Childhood Common Core

Susan Ochshorn: Defending Childhood In the Face of Ignorance

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Susan Ochshorn read Robert Pondiscio’s post “Is Common Core Too Hard for Kindergarten?” (he thinks not), and she felt impelled to respond, even though she is on vacation. Ochshorn is the founder of ECE Policy Works. She is the author of the forthcoming book, “Squandering America’s Future – Why ECE Policy Matters for Equality, Our Economy and Our Children,” about critical policy issues in early childhood education (Teachers College Press, 2015).



Susan Ochshorn writes:


Leave the country, and all hell breaks loose. A couple of days ago, in the “Common Core Watch,” the bully pulpit for the conservative Fordham Institute, Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow and vice president for external affairs, asked if the blessed academic standards were too hard for kindergarten. The short answer: no.


The occasion for his musings—and supreme irritation—was the publication of “Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose,” a report of Defending the Early Years (DEY Project) and the Alliance for Childhood. The paper debunks the common belief that reading earlier is better for future academic success, and warns of the deleterious effects on children of what Pondiscio calls a “perceived shift” from play-based, experiential learning to more academic approaches.


Perception is relative, of course. But where has Pondiscio been? Apparently, he’s heard nothing about the research of Daphna Bassok and Anna Rorem—empirical proof on the shift, from the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. Working with two national datasets, which straddle the introduction of No Child Left Behind, the authors sought to fill in the gaps about the changing nature of kindergarten in the United States between 1998 and 2006. They discovered that even before the adoption of the Common Core standards, pressure among principals and teachers had accelerated considerably, with high-stakes assessments leading to academic and accountability “shove down.”


For some of that time, according to LinkedIn, Pondiscio was employed in public relations and communications at Time magazine, Hill and Knowlton, and Businessweek. Just as NCLB got going, he spent four years teaching fifth-graders in the South Bronx, before moving on to the Core Knowledge Foundation, and Democracy Prep, a network of charter schools based in Harlem, where he taught seminars in civics, citizenship, and democracy.
Civics? For someone who calls himself an expert on the machinations of our precious democracy, Pondiscio couldn’t be more disdainful of those who would raise their voices in protest—those who do know something about early child development and education. “The authors make much of the fact that no one involved with writing the standards was a K-3 teacher or early-childhood professional,” he writes. Not important, he concludes.


And then there’s Valerie Strauss. The Washington Post and “Common Core-averse education blogger” has been championing the report in her space, and running pieces by parents and teachers “arguing that ‘forcing some kids to read before they are ready could be harmful.’” What unmitigated nerve!
But let’s get down to the nitty gritty here. Before Pondiscio became a PR guru and a civic society expert, he picked up a bachelor’s degree in cultural studies. Nowhere on his curriculum vitae do I see anything related to kids’ development. Nada.


Yet he has no trouble weighing in on the fine details of the subject—including developmentally appropriate (or inappropriate) practice.
It’s “not as scientifically clear-cut as many suppose,” he writes. “There’s little evidence to suggest that a child’s readiness to learn occurs in the discrete, stair-step phases that Piaget theorized about long ago.” He then goes on to cite cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham, who has apparently noted—wisely, I might add—that “children’s cognition is fairly variable day to day, even when the same child tries the same task.” Indeed. The very argument made by the authors of “Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose!” Kids are not universally ready to read at five.


Pondiscio’s in way over his head here. Children’s development is exceedingly uneven. Anyone who knows anything about child development would tell you that—including the Finns, who don’t push their children to read when they’re five, who hold off on standardized testing until much later, and, by the way, are up there with the world’s highest scorers on the PISA tests of academic mastery. Another thing: the Finns revere children, and see early childhood as a time for play, exploration, and the foundation for equality, and citizenship in a democracy.


As Finland’s minister of education, Krista Kiuru, told an interviewer in the Atlantic last spring: “Equal means that we support everyone and we’re not going to waste anyone’s skills. “We can’t know if one first-grader will become a famous composer, or another a famous scientist,” she said. “Regardless of a person’s gender, background, or social welfare status, everyone should have an equal chance to make the most of their skills.”


But Finland’s not cramming kindergarten readiness assessments and reading down the throats of five-year-olds. And Finland doesn’t have alarming rates of preschool expulsion, as we do in the U.S., mostly among little boys of color. Children’s social-emotional development is inextricably linked to their acquisition of cognitive skills. And play is where the cognitive and social-emotional come together. Yes, kids are capable of amazing things—they are, in fact, our littlest innovators—but play, as neuroscientist and anthropologist Melvin Konner wrote in his epic work, “The Evolution of Childhood,” is the primary engine of human development.


Pondiscio says that nothing in the Common Core standards precludes the creation of “safe, warm, nurturing classrooms that are play-based, engaging, and cognitively enriching.” Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so? But such classrooms are rapidly disappearing, given over to learning blocks dedicated to discrete subjects, which sideline the kind of imaginative play on which children thrive. They’re part and parcel of the Common Core package, over which teachers have no control. He also urges early childhood advocates to push “aggressively for teacher education and professional development,” enabling them to meet the Common Core benchmarks. They are pushing, like Sisyphus—but the rock weighs a ton. And as states develop evaluation systems that rate teachers based on student test scores, their very livelihoods are at stake.


I’d suggest a semester of child development 101 for the Fordham Institute’s VP for external affairs. NYC has plenty of terrific programs, and he’s got huge gaps in his own core knowledge.

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