Early Childhood

Both Value and Harm Seen in K-3 Common Standards

By Catherine Gewertz — April 06, 2010 8 min read
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The common academic standards proposed for state adoption outline what students must master by graduation in order to flourish in college or good jobs. Defining how they reach those goals, however, means spelling out what they must learn at each step of the way, starting in kindergarten. And those expectations are getting a mixed reception among early-childhood experts.

In some quarters, the standards are being greeted as valuable guidance for teachers of children in K-3, or as a tool that can improve preschool programs. In others, educators are concerned that the standards ask more of many youngsters than their developmental progress allows. Some fear they could drive play-based learning from children’s classrooms or serve as a basis for high-stakes decisions such as denying kindergartners promotion to 1st grade if they cannot show they have learned required skills.

The swirl of discussion among early-childhood educators about the K-12 common standards is taking on new dimensions, also, as the possibility emerges that they could be expanded to include children from birth to age 5. Leaders of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which organized the drafting of the K-12 standards, told early-childhood experts in meetings and conference calls late last month that they hope to begin working on zero-to-5 standards within a couple of months, according to some of those who participated in the sessions.

Dane Linn, who is leading the work on the Common Core State Standards Initiative for the NGA, told Education Week that the NGA and the CCSSO are exploring ways to work with states and the early-childhood community to ensure that all children have the skills necessary for kindergarten. “We’d be naive to think standards are not a part of that,” he said.

The two groups do not envision “any sort of standardized process in the early years,” said the CCSSO’s executive director, Gene Wilhoit, but rather a “preparedness standard” that would describe the ways

young children’s growth should be supported in all their developmental domains so they enter kindergarten on sound footing.

“That there might be an imposition of hard academic skills pushed down from grade 1 to K to preschool, that’s not what we’re talking about at all,” he said. “There are appropriate kinds of activities kids should be engaged in in order to be successful.”

With zero-to-5 standards in only the idea stage, early-childhood educators have been analyzing how the common K-12 standards could affect students and teachers in kindergarten through 3rd grade, and how well they dovetail with the early-learning guidelines or standards that most states already have for their preschool programs.

“This will cause us all to take a look at our early-learning standards for pre-K and check for alignment to see that we can transition children into the standards for kindergarten,” said Penny Milburn, the president of the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education, which represents those who shape state preschool programs.

Forty-eight states support the project to establish common K-12 “college and career readiness” standards, which were developed by panels of experts assembled by the NGA and the CCSSO and circulated among state officials and education groups for input and revision. During a three-week public comment period that ended April 2, the draft drew more than 5,000 comments. A final version is expected later this spring. (“Proposed Standards Go Public,” March 17, 2010.)

Too Narrow?

One area of concern among early-childhood advocates is that the draft K-12 standards cover only math and literacy, leaving out subjects such as science and the arts; expectations for social and emotional growth and motor development; skills such as problem-solving; and such qualities as curiosity and persistence—all considered pivotal to young children’s healthy growing-up.

“Whatever gets raised up takes over for a while, and that’s scary,” said Jerlean E. Daniel, the executive director-designate of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, or NAEYC. “When you narrow down to a couple areas, you miss something.”

Much of the early-childhood community has long been wary of any formal standards for young children, fearing they could result in drilling of rote information. Some studies have found, too, that programs for young children have cut back on play-based learning to prepare pupils for the tested subjects that lie ahead.“Having standards in early-childhood education in general is not a good idea,” said Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor of early-childhood education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., and one of more than 400 prominent early-childhood educators who signed a statement by the advocacy group Alliance for Childhood opposing the draft common standards.

“They focus on outcomes: ‘You have to have this skill and this skill by this time,’ when what you should be doing is focusing on inputs, training educators to develop a range of capacities that allow them to be shaping learning, in the moment, for every individual child.”

The children with the weakest skills approaching kindergarten are the ones most likely to attend schools that are short on money and experienced teachers, increasing the chances that creative approaches to early learning will be replaced by drill-based instruction and creating “more school failure for the very children we’re trying to shore up,” Ms. Carlsson-Paige said.

