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Saving Childhood

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School leaders think constantly about childhood. It is our business. We notice that more children suffer from asthma and other allergies. We strive to keep foods and serving areas peanut free. We comment on the increase of prescription drug use among our children and wonder about long term consequences. We notice how numbers of children on the autism spectrum are rising and read everything about causes and interventions. We know childhood obesity is an issue and wish for outdoor time and physical activity in every day. We are alert to the struggles of children in poverty and challenge ourselves to become more resourceful in meeting their needs. We listen for laughter, are astonished by unleashed imaginations and delighted by learning. Our work is children's growth and development. Our success and that of their lives cannot be separated. This is the understanding that every child is a whole person, yet emerging. We want to save some sense for them that childhood is different from adulthood. It is a special time, safe and loving.

As school leaders, we also know that we have a public obligation to succeed and we understand that we need to document to our success. It is our public responsibility. Of course, that means documenting their success...the little ones.

Across the country, we have just completed spring testing. In New York it marked the administration of our first round of the new K-8 Common Core Assessments. Other states began last year with redesigned tests for the new standards. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers was quoted in a NY Times article as having said, "Is this about deep learning or desperate cramming?" The concern about this testing is its affect upon the youngsters who took them. Looking back in the rear view mirror, what lessons we did teach them? Let's take a quick look at the landscape.

We have a new curriculum. What that means is topics, for example, in mathematics have been shifted from one grade to another. Teachers have been informed that they are now to focus upon different skills and topics in order to better prepare students to be college and career ready. Research based, it seems few have argued the potential for this new arrangement of topics and skills. Hold that thought. At the same time, we have been told to teach in a different way. Changing the type of questions we ask, teaching close readings of excerpts from essential texts, and teaching embedded vocabulary in a different way are just three major shifts teachers had to make. The new standards and changing pedagogy makes sense to many. In the same NY Times article, Ms. Weingarten reported that 75% of teachers in her union supported the standards while feeling like they remain ill prepared to implement them. But there is more.

Add to this the brand new accountability system in which each teacher is electronically tied to his or her students and evaluated, in part, by the students' growth and achievement. The building principal is tied to his or her building's measure as well. On the surface, this seems logical and fair. After all, we are in the business of educating children so why shouldn't we be measured by how well we do that? To be clear, we have a new organization of topics, a new way to engage children in the learning, a new test to measure their (and our) progress. The operative here is "new." Should we change the way we teach to meet the modern demands of our children to prepare them to leave our schools and productively enter a new world? The answer must be yes.

However, another NY Times article reported "At Public School 10 on the edge of Park Slope, Brooklyn, parents begged the principal to postpone the lower school science fair, insisting it was going to add too much pressure while they were preparing their children for the coming state tests." In Riverdale a teacher found himself telling his fifth grade students to "just breathe." The children taking these tests are as young as 8 years old in the third grade. In New York State, the ELA tests and the Math tests are three days each, totaling 6 days of testing. So for 3rd graders, that totals 7 hours of testing, 4th graders 7.33 hours of testing and 5th-8th graders, 9 hours of testing over the course of 6 days. Could we, adults, endure that and produce our best on material, new to even our instructors? Is it any wonder they are experiencing stress and we are teaching them how to breathe during these weeks? The Chancellor of the New York Board of Regents said, "We have to just jump into the deep end." Some of us learned to swim that way. It might have been a successful approach for Chancellor Tisch but we submit that it is not good for everyone and it is not good educational policy or practice. We must always hold these truths together: it is about achievement and it is about children. This is both, not either or.

How is this good for children? Is it principled to use them to leverage change in the system? Granted change in public education has come too slowly. Reward or punish us not the children. Our society brings enough stress and pressure into their lives without us unnecessarily adding to it. Let's not create a testing program that becomes a dress rehearsal for dealing with a stressful life. Childhood is not to be turned into rehearsal for adulthood. Childhood is to be just that...childhood!

In good conscience...well at least with good intention...we have done this knowing that they will receive scores that are lower than ever before. In his April News and Notes, Commissioner King reported, "As a state, the percentage of students scoring proficient or above will likely decrease as a result of the more challenging expectations of the Common Core around careful analysis of text, writing with evidence from sources, applying math skills to real world problems, and critical thinking." Shall we recite a mantra of acceptance, saying to the public and to the children, "Its ok. The whole state didn't do well"? Let's find a higher ground. The children are listening. Until we get the scores reported we can figure this part out. If our actions do have integrity, let's use medical language. Let's talk about this year as establishing a benchmark for ourselves and find ways to keep those results from doing harm to the children. As school leaders, we intend to do better each year. In 1999 Alfie Kohn wrote, "To take children seriously is to value them for who they are right now rather than seeing them as adults-in-the-making" (p.145). Let's work to protect their childhood. It simply makes good sense.

Resource:
Kohn, Alfie. (1999). The Schools our Children Deserve - Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and Tougher Standards New York: Houghton Mifflin

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