Inappropriate Standards and the Death of Self-Discovery

­On a beautiful spring day, I sat on the porch and did some math with Oscar, my six-year-old son. In response to an educational system that is becoming more and more standardized and oppressive with the implementation of the Common Core, we made a personal decision to “opt out” of a brick and mortar kindergarten this year. Kindergarten isn’t obligatory in New York State, so officially we are not yet homeschooling as per the state requirements, but we do school at home none the less.

The one-size-fits-all, developmentally inappropriate Common Core standards is a big reason why Oscar isn’t sitting in a classroom right now. The amazing thing is that without forcing, and quite frankly without much effort at all, I see Oscar demonstrate his knowledge of basic academic talents when he’s ready and when provided with the resources to do so. I do feel pressure, even as a homeschooler, to “educate” my child. And there have been numerous times when our days begin with frustration if I try to force a lesson that is not at its time to be learned. This usually happens after I’ve heard stories about what so and so’s child is doing in real kindergarten… then I feel like maybe I should try it too.

During our time on the porch, Oscar demonstrated his ability to count by fives effortlessly while we practiced using tally marks and counting objects. I remember my forced lesson in skip counting months before he was ready to grasp it. It was a brutal disaster, and I ended up abandoning my hope at the time that he could learn it along with his school counterparts. In retrospect, I feel like an ass for even having these trite academic expectations for my “kindergartner”. Yet, this happens every day in many Common Core classrooms.

Despite our methods, or lack thereof, I’ve watched my son progress in English Language Arts and Math—the golden children of the Common Core—over the past several months. I try not to push. I notice right away if he simply isn’t ready to absorb a particular lesson. I also notice when enough is enough; Then Oscar simply shuts down and no amount of urging can make him learn more. As his mother, it’s obvious to me that kids his age need to take many a break from a constant state of sitting still and following the preordained directions of adults. Young children need to unwind; they need to expend energy; and they need to daydream. Sometimes they need to determine their own direction and make independent decisions with limited adult interference. This is a place where children experience the dichotomy of success and failure… and learn from both. This happens through play.

The research is clear when it comes to the development of our youngest learners, and the Common Core State Standards are once again being criticized for being developmentally inappropriate for grades K-3. According to a document created by Defending the Early Years, educators and standards proponents must keep in mind that children do not learn at the same rate or in the same way. The Common Core standards are not based on research, were not pilot tested, and were created with very little input from real educator, according to the paper’s authors. And among other things, the paper goes on to stress the importance of play.

We know that play is not only important, but a necessary component to to the development of young children. Even those who recognize a place for direct instruction and the inclusion of literacy and math realize the value of play, insisting on the inclusion, if not the focus, of play in the classroom.

Worcester Central School is a district near me in upstate NY. At a February Board of Education meeting, discussion ensued regarding the district’s decision to remove toys from the kindergarten classrooms and severely limit playtime, in a misguided effort to support higher academic standards. Contrary to the school’s position that these kindergartners are “thriving” in this rigorous environment, parents are outraged with the definition of “thriving”.

I talked to a parent, whom I’ll call Marie. This mother is afraid that her child will face repercussions in the classroom if her real name is used. Marie doesn’t believe that higher marks in ELA and Math are proof of a “thriving” kindergartener, and she can’t wait until summer when her son will have the chance to “just be a child, which doesn’t happen at WCS”. Marie worries about his socialization in the stricter academic environment, citing the limited time to play and do hands-on activities with his friends as some of the problems. She worries that there isn’t enough play-based learning going on in her child’s classroom. Instead, kindergarten students are completing worksheets and sitting for extended periods of time. In addition, recess was no guarantee that a child would be free from these confines. I was informed by several parents in the district that kindergarten students lose even more play time during recess when they are forced to sit under adult supervision to complete any unfinished worksheets. “What happened to kindergarten?” Marie asks. “When did it become what it is today: worksheet after worksheet, robot-creating, anti-social?”

