Time and Space: Teresa Snyder on the Missing Elements in New York’s Early Learning Standards

Last May, New York’s top education policymakers released the “Next Generation Learning Standards.” The insertion of the descriptor did nothing to assuage the concerns of critics of the Common Core, among them a growing number of early childhood educators. The state’s history of implementation and top-down revisions of the English Language Arts and mathematics standards has been marked by great agita and one of the nation’s most robust opt-out movements.

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At the heart of the matter is the standardization of childhood, a time of critical growth and development. If we capitalize on this dynamic period, the argument goes, all our children will have the keys to the kingdom: they’ll be college- and career-ready. Of course, that presumes equity and equality, in shamefully short supply these days.  In a nation that values individualism—it’s embedded in our DNA—we routinely squash it in our youngest learners, denying their uniqueness.

Teresa Snyder describes herself as an “accidental administrator.” Teaching is her calling. In 2015, after retirement from a long career in which she founded an elementary school and served as superintendent of two school districts in and around Albany, New York’s capital, she was called to serve as interim superintendent of the Green Island Union Free School District.  They asked her to stay on. “It’s a tiny, high-poverty school, and I love it!” she says.

Along the way, Snyder has picked up her bona fides as a critic of the state’s education reform agenda, including a televised debate with John King, former New York commissioner and U.S. Secretary of Education. The post, below,  first appeared on her Facebook page, and I am publishing it with her permission, with a nod to Einstein’s time-space continuum.  He who is said to have deemed play the highest form of research.

 

By Teresa Snyder

Perhaps it is because I have spent the better part of my life and career in the company of small children that I have come to believe that childhood is a brief and extraordinary opportunity to observe the remarkable hunger for learning in human beings.

I am reminded when I observe my little granddaughter puzzling out her world. Her mother shared a video clip of her 17-month-old self, using the dog’s water dish as a paint bucket and the sliding door as her canvas. When she needed to sit down, she plunked herself directly into the dog’s food dish, which was the perfect size for her, and made her canvas even more accessible.

Perhaps it is because I was blessed with four children of my own who were as different as night from day. Each grew at an individual pace. One learned to read at three, another at eight. One learned to ride a bike at four, another at six. One spoke in complete sentences at two, another was fairly quiet until three. One walked at eight months, and one walked at 22 months.

Perhaps it is because I am a career educator who, like many of my colleagues, has filled out a lot of report cards. Many of us who worked with the littlest learners will recall just writing on Johnny’s report that he was still working on letter sounds or one- to-one correspondence or some small motor skill, only to have him suddenly master the task just as the ink was drying on that report card.

I don’t have much use for early childhood standards.  If there was ever a time in a person’s life that defies standards, it is that dynamic interval of human growth and development we have labeled early childhood. What is missing in the fixation on standardization are time and space, the opportunity for a child, as unique as her thumbprint, to face the challenges of learning without a stop watch. There is no hurry, there is no artificial limit. To suggest that all kindergarten children will be in the same place in reading, math, writing, or any other task, is about as reasonable as expecting they will all be 40 inches tall—the national average.

I have always been an advocate for time and space.  I have seen so many children who skipped through life easily grasping literacy and numeracy concepts, and I have seen so many others who never heard the “i” sound in fish or the “a” sound in apple, or who could not grasp counting by twos, or who could not tie their shoes, or who could not, or could not be bothered to, write a complete sentence—no matter how much remediation we forced upon them.

Lo and behold, a few years later, those skills are in place and just as accessible to one group as another. It is a little like the variation in learning to walk. Once the skills are mastered, no one measures a child against the standard of “walking at 12 months.”

My biggest fear with artificial standards is that children might intuit from adults that they are inferior if they don’t fit into the tight space to which the standards confine them. The worst message children can take from us is that they are not measuring up, that we won’t give them the time and space they need to develop their unique capacities. Large numbers of children get the message very early on that they are “not good” at exactly what we want them to learn.

Oddly, even children who succeed at our contrived standards frequently believe they are “not good” at whatever challenges they take on. Talk to some middle schoolers and they will tell you straight up what they cannot do. I have even talked to adults—some with distinguished degrees and careers—who echo these younger students. The message they heard and internalized is that they are “not good” at math, or writing, or history, despite evidence to the contrary.

New York’s latest round of early learning standards contribute nothing to the life of a child. Immeasurable is a rich environment, replete with opportunities to explore, devise, build, create, and play. Immeasurable are adults who actively listen to the children in their care and help as they negotiate problems, who can offer the language and experience that will guide children as they make sense of the world around them.

Also missing from the standards movement is the recognition that play is one of the most cognitively complex activities in which a child can engage. It is common to all mammals (and maybe other creatures as well). Play is the surest way for a child to build skills and to develop a sense of self-efficacy, defined by psychologist Albert Bandura as the belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations or to accomplish a task.

How about that for a standard?

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Harriett Krein-Hart: A Bright Light on the Hudson

When my firstborn was a toddler, his father and I began the search for child care. The project was daunting, the price tag exorbitant. To whom could we entrust our child? What were we looking for? Would we know the right program when we saw it? Would he be loved and treasured? The questions nagged at us as we moved through this agonizing rite of passage for the American parent.

