Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Ready for What?

The phrase school readiness is one that conjures up a variety of feelings in the early childhood field. For me personally, my feelings toward the subject depend on the context and who is using it. The push to insure more children come to school ready to learn has focused a spotlight on the field of early childhood education. But, depending on how it is being used, it can often be misconstrued as a sort of magic bullet for all that ails education in America today- as long as preschool teachers, communities and parents get the children ‘ready to learn’ then they will be successful in school and do well on the standardized tests that measure academic achievement today.

Using research from the Perry Preschool Project, The Abecedarian Project and others, economists, politicians, non-profit heads, school administrators and others cite all the benefits the children in these studies reaped by attending a high-quality preschool.  What they tend to omit is that these studies focused on at-risk children in high-poverty environments.  The same results have not been shown consistently when applied to other segments of the population. This isn’t to say these children don’t benefit from preschool- just not always to the same extent as the children in these studies.

Several years ago I served on a committee that focused on improving education in my region. At the time, armed with all this research, I felt that the early childhood field was finally getting some recognition for the important work we do every day.  People were suggesting that all children should be able to attend a high-quality preschool and who was I to argue with that? Over the years, I still feel that preschool is beneficial to most children. However, I have modified that view somewhat. Not all families want or need to send their child to preschool. There are parents out there who expose their children to rich, engaging learning activities. There are children who do not function well in a large group with few adults to support them.  Yes, I realize they will be exposed to a large group of children in kindergarten but why throw them into the fire before we have to? These children might function better in a smaller class and that extra year might be just what they need to make their kindergarten experience flow more smoothly.

As the idea of school readiness took hold, the idea of how to measure it came to the forefront.  How can we know children are or aren’t ready if we don’t have some way to measure it. The problem, though, is that is that these politicians, school leaders, etc, want a nice, solid number that tells where a child falls in the readiness arena. No tests out there have been designed to measure this. For that matter, the idea of what school readiness actually looks like is not set in stone. If you talk to ten different people about it, you are likely to get ten different answers.  Some states are going all out and looking at a variety if instruments to use together that will give a picture of the whole child. Other states are assessing only an area or two, mainly focusing on math and literacy, much like No Child Left Behind. But, the reality is we don't yet know whether these measures truly reflect improved academic performance later on. We won't know much besides anecdotal evidence until we start seeing test scores from the children who have already been tested for school readiness.

I am the first person to admit that assessing children in some way, shape or form is best practice. We need to know where our children are, what they can do and what we can do to keep them moving forward. But, I fear that if we maintain such a narrow focus we will be doing no one any favors.  Some of the most frequent complaints from teachers in the primary grades center around children’s behaviors. Unfortunately, these things aren't the easiest to measure. And too many early childhood professionals aren’t trained to conduct these assessments reliably.  I fear that the focus on testing for school readiness may result in focusing on activities that relate to the tests (or teaching to the tests), a complaint heard frequently in regards to K-12 education.

Ask most early childhood professionals and they will tell you how children learn through play.  Through play, children learn higher level skills and those skills related to executive function.  Things like critical thinking, problem solving, social interactions, conversational abilities, and creative thinking. All valuable skills that, I believe, most people would say are important for success in the wider world outside of school.   Again, these are things that aren’t measured by traditional standardized testing.  The children in my class spend most of their day in activities they select and use (within reason) in ways they decide. If they are engaged in an idea, I typically add materials to help them extend their play and remain engaged.  We spend huge portions of our days working on social problem solving and I can see it paying off in the way they interact with others. But, I wonder what will happen when they get to kindergarten, and beyond. And they are gaining valuable skills through this play. They are taking initiative, testing their ideas, learning to control their behaviors and to play with others.

With so much focus on test scores, will they be able to continue practicing these skills or will they have to sit at their desks, listening to a teacher and simply regurgitate what they have just been told? I know there are some great teachers out there that will differentiate instruction and do everything they can to be sure every child in their class succeeds. But they seem to be the exception and not the norm. So, if you consider children who can think for themselves, make decisions, take initiative, regulate their emotions and impulses and listen to others ready for school, then these children will likely make the grade. When it comes to success in school and in life in general, do we really want children who can memorize facts and figures for a test or do we want children who can think and reason for themselves? I hope that early childhood professional continue to make their voices heard. We know what the research tells us about the importance of play in relation to children's development.  If not, we risk falling into the same situation as many K-12 education systems, where test scores become so important that everything else, including play, gets pushed to the sidelines.

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