Thursday, May 1, 2014

Childhood is Expendable to Some Education Reformers

The following piece is cross-posted at the Huffington Post.

When I reflect on my childhood nothing but fond memories come to mind. Growing up in a rural part of western New Jersey sure had its benefits in the 1980's. Upon returning home from White Township Consolidated School (K-8) my brothers and I would complete our assigned homework in well less than an hour, which was reasonable in my opinion. More often than not as soon as we finished we whisked out the door of our house to get outside regardless of the weather. The next couple of hours before and after dinner were then spent playing with friends outdoors, exploring, riding bikes, fishing, shooting hoops, or hiking. If by some chance the weather were really bad we would then play with toys, tinker with Legos, or challenge each other to the coolest games of our young generation on the Atari and later Nintendo. For good measure some time was also spent on the Commodore 64 and Apple IIe computers.

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The childhood years were some of the best of my life as they should have been. Three was enough time dedicated to learning during my elementary years, but also ample time for play, exploration, competition, and leisure. These experiences definitely helped mold me into the adult I have become today. School complimented my activities at home as education was structured in a way that focused on experiential learning, play, performance, and building self-esteem. I learned and acquired array of skills that prepared me not only for college and careers, but also life. I can't even begin to imagine what my life would have been then or become today if these experiences had been ripped from me. Unfortunately this has now become reality for our youngest students in 2014 and the near future in the name of education reform.

Education reform is destroying childhood as we know it at both home and school. As a parent of two elementary students (first and third grade) in Staten Island, NY, I witness daily the negative impacts that Common Core and standardized testing, under the guise of education reform, are having on them. They come home each day and spend hours on homework that makes little sense to them and absolutely no sense in some cases to us, especially in math. Their love for learning is squashed as more of an emphasis has been placed on instructional scripts aligned to the Common Core, test prep, and homework designed to make them relive the torture they just went through in school. I do not fault the school, principal, or teachers for the wretched environment that my kids are exposed to each day, but rather the reformers who are making them hate school with a passion. Shouldn't we be instilling a passion for learning in each and every child? 

Education reform will be the demise of our once great educational system if politicians and other stakeholders do not get a grip soon. A recent story from an elementary school in Long Island, NY should make the dire predicament we are in very clear. Just the title of the article alone painfully illustrates the monumental mistakes that are being made for the sake of "improving" education - Kindergarten show cancelled so kids can study to be 'college ready'. Here is an excerpt that should make every parent and educator's blood boil:
A Long Island school has canceled its traditional end-of-year kindergarten show -- saying the children can't afford to take time off from getting themselves "college and career'' ready. "The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple," reads a letter sent by the principal at Harley Avenue Primary School in Elwood, Suffolk County, to parents last week. "We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers."
Are you kidding me? How can anyone with a good conscious do this to little kids? It is these experiences that make learning relevant, meaningful, and fun. The fact that schools feel they even need to prepare elementary students to be college and career ready is appalling in my opinion. This is not even the worst of it though. Other priceless elementary experiences that define the childhood years are being dramatically cut such as the arts and language programs, recess, and extracurricular activities. Developmentally young students need these experiences, but they become quite expendable as only Common Core aligned math and language arts associated activities will create a college and career ready student down the line. What is being done to them in essence is robbing them of some of the most important, life-defining moments of their long lives that will provide the foundation for future successes.

This post provides me with a stark reminder that current education reform has absolutely nothing to do with authentic learning, success, and student achievement. It has become a financial pipeline to line the coffers of anyone associated with Common Core, standardized testing conglomerates, and test prep. The pressure put on teachers to prepare young students for college and careers is utterly ridiculous and should be replaced with inspiring them to explore and discover their learning passions. After all, this is what our system was based on for years and success followed. As a society we cannot stand idly by while crucial foundational elements for learning such as play, creativity (driven by students), discovering one's identity, and the showcasing of non-tested skills are eradicated from elementary schools. If we do I fear that our education system will hit rock bottom in a few mere years and we will have no one to blame but ourselves for not acting.


