September 22, 2009

Answer Sheet Bubbles in Wrong Answer

Unlike Uncle Jay's new blog, the Washington Post's other education blog, The Answer Sheet, has gotten off to a rocky start (despite Willingham's pinch hitting).

Take for example the post on "The Problem with Kindergarten" and this follow-up post.

The Answer Sheet has a problem with the increasingly academic tilt of Kindergarten, favoring a less academic model.

The movement toward turning what should be play time into academic time is several decades old, sparked by the notions that kids are not learning enough at school and that they are capable of starting earlier than long thought.

That's not entirely accurate. The actual notion is that some children, let's call them "at-risk children" for lack of a better name, come to school far behind their peers, are not ready to learn when the enter first grade, and never catch up to their peers academically. This is generally considered a bad outcome. So the thought was to stop wasting kindergarten doing macaroni art and other sundry crafts in favor of catching them up academically to avoid the awful educational trajectory most had in store for them.

This decade’s era of No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests, pushed curriculum into lower grades faster than ever.

Yes, that's what happens when the feedback gleaned from those nasty tests indicated that some kids weren't learning all that much. I'm certain if the tests indicated kids were learning just swell, refrigerators would once again be festooned with macaroni art.

Anyway, NCLB was mentioned; cue ominous music.

Now kindergartners are being taught how to take standardized tests and are often required to sit and work for far longer than their metabolisms can actually tolerate--even though there is no research that proves that foisting formal academics on such young kids has any long-term benefit.

[*record scratch*]

Actually, there's plenty of research that shows that good academic programs in kindergarten can have educationally significant positive effects. See, for example, Academic Kindergarten and Later Academic Success: The Impact of Direct Instruction (2008) which documents quite a few studies that are exactly on point. In fact, it would be a good education on education policy to read the whole thing.

Research has shown that children of this age learn best through active exploration of materials such as clay, sand, water, blocks and other manipulatives. Yet these things have been removed from many kindergarten classes.

Research has shown that children who engage in socio-dramatic play have better language skills, better social skills, more empathy, are less aggressive and have more self-control than children who do not. Yet the Alliance for Childhood study reported that some teachers say the curriculum does not allow time for any play.

No links to the purported research are provided. The first rule of blogging is to provide links so you can be fact checked. And, the first rule of education journalism is that you can't trust education research to be actual scientific research. I'm going to give the Answer Sheet a mulligan this time since a) I'm exceedingly nice and b) the Answer Sheet is new. I'm also going to ignore some of the sillier cliches being bandied about in the paragraphs surrounding the last quote. (The Answer Sheet also violates the second rule of education journalism by citing blogger Jim Horn as an authority on education.)

The Answer Sheet, however, dug itself into a deeper hole, in the follow-up post.

Advocates of a more kid-friendly kindergarten are not suggesting that anybody be “held back” so that kids less advanced can catch up. A child who can read should, obviously, be encouraged to read. A 5-year-old who understands the concept of infinity should explore whatever he/she wants to explore.

They may not be advocating that anyone be held back, but they aren't exactly advocating that anyone be taught either. A child who can read (most likely because someone at home taught them) can "explore" reading, but apparently shouldn't be taught how to read better. That doesn't make much sense.

The question is about how the non-Einsteins of this age learn best.

Do they learn better by sitting for hours and filling out worksheets--even if they are able to do it--or by engaging in sophisticated forms of play that help build problem-solving and other skills and by hands-on learning that allows them to explore?

The classic false dilemma. Evil worksheets vs. sophisticated play. Is there no middle ground?

Oddly enough, in the study I cited above, I know that the reading program used in that study, Reading Mastery, uses well-designed worksheets and the students do "learn better."

Some children come to school so well prepared and ready to learn that they can tolerate a year of macaroni art and crafts. This doesn't mean that children should waste a year doing such fluff in lieu of academics, but the harm will be minimal. In contrast, for the kids who come to school woefully behind, they need to productively utilize as much school time as possible, wasting an entire school year on fluff could very well be the difference between catching up to their more-ready peers and not.

