No: Kindergarten As The New First Grade

At the September open house, the principal greeted the anxious parents of the new kindergarteners and began his remarks with this proud announcement:

“Kindergarten is the new first grade!”

The principal then went on to explain that, due to kindergarten being the new first grade, homework will be instituted, recess reduced, and a list of tutors for after-school help provided.

What a deal. A faster education. Moving along, the last grade in elementary school can be middle school, and the last grade of middle school can be high school, and senior year in high school can be college. Why not?

I will tell you why not. It’s not good for the kids.  Students in kindergarten through grade 12 learn best when we recognize where they are in their cognitive, psychological, and social development and, with that knowledge, help them to grow as learners and thinkers instead of setting arbitrary standards that they must meet even if their minds and bodies aren’t ready.

What if their pediatrician told these parents that  “toddler” would now be the new “baby” and, at the sixth month check-up, she would test a six-month old baby for how progressed that baby was at walking and talking like a toddler? The parents would know right away that is ridiculous. At six months, babies don’t have legs strong enough to walk and brains mature enough to form their own words. Children develop at a certain pace, and saying that six months is the time for walking and talking doesn’t make it happen. So too with kindergartners; a five year-old is not a six or seven year-old. It is damaging to students to insist that they meet standards for reading, writing, and math for which they are not developmentally ready. Plus, they miss out on all the learning experiences that could fire them up and engage their minds.

Only someone totally unfamiliar with six-month olds would set standards for walking and talking for them. So too with making kindergarten the new first grade. The Common Core standards for kindergarten were written by those with absolutely no experience either working with children that age or having any knowledge about children that age. The standards were written by people whose business it is to create standardized tests to measure discrete skills. They didn’t know that the job of a kindergarten teacher, and indeed every K-12 teacher, is to help kids fall in love with learning and to give them the tools at each stage of their development to be avid, engaged learners.

Parents should rise up and say:

“No thank you.  We want kindergarten to be kindergarten.”

And what would that look like? Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an expert in early childhood education, answers that question by describing schools in a neighboring country in which kindergarten is kindergarten.  

It is not just in kindergarten that developing students as learners and thinkers should be the focus rather than the focus being on the mastery of arbitrary standards. As with the writing of the kindergarten standards, not one English teacher, college English professor, or researcher about reading and writing wrote the Common Core English Language Arts Standards, which can govern all of literacy education K-12 if we let them.

All grades need what Nancy Carlsson-Paige advocates for kindergarten: helping students to grow as learners and thinkers instead of acquirers of information, requiring students to construct their own knowledge by questioning, collaborating, and imagining, and assessing students by asking them to demonstrate they have learned how to learn in the ways that they have been taught that year instead of by taking standardized tests.

If we discard the Common Core and replace that misbegotten venture with developing students as learners and thinkers, principals of all schools – elementary, middle, and high school – can all have the same message at Open House. They all can say:

“We know who your children are and how they learn best. This year, we are going to do all we can to motivate them to fall in love with learning, give them new skills as learners and thinkers, and help them to grow beyond your wildest dreams. Prepare to be delighted.”

 

 

 

 

Giving Kids A Toolkit For Their Future

We are hearing the same thing from so many people in the know. Tom Friedman, who writes in Thank You For Being Late about how work will change in the future due to advanced technology and increased use of artificial intelligence, says it.  Tony Wagner, Harvard professor and author of The Global Achievement Gap in which he identifies the skills students need to survive in that future world of work, says it. The September 27, 2017 issue of Ed Week, which talks about how K-12 education needs to change, says it. They all loudly and clearly proclaim the same thing:  The education we now provide will not serve our students in the future because the needs of the future are not the needs of the past, and schools are currently meeting the demands of the past.

So what is a teacher to do? What is a school district to do? What are parents to do?

It would be great for us as a society to engage in a deep conversation about the nature of learning and how to assess that learning. I am ready for that conversation and know other educators who also long for it. In the meantime, here are three practical suggestions that teachers and school districts can implement immediately:

  1. Teach students to question.
  2.  Teach students to write essays that explore questions of importance to them.
  3.  Teach students to write essays about how their thinking evolved  and changed.

These suggestions make real the Tony Wagner Seven Survival Skills for the future: critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, agility and adaptability, initiative, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, and, most of all, curiosity and imagination. The also help students to succeed in the rapidly changing world Friedman describes.  Most of all, students do what Ed Week points out is  necessary for their future – develop as learners and thinkers.

