A Conversation With My Oldest Child

A beautifully written and very thoughtful post on early education and the value of unstructured free play for our early learners. I wrote about this topic recently. I am very concerned with the direction of education, but with the earliest years of school in particular. A time of celebration and memory-making is being replaced with a push for supposed higher standards, all at the expense of our children. It affects our children at school, and as the author of this post explains, it affects our children even after they’ve arrived home. How much is too much?

Daniel Katz, Ph.D.

The older of our two children initiated this conversation with me last week.  As a follow up to Father’s Day, it seemed appropriate:

“I never really understood the purpose of homework.”

“Well, sweetie, some people think that it helps you practice what you’ve learned.”

“Well, why can’t we practice in school?”

“Some people think it helps you remember better if you do it at home.”

“That’s so not true.”

“Maybe, but it is true that when you are older you will have to do some things on your own in order to be ready for school and the next lessons.”

“So why can’t we wait until high school?”

“Some people think that’s when homework should begin. I think it probably makes sense to wait until at least 5th grade.”

“Yeah. You should tell Ms. H*** that.”

“I think I should probably let your principal do her job herself.”

I have…

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What counts

I was recently asked to write something intended for teachers as the target audience. The theme is what counts:

What counts in education? If you had asked me that one year ago, I’m not sure what my answer would have been. Back then my oldest child was only 4 years old and about to start PreK at our local public school. My biggest concerns were if my son would miss me and how he would get along with the other kids at school! I thought he would play and have fun, learn some letters and numbers, and generally enjoy his school experience until the day he graduated. I was wrong. He grew to dread school and I noticed a gradual degradation of his natural curiosity and his passion for discovery.

I am a parent and I am appalled by the devastating reforms that are stifling rich and authentic learning for my child and all children like him who cannot be forced into a mold of precisely what, how, and when. This does not work and this does not count. Education reforms that cater to corporate interests and the will of non-educators must be dismantled. Over the past year I have learned that much occurring in our schools nowadays simply does not count… at least not to me or my children: APPR, SLOs, VAM, state-mandated third-party assessment products, high-stakes testing, developmentally inappropriate curricula, worksheets, modules, scripts, inBloom, and the list goes on and on.

What really counts can come in many forms and can vary all the time. (Yet I suspect that most of us know one true answer to this question). Like the individual qualities that make each and every teacher and student unique, the answers to this question are infinite. I believe that as we ask ourselves what counts, we must also consider a second question: To whom? To whom do these things count? If we believe the reformers, things such as standardized tests and APPR are important. It is to them that these things matter. This is a top-down approach that does not listen to teachers or parents. I am unwilling to accept this! And I ask that you join me in wholly rejecting this manner of education. There are far more important recipients of the to whom question!

There is no doubt that teachers count! I am not a teacher and I cannot speak of tactics or methodology, differences in curricula or lesson plans. But I do recognize that teaching is an experience entirely unique to each teacher and that those experiences are adversely affected by things such as scripted curriculum and unfairly using student test scores to judge teacher effectiveness. Unfortunately, there is much taking over education that undermines teacher creativity and innovation, and devalues your profession. In the words of Susan Ohanian:

It is a very dangerous notion to tell a teacher that the right reading program or the right set of standards is enough. …the best moments in our classrooms come from impulse, not from carefully constructed plans. This is why I am so skeptical about national teaching standards. How do you test for a sense of humor? A good heart? A generous spirit? A tolerance for ambiguity? An ability to step in at the right moment as well as the ability to step back and take the long pause?

Teaching and learning are too complex to be reduced to scripted curriculum and standardized assessments.

A year ago, I did not anticipate that I would opt my son out of his STAR testing and help guide others in a growing grassroots movement to take back public education from the reformers and the ‘standardistos.’ It is to teachers that I say, we are on your side in our actions. As we fight for authentic learning for our children, we fight for teachers’ rights to authentically teach. Excessive testing is a major problem in our schools that knots everything together. We see testing in its various forms as unfair judges of our children’s true abilities, their teachers’ worth, and their schools’ performance. We abhor these tests as they force a narrow curriculum and promote bad teaching practices. Testing is dominating the educational experiences for all and parents across our state are beginning to say ‘No more!’ With the guidance of their parents, students will be refusing these harmful tests. I ask you to do what you can to support students at your school and in your classroom as they refuse state tests, SLOs, or any other state or district mandated testing.

A test-driven education is heartless, passionless, and surely fosters a hatred for learning. As a parent, I want the best for my children—education that encourages child-centered learning, which in turn grants children an empowered sense of ownership over their own education and a sense of self-worth. Limiting education to a system of testing standards does not count. And it is our children that suffer most. Previously, I suggested that there was one answer to the what counts question that matters more than all others. The answer I give is children! My children, our children, your students– they count the most of all! We must never forget for whom we are truly working to provide a meaningful education.

My son should be starting kindergarten this fall, but with his best interests in mind we have decided to keep him home for at least another year. With early childhood education extremely close to my heart, let me end with some more words by Susan Ohanian:

Treating a kindergartner like a robot—or a Wall Street broker-in-training—cannot come to a good end. Standardistos don’t offer a rich garden of delight; instead, they want us to cut down the meddlesome Spanish moss of curriculum, replacing it with astroturf, which knows how to keep its place.

We know, and have always known, what really counts when it comes to education. But now, more than ever, we must keep this knowledge close to our hearts and at the forefront of our minds. This knowledge will fuel the reclaiming of public education. Together we will halt the degradation of our beloved educational system and restore ‘the garden’ with all of its inherent splendor and diversity.