Squandering America’s Future: Why ECE Policy Matters for Equality, Our Economy, and Our Children

192 pages, Teachers College Press, 2015

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Squandering America’s Future offers an irreverent critique of the way we rear and educate children today, with profiles of change makers—ingenious gymnasts who keep their balance on the three-legged stool of research, practice, and policy. This book includes a series of “policy tales,” taking readers from New York City’s communities of extreme poverty to Portland, Oregon, where nearly half of all children are unprepared for school, uncovering our abject neglect of the nation’s human capital and those who develop it.

Current education policy represents one of the most serious transgressions against children’s healthy development, the consequences severe for their own, as well as the collective, well-being. Our misguided focus on inappropriate standards for, and assessment of, our youngest students is squashing their imagination and capacity for innovation—the engine of our prosperity and civil society. Following is an excerpt from the book’s chapter, “The Yin and Yang of Education Reform.”— Susan Ochshorn

Tinkering Toward Utopia

Adults have always argued about the course of a proper education—a hair-raising drama in which children have been silent actors. The playwrights were men born of the revolutions that rocked Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Among them was Johann Amos Comenius, a Moravian bishop upset by the violence of the Thirty Years’ War. His own brand of pedagogy originated in God and nature: a vision of “gardens of delight,” in which “large numbers of children were to grow, play, and learn together joyfully and harmoniously.” Scorning formal schooling for children younger than six, Comenius, nonetheless, prescribed a detailed syllabus for mothers of progeny from birth on up in The School of Infancy, published in English in 1650.

Nearly four centuries later, we are still at it. Recently, more than a hundred teachers, writers, and academics—including Lord Layard, director of the well-being program at the London School of Economics—wrote to Great Britain’s secretary of state in protest. The quest for school readiness had gotten terribly out of hand, foisting “tests and targets which dominate primary education upon four-year-olds.”

Arne Duncan’s annus horribilus had reached its nadir. Amid growing protest against high-stakes testing, the United States Secretary of Education had launched a frontal assault on white suburban moms. How dare they suggest that the latest Common Core standards for math and language arts were wreaking havoc with their children’s love of learning? “All of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were,” our chief education officer said, referring to the decline in test scores occasioned by the adoption of the new policy by a growing number of states. Duncan’s glib assessment, rattling maternal sensibilities, helped secure his place as one of the villains in the ancient drama of human development—or tragic hero, in the eyes of early childhood educators. This is the man, after all, who had propelled the years from birth through five to the highest reaches of the federal policy agenda, promising a cool $10 billion for early learning, through his signature Race to the Top initiative.

Meanwhile, as tensions simmered to a boil between the populace and the policymaker, the latest strategies to improve education outcomes came under review. “Could Falling Test Scores Be A Good Thing?” Scott Gillum, a voice from gyro, a global ideas shop that ignites decisions in a numb world, wondered in Forbes magazine. The test scores in question—the bane of the education secretary’s existence—are those of America’s high school students, whose competence in math, reading, and science is measured each year, along with their peers from more than 50 countries, by the Program of International Student Assessment.

Each December, upon their release, the U.S. has a full-scale panic attack, watching the inexorable shift downward. But these much-maligned results, Gillum reassured us, might not portend the loss of America’s competitive edge. He cited Yong Zhao, author of World Class Learners, who had compared the PISA math scores with those of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, which assesses the activities, aspirations and attitudes of individuals in more than 50 countries, 23 of them PISA participants. Wouldn’t you know that Zhao found an inverse correlation between test scores and perceived entrepreneurial moxie? The top performers on the PISA tests—Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan—were hardly stellar on the innovation front.

