Developmentally Inappropriate: ECE's Faustian Bargain

At the turn of the 21st century, Jeanne Shaheen, then governor, now senator, of New Hampshire, put early learning on the map of the Education Commission of the States.  Stunning, we all said. Wasn’t it about time? Pre-K had finally entered the big boys’ club.


Still, we worried.  Where was child care in this picture?  Infants and toddlers?  Supports for parents?  What about academic pushdown?  Beggars, we took this small, and tasty, morsel, a wedge, we convinced ourselves, into the sacred realm—so long off-limits—of the American family.  A baby step, to be sure, but we weren’t going backwards: we were stretching the boundaries of K-12, flexing our early childhood muscles, taking our place at the table.  And, in our moments of wild optimism, crowing about how we’d push back up, transforming K-12 with the wonders of developmentally appropriate practice.

Talk about denial.

Fast-forward to the polar vortex of 2014.  Nerissa Ediza’s tweet, on February 1, says it all. “What sober person gives standardized tests to a kindergartner?  Someone who’s actually never met a five-year-old?” she asked, releasing into the twitterverse a picture of the front page of The Oregonian“Kindergarten test results ‘sobering,’” read the headline, the text below depicting Governor Kitzhaber’s displeasure with early childhood education’s “scattershot” approach.

Rebecca Radding, a former pre-K and kindergarten teacher in a New Orleans KIPP school weighed in a week later, spilling her tale of woe:

By year three it had become very, very difficult for me to hide my disdain for the way the school was managed.  In the previous two years, I’d fought hard for the adoption of a play-based early childhood curriculum, only to see it systematically dismantled by our 25-year-old assistant principal.  When this administrator told us that our student test scores would be higher if we used direct instruction, worksheets and exit tickets to check for their understanding, I lost my shit.  I’m sorry, but five year olds don’t learn that way.

I was fired a week later.  Well, to be fair, I was told that I “wasn’t a good fit”…Somewhere along the line I developed this radical idea that children are humans who should be treated with dignity, and that the classroom should ideally be a place to be even if schooling weren’t compulsory.

The earth has moved—an avalanche of accountability, threatening the child-centered precincts of the field.  Whole cities are assigning homework to preschoolers, demanding they “read” hundreds of books.  “Study finds that kindergarten is too easy,” crowed Education Week, reporting on a forthcoming article, in the American Educational Research Journal, by Amy Claessens, Mimi Engel, and Chris Curran, who found greater gains in math and reading when students were exposed to more advanced content.  The article, soon to retreat behind a firewall, has garnered most-viewed status on AERA’s website since it was posted on November 13.  Claessens attributes the interest to “some pretty interesting policy implications,” adding that “shifting what you’re teaching is very cost-effective.” Nothing like a little cost-benefit analysis to get those synapses firing.

The damage to developmentally appropriate practice has been steady, documented  for years by vigilant early childhood educators and advocates.  But now we’ve got empirical proof, from the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. As the zeitgeist was shifting, Daphna Bassok and Anna Rorem were updating “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?”  Working with two national datasets, which straddle the introduction of NCLB, the authors sought to fill in the gaps about the changing nature of kindergarten in the United States between 1998 and 2006.  Historical accounts, they note, “make it clear that the acute tensions between the academic and more broad developmental goals of kindergarten are not new—stretching back more than a century.”  But they concede that the pressure among principals and teachers accelerated considerably during the period they studied—before the adoption of the Common Core standards—with high-stakes assessments leading to academic and accountability “shovedown.”

Among the findings: kindergarten teachers in 2006 held higher expectations for their students, spent more time on English Language Arts, and many of the skills they reported teaching on a daily or weekly basis  had been designated as too advanced in the previous period.  In 2006, they report, 65 percent of kindergarten teachers—more than double the percentage in 1998—thought most children should learn to read on their watch. Moreover,  exposure to social studies, science, music, art and physical education declined, with 19 percent of teachers reporting that their kindergarteners never have PE.  “The changes we document in our study,” the authors conclude, “represent something other than a wholesale shifting of the first grade curriculum down by a year.  In many ways, kindergarten in 2006 looks quite distinct from both kindergarten and first grade classrooms in the late nineties.” (Note the authors’ use of italics.)

The evidence is incontrovertible.  But you never know where hope lies.  Recently, Forbes magazine suggested that we may be “educating our kids out of creativity.”  Who woulda thunk, from the “the capitalist tool”?

ECE PolicyMatters readers: What are you thinking about this burning issue?  Please share your thoughts, below.


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1 comment to Developmentally Inappropriate: ECE’s Faustian Bargain

  • Heather Woods

    When I first started working in early childhood in the late 1980’s, the attitude I was surrounded by was (is) that childcare workers, as we were known then, were babysitters, and preschool teachers were those that could not cut it as “proper” teachers. By trying to lift the bar and be recognised as a profession, I feel some have tried to do this by incorporating the traditional education methods. There are many international and national childcare advocates out there promoting the play base learning and as long as their voices are strong I live in hope that kindy never ever begins earlier than 5/6 years. In fact some schools have introduced this play based learning and one school I visited called this time “Investigations”. Live in hope!!!

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