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We found Purple Circle, a parent cooperative established in 1972 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Soon, we were part of the village it takes to raise a child. Who were these amazing people, our new lifeline in this task of rearing the next generation?  I was awed by what they knew and their dedication—for which they received little respect and recognition, some of them paid on par with embalmers and parking attendants.

Three decades later, north of the city, up the Hudson River, Sam and his life partner, Camille, would embark on this quest—for their own firstborn.  They found Harriett.

The country has come to the end of the season of appreciation. A time dedicated to the stewards of our children’s development and education. When I checked the website of the National Retail Federation on Friday, May 12—the designated day, since 1996, for recognition of child care providers and teachers—total spending on Mother’s Day, was expected to reach $23.6 billion.

Yet the demanding, essential work of caregiving and educating remains invisible on the ledger sheets for our Gross Domestic Product, the practitioners ignored.  “Just babysitting,” the work is often described by those, still too many, who are clueless.

“No society oriented exclusively toward individual success—to exclusion of care for the next generation—can reproduce itself,” economist Nancy Folbre warned in The Invisible Heart, a critique of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, animus of the free market. And to think he was a prime mover of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Smith lived long before Harriett, who “dumped blood, sweat, money, and time,” as my son put it, into her venture of early care and education. Two parents had found a crucial partner, an extension of their family, with whom they share the joys and sorrows of raising their boys.  Folbre’s heart was steadily beating.

At the end of March, with a batch of gluten-free blueberry muffins, I headed north to “school,” as the family refers to Bright Tykes, Harriett’s early childhood program, to celebrate my older grandson’s fourth birthday. There was a damp chill in the air. But this private home, retrofitted to accommodate children ranging in age from two months to five years old, was warm and cozy.

I arrived just before lunch. The productive hum of “organized chaos”—as an early childhood educator I once met defined “rigor”—filled the rooms.  The tracks of Brio trains, those wooden staples of my own kids’ childhood, were strewn on the floor, to disappear soon, during cleanup time, with perfect choreography that still leaves me awestruck.  To get a group of children at various stages of development to follow directions is not easy, and it is something that kindergarten teachers have long prized as a key indicator of readiness.

Fox, the birthday boy, was taking in the scene.  He’s a child with special needs—blind, with two diseases so rare they call them “orphans,” and a diagnosis of autism.  I like to put the adjective “special” in a different place in the sentence, before “child.”

He’s a connoisseur of music, whose rhythms evoke intense concentration and unalloyed delight.  Moving out into the world, exploring through his senses, Fox sings and whistles as he feels the contours of the family’s Volvo station wagon, and licks the clapboard wood siding of his grandparents’ house. He’s discovered pockets, sticking his hands in, with an impish grin, to find an iPhone, the grownup’s toy.  His development is deeply enigmatic, his spirit divine.

“We’re celebrating Fox’s fourth birthday today,” Harriett said to the children over lunch. He had reluctantly agreed to wear the gold crown, removing it quickly.  “What is it you like best about him?” she asked.  “He loves to give us hugs,” said two of his friends. And they return the gift with gusto: one morning, upon Fox’s return after a sick day, a gaggle of children had descended upon him in a group embrace.

Bright Tykes is a nutritious haven in my grandchildren’s ecosystem. Fox has been joined by his little brother, Hawk, their bond tightening over time. Uncannily precocious, as observant as his avian namesake, and joyful in temperament, Hawk looks out for “Foxy,” as he affectionately calls his sibling.

Here, the two boys who have hiked the trails of Columbia and Greene counties on their father’s back and in a sturdy mountain stroller, continue their exploration on field trips to a nature preserve within walking distance of the center.

“I’m so happy when the boys come home dirty, and Hawk’s built a bird’s nest out of stuff he’s found in the preserve,” Camille recently texted, with a link to “Running Free in Germany’s Outdoor Preschools,” in the New York Times.  She understands, intuitively, how this freedom fuels cognitive growth.  As a child of an imaginative, single woman living in poverty, Camille made toys and art out of sticks and street treasures. “The world is your playground, if you make it so,” her mother used to say.

Soon after that exchange, Sam sent me a couple of pictures of Hawk’s “fabulous bird’s nest sculpture.”  Just weeks after his second birthday, he had transformed into art the materials of his nature walk, constructing his knowledge, in the hands-on way of young children.

Yet more was to come.  The experience had provided the foundation for Harriet’s work. “We are learning about…birds, reptiles, fish, and mammals,” she wrote in a brief report. “Hawk is dedicated to the sorting process and the details about similarities and differences between species.” Curriculum objective organically achieved.

There you have it.

Photo Credit: (the) SAM LOGAN

 

 

 

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Bruce Fuller Weighs in, Again, on Pre-K for All: But Where Are the Real Experts?

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Bruce Fuller has weighed in—yet again—on universal preschool. He’s had a lot to say over the past few years, as Bill de Blasio, New York City’s mayor, has pursued a bold experiment to combat inequality in a “Tale of Two Cities.”

A professor at Berkeley’s graduate school of education, Fuller is well known for Standardized Childhood, his ten-year-old book that tackles the thorny questions of access and quality in early childhood education, while sticking it to proponents of preschool for all. “Institutional liberals in pursuit of political legitimacy and public dollars” he called them—marching down a dangerous path, well trodden

. . . Read full article →

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

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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.

Missing from the timeline is the sturm und drang of the process. Bianca Tanis, a . . . Read full article →

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