"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A Parent from Portland Goes to Scripted Pre-School and Reflects on What It All Means

From a concerned parent who decided to go to pre-school to find out why his 4-year old was being left behind for not being able to write her name. Sorry--can't hold a pencil yet. Sorry--no excuses.

I went to the district office at R_______ Elementary and looked at the Scott Foresman language arts curriculum -- Reading Street -- for pre-K and K. Some observations:

Question 1 - Does the curriculum have an emphasis on skills? It seemed very heavy on cognitive skills. There were some nods to social/emotional activities, nods to differentiated instruction for beginning level and advanced level students, and nods to ELL's. And each day started with a song that often involved some kind of movement. But the bulk of the focus was on skills and exposure to literacy and numeracy. For example, there was a skills section in the teacher's edition called "compare and contrast." The suggested text/script for the teacher said something like, "Look at this picture of a classroom. Now look at this picture of the same classroom. What is different about them?" By week 2, students were making associations between letters and phonemes. The suggested text/script for the phonemic awareness section said something like, "Write 'Today is Monday' and ask students to point to the word 'Today.' Give all the students a chance to point to words they know."

Question 2 - Is the curriculum scripted or not scripted? Although I was told that the teachers do not HAVE to say a specific script, there is a script for everything (it appears in blue font throughout the teacher's edition). It certainly seemed teacher-proof, i.e., every moment was laid out very clearly. If I had no experience teaching, I could probably follow the directions. ;-)

Question 3 - Is the curriculum adoption a standardized adoption or does it serve as a flexible set of recommendations? The woman I spoke to kept saying that the curriculum was mean to serve as a framework, a reference. But she then said that all the teachers in the district were expected to be about 3 weeks within each other. She said that some building principals might elect to have their teachers do a lot of supplementing, whereas other principals might want to have the teachers work straight out of the


So it seems that is and it is not a standardized adoption, a scripted and non-scripted curriculum.

The woman I spoke to a the district office kept saying things like, "Well, the research shows us that kids aged 4 to 6 are the most open to phonemic awareness" and "the research shows" x, y, and z. I didn't mention the fact that there is a substantial body of research that calls this into question, not least of which is the Report of the Subgroups from The National Reading Panel, the very research which both undergirds and undermines the entire Reading First program.

I said, "Ideally for me, pre-K can be about play, socialization, and fun. I think we can introduce some early literacy and numeracy in Kindergarten, but let's wait until first grade to get into f normal instruction." She replied, "It's too late." "Too late for what?" I asked.

The notion of children being "kindergarten ready" is loathsome to me. Increasingly, pre-K and K programs are moving away from play and socialization towards skills-based curricula. As the NAEYC position statements make clear, this emphasis on skills can potentially have a damaging effect on children. NAEYC's statement on school readiness can be found here:

What's bizarre to me is that being "kindergarten ready" is an oxymoron. It's like saying you have to know how to play the piano before you can learn how to play the piano. Surely PRE-Kindergarten is a good place for kids to be beginners. But if you are not "kindergarten ready," then you are considered a "slow learner." You are "developmentally delayed." Some kids are given tests to confirm classroom-based observations. I realize that there is a significant body of scientific research that sanctions the use of tests like the DIAL, PLS4, etc. But I believe this research is faulty and such tests are wrong.

The DIAL, PLS4, etc., are norm-based tests. This means that a large number of children take the same test. The results are then "normalized," i.e., some questions are thrown out because everyone got them wrong and others are thrown out because everyone got them right. The results are then broken into a "normal" distribution. In psychometric terms, a "normal" distribution resembles a bell curve: some people score really high, some people score really low, but most people score right in the middle. This middle part is the average or mean score. This middle part is considered "normal."

What's most intriguing about this "normal" distribution is that it is not normal at all. As I said, the test questions are tweaked in such a way so that a bell curve is created. It's like carving a duck from a piece of wood: you carve everything away that is not a duck until the duck emerges from the wood. Same thing with norm-based tests: you carve away everything that is not a bell curve until the bell curve emerges from the test data.

So what does this mean? This means that the bell curve is pre-determined. In other words, what we are looking for is not "the truth" per se but rather to shape the data so that it conforms to what we believe about people. Norm-based tests have an uncontested belief that some people will always score low, some people will always score high, but that most people will always score in the middle. This will be the case in every single instance in which a norm-based test is used because norm-based tests, by definition, always produce these same basic results. Norm-based tests suggest that people can validly and reliably be rank-ordered, that some people are better than others, and that the conclusions that these decisions are based on are derived from scientific notions of "validity" and "reliability," thereby adding a veneer of truth to what is otherwise an extraordinarily arbitrary and highly contrived conclusion. To this extent, then, norm-based tests are inherently political because they suggest a certain uncontested, axiomatic idea about power and the relationships between people.

Most troublingly, norm-based tests always guarantee one thing: that some percentage of people who take them will always be considered "not normal." This is the psychometric equivalent of a stacked deck, a rigged game, a self-fulfilling prophecy. If 10 people take the same norm-based test, 3 will be above average, 3 will be below average, and 4 will be average. Again, it's important to point out that the tests do this by design, i.e., they are constructed in such a manner to do this. Psychometricians say that a well-designed test is both valid and reliable because it "discriminates" (their word, not mine) effectively in order to produce this result.