Across the world, the leaders of developed nations are tearing their hair out in a quest to ensure preeminence. The United States is leading the way, applying disruptive innovation to human development, learning, and teaching. Data collectors on Ritalin, we measure every indicator in the book. Our children are on treadmills, each milestone anxiously awaited, and progress dutifully recorded. “Gesturing Predicts Children’s Future School Success,” headlined a post by Susan Sirigatti, former school principal and editor of “Human Milk.” One of many from a blog dedicated to fostering “A Smarter Beginning,” the piece highlighted a study, conducted at the University of Chicago, which found a gap among infants’ gesturing across socioeconomic classes—a harbinger of stunted language acquisition.

Even the subconscious has not escaped scrutiny. We now have Sleep’n Sync, a non-invasive, patent-pending product designed to “revolutionize a child’s outlook while they sleep.” For just 20 dollars a download or 36 for a CD/book, this series of audio tapes, available at iTunes and Amazon, and based on principles of neuroscience, promises a multi-faceted brain lift, alleviating the stress of bullying and test-taking, fostering flexibility, dispelling anger, and enhancing reading and communication skills.

Nothing is off limits in our pursuit of cognitive complexity. Not too long ago, Megan McClelland, at Oregon State University, tracked the outcomes of 400 preschoolers who had played a tweaked version of the classic children’s game, “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” In the original game, the directives match the body part; in McClelland’s experiment, she required the children to do the opposite, touching toes, for example, when she asks them to touch their heads. Never mind that some of her undergraduates had trouble executing the task. The 4-year-olds who finessed it delivered to McClelland a rich lode of data. They were more likely to pay attention in class or keep nose to the grindstone in specific activities—key signs of a well-functioning prefrontal cortex, the locus of school readiness and academic success.

Children are the youngest, most fragile casualties on the battle field. But they are hardly alone. In the modern era of high-stakes accountability—enshrined in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—the fate of public schools and educators has hinged on metrics of adequate yearly progress, annual professional performance reviews, and the hotly contested value-added model, which rates teachers based on their students’ test-score gains from fall to spring of the academic year.

Our madness—an obsessive compulsive disorder—may seem aberrant, but it is merely a blip in the long history of education reform. “Tinkering toward utopia,” as Stanford emeritus professors David Tyack and Larry Cuban describe the process in their book so named, is torturous. Citizens always “have sought to perfect the future by debating how to improve the young through education,” they wrote, but “actual reforms in schools have rarely matched such aspirations.”

Ready or Not, Here They Come

Parents are not guiltless. They’ve always taken pride in their offspring’s precociousness, a tendency against which Jean-Jacques Rousseau railed in Emile, the bible of the “New Education” published in mid-eighteenth century France. The Enlightenment philosopher prescribed experience outside the home, in nature, where children, he thought, should be left to observe, honing their sensory abilities through exploration and games. He advised ample time for play. And he introduced formal reading instruction at the advanced age of twelve.

Rousseau’s a far cry from Amanda Gignac, a Texas mother and blogger at The Zen Leaf, who criticized her six-and-a half-year-old son in an interview with a New York Times reporter. While he routinely tackled 80-page chapter books, she called him a “reluctant” reader, noting that “he would still read picture books now if we let him, because he doesn’t want to work to read.” Work to read? Whatever happened to pleasure? Gignac claimed she was quoted out of context, but no matter: the acceleration of skills acquisition is embedded in contemporary education policy, aided and abetted by parents and educators, caught between conflicting desires for children’s well-being and their academic progress.

Early childhood’s merge with the K-12 system has disturbed the delicate ecology of Rousseau’s whole-child approach, in which collaboration, empathy, and creative solutions emerge in the rough and tumble terrain of human relationships, and exploration proceeds on an individualized timeline. This collision of cultures has reached new heights of absurdity with the Common Core, as states struggle to map the standards across the spectrum, including history, economic concepts, and civics and government as foundations for two-year-olds’ emergent knowledge.