Carl Bereiter said it best when he criticized the kind of child-centered educated favored by The Answer Sheet:

Unless thinkers and experimenters committed to child-centered education become more sophisticated about instruction and start devoting more attention to designing learning activities that actually converge on objectives, they are in danger of becoming completely discredited. That would be too bad. Child-centered educators have evolved a style of school life that has much in its favor. Until they develop an effective pedagogy to go with it, however, it does not appear to be an acceptable way of teaching disadvantaged children.

Child-centered education may by OK for the children of Washington Post writers, but that doesn't mean that it's also effective with disadvantaged/"at risk" kids. That's what the real research shows.


Dick Schutz said...

The thing about K, like most of the rest of el-hi schooling is that it's mindless. The assignments are made willy-nilly. "Play" can be "boring" to kids and academic instruction can be "fun." What makes an activity "fun" is success and transparent cumulative learning.

Conducted "right" most children find DI fun--as they also find other well-developed instructional programs.

DI doesn't require that much daily time and other direct instruction programs require even less. An hour a K-day in math AND reading is more than enough, leaving plenty of time for less controlled instruction.

If the "academic focus" in K WERE "catching kids up" that MIGHT be a reason to promote it. But it's not. It's further stringing kids out. Look at ECLS-K data.

Dick Schutz said...

(This continues my preceding comment. It was too long for the system to accept in one piece).

It seems to me that the French have a reasonable take on the matter. They begin reading instruction in CP=K. They've dropped Whole Language and mandated Alphabetic-Code based reading instruction. (The French Minister of Education can do this. Doesn't mean that everyone will obey the policy. Ed Profs were loudly opposed so he folded schools of Ed into Universities.)

Here's the French take on what we would call preschool years:

(I wouldn't guarantee the complete accuracy of the translation. Some French expressions just don't translate into English. Other expressions differ For example, where we would say "instruction," the French say "training." I kept the French term, because it seems more to the point.)

The essential objective of nursery school: To help each child to become autonomous and to develop knowledge and competencies. The child must acquire a rich oral language, organized and comprehensible by others. The aim is preparation for success in Kindergarten/Reception.

The nursery school week is fixed at 24 hours.

The training is structured according to following fields:
· To become familiar with language - To discover written language

· To become a student

· To act and express oneself using body language

· To discover the world

· To perceive, feel, imagine, create

- To discover the written expression of oral language is the pivot of nursery school training. The children learn how to exchange information and to express themselves. Detailed attention is paid to comprehension, as children respond to questions with increasingly complex accounts. Language manipulation allows the children:
· to become familiar with the rules that govern the structure of sentences,
· to acquire vocabulary, through specific teacher-led instruction involving very precise language.

Work on the sounds of words, acquiring the alphabetical principle, and the gestures involved in handwriting: These three key activities support the systematic training in reading and writing that will begin in Kindergarten/Reception.

The objective is to teach the child to recognize:
· what distinguishes the child from others
· the child is also like anyone else in many way
· how to live with different individuals in a community organized by rules
· and understand what is involved in school and the child's place in the school
Teaching the child to become a student involves a progressive process that requires the teacher to be both flexible and rigorous at the same time.

The child discovers the possibilities of his body by practicing free or guided physical activities, by practicing activities that involve rules, and activities aimed at artistic expression. Children thus acquire an oriented image of their personal bodies.

At nursery school, the child discovers the near-at-hand world; learning how to take and use space and temporal reference marks. The child observes, raises questions, and learns how to adapt to various points of view. This confrontation with logical thought gives the child a taste of reasoning. The child becomes able to classify, order and describe, thanks to language and varied forms of representation (drawings, diagrams). The child begins to understand what distinguishes living from non-living (matter, objects).

Nursery school provides the first artistic sensitizing. Drawing and creation of objects on the one hand, and voice and listening on the other hand, increase sensory possibilities for the child.

Update: February 2009.
Ministry of Education