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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Will Bill de Blasio Exile Three-Year-Olds from Play?

My family held a Passover Seder in London this year.  A feast of liberation in a city governed by Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim to preside over a major Western capital.  Our haggadah, the guiding text, affirmed our solidarity with refugees across the globe.   The meal was leavened by savory Indian delicacies, mashed up and sampled by the 8-month-old infant at the table.

escape-route

I loved this version of our annual spring rite: short and unorthodox—a much-needed gaze beyond the navels of our own tribe. But my mind wandered.  I was worried about young children, exiled from play.

On my last day in England, I took the tube over to Islington.  In decline by the mid-20th century, left to the ravages of urban poverty, this London district, home to the likes of Damien Lewis, star of “Billions,” has seen explosive gentrification in recent decades, marked by renovation of its Georgian and Victorian mansions.  Council estates, as the British call their public housing, giving them names that evoke leafy, aristocratic homes, are still part of the mix. Income inequality is deep.

“You’re either very poor or very rich,” Anita Grant, chief executive of the Islington Play Association, told me, as we headed for the adventure playgrounds where she spent her youth and which she now oversees.  One of them, called Hayward, which serves children with disabilities, had been airbrushed out of an architect’s rendering of the grounds of luxury apartments—posted on a billboard for all to see on Caledonian Road, a local thoroughfare that still reflects the neighborhood’s diverse cultural influences.

Adventure playgrounds look unkempt, a little wild.  They have high hills of dirt, plots of land gardened by children and families, rubber tires, stones, baskets, buckets, rope, and handmade wooden structures—the kind on which my son liked to test his mettle in the late 1980s, when Manhattan was rougher, less sanitized, and the threat of litigation was minimal.  No standard-issue, multi-colored plastic slides in his favorite place, and no thick rubber to pad a fall.

Loose parts are plentiful.  Carl Sorenson, a 20th-century Danish landscape architect, a leader in the first generation of modernists, had watched children at construction and bomb sites gathering all kinds of materials to “create and shape, dream and imagine”—all critical elements of rich, sustaining play.  He helped to design a “Junk Playground,” in Emdrup, near Copenhagen, which he called the ugliest, but most beautiful, of all his creations.

Yet these spaces that nurture children’s imagination, innate drive to explore, and ability to negotiate differences are becoming rarer, more difficult to sustain.  This is true even in the United Kingdom, which embraced adventure playgrounds in the aftermath of World War II, placing them under the auspices of local organizations in dense urban areas.  “Most boroughs in London don’t fund them,” Grant told me, “and there are not many throughout the country.”

Soon after I returned to New York, Bill de Blasio, who made universal preschool one of the cornerstones of his agenda to combat income inequality, announced that it was time to expand it to the city’s three-year-olds.

“Do I have to hold a candle for play?” Aixa Rodriguez asked me.  The co-founder of Bronx Educators United for Justice,  she teaches older kids, English Language Learners, in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country. A long way from the city’s newest adventure playground on Governor’s Island—“sort of a junkyard,” one reporter called it when it opened last spring.  But Rodriguez’s niece is three years old, and she’s worried about what awaits her in preschool.

There’s plenty of evidence to fuel her anxiety. Over the past two decades, play and its paraphernalia—blocks, water tables, easels, props for pretending—have been disappearing from early childhood classrooms across the United States.  In Crisis in the Kindergarten, published in 2009 by the Alliance for Childhood, Edward Miller and Joan Almon mourned this trend, highlighted by researchers from U.C.L.A, Long Island University, and the Sarah Lawrence Child Development Institute. They had studied 268 full-day kindergartens in Los Angeles and New York City.  In many of them, play time had been virtually eliminated.

In a 2016 study, Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham, and Ana Rorem, researchers at the University of Virginia, compared kindergarten classrooms between 1998 and 2010, a period of heightened accountability in which No Child Left Behind was enacted, more money was invested in early education, and the Common Core state standards were designed.  Academics, they confirmed, had trickled down to early childhood.  Kindergarten had become the new first—or even second—grade.

The use of textbooks and worksheets had substantially increased, as had standardized testing.  Child-initiated inquiry, how kids learn best, was pretty much gone, replaced by teacher-led instruction.  Curriculum focused on math and literacy skills had pushed out art, music, and science, depriving these young students of a broad, rich experience.

I was over the moon when de Blasio pioneered free preschool for four-year-olds.  New York’s children and families had been waiting since 1997, when Republican Governor George Pataki first enacted legislation.  The state’s movement toward universal access and adequate financing has been erratic, at best, and the mayor’s initiative was bold.  But with kindergarten as the new first or second grade, expectations for preschoolers have increased.  The pressure is on.

The tradeoff for early education’s legitimacy and funding has been painful—a Faustian pact. The kind of playfulness that we see in the smartest mammals has lost its pride of place. Our littlest children have been abandoned, left to wander in the desert.  We need to bring them to the oasis, before it’s too late.

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Andrew Gillum’s Campaign to Bring Home Play

Gillum-kissing-daughter

It’s not easy keeping up with the latest in education policy. I have to wade through lots of detritus in my inbox. And we haven’t even begun to talk about social media, to which, like other previously sentient beings, I have become addicted. I may have to check myself into one of China’s digital detox camps soon.

But I’m compelled to abide by that maxim, attributed, variously, to Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, and Michael Corleone in “The Godfather”— the one about keeping your friends close, and your enemies closer.

As a result, I field frequent emails from the Foundation for . . . Read full article →

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Susan DuFresne’s Model Agenda for the Early Childhood Resistance

Susan DuFresne2

Teachers across America are the casualties of education reform run amok. Their expertise is ignored, they’re evaluated via discredited metrics based on student test scores, and they’re expected to compensate for all manner of society’s ills. No wonder they’re quitting at record rates. But the ascent of Betsy DeVos has engendered a new spirit of activism, and reinvigorated those on the front lines of resistance.

Early childhood educators are relative newcomers to the action. Long marginalized as a workforce, most of those who teach our youngest children have been slow to raise their voices in public. Not Susan DuFresne.

. . . Read full article →

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