The consequences for children are considerable. “Our protective urges are stymied,” said Peter Mangione, of WestEd’s Center for Child and Family Studies in Sausalito, California. “Our tenderness is critical for their sense of well-being.” A child psychologist, he served as a technical advisor to Ohio when the state was crafting its standards for children from birth to age 5. The outcome was a document that puts social-emotional development on an equal footing with cognition and general knowledge, with references to play generously sprinkled across the rubric. Still, Mangione worries that we expect infants to act like third-graders: “We’re asking the child to do what they’re not ready to do, and we’re not supporting what they’re ready and meant to do.”

Play is Not a Four-Letter Word

We’ve come a long way from the Enlightenment: the primary engine of human development is vanishing. “It has long been noticed that the smartest mammals—primates, cetaceans, elephants, and carnivores—are the most playful,” anthropologist and neuroscientist Melvin Konner wrote in his epic work, The Evolution of Childhood. He regards play as the central paradox of evolutionary biology, “combining as it does great energy expenditure and risk with apparent pointlessness.”

But, oh, what a phenomenon. Our eyes may glaze over with Konner’s description of the “synaptic proliferation of cerebellar purkinje fibers.” Still, we get the drift. The positive emotions evoked by interactions, physical exercise, and mastery of skills in play spurs us toward novelty and more flexible learning—an exquisite and singular means of developing our brains, social selves, and alleviating stress.

Yet, across the nation, some of the elders of the species continue to defy science, subjecting children to a misguided experiment. Literacy and numeracy have hijacked the kindergarten curriculum, didactic methods in ascendance. Learning blocks—uninterrupted periods of time dedicated to a particular subject, and historically relegated to the upper grades—now dictate the rhythms of the day, and prescriptive curricula linked to standardized tests are routine in many kindergartens.

Alexandra Papadopoulos is a staff developer and former grade-level facilitator at the Cutchogue East Elementary School on Long Island’s North Fork. Here, kindergarten commands the largest classrooms in the building, and solid, wooden blocks, with which generations of youngsters have played, are abundant. “Play is what I honored,” she told me and a group of her colleagues, teachers of 5-year-olds. “But even in a place that values play, we have to fight to keep it, like a desperately needed coffee break.”

It’s hard to get the message out. Early childhood teachers live with the specter of the third-grade benchmarks, not to mention the standardized tests that measure children’s progress toward them and increasingly determine their own professional prospects. Novices are silent; a challenge to the status quo feels daunting, if not impossible, a threat to one’s livelihood. Veterans like Papadopoulos have been caught in the crossfire, and something has gotten lost in translation. To the untrained eye, play remains an enigma. “If someone were to come in,” Papadopoulos said, “they wouldn’t know we were focusing on literacy if kids were playing or performing.”

Even developmental scientists have had trouble defining it, creating a typology with fuzzy boundaries and descriptors. Is that pretend play, or socio-dramatic? Are the kids just engaging in a little rough-and-tumble activity? What about guided play, with adults as directors? Agreement exists on a basic set of characteristics, including pleasure, spontaneity, full absorption, active engagement, and intrinsic motivation. Children at play often create a private reality, in which they assume a wide range of grownup roles, rehearsing for their performance on society’s larger stage. They are, in the deepest sense, at work.

Play’s disappearance has awakened an activist streak in some of the field’s researchers, who have taken their brief to the pages of staid scientific journals. Academics are leaving their ivory towers clutching copies of A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool, an evidence-based manifesto. The authors’ call to action adopts the tropes of education reform—critical thinking skills, collaboration, innovation—attendant to the precipitous decline in creativity from kindergarteners through sixth-graders, recorded some years ago by Kyung Hee Kim, a professor of creativity and innovation at the College of William & Mary.

“It is time to stop making the false dichotomy between “play” and “education,” the authors proclaim. “Children in the 21st century need… to go beyond the facts—to synthesize, integrate, create, and evaluate. They also need to collaborate and lead effectively to achieve significant innovation and change.”

Reprinted by permission of the Publisher. From Susan Ochshorn, Squandering America’s Future—Why ECE Policy Matters for Equality, Our Economy, and Our Children, New York: Teachers College Press. Copyright © 2015 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.