Teaching Students to Question 

To prepare young people for their future, learning can no longer be about a teacher talking and students listening, not about one person giving information and the other person receiving it. We have computers for that.

I remember taking my three-year old grandson to a space museum and realizing that he didn’t know the word astronaut. When we went home, I wanted to show him what an astronaut is by showing him a video of astronauts returning from a space flight. So I searched for a video on my laptop. I couldn’t immediately find what I wanted so I was frustrated. My little grandson said, “You have to be patient, Grandma. It will come.” At three, he knew that information is available with a click.

In my first years as a teacher, I had file folders full of information about the differing ways the character of Hamlet had been interpreted over the ages, the symbolism in The Scarlet Letter, biographical information about Arthur Miller, and so much more. I told my students to prepare for their final exams by reviewing the notes I had given them because my notes contained what was important for them to remember. All the essays I assigned asked the students to prove something they already knew. Never again.

I learned that telling students what to think and teaching only one kind of writing had to change if I were to develop students who who can think critically and creatively.

Preparing students for the future, I have found, begins with students asking questions to which they don’t have answers but would like to have those answers. Teachers and students then collaborate with one another as they discuss their questions. The questions differ. Some of the students have questions about facts, about what happened in the story. Some have questions about interpreting characters or events. Some have questions about ideas that the story brings up about love, social justice, or the relationship between an individual and society – life’s big questions. All questions are welcome. The teacher helps students to ask increasingly complex questions that are multi-layered and lead to even more questions. Discussing the questions offers more ideas than any student could ever have on his or own and broadens and deepens each student’s individual thinking.

Asking good questions about the facts or data about what happened, questions about interpreting what happened, and philosophical questions that come to mind because of what happened is not only for English classes. Asking questions is at the heart of learning science, math, history, art, and technology. Questions are intrinsic to all academic disciplines and apply to all kinds of work. Tony Wagner wrote that, instead of having the right answers, “the most important skill in the New World of work, learning, and citizenship – the rigor that matters most – is the ability to ask the right questions.”

Learning to question doesn’t just happen. Due to years in school, their years as being answerers, students need to be untaught to be answerers and taught to be questioners.

Essay Writing

Students also need to be untaught that there is one kind of thinking and one kind of essay writing. No doubt about it: It’s important to be able to write an essay that supports a thesis and presents a coherent argument. Deductive, logical thinking is a valued kind of thinking, and the proving of a position is a valued kind of writing. But deductive reasoning is a kind of thinking, not the only way to think, and thesis-based essays are a kind of essay, but not the essay itself. The world of the future demands other kinds of thinking and other kinds of essays.

Teaching Students To Explore Questions Of Importance To Them

One of those other kinds of essays is an essay in which students explore a question rather than prove a point or make an argument. The writer engages in open-ended and speculative thinking and explores a question from several perspectives, considering various possibilities and using pertinent evidence. The writer doesn’t try to convince the readers of anything but rather shares her thinking about her question with them. The writer might determine an answer to her question by the end of essay or might not. She may, instead, pose deeper and more penetrating questions at the end of the essay. For sure, though, the writer lets the readers know where the inquiry has taken her. These essays provide seeds of creativity and are incubators of innovation. The writers are thinking of what could be rather than defending what is.

Teaching Students To Write About How They Came To Know What They Know

Another kind of essay is one in which the writer tells the story of the development of his thinking about a concept or idea. It gives the chronology of the writer’s thinking – where his thinking began, what he read and learned in class discussions, and how his thinking evolved.  At the end of this essay, the readers know where the writer is in his thinking and how the writer got there. It is story about how the writer came to know what he knows. Friedman, Wagner, and Ed Week all say that learning to learn is essential for the workplace of the future. Writing about the development of their own thinking makes it likely that students will leave school knowing that they do know how to learn, do know how to develop their thinking, and can do it again….and again….and again.

Toolkits For All

All of this may seem way beyond many students. But it’s not. I have worked in schools that are called high performing and in ones that are termed “failing” and  have seen the students in both thrive when asked to question and to think and write in these ways. The students are ready. The future can’t be pushed back. The time to teach students to question, to think creatively and innovatively, and to see themselves as learners is now.

The Common Core State Standards do not ask students to think in these ways; those standards do not give students the learning and thinking skills needed for the future.  Also, no standardized test in our country assesses questioning, collaborating, creative thinking, or learning-to-learn skills. Every minute of class time given to preparing students for those tests takes students away from what they really need to learn.