  1. Hi Eric,
    While I agree with your sentiments about the excessive pressures schools are placing on students to get ready for tests, I don't see how any of this is the fault of Common Core or testing itself. We've had standardized testing for 20 years or more, and even before standardized tests were required, most schools gave them anyway. I took ITBS long before NCLB or CCSS.

    The distortions you describe are educators' misguided reactions to perceived pressures, not problems inherent to reform or testing. My school faced the same requirements and spent an average of about 2 days per year total on standardized testing (maybe 4 days in grades 4-5). No one is forcing educators to ruin kids' childhoods. That's a choice, and it's on us to make sure it doesn't happen.

    And if your kids' school is teaching math well, you shouldn't understand the homework, because you weren't taught the material. Ask for a parent packet. Math instruction changed a while ago, and it's not because of CCSS. It's because research (especially from the University of Chicago) has found better ways to teach number sense.

  2. Justin,

    I completely disagree. As a child in the 80's, I DID take standardized tests. However, they were not emphasized with a tenth the importance that they are today. States are placing teachers' and schools' reputations and funding on the line with these tests, and it was not this way when I was a child.

    Perhaps we should be looking to the countries who outperform us for guidance. (Although when comparing similar demographics we are still on par with these countries). Finland, for instance, will test their students 2 or three times before college, have arts/recess within the school day, mandate fewer school hours, and yet outperform the U.S. every year on international tests.

    Politicians wanting to make teachers accountable are driving the incessant testing. And it is a mistake.

  3. Yes Justin, standardized tests have been around for years. The huge difference now is the accountability components that now accompany them, which has dramatically changed everything. Since Race to the Top mandated the adoption of Common Core and the associated assessments there are immense pressures to prepare students to be "college and career ready". If this were not the case do you think that school would have still cancelled the kindergarten assembly? Can you also please explain why many of the people responsible for recent changes do not send their children to public schools where the changes have been mandated to learn math as you explain? As a parent and educator I see not just my children, but countless children suffering. At least at this point all I need is my own kids to share with me why they dislike school and the pieces fall together.

  4. Ryan and Eric,
    Thanks for your replies. I agree that the pressure has increased, and some of that pressure is backed by new laws and policies, but it is our professional responsibility as educators to respond to that pressure appropriately. I don't think anyone can really argue that the examples you shared were necessary or appropriate reactions to pressure; understandable, perhaps, but not justified.

    Let's be honest: the only degree of accountability that will not result in some educators reacting inappropriately is zero, and that's much more unacceptable.

    There are millions of educators who are teaching better than ever, taking the increased pressure in stride, and not losing their minds and canceling recess. We need to make that the expectation, not justify the overreactions of a few edge cases.

    (And again, none of this has anything to do with CCSS, SBAC, or PARCC assessments.)

    Eric, that's a good question about math. In my experience, policymakers tend to send their kids to private schools, which are more traditional in their instructional methods and slower to respond to new research. In this case, public schools are actually experiencing the good side of accountability: they are updating their instructional methods to meet the needs of their students, partly in response to increased accountability.

  5. There are inherent issues with the Common Core such as the standards being developmentally inappropriate for younger elementary students, mandated adoption through RTTT, lack of practitioners (teachers and administrators) in the development process, unfunded mandate for schools, and of course the ties to testing. Check out this article

  6. My thoughts today:

    Thanks for the great discussion!

  7. Dear Eric,

    Regardless of the outcome of Common Core, (for we all know realistically that where money has already been spent, a program will run its course), my heart soars to read words like these from a high school administrator. Please, please never lose faith in your students. They need leaders like you.

    Marybeth G., M.Ed.

  8. Marybeth - Thank you so much for your kind words. I can assure you that I will always continue to advocate for my students as well as those beyond the walls of NMHS>