Back in February, when the toy discussion from the Board of Education meeting spilled over to social media, I contacted Worcester Central School district Superintendent Bill Diamond to hear his perspective and to announce my intention to eventually write this essay. He stated that he was sorry to hear that his comments during the meeting were “misinterpreted” (he did not go into detail) and went on to state that kindergarten was just one area that has undergone “significant change”, and insinuated that Worcester Central School has encountered major challenges with the implementation of more “rigorous standards”. More recently, I contacted Mr. Diamond once more to say that I had in fact begun my essay and I was looking for both sides of the story. Unfortunately, at the writing of these words, Mr. Diamond has failed to respond to my inquiry.

Tonya Rearick is the mother of two children in Ilion, NY. Her youngest daughter, Sarah, is only two months older than my son, which put her in New York State’s cutoff to start kindergarten a year earlier than he. Where my son still had nap time in PreK last year (a normal event for a child of that age), Sarah did not in kindergarten. According to her mother, the workload was heavy and the expectations were often too much for Sarah. Sarah would sometimes fall asleep at her table and would be reprimanded with a yellow flag. If she “misbehaved” one more time, she would be put on red and lose time from her limited recess minutes.

This year, Sarah is in first grade and still struggles to keep up with the expectations in her classroom. Tonya reports that Sarah has developed anxiety this year, along with episodes of sleep anxiety. The pressure to succeed academically is so high that sometimes Sarah talks in her sleep repeating, “Ground line, tree line, sky line” over and over. (Ground Line, Sky Line is a method to teach students proper letter formation when learning to write). Sarah has trouble sitting still during class. Her school is urging Tonya to medicate Sarah for ADHD. Before we judge Sarah or her mother’s resolution to avoid medication, remember this: Sarah is six; Sarah has 15 minutes of playtime outside of recess; and recess itself can be limited through punishment for misbehavior or for having not completed classroom worksheets on time.

Sarah’s mother worries that our children are losing their individuality in an effort to push all children in the same direction at the same time. Tonya says, “Common Core is taking common sense away from education.”

I’ve heard from parents in various districts whose children are labeled “fidgety” or “high energy” or “ADHD” in the classroom. My comments are not meant to dismiss any child who truly needs intervention for real behaviors, but in each of the cases I heard about there is no evidence that these children are exhibiting behavior that is anything but normal for their age. In all cases, these children are forced to complete a workload that isn’t appropriate, all while ignoring valuable and necessary free-play and time to unwind. While devastating for all young children, it is the children who need play the most who are being most hurt by the lack of time devoted to it.

I recently spoke with two mothers of kindergartners who asked for anonymity in sharing their frustration with the kindergarten experience their children share in the same classroom in a small rural district in upstate New York. I’ll call these mothers Millie and Anne. Their fear is that their children will be targeted if they speak publicly and they say that their kids have it hard enough already. Both mothers are very concerned about the workload being pushed with the Common Core standards. Unlike the kindergarten classrooms in Worcester, this district still has toys in the classroom, “but the kids don’t use them very much,” according to Millie. Their stories are similar: their children arrive home spent. Millie went on to say, “Some days my daughter comes home and she has no energy left. She doesn’t feel like doing anything.”

Anne’s description was similar. “You can tell when it has been a stressful day–low energy and sometimes low self esteem if they didn’t get something right. Even at five years old, the kids know what a red mark is and they know what 100% means. Instead of celebrating what they learned or accomplished, the kids focus on how many they got wrong and are being left with a feeling that they aren’t smart enough. There’s too much stress at such a young age.”

I asked both mothers if they noticed a change in their children during the weekends or an extended break from school. Yes, they said. Anne stated that her son continually asks her how many days until it’s weekend again, claiming that there is a clear distinction between the type of child she sees when there is school versus when there is break. According to Anne, “School produces a stressed, grumpy, tired kid when he gets home. During breaks and weekends, my son is happier, and more energetic. He wants to do things. He’s excited about the little things. Kindergarten is supposed to set the tone for their school careers. If they are discouraged from the beginning, it creates a very long and taxing journey.” Both Millie and Anne agree that there clearly needs to be a change.