In the case of these early childhood tests, it's not just "average," "below average," and "above average" that's being determined. The measure is essentially "normal," "below normal," and "above normal." This has an important impact on how very young children are viewed by their teachers and parents --essentially as "normal" or not. If you view a child as "not normal," then you would act in a way that was different from how would act if you viewed the child as "normal." It's one thing to establish academic content knowledge on the basis of a norm-based test. But I believe it's immoral and unethical to determine if a young child is "normal" or not by means of a norm-based test.

Let me tell you a story about my daughter, G_____. She did not start walking until she was 20 months old. She was potty-trained at three and a half. And her fluency was not as developed as her friends of the same age. In speaking to the person from the district, I mentioned the fact that my daughter was not as fast as some of her peers, and that she didn't do well when asked to call out a response to a question or a task, especially when done so in front of her peers. I said that some kids clearly can do these sorts of things, while others either can't or are unwilling to do so (for whatever reason).

I admit that I'm not privy to the meta-conversations that my daughter or any other 4-year-old has. I don't know if 4-year-olds have any kind of metacognition going on. But if they are happening, I wonder what they're saying to themselves. I'm concerned that children like my daughter may form a negative self-image when asked to perform cognitive tasks in front of others when they are clearly not able or not comfortable doing this. Children may not only form negative self-images and develop negative self-esteem, but they may also form negative impressions about school, e.g., it's too competitive, it's too stressful, etc.

Competition and stress may or may not be something we want kids to learn to deal with. And I'm not one of those parents that wants to shield my little shnoogums from nasty people who don't think she's as marvelous as I do. But do we really want 4-year-olds to deal with these things in pre-kindergarten, in the grade BEFORE the beginning grade of elementary school? Again, when are children ever allowed to be beginners? Might the public performance of their knowledge and abilities be put off to a later grade, say first grade? Might we wait a bit before we pressure kids to come up with the right answers?

So, from my daughter G_____'s perspective, here is where I see things. If G_____ -- clearly not your average, normal kid -- takes a test to determine if she is "normal," I can pretty well guess where she'll fall on the bell curve. However, even if she fell in the "normal" range or even if she fell in the "above normal" range, I would consider the results meaningless. They're meaningless to me because I don't think comparing people -- much less 4-year-olds -- to one another vis a vis some completely arbitrary and highly contrived set of normative data points produces any kind of substantive, meaningful information. The only thing that such tests produce is somevague notion that my kid is worse than, better than, or as good as other kids. This sort of competitive ranking is fine for horses in the Kentucky Derby, but I don't think it has much place in school, especially pre-school.

The other critical part of this whole "kindergarten readiness" canard is the extent to which it not only exacerbates but CREATES the educational achievement gap between the haves and have nots. When a
kid is labeled not "kindergarten ready," he/she may be given an IEP and categorized as "learning disabled." The shocking thing is that a disproportionate percentage of kids labeled as "not kindergarten ready" or "developmentally delayed" or "learning disabled" are low-income minority students. Kids enrolled in skills-oriented daycare, that are read to every day, that have their educations enriched with piano lessons or drama classes are more likely to be "kindergarten ready" than kids who don't have these things made available to them. Guess who can afford these things?

The implicit message seems to be, "We have to push these low-income kids." And while there might be truth in this, I worry what pushing them looks like --- and what happens when a push becomes a shove. Of course, a good teacher would be able to tell the difference between the two. But if the teacher's judgment is taken away and replaced with the kind of standardized forms of "pushing" we see in standardized approaches to education -- such as Reading Street -- , perhaps there is no difference.

Ultimately, we don't know. We don't know if 3rd grade is too late to introduce kids to phonemic awareness or if over-emphasis on skills like phonemic awareness kills a love of learning. Kids who wait to read later or who are not able to read later may fall irrevocably behind. But kids who are pushed too hard, too fast, too soon may also fall irrevocably behind for different reasons. Ultimately, each kid is different. Each teacher is different. Each classroom is different. Some kids might need the structure, might like the skills focus, might like the competition, might enjoy publicly displaying their cognitive mastery. But others might not. They might abhor the structure, might feel trapped by the skills focus, might shrink from the competition, might be terrified of publicly displaying their cognitive mastery (or lack thereof). So this is why we must have approaches that allow for teachers to make these kinds of decisions. We cannot force their hands. Experienced teachers can rely on their skills to determine what is right for each child. They should not be forced -- explicitly or implicitly -- to approach literacy from a perspective that works against their professional judgement, one that emphasizes an efficient one-size-fits-all model at the expense of one that respects the differences between children.

But the real problem comes when you have teachers who are not experienced, who enter the early childhood classroom with little or no training in literacy. For them, a curriculum like Reading Street is not a framework or a guide. It's a cookbook, a series of recipes that turns flour and sugar into cookies, non-readers into readers. Or not.

1 comment:

  1. Good discussion - the criticism of"normative testing" procedures is especially apropos right now. At the district level, it seems that boards of education will buy anything claiming to be "research based", without regard for methods of research or analysis.

    Scripted programs have become so ubiquitous, it's sad. I've seen good teachers with more than twenty years of successful experience being given a scripted curriculum, as if they wouldn't know what to do if left to their own devices. Generally, these programs are abandoned after a relatively short time, in favor of some new 'research based" program. Sometimes one looks just like the other, but all the old materials must be thrown out to satisfy the contract the district has bought into.

    I didn't realize until reading this post that these scripted curricula had filtered down to the pre-K level already. Inevitable, I guess.