“Play is children’s work.”
My wife, the professional educator in our family, is fond of saying that the reason I get along so well with children is that I have a childlike mind. Specifically she references a four-year-old but I think she may be a bit generous in that estimate. I do know that ideas fly around in my mind like pellets from Vice President Cheney’s shotgun. In my career as an educator I used this seeming lack of organization to my advantage. It made me much more flexible as a teacher to run with ideas that were generated by our class discussions.
In other words, it helped me think like a child.
Children are thrown into a chaotic sensory bombardment at birth and it up to them to make sense of that influx of information. We as their guardians have two obvious choices: we can let them flounder around on their own or we can help. People who teach are usually more interested in the second option.
But the intentionality of assisting children in their journey toward adulthood brings with it the responsibility to ensure that we are actually helping. Justin Reich writing in his blog offers three simple ideas for education reform. 1) To me the efficacy of these suggestions is obvious so I will try and make them equally clear to anyone.
Start Before School. We seem to have a prevalent misconception that age equals skill and maturity. It doesn’t. Any kindergarten teacher can tell you that the preparation a child receives for entering school is critical. Having taught kindergarten for eleven years I can attest that all five year old children are not even close to alike. In fact one of the great challenges for kindergarten teachers is dealing with the amazingly broad range of skills demonstrated by each new class.
I remember one class in particular, in it I had two children, girls oddly enough, who would eventually end up in self-contained classrooms, because of their aggressive behavior. Another student, a boy, was just five and larger than everyone else in class. He was not yet completely toilet trained and he slept for two hours every afternoon which kind of defeated the purpose of all-day kindergarten. And then there was a sweet girl who spoke only to me and never said anything to another child in the class but always described them in the third person. This little girl went by a different names that she came up with and I would have to discover how to address her at the beginning of each new day. Her favorite was Ballet Girl. If I referred to her with a name that she had used the day before she would cry and scream, “No, call me Ballet Girl!” It took me the better part of the year to get her completely tested and placed for the next year in an appropriate program. Of course in addition to these four I had 15 other students in that class who were also individuals with various needs and abilities. It was quite a year.
Having all children arrive at school ready to learn is every teacher’s dream and we should work to make it come to fruition.
Assess Less Frequently and More Effectively. I am not against assessments, they have their place. But we seem to lost sight of their true purpose. During the first week of each new year I would assess the skill level of my new students. It was important to have a baseline from which to plan my instruction. Generally for ongoing assessment I kept portfolios of my student’s work. This allowed me to see progress naturally without any pressure being placed on the student or myself. Near the end of the year I would assess them with the same tool I used during the first week to measure growth. The feedback I received from this process was instantaneous.
In stark contrast to this, the assessments that are ordered by the state are not user friendly to teachers. Typically we receive the report on how our students did the following August. This offers no usable feedback to help assess our teaching. The scores arrive as we are preparing for a whole new class. They are also scored against standards that mean little or nothing to a teacher grounded in developmental guidelines like myself because I don’t measure students progress against other students I measure them against themselves.
The only reasonable use I would have for a standardized test is if it was given in the first week or two of school and then the results were made available and it was given again at the end and the results were immediately available. But it would still be a less effective system than my own.
Support Continuous Learning and Innovation. This is where we are really falling down in our country. There is so much new information and research, not to mention the technological advances, that are basically unavailable to teachers for a variety of reasons: Money, yes money again. Until not one single teacher has to go out to buy basic necessities for their classroom like tissue, pencils or paper I don’t want to hear anyone say public education in America does not need more funding! Time, but not time to teach, we actually have more than enough time to teach. In his article Walt Gardner discusses the great variance in the definition of ‘class time’ across the nation and what is really important about this concept. 2) What is needed is greater collaboration and paid time for training in best practices. Teachers are isolated and under-prepared for the needs of the current classroom. Stephen Sawchuck argues in favor of providing more training for all teachers. 3)
And finally we come full circle back to my cause celeb: early childhood programs that are developmentally sound and fully funded for anyone that needs them. The only way to begin to decrease the disparity between children entering schools is to offer them enriching activities prior to their arrival at the classroom door. Julie Blair sees progress toward this goal in the adoption by many states of the Quality Rating and Improvement System, or QRIS. 4) Based upon guidelines from such agencies as NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) this and similar guidelines will ensure that the programs are grounded in current research and the accepted best practices.
There are families who provide this type of rich preparation now. I always had students enter kindergarten who were spot on ready to learn whatever I threw at them. But too often our poor are left to their own devices relying on a variety of childcare solutions while the parents struggle to make ends meet. If as a nation we offered a quality preschool/daycare program that was available to anyone based on need and we certified and supported those early educators with best practices strategies, the gulf between students skills entering school could be significantly decreased. I know you will say well what about DES? Isn’t that in existence precisely for that purpose? I worked for DES for seven years and I can tell you with few exceptions it is a program run on a shoestring. If we truly cared about our children’s preschool needs, and cared for all our children, both in terms of welfare and education, as a nation we would be doing so much more.