Take a moment to think of your most meaningful learning experience as a student. What stands out as having the greatest impact, some lesson you still carry today? Now, please think of your favorite worksheet. I’m guessing the answer to the first question was perhaps the reason you have dedicated so much of your life to the field of education. And I’m guessing the second question was difficult to answer.
In the first 15 days of school this year, my kindergartner came home with 70 completed worksheets. I am not one to question the importance of mastery learning and practice of rote skills, such as handwriting or letter and number identification. The significance of random automatic letter identification as a predictor of later mastery of reading skills is beyond question (Christo & Davis, 2008). However, the curricular tools adopted to address the Common Core Expectations in my child’s school district rely heavily on a didactic approach to imparting knowledge and, unfortunately, this methodology falls short in the exact arena that Common Core standards were intended to enhance: the domain of critical thinking.
In 2011, schools across New York began making the shift to the Common Core Standards. Much was unknown at the time, but the standards were introduced as a tool to ensure consistency across the country in what students should know and what skills they should master. One of the major selling points of the national standards was the focus on “critical thinking, problem solving and analytical skills” necessary for success in the 21st Century.
In New York, schools faced a particularly difficult situation. The state had adopted Common Core standards, and as part of the US DOE Race to the Top grant program, teacher evaluations were to be tied in part to the results of the state assessments measuring student achievement of these standards. At that point, there was no curriculum designed to address the standards, and no clear path to understanding how to ensure students were prepared for the new measures. Much was unknown, and districts were offered a difficult choice: the state was offering curriculum modules that schools could either adopt, adapt, or ignore while striving to meet demands of the changing standards. Many schools, wanting to ensure students were as prepared as possible to succeed—and with good intentions—adopted the modules.
Five years have passed. Recently, the New York State Board of Regents publicly announced the standards they adopted in 2010 need revision to address concerns raised by record numbers of parents opting out of state tests. In a recent press release, NYSED articulated new draft standards and substantive changes in store for the state, with 60 percent of the ELA standards and 55 percent of the math standards facing overhaul. One of the key areas targeted for change is PreK to Grade 2 standards. In education, we often speak of “the pendulum” and in this case that metaphor is appropriate. The press release addressed a basic philosophical shift to engender developmentally appropriate practice in the early grades this way: “grade specific changes and additions to the ELA standards, including a strong emphasis on the whole child and the importance of play as an instructional strategy…Additionally, the state is identifying concerns around the PreK-2 grades, including social emotional needs and how the content areas/domains work together in the early grades.” NYSED further pledged that, along with the new standards, the state would develop new curriculum and guidance for teachers and schools to achieve these new goals (www.nysed.gov/news/2016). Besides this shift on learner-centered instruction, the new standards also emphasize alignment between the kindergarten and prekindergarten standards.
I value and appreciate the direction the state is moving, but based on the 70 worksheets my son brought home in the first three weeks of school this fall, I fear it will take years for New York schools to get there.
Children in prekindergarten and kindergarten today do not have the luxury of time. These young learners are missing out on important opportunities during a critical developmental window that will close by the time the state creates the resources schools need to meet the new, more developmentally appropriate, expectations. Research on the importance of developmentally appropriate practice in kindergarten has found that effective instructional practices include interactive centers and story times, while developmentally inappropriate classrooms include more waiting, workbook and worksheet activities (Burts et al., 1992). Children in classrooms with developmentally inappropriate practices demonstrate more overall stress “particularly during transition, waiting, and workbook/worksheet activities” with an additional finding that males in developmentally inappropriate classrooms demonstrate more stress than males in appropriate classrooms (Burts et al., 1992, 297).
The initial intent of the Common Core standards was to ensure students graduating from our public school systems had gained the knowledge and skills to be competitive in 21st Century college and careers (http://www.corestandards.org/what-parents-should-know/). Integration of critical thinking skills throughout the curriculum is crucial to achieve this goal and nurture students to become innovative problem-solvers prepared to tackle issues the world has yet to know.
Unfortunately, in the race to develop the perfect curriculum to achieve this outcome, we lost sight of the most important attribute we wish to impart on our learners: the ability to think critically.
The key to success is not what we know or do not know, but in fact our habits of mind that determine our ability to innovate and compete (Costa & Kallick, 2008). Habits of mind determine how we respond when facing a problem to which we do not know the answer. How do we investigate, gather information, inquire, brainstorm, and persevere through this process to arrive at a solution or achieve new learning? It is not what students know at the point of graduation that defines success or failure. How well they will investigate and experiment to resolve problems will determine their fate—and ours.
The focus in the standards and the assessments in the domains English Language Arts and Math have prompted some schools to abandon the study of science or social studies in the early years, in part because these domains are not tested until fourth and fifth grades. This heightened focus on ELA and math at the expense of inquiry-based learning in science loses sight of the multidisciplinary nature of curriculum and instruction recommended by the National Association of Young Children for children in pre-K and kindergarten (https://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/ProfPrepStandards09.pdf). Additionally, children demonstrate increased conceptual understanding as a result of inquiry based instructional practices which emphasize student active thinking and scientific investigations (Minner et al., 2009).
In the race to prepare our students to do well on 3rd grade ELA and math tests, we have lost touch with the importance of science, social studies, and the arts, along with curriculum and instructional methodologies that support critical thinking and habits of mind our children will need for years to come. Instead, many districts have shifted to a focus on basic math and reading foundational skills, which, while important, will not result in students who are able to think critically across disciplines. This approach may prove detrimental in later years, as knowledge and understanding in science and overall general knowledge is critical for later success in science, math and reading (Grissmer et al., 2010).
A child’s kindergarten year can define a child’s “overall outlook on and engagement in lifelong learning” (http://www.naeyc.org/dap/kindergarteners), and as such is a definitive element in each child’s perception of identity as a learner and membership in the learning community of their school.
A solution to this problem is at hand and will be on the horizon for children with the state’s new standards slated for release in early 2017, and curricular resources to follow. However, this time frame means today’s kindergarten students are subjected to standards and curriculum the state has deemed to be inappropriate. I urge districts to consider adopting the state’s new, more developmentally appropriate stance, including supporting play as a valuable instructional strategy for our youngest learners, NOW—before this developmental window closes for our current kindergarten class: the graduating class of 2029.
[small]Kate Abbott, Ph.D. is director of a early Education for five school districts in southern Vermont. Supporting students with challenging behavior has been a career focus. Over the past fifteen years, Dr. Abbott has concentrated on supporting equity and access to a quality education for all learners through her work in the fields of curriculum and instruction, assessment, and special education.