The future is just about here. It’s time to give students what they need. Invite them to question, to explore possibilities, to imagine solutions, to grow and change as thinkers, and to fall in love with learning. Then sit back and watch where they take us.

The Role Of The Artist in Trump-time

The result of the 2016 Presidential election silenced me. Listening to Meryl Streep’s speech when she accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes Award gave me back my voice.

Since November 9, 2016, I have questioned the point of writing about public education anymore. Why should I continue to criticize the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts when what I find harmful in them for students is now being normalized by the President-elect? How could  I continue to criticize standards that limit the amount of literature students read when we have a President-elect who boasts of the fact that he doesn’t read?  How could I criticize standards that recognize only predetermined right answers instead of critical or creative thinking  when we have a President-elect who says he has all the answers and doesn’t need dialogue with others to explore possibilities or revise his thinking? How could I continue to advocate for excellent public schools for all children as the bedrock of a democracy when that President-elect nominates for U.S. Secretary of Education someone who wants to destroy public education?  It all seemed futile.

Then I heard what Meryl Streep said about artists and journalists and knew that it applied to educators as well.  You can listen to her speech here:   https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=tightropetb&p=video+of+meryl+streep+speech+at+golden+globes+on+january+9%2C+2016#id=59&vid=c81a5c9dd5861ac45c2c81b50d1964b9&. Or you can read it below.

I love you all, but you’ll have to forgive me. I’ve lost my voice in screaming and lamentation this weekend, and I have lost my mind sometime earlier this year. So I have to read. Thank you, Hollywood Foreign Press, just to pick up on what Hugh Laurie said. You and all of us in this room really belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it: Hollywood, foreigners and the press.

But who are we? And what is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places. I was born and raised and educated in the public schools of New Jersey. Viola was born in a sharecropper’s cabin in South Carolina, came up in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Sarah Paulson was born in Florida, raised by a single mom in Brooklyn. Sarah Jessica Parker was one of seven or eight kids from Ohio. Amy Adams was born in Vicenza, Veneto, Italy. And Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem. Where are their birth certificates? And the beautiful Ruth Negga was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, raised in — no — in Ireland, I do believe, and she’s here nominated for playing a small-town girl from Virginia. Ryan Gosling, like all the nicest people, is Canadian. And Dev Patel was born in Kenya, raised in London, is here for playing an Indian raised in Tasmania. So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners, and if we kick them all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.

They gave me three seconds to say this. So an actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like, and there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that, breathtaking, compassionate work. But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hook in my heart not because it was good. It was — there was nothing good about it, but it was effective, and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart, and I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing.

Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence insights violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.

This brings me to the press. We need the principled press to hold power to account –  to call them on the carpet for every outrage.

That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedom in our Constitution. So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists because we are going to need them going forward and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.

One more thing. Once when I was standing around on the set one day, whining about something, you know, we were going to work through supper or the long hours or whatever, Tommy Lee Jones said to me, “Isn’t it such a privilege, Meryl, just to be an actor?” Yeah, it is, and we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy. We should all be very proud of the work Hollywood honors here tonight. As my friend, the dear departed Princess Leia said to me once, “Take your broken heart. Make it into art.” 

And that is what I will do. I will stop being defeated. I will end my two-month silence. I will let my broken heart energize my art as a teacher and as a  teacher of teachers.

I will go back to speaking my truth. I know what good education is and will advocate for it. I know what the art of teaching entails. I am passionate about children having the best possible education because I know first-hand how education that privileges diversity, independent thinking, and social responsibility can transform lives. I will not stop because of the disrespect, violence, and bullying that now surround us. I will not stop empathizing with the children in this country who so need us educators – especially now.

I will ask of myself what Meryl Streep asked of journalists: How can I hold power accountable and safeguard the truth. The truth I want to safeguard is that the purpose of public education is to build the minds and hearts of all students by developing their potential as engaged learners and increasingly independent thinkers in every way imaginable. To do that, I must go back to opposing the Common Core Standards, designed by entrepreneurs and testing company personnel instead of educators. I must also go back to opposing the evaluation of students by standardized tests because that kind of assessment reduces learning for all students, especially those who need engagement and stimulation the most. I must go back to opposing charter schools because they take  money away from the vast majority of children without notable results, and they encourage segregation. As Meryl Streep urged journalists, I must hold precious my responsibility to play a part in taking this democracy to its highest ground.