My husband works with the parent of a kindergartner in my district. I know their daughter, a cheerful little girl who always smiled when my son attended PreK with her last year. Her mom reported that she brings home worksheets every day for homework and that she only gets a ten minute period of play besides recess during her school day. She comes home tired and cranky, sometimes falling asleep at the dinner table. Why? Why is it so important to push these small human beings at a rate that is not innate to their development and their being?

In every case, the kindergarten parents I talked to had similar complaints about an excessive workload that ignores time for play and time for kids to just be kids. Worksheets was a topic that came up in almost every conversation, the overwhelming use of which is affecting kindergarten education everywhere.

For parents of children who are doing well in school, many just can’t understand why Common Core opponents are so upset about this. Even some teachers, who have yet to experience the scripted day-to-day of classroom modules or who teach upper grade levels where the Common Core becomes less developmentally inappropriate, are failing to see just how dire the lack of play is for young children. I recently heard a story about such a teacher, whose son is in kindergarten and doing well academically. Although she doesn’t support the Common Core, she sees her son’s experience as one where he just doesn’t know any different. According to this logic, a child who never knew a kindergarten that consisted of lots of play, snack-, and nap time, and even more play would consider this new kindergarten of worksheets and long periods of sitting quite normal. Young children may not be able to articulate what is “normal” and what is “necessary”, but a kindergartener starved of play is not “thriving”.

One kindergarten mom told me how proud her son was that he finally did well on a test. A test? Since when does pride in one’s testing ability come into play at the age of five or six? Aren’t there more relevant things of which to be proud when you’re that young? But we can hardly blame a kindergartner. They want to please. It’s in their nature. And when the focus of learning becomes so obviously tied to the results of a formal assessment, the kids know where the expectations lie.

Proponents of the new standards claim that by placing higher expectations in our classrooms, our children will rise to the occasion and become better learners, and years down the road, better graduates. They say that these are challenging educational times and we must adapt to give our students the 21st century skills they need. In a recent statement, New York State Commissioner of Education John King stated that the “developmentally inappropriate” argument against the Common Core was just a euphemism for “harder.” He’s right… it is harder, but that still doesn’t mean that it’s not developmentally inappropriate. What John King and other Common Core cheerleaders don’t understand is that when we push our children to learn concepts that they are not yet cognitively ready to comprehend, we are not educating them, we are only training them. And if we constantly engage our children through an environment of discouragement and frustration, what kind of learners can we really expect?

The true nature of learning is being missed completely for these five and six year olds, and increasing numbers of parents are asking the same questions. Is this really appropriate? Is this really how children are “thriving”? Is this what I want for my child? In the opinion of that Worcester parent, “Cut these kids some slack, and let them be kids.”

The mentality behind the Common Core’s effects on the kindergarten classroom are derived from the myth that are schools are failing, and that our teachers aren’t doing their jobs; that our graduates aren’t “college and career ready”, and that they do not possess the skills to compete in a global economy. The effects are most gravely felt in public school where the mandates are many and teacher autonomy almost nonexistent. The decision to backwards map our expectations has found its way down to our youngest learners where I believe we are laying a very wrong foundation for the educational careers of our children. When we replace the necessary joy of learning, which for our kindergartners and early elementary children comes largely through play-based and child-led activities, in favor of a doctrinaire focus on data and performance, our children not only suffer through each moment of this inculcation, they come to despise school and learning. My fear is that by pushing our children too much, and by removing opportunities wherein they can respond from a place of inherent inquisitiveness and creativity, we are killing their ability to be life-long learners and we are killing their chance at self-discovery.

This is a concern that affects all of us, even those of us who choose a home-based or private system of education. With the SAT, the most popular college entrance exam, being aligned with the Common Core and with many private institutions also falling for the myth that our educational system lacks rigor, we can expect the reach of standardization to be far and complex.

