, I believe that when children are young they learn best through play and hands-on experiences. I do not believe didactic lessons and rote memorization are any more appropriate for young learners than forcing a nursing toddler to perform in a skating show.

Why, then, does our current approach to education strive to do exactly that? Why do we now start with the end product and work backward? The prevailing thinking seems to go something like this:

  • This (X, Y and Z) is what we want students to know when they graduate from college.
  • To get there, this is what they must master by the end of high school.
  • Thus, they need to be able to do this by the end of eighth grade and this by the end of fifth grade.
  • To reach that goal post, they must be here by third grade, here by kindergarten and here by the time they are three.

Using this logic, we will soon expect newborns to hit milestones shortly after birth to be on the right trajectory for college and career readiness.

It’s all such nonsense. Yet it’s nonsense to which the politicians, textbook publishers and businesspeople who make our educational decisions these days are now holding our children hostage. Child development is not linear, despite the expectations of our education policymakers, and there is a wide range of normal for most developmental skill sets, from walking to talking to reading. Those are facts any child development expert will back up – including the little girl who knew in second grade that babies should not be ice skating. She grew up to be a child development expert herself.

My daughter, Alissa Levy Chung, holds a Ph.D. in clinical and developmental psychology. She has lectured on child development at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy and has a private practice in child psychology. What follows are her views on why approaches such as those that drive the Common Core curriculum end up being so inappropriate for young learners.

What Went Wrong?

The greatest flaw in the educational reform movement that created the Common Core State Standards is as obvious as the skating toddler described above. The architects started at the end (college and careers) and traced backward to where they thought they should begin to achieve the ends they had in mind. The problem with that approach is that it back-maps development, based on the assumption that development is linear. You don’t have to be an expert to know it’s not.

A good example of non-linear growth is children’s height. Pediatricians’ growth charts do not map growth on a straight line, nor are they 100% accurate. They can be used to predict how many inches of growth to expect in a child over a certain number of years, but we understand that those numbers are within a range, and that there is a wide range of “normal.” Some kids grow a lot, and fast. Some kids grow slowly at first, and then have a major growth spurt. Some stay small from start to finish. The growth chart can’t predict that and we don’t expect it to; its more important use is to note if a child deviates significantly from the expected rate of growth, so we can explore why.

Much the same is true of cognitive development in early learners. There is a wide range of normal regarding when children will reach certain educational milestones. So why would the creators of the Common Core make demands of young learners that have nothing to do with how they actually learn?

Perhaps the back-mapping that happened in developing the Common Core was a function of who was at the table when it was created. Unfortunately, there were no contributors from early childhood education or child development included in the process, and special education and ESL (English as a second language) teachers were excluded as well. Few elementary school teachers or people who had actually taught in classrooms were at that planning table, and most of the educators who were invited were from the university and secondary school level, making it unsurprising that the focus was on college and career readiness from the start.

Instead, many members of the planning committee represented the textbook, curriculum, and testing industries. As Diane Ravitch noted,

“The makeup of the work groups helps to explain why so many people in the field of early childhood education find the CCSS to be developmentally inappropriate. There was literally no one on the writing committee (with one possible exception) with any knowledge of how very young children learn.”

The result was the placement of many unscientific and developmentally inappropriate expectations within the curriculum of the Common Core. Learning to read is a perfect example of how the group got it so wrong.

When a young child is learning to read, she first progresses very slowly while sounding out words. She may only comprehend part of what she can read aloud. Then one day, she is suddenly really reading. A veritable burst in development occurs when the reading process “clicks” in the brain. But average growth curves can’t, by their very nature, tell us what an individual child’s cognitive growth will look like. Because there is no linear progression in learning to read, testing a child on Day X could make it look like she is making very slow progress as compared to her peers. But if the same child was tested on Day Y, after her burst in reading, she might score far higher than her classmates.

Common Core’s backward focus has unfairly leveled problematic, non-research-based expectations on our children. For example, when Common Core designers looked at reading (Lexile) levels, they decided, first, where they wanted students to end up to be “college ready.” But when they back-mapped from that point, they couldn’t see a clear path to the answers they wanted—so they just shifted desired outcomes for reading up. Critically, there is zero research base to support the resulting expectations for young learners.