Mr. Wilhoit, a former commissioner of education in Kentucky, said he recognizes the concerns about misuse of the standards and understands that it is “hard for people to back away from those perspectives, having had some inappropriate examples of misuse.” But he urged those considering the standards to “separate” them from those poor examples, noting that there are also many implementations of high-quality standards.

Age Appropriate

Even some of those who support early-learning standards question whether some items in the common-core draft are appropriate for all children.

Sue Bredekamp, a Cheverly, Md.-based consultant who has helped design early-learning standards for states and for the federal Head Start program, cited as an example a requirement in the document that by the end of kindergarten, children should be able to “read emergent-reader literature texts with purpose and understanding.”

“A lot of kids will be able to do this, and quite a few won’t,” she said. “Some will still need extra support and shouldn’t fail if they can’t read fluently.”

She suggested broader phrasing, such as adding “with scaffolding as necessary,” as the standards do at the 2nd grade level, to allow for kindergartners’ varying developmental abilities. The idea, she said, isn’t to water down what should be expected of the youngest children, but to accommodate differing rates of development so that all children learn what they need to know by 3rd grade, but at differing speeds, in differing ways.

Likewise, Ms. Bredekamp said, a requirement that kindergarten students be able to “ask questions about unknown words in a text” raises the question of whether they must be able to read that text independently, rather than reading with a teacher’s assistance or having it read aloud to them.

Feedback such as that, Mr. Wilhoit said, has produced “a healthy and thoughtful exchange that has literally changed the document we’re working on. That’s exactly what we want.”

Samuel J. Meisels, the president of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school of child development in Chicago, and the author of learning standards for birth through 6th grade, said that a major problem with the draft K-12 common standards is that they started from the end point of college and career readiness and worked backward, rather than figuring out how and what the youngest children need to learn, and building upward from there.

“They read like they started from the top, went down from there, and just ran out of room,” he said. “They’ll have to make standards for prenatal now.”

Literacy expert Susan B. Neuman, a professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said the common standards give too little attention to the development of oral-language vocabulary and comprehension, which for young children must precede written language development. She also criticized them for only suggesting—not requiring—the inclusion of specific texts, such as Three Billy Goats Gruff. Both the content and structure of such time-tested literature are important, she said.

“It’s like these children are supposed to develop skills with no content knowledge,” said Ms. Neuman, who was the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education during President George W. Bush’s first term. “We know that it’s not just important to retell any story, it’s important to retell classic stories like The Three Little Pigs. Their simplistic, episodic structure, and their classical elements, help children understand other stories. And teachers will expect them to know that later.”

‘Limited Precedent’

Many leading voices in the early-childhood field recognize the risk of misusing early-learning standards, but still believe that, with care, they can be done right.

“I am strongly pro-standards,” said Sharon Lynn Kagan, a former NAEYC president who is a professor of early-childhood education affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University, and the Child Study Center at Yale University. “The criticism that they could be misused is valid. We have limited precedent for how to use standards well. But well constructed and well used, they can advance the quality of early-childhood education and the capacities of our teachers.”

Good early-childhood standards cover all the domains crucial to young children’s development, and the proposed common K-12 standards do not do that, she added.

Barbara T. Bowman, who has helped shape training for early-childhood educators for four decades at the Erikson Institute, said that taking charge of the Chicago public schools’ early-childhood programs five years ago has helped her see the value of a common set of expectations, especially for the most disadvantaged children.

“I see children are not getting the kind of education they need to be school-successful,” she said. “We have to have high, clear standards, not to make high-stakes decisions with, but for teachers to use so they know what we expect. Unless we make that very clear, often it’s not happening.”

Ms. Bowman added that she believes those skills can be imparted in developmentally appropriate ways. “We see it done well by good teachers,” she said. “We have to make sure all teachers are doing it.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 2010 edition of Education Week as Potential for Both Value and Harm Seen in K-3 Common Standards


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