Bianca Tanis on New York State Ed’s Shakedown of Early Childhood

At EngageNY, a website maintained by the state’s education department, there’s a timeline for the implementation of the Common Core standards. As you might expect from a bureaucracy, it is not current, stranding us at the 2014-15 school year.   A footnote, in red type, announces an update on November 18, 2013, available in a PDF file for downloading. We’re assured that the curriculum, instruction, and assessments are rigorous, that they focus on priority knowledge—whatever that may be—and skills to ensure college- and career-readiness.

Bianca School Bus

Missing from the timeline is the sturm und drang of the process.  Bianca Tanis, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, knows the territory well.  A K-2 special education teacher in the Hudson Valley and an advocate at the forefront of the opt-out movement, she has seen misguided education policy increase inequity for students while silencing teacher voice.  In her piece, below, she explores the exclusion of early childhood educators, and the repercussions for young children.

 

By Bianca Tanis

We should never have to fight for the right of children to play. Nor should we have to fight for them to spend more than 20 minutes at recess. Instruction should never come at the expense of the creative, spontaneous, and joyful exploration of 4- and 5-year olds. But, increasingly, it does. With the unveiling of New York State’s “Next Generation of English Language Arts and Mathematics Standards,” the struggle to maintain these experiences for young learners—already underway—will intensify.

When New York’s Education Department released the draft standards last September, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia claimed they represented substantive change. Yet most revisions consisted of minor tweaks to language and placement. There were very few shifts in content, and the Common Core anchor standards remained mostly intact. The latest iteration walks back any positive content changes, increasing the rigor of the prekindergarten through second-grade grade standards over and above the draft released in September, and moving some first-grade standards to kindergarten.

While many policymakers profess their commitment to play-based learning and meeting the needs of the whole child, their actions say otherwise. This problem is not unique to New York. But in a state with one of the largest parent uprisings against high-stakes reform and the arbitrary imposition of rigor on child-centered practice, Elia’s reaction is disturbing.  She and the New York Education Department have missed an opportunity to deliver developmentally appropriate learning standards that align with early childhood’s robust evidence base.

They’ve also systematically denied teachers who work with young children the chance to advocate for their students and reasonable expectations for development as well as practice that engages them in the critical early years of learning.

Although some teachers working with children in prekindergarten through second grade took part in the review, their voices were marginalized. Not a single early educator was a member of the Standards Review Leadership and Planning team.  None were facilitators, or on any of the advisory panels that made the final revisions.

Those who took part in the original standards revision work in August of 2016 were so dissatisfied with the process that they ultimately requested the formation of an early learning task force.  But these outspoken educators were barred from serving on the 32-member committee, of which only a quarter were early educators.

It’s easy to understand why they were largely excluded from this process. In a room full of teachers working with prekindergartners to second-graders, you would be hard-pressed to find consensus around the idea that all kindergartners should “read with purpose and understanding”—an expectation that  Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force report cited as concerning to early childhood experts.

Ten out of 14 members of the PreK-2 review committee issued a letter of dissent, expressing concern that the number of skills included in the revised standards would make it difficult to find time for play-based and child-led learning.

Also missing were educators and parents from New York State Allies for Public Education, Class Size Matters, and the Badass Teachers Association as well as other grassroots groups that have voiced serious concerns about the Common Core and a shift to increasingly academic expectations in the early years of education. The charade of responsiveness to the public does not hold up when revisions are made in the absence of dissent.

Throughout the course of the standards revision process, Commissioner Elia repeatedly praised her own sensitivity to the concerns of parents and educators. At every step of the way, the education department touted their focus on play and “the needs of the whole child.” But everything was carefully orchestrated, designed to guarantee an outcome that couldn’t be more unresponsive to the concerns of the public and the needs of young learners.  I urge you to take a closer look and make your voices heard. The deadline for public comment is June 2.

Nowhere in these next-generation standards is the promised emphasis on the whole child and the importance of play. Neither the word “play,” nor allusions to it, can be found in the math standards, and play is mentioned only four times in the more than 190 prekindergarten through second-grade English Language Arts standards. In the case of these standards, which apply across the spectrum, play is hijacked, seen merely as an opportunity for students to demonstrate a particular skill.

This schism between policy and best practice is not a difference of opinion, a compromise between two pedagogical approaches, or a lack of information. It is a complete and total shakedown of early childhood education in service of the misguided notion that if we start children on a diet of rigorous expectations right from the get-go, they will yield higher test scores in the future. These results only confirm socioeconomic status—the key factor in academic achievement—and will serve to widen the opportunity gap.

How did this happen? We need to examine the process by which New York circumvented the wisdom and experience of the real experts: the classroom teachers who work in the early grades.

We’ve been scapegoated, used to justify policies that pile on inappropriate expectations, ignore the variability of development, and fill the days of childhood with teacher-directed instruction and rote learning. It’s time to stop stamping out the love of learning before our youngest students are old enough to ride a two-wheeler.  We owe this to the next generation.

Photo credit: Bianca Tanis

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