A Better Way

In child development, it is understood that you must take care of the business at hand before leaping ahead, because staying in the now actually prepares children for the future. There are numerous research-supported examples of the ways in which trying to project ahead and prepare children for later development backfires. Nurturing infants and responding to their cries leads to greater independence in preschool, whereas leaving babies to work things out on their own makes them clingier and more dependent. Play-based preschools generally have a better track record in preparing children for kindergarten than academic ones do. It is critical to build a developmental foundation, particularly in the early years when brain changes are most profound (though there is of course room for change in later development). When we try to propel children to the next steps or plan their present by considering what they will look like in the future, they end up with holes in their foundations. 

Using a child development framework for creating learning standards and curriculum would have provided a better way forward. Starting from birth and using research-based information on what promotes optimal developmental outcomes is far more appropriate than back-mapping. Following best practice each step of the way, the better approach would have been to take what we already know about what works in early childhood, and implementing it on a large scale.

From an early childhood and research-based child development perspective, the skills currently valued by Common Core (like early reading) are irrelevant predictors of school success. Three much better predictors are:

Turning early childhood education (birth to age 8) into mini-universities, with teacher-led, didactic teaching methods, deprives children of the opportunity to structure their own time productively through play, which is the key to developing executive functioning skills. Play-based, hands-on learning also teaches children to solve problems with peers and to work together cooperatively, the self-regulation and social skills critical to success.

Another essential piece for successful early learning (and, one could argue, for all learning) is the relationship between child and teacher. This is especially important for kids from high-risk families. Pressures on teachers to produce measurable outcomes and results take time away from this important aspect of their work. Research supports this. This is an important unintended consequence of the backwards construction of the Common Core curriculum and the high stakes testing that accompanies it.

So if we could start over, how could we make Common Core more developmentally appropriate for young learners? Again, using reading as an example, we would first ask ourselves when the average child learns to read (generally, by age 7). Since we know there is a wide range of normal, making reading an expectation for kindergarten immediately makes no sense. Understanding that the building blocks of reading are decoding (learning letters and phonics that enable children to read the words) and comprehension (understanding of words), we would reformulate the approach to reading away from the worksheets and drilling that have become standard, and towards the kind hands-on literacy activities that actually captivate young minds.

To help children with decoding, early childhood educators use chants like Willaby Wallaby Woo that teach phonics, rhyming and sound substitution through song and play. Children enjoy this activity because it is both fun and developmentally appropriate. Similarly, if a teacher wanted to teach “M” as the letter of the day, ideally, we wouldn’t ask her to use worksheets. Instead, she would be asked to engage the children in a treasure hunt in the classroom to find real things starting with “M.” Worksheets are developmentally inappropriate for young learners, and the treasure hunt teaches the same skill in appropriate, play-based way.

Similarly, the comprehension piece would be approached in a way that engages children’s interests and imaginations. In developmentally appropriate early childhood instruction, the teacher selects a book that is relevant to the children in her class and reads it with expression. As she reads, she stops to ask, “What do you think will happen next? Why did the child make this decision? What is this about? Why does she look so sad?” Choosing a high-interest, age-appropriate book promotes both love of reading and reading comprehension.

But Common Core allows for little to none of this, given its unrelenting focus on making kindergarteners “college ready.” It puts undue pressure on all learners, and teachers, and because of its backward construction, a child with a totally normal developmental curve can easily be labeled a failure rather quickly. Interventions that may not be needed kick in, when simply allowing that child a bit of time to grow and develop would accomplish the same thing, at far less cost to the child’s self-esteem and to our financially strapped school systems.  

Since 2002 when No Child Left Behind became law, we have been looking in the wrong direction, focusing on outcomes that ignore how children learn. Instead, we must start from the beginning, employing what we know to be best educational practices for young learners and meeting children where they are, not where we want them to be 13 years hence.

Only when we factor in what we know about developmentally appropriate practice and child development, and address the underlying abilities of individual children, will we create meaningful curricula that allow all learners to thrive.


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