Meryl Streep is right. The oligarch-in-chief and the oligarchs with whom he has surrounded himself have incredible power and have the privilege of wealth. But we educators, like the actors and journalists, have our art. We can teach. We can speak the truth about kids, about learning, about diversity, about excellence.  With that art and with one another we can fight back.

Let’s get busy.

Lin-Manuel Miranda or Common Core: Pick One

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s and the Common Core’s kind of class could not be more different. Which class do you think  best helps kids to excel as learners and thinkers?

Choice One: Lin-Manuel Miranda

Just two days before his final performance in Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, a former high school teacher, spoke to 200 high school teachers and described what he thought learning should look like.

He used his experience in the theater to talk about the classroom. He advocated that teachers engage students in questioning  and connecting with what they are studying. He explained how students become stronger thinkers by listening to the ideas and questions of their classmates. In Miranda’s kind of classroom, the teacher does not give students the one right answer but rather expects them to have their own individual, well-referenced interpretations and their own evaluations of  ideas. The teacher creates a classroom community in which diversity of thought is valued and in which the students explore ideas by engaging in intellectual endeavors together. The teacher knows that students benefit from being aware of their own learning and thinking processes so engages them in considering how they go about learning something and how their minds work. The teacher brings his or her own joy and purpose to the classroom and delights in the students finding joy and purpose of their own as they read, write, and think together through the school year.

Read Miranda’s own words here:

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Freallearningct%2Fposts%2F1421467671213451&width=500

Choice Two: Common Core

The accompanying 15-minute video shows you what a Common Core English class is like. David Coleman, the chief author of the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts, is the speaker.  The lesson is for a 7th grade class ; the topic is Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”.  View here.  In this lesson, the teacher has all the answers. The  meaning of King’s letter is, as the Common Core insists,  found “within the four corners of the page” and must be dug out. The students are not allowed to personally connect with the letter, ask their own questions, choose a line of significance to them, or explore the historical background of what King wrote. They do not analyze how the actions of  society in King’s time or theirs connects to King’s advocacy for justice. Students, instead, are asked to figure out King’s intent in writing the letter by analyzing the word choice and rhetorical structure he uses.

In the beginning of the lesson, David Coleman says that his lesson will debunk the three “popular” ways of teaching literature, but, little does he know, those ways are not popular at all. He wrongly says those three “popular” ways are: the teacher summarizing for students what they are going to read before they read it, the teacher asking students to predict what will happen before they read it, and the teacher using what they read to teach a concept like main idea or cause and effect.  He doesn’t mention at all what is really the reason we teach literature: to engage students with provocative ideas and provide them with opportunities to  construct their own meaning about those ideas.

Decision Time: Pick One of the Above

It is one or the other.  Lin-Manuel Miranda or  Common Core . You can’t have both because the two approaches are philosophically and pedagogically opposed to each other. Both require close reading. Both require students to use text evidence. The difference is in whether you see education as pouring information into the empty heads of passive students or see education as inspiring students to be all they can be.

Choose wisely.

 

 

Added Proof: The Common Core Hurts Kids

The Common Core State Standards were marketed as serving to “close the achievement gap”. That did not happen.

The designers and promoters of the Common Core determined that standardized test scores would be the measure of achievement. By that limited measure of achievement, the achievement gap increased. As  Results Are in: Common Core Fails Tests and Kids shows, NAEP scores of students whose education was focused exclusively on the Common Core curriculum decreased while NAEP scores for students in affluent suburbs whose education is not limited to test prep for standardized tests increased.

Fairfield University Professor and Network for Public Education Board member Yohuru Williams argues these tests, which are manifestly unfair to the neediest children, feed into racial determinism in American society while closing doors of opportunity for Black and Latino children.

More important than standardized test scores, the quality of the education that students who are educated with a Common Core curriculum have is vastly inferior to the education  that other students in affluent suburbs and independent, private schools have.  The Common Core curriculum does harm to children in their early years in school because it limits their development as thinkers and learners. Similarly, The English Common Core inhibits thoughtful reading, effective writing, and critical thinking.

The true achievement gap of being productive, analytical, competent citizens and workers is increasing. That is the injustice. That is the real harm that the Common Core curriculum is doing to children of color and children of poverty. Shame on us.