In an effort to respond to the trend of “higher academic standards” and more rigor in the classrooms, even some private institutions are making decisions that move away from the enriching, well-rounded type of education that most of us associate with private school. I spoke with a veteran kindergarten teacher at a Pennsylvania private school who has witnessed a shift in educational priorities at his school, as administrators try to find their place in these “changing educational times”. He is currently undergoing some sort of professional probation, so I will keep his identity private and call him Jack. After many years of successful teaching, one has to wonder if this is a result of disagreeing with some of the recent shifts at his school.

I asked Jack if his school is affected by the Common Core. He said, “Common Core standards have not affected us, however the push-down to require us to teach more structured math and reading lessons based on state standards has taken up a large portion of our day, once used for more appropriate play activities.”

How important is play to the development of early learners? Are they learning while they play, and how so? According to Jack, play is an important, if not the most important component in a young child’s development. “Young children definitely learn while they play. They are learning to design new games along with the rules of those games. They then enforce their rules with the expectation that any participants will play by those rules. When I observe these original play ideas, it becomes very clear to me that the children do not need adults to intervene. The lessons are invaluable practice in the skills of problem solving, sharing and negotiating, while also learning to navigate the dynamics of a classroom full of other children. There is constant experimentation going on… The children’s imaginations knows no limits in these play situations.”

It’s clear to me that the benefits of focusing on play far exceed the imagined value of the completion of monotonous worksheets in an environment too heavily oriented by compliance and adult leadership. Through play and child-led learning, children not only participate in self-discovery, but they are also allowed to make mistakes without humiliation. Jacks explained that children need to know that it’s ok to make mistakes and that they feel safe and unthreatened while making them. Children learn from making mistakes. If a child isn’t willing to try again after making a mistake because he or she is made to feel frustrated or stupid, they will never gain the confidence necessary to continue working on that particular skill. According to Jack, “Children need to be given the chance to recognize and correct their own mistakes on their own terms. They need to be empowered in their own learning.”

Jack and many veteran teachers like him realize that children should be allowed to learn at their own rate. Just as children learn to walk and talk at different times, or lose teeth at different ages, there are just too many variables in a child’s development to expect them to learn the same things at the same time. Jack recognizes that children enter school from different backgrounds and with very different skill sets. Developmentally, they are at very different stages when they enter his kindergarten classroom, and each has a different style of learning that can’t be ignored.

The push for such severe standardization under the Common Core, affects both our children and their teachers. For many teachers, there is little autonomy left to make decisions in the classroom. Even Jack feels the effects in his private school kindergarten. “Teaching has become more rigid with less flexibility allowing for creativity, given that certain academic requirements need to be met. Teachers are under immense pressure to cover everything. For young children, the day can be very disjointed and disconnected with numerous transitions that require them to ‘shift gears’ many times in a normal day and not giving them time to become immersed in an enjoyable process or activity for any length of time.”

Many, including Marie from Worcester, worry that decisions are being made by those who are not experts in childhood development or pedagogy. They fear that harmful educational policies will be the cause of many mental breakdowns, with increases in anxiety, ADHD, and hyperactivity. And I share Marie’s concern about a school environment that will become increasingly insensitive and intolerant of any youth that exhibits opposition or defiance within this system.

Denise O’Brien is a retired teacher. Her granddaughter attends kindergarten at Valleyview Elementary School in Oneonta, NY. Until recently, Denise volunteered at the school, tutoring in the morning and then helping out in her granddaughter’s kindergarten classroom until noon. She was mostly involved in watching the children complete worksheet after worksheet as part of a Common Core module math lesson. Denise watched the scripted lessons day after day, not able to help the children with their frustrations, and not being allowed to intervene with her expertise as a veteran teacher and reading specialist. In February, Denise stopped volunteering, in part, as a result of the difficult time she was having walking the line between staying positive while at school in light of the lack of play time and the scripted curriculum and feeling obligated to speak up to the teachers about what she was observing.

Denise understands the value of enriching a child’s life through a variety of experiences, therefore she travels with her granddaughter as often as she can and supports her granddaughter’s involvement in dance. Because kindergarten is not a required grade in New York State, Denise keeps her granddaughter home every Thursday for a “homeschooling” day. As long as the worksheets are complete, the school tolerates thee absences.

