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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