Blog: The Educated Reporter

Early Ed and the Common Core

Earlier this month EWA hosted a seminar in New Orleans on early childhood education. We’ll be sharing video and podcasts from the event in the coming weeks. We also asked some of the journalists who attended  to contribute posts from the sessions. Today’s guest blogger is Stacy Teicher Khadaroo of the Christian Science Monitor. You can also find out more about early childhood education on EWA’s Topics page. 

What’s the relationship between play and learning? Do enough preschool teachers – and parents, for that matter — understand how to blend the two in the best way to meet little children’s developmental needs?

Those questions have stayed with me since a spirited panel discussion on the impact of the Common Core on early childhood education, part of the Education Writers Association’s Feb. 3-4 seminar, “Building a Child’s Mind: Inside Early Childhood Education.”

Susan Neuman, a professor of early childhood and literacy development at New York University, launched the discussion with a reminder that the opportunity gap children experience early in life based on socioeconomic status isn’t just a matter of hearing fewer words, but also of being exposed to fewer words in print. 

As K-12 classrooms shift to the Common Core State Standards, there’s plenty that parents and preschool teachers can do to get their students ready for the challenging information-based texts that are now making more appearances at earlier stages, Professor Neuman suggested.

Children love to become “experts” on whatever interests them, whether it’s dinosaurs or whales. (For my 4-year-old son, it’s all about machines. His favorite place to call or visit in his imagination is 62 West Wallaby Street in London – the address for famed inventors Wallace and Gromit). To tap into this, adults can offer children specific, challenging vocabulary, and can help the children see themselves as scientists, exploring such questions as “What does blubber feel like?”

The Common Core standards are on target in requiring less rote memorization and more exploration, Neuman said.

But in many classrooms, implementation of the Common Core hasn’t matched up with that ideal vision, said the next panelist, Diane Levin, a professor of early childhood education at Wheelock College. (Find out more about her research here.)

She recalled a scene that seems increasingly rare to her these days:  5- and 6-year-olds following a classmate’s lead after he threw his coat up into a tree and delighted in the leaves falling down. As more children tossed coats and brought down leaves, some began sorting them, some began counting. The teacher carried their spontaneous lesson back into the classroom, where the students sorted leaves, read about the changing seasons, and wrote stories about the leaves.

“That’s what teachers miss in what’s happening now,” Professor Levin said about the pressure many teachers feel from the “academic pushdown” — in which kindergartens are losing budgets for play materials they need “to be creative players,” she said, and instead there’s more use of computers and testing of students’ early literacy and numeracy skills.

That, combined with the amount of screen time many young children have these days, is resulting “play deficit disorder,” Levin said, recalling a 4-year-old who asked about a lump of playdough, “What does it do?”

The Common Core standards, Levin says, are written in a way that’s resulting in direct instruction in classrooms – whether intended or not. In response, she’s launched Defending the Early Years (www.deyproject.org) to rally educators concerned about developmentally inappropriate trends in education.

Neuman pleaded for people to resist “a war over play vs. academic learning,” and Levin agreed. Both advocate for well-trained teachers who understand child development well enough to structure play in a way that promotes learning.

But Neuman also urged people to understand that it’s not enough to just expect preschoolers “to be socially and emotionally happy and play.” When it comes to tax-payer funded preschool for low-income children, especially, she said, programs need to give students more intensive and systematic instruction in order to “give every child a fighting chance” to succeed academically.  

The panel also included Ralph Smith, director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a national coalition of foundations and donors. Mr. Smith cautioned that as new testing comes along aligned to the Common Core, test scores will be going down before they go up – and middle class families might feel a lot of angst over this “performance gap.” He urged reporters and policymakers not to lose sight of continued concerns about the achievement and opportunity gaps, with low-income students and some minority groups lagging behind white and middle-class peers.

For the lowest-performing students, the interventions and supports they need aren’t going to be found just in school, Mr. Smith said, but in supports that allow them to show up to school with fewer health problems and help them maintain their progress academically over the summer.



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