I will always have self-doubts about whether or not I’m “teaching” my son the right things at the right time. But I’ll never doubt that he’s learning, and I’ll never question the importance of free-play and self-discovery. Lately my son has been interested in swords. After lunch on that lovely spring day when we worked on math on the porch, my son ran off to play outside and I went out to the garden. Oscar is always occupied while he is outside: He builds things, he digs holes, he sets traps in the maple tree, and in general immerses himself in his six-year-old imagination within the boundless information of the world around him.

After a while, I went to check on him. He was in the sandbox hammering something. I went over and I watched. He had taken the broken aluminum handle of a child-size rake and was smithing his own sword. Against a large rock strategically placed in the sand, he fashioned the blade by pounding the tubular metal handle flat. He began at the tip and worked his way down methodically, leaving a five inch area still cylindrical for the hilt. He had been working on it for quite some time and didn’t want to stop until it was completed. When his sword was finally done, he ran to me excited to show me his creation. He was proud! And I was impressed with his ingenuity and industriousness. Later that day after he proudly showed my husband, they spray painted it gold for the finishing touch.

Days later he helped his best friend to craft a similar sword out of another broken handle. This time, I watched more closely and I learned two things. The first is that clearly these children’s implements are not well made! And secondly, my son demonstrated a skill that I often doubt he possesses: Patience. It took him quite some time to produce that sword, but he kept with it until it was completed. And the two friends ran off with their weapons.

Learning how to read and write and do arithmetic is indeed important for our early elementary learners. But so are opportunities for self-direction and engagement outside of the milieu of academia. My son gets these all the time, and through these varied experiences he not only becomes “educated”, but he also becomes a better human being. He’s fortunate, and we’re fortunate to be able to provide these in combination with an appropriate level of academic instruction. I’ll never deny how privileged we are. I’m not trying to brag or persuade anyone of the virtues of homeschooling. What I am trying to do is throw into stark contrast what is being lost in classrooms that have wholeheartedly accepted the notions of rigor and the premature focus on college and career readiness. How can we even look at a five-year-old and think that phrase? How can we live with ourselves if we strip away the pure joy of being a child? This fleeting moment is one that can never be regained or repeated. If we do it wrong now, it can’t be fixed. I can’t help but wonder how these children will be affected for the rest of their lives for having their childhoods stolen.

And that’s just what we’re doing—stealing childhood—with backwards mapping and the rigor (mortis) of the Common Core State Standards. While I fully realize that there are many good teachers who are maintaining true dignity in teaching and learning while also complying with the new expectations, the stories of joyless learning, boredom, frustration, and negativity abound. Rare is “Fantastic! Amazing! Spectacular!” the answers I hear when I ask how school is going. More often than not, the answer begins with the swift disappearance of a smile, quickly followed by a sigh, and then words demonstrative of quite the opposite of words like “fantastic”.

I do not blame teachers. They are under immense pressure to fulfill mandates, with the heavy hand of an unfair teacher evaluation system looming over their heads. I blame those who perpetuate the myth that our schools were lousy, and those who benefit financially from the standardization and corporatization of our schools.

Standards proponents are arrogant to think that a one-size mentality will solve anything. We cannot ignore the individuality of our children. A kindergarten classroom too oriented with direct instruction does not instill a love of learning and the urge to want to learn or even care about learning. We need to give our teachers the autonomy to inspire. There is no one way. And many times, if we allow freedom of discovery, our children will find their own way, even if it’s wrong at first.

These issues confound me. They disturb me, yet I don’t know what to do. I’ve been accused of abandoning the system, of “giving the reformers what they want”. Yet I’m still here pondering these problems, feeling my heart ache because of them. I believe that all children are entitled to an enriching and appropriate education. And I believe that as a community, both local and global, we need to care about our neighbors. There are many parents and teachers who feel as I do. Yet there are many who do nothing, who say nothing, and I wonder how much longer our children can endure this silence.