 

It’s All Over But The Cheering

 

Right before an institution dies, things get a little crazy. Think of the days before the fall of Rome and the days before the French Revolution. That is where we are now in terms of the misnamed education “reform” in Connecticut.

Things are getting crazy.

When the Connecticut State Department of Education threatens to withdraw needed funds from school districts in which some parents decide to not have their children participate in unreliable, invalid tests, then we know the end is at hand. When a governor prioritizes the opening of new publicly funded but not publicly accountable charter schools for a few over the funding of public schools for all, then we know the end is at hand. When the State Board of Education champions the Common Core as “far better than anything we have done before” although those standards were written by employees of testing companies, not educators, and contradict literally all research in how children learn best, then we know the end is at hand.

The test-and-punish era of education “reform” in Connecticut will soon meet its end because its craziness has become evident to so many.

It is clear that standardized testing can never close the achievement gap, that the Common Core Standards are not good learning and do not give students the skills they need for their future, and that the education “reform” effort is not reform at all but a way to remove public education as a right for all while it provides substantial financial profit for the investors.

So what is the path forward?

David Kirp in a recent New York Times piece points the way. He analyses why the schools in Union City, New Jersey improved while the efforts in Newark failed. In Newark, huge infusions of money, most notably 100 million dollars from Mark Zuckerberg, and outside talent did not bring success. In fact, they might be the reason for the failure. In Union City, by contrast, the school improvement efforts were led by a team of principals and teachers within the district who focused on how students learn best, how teachers teach most effectively, and how parents can be engaged in the schools. Through this process, learning took center stage, the culture of the schools changed, and the achievement of the students took off.

The Harvard School of Education report,” How High Schools Become Exemplary”, also points the way. It describes how 15 high schools improved the achievement of their students. In all 15 schools, the improvement was a result of a team of educators within the school recognizing what their students needed to learn and how they could learn best and accepting responsibility for meeting that need. They created a mission and determined priorities for their school, designed a plan for adult learning, developed criteria for judging student work and teacher practice, and provided resources and incentives. In all 15 schools, the leaders for the school improvement came from each school and overcame some teachers’ resistance to change because those teachers trusted the motives, the competence, the reliability, the collegiality, the intellectual diligence, the courage, and the hard work of the leaders.

The way forward is clear.

Here is what we must do in Connecticut:

1. Make school improvement a local enterprise. It must begin with the leaders having trust in the staff to grow and learn. As Michael Fullan, a leading expert in school improvement, has said, the first principle of school change is to “love your employees”. That comes from knowing them.

2. Set up authentic and focused collaboration among the teachers so that they become the kind of open, questioning, active learners they will teach their students to be.

3. Analyze the needs of the students. Determine how they learn best and what is it they need to learn. Design ways to assess both what they learn and how they learn.

4. Conduct adult learning experiences focused on improving instruction.

For many years, I have been part of creating positive change in Connecticut’s schools, both in suburban and urban districts, in schools with high standardized test scores and those labeled as “failing schools” due to their standardized test scores. I know for sure that collegial leadership, collaboration, and attention to how students learn and how we can best teach by the educators in an academic department, a school, or a school district offer the only path forward for increased student achievement.

Let’s give the test-and-punish version of “reform” a good burial and move on.

The kids are waiting.

Brain Surgery and the Common Core: A Replay

As 2015 comes to an end, I am reposting Brain Surgery and the Common Core, the post that, far and away, had the most readers in the eight months that this blog has been in existence. This post is a reminder of how the Common Core Standards are terrible standards.

I hope that this critique of the Common Core is part of the 2016 rallying cry for parents to opt their children out of tests on those inadequate standards, a rallying cry for school districts to not design curricula based on the intellectually bankrupt Common Core, and a rallying cry for good teachers everywhere to speak up about what learning really is and to make sure that real learning, not test prep, is what they foster in their classrooms.

As Brain Surgery and the Common Core points out:

There has been absolutely no field testing of the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts. There was no study conducted to see if meeting the standards in grades k-12 led to good grades in college and future employment. It is anybody’s guess if doing well and meeting the 42 K-12 Common Core English Language Arts Standards will make for success in college or lead to a job.

In 2016, we can do better for our children. We can work to provide them with an education that teaches them to question, that provides opportunities for them to learn through collaborating with others, and that encourages them to value their own ideas and to express them articulately. It is with those skills that students of today will be ready for lives with engaged minds and will, as adults, create for themselves higher education and career paths that are rewarding and fulfilling.