At home, growing food is important to me. Not only do I find it enjoyable as an activity, but it represents notions of local, fresh, healthy, and personal accomplishment that I feel are important issues I would like to impress on my children. (Food & Agriculture is another area where corporate interests and privatization have has devastating effects–think Monsanto).

Each year, I give my kids a small portion of my garden to call their own. I allow them to plant whatever they want, however they see fit. They see me doing it and they ask for it themselves. I force nothing. If they become bored or disinterested, I let them go. Last year, my son only wanted a garden of flowers. This year, he didn’t want one at first, until he saw me busy sowing Snow Peas. Then he again asked for his own space. This is the first year, he is attempting to organize his garden, spacing seeds and planting them in appropriate rows. My daughter is two and this is her first garden. She planted about 20 Snow Pea seeds in a six inch space, and almost 30 cloves of garlic in an 18 inch row. I won’t correct her. She is enjoying herself immensely and when she is old enough to understand, she too will demonstrate not only her ability to grow food, but hopefully her love of doing it. If I had yelled at my son to get his rows straight four years ago, or criticized his seed distribution, do you think he would have continued to follow in my gardening footsteps? In this analogy, I’m not teaching my children anything, but rather I am instilling, with a gentle guiding hand, a pure love of the experience. The learning comes on its own.



8 thoughts on “Inappropriate Standards and the Death of Self-Discovery

  1. I am a trying to serve as a grandfather to my step children’s children but rarely get to see them — which may be a blessing, because I tend to be impatient and outspoken am sure my beliefs that we, as a society, are trying to manage our children as we tried (and failed) to manage the environment to suit out short-term needs. I send them articles (I intend to send them what you have written) and they read and mostly understand them but I get NO feedback. I have given up with my son. We have not been close since he married; I have had absolutely no communication with his wife. However, I keep on trying with my daughter. I see her and her husband driving themselves to have nicer and nicer things as well as being devoted to their careers and, hence, unable to see clearly what is happening to their children. They are loving and very conscientious parents but I am afraid they have inadvertently made compromises — that seemed to be the right thing to do at the time — that have virtually locked them into this Common Core child-prison system.
    I never could have survived in such a system. I am sure I would have ended up in jail or being sent to a military school to have my spirit broken.
    Thank you for taking the time and expending the effort to write this fine narrative of your experiences as a loving and feeling parent.

    • Thank you for telling your story. Your family is lucky to have someone like you to keep them informed about all that’s happening in education. In today’s world, it’s easy to become busy and overwhelmed. I hope you continue to reach out to them to help make a difference.

  2. Absolutely wonderful article. Thank you. I plan on sharing this with my daughter who is expecting her first child this winter. My husband and I are activists against the Common Core and heavily involved in the ‘fight’.

    • Thank you, Barb, for the compliment and for your efforts in the ‘fight’. I hope my article sheds some light on what’s happening in kindergarten and early elementary, and I hope that it inspires more people to become involved in defending our educational system against harmful reform policies. Congratulations to your entire family on the (soon to be) addition of another family member!

  3. As a kindergarten teacher forced to commit this warcrime against childhood and implement these grossly inappropriate standards I applaud you for writing and trying to educate others. Your remark about not educating them we are training them was absolutely perfect. That is exactly what we are doing and in the process sacrificing play which would have laid a strong foundation of curiosity, creativity, self regulation and complex higher order thinking skills that will now be lacking in this crop of students because they were denied what scientific research has shown again and again young children need. I try my best to defend my students from the”rigor” of common core, we do not do worksheets instead we use manipulatives, reworked boardgames such as CVC candyland and math fluency Sorry, but the truth is they are not READY for what I am teaching them so they learn to perform but not to understand.

    • Thank you for your kinds words. For me to tell these stories from my position as a parent is easier… I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a teacher in these hostile top-down environments. So, thank YOU for all that you do, and every teacher who puts kids first despite the mandates and the inappropriateness of what you’re expected to do. I’m so happy to hear that your classroom doesn’t consist of worksheets! One hears it far too often these days. Your kids are lucky to have you as their teacher!

  4. Pingback: A Conversation With My Oldest Child | The Plain Satisfactions

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