Lillian Katz on Lively Minds: Innovation of the Undisruptive Kind

One of the hottest questions today is this: how do we produce legions of those creative, inquiring, innovative minds to keep our beloved U.S. engine of capitalism humming?  We can’t stop thinking about it.

Why, those stubborn politicians are even crossing the aisle, falling all over themselves in support for universal preschool.   Never mind that access is still limited, and quality sketchy, or that prekindergarten is too late: we need to be supporting children and families prenatally on up. At least we’re on the right track.

But we’re going about this project in the wrong way, torturing children and teachers in the process.  We’re also alienating parents.  To be sure, they’re anxious about little Olivia’s progress on that great, big road to college-and-career readiness.  Is she doing as well as Liam, who just made the cut-off for the gifted and talented program?  But they’re also not happy with the status quo—narrow curricula and assessment run amok on the model of disruptive innovation in business.

Lillian Katz has a better idea. A beloved professor of early childhood emerita, she honed her expertise in the days before standards-based accountability at Stanford, picking up a doctorate in psychological studies.  She’s lending her formidable mind—which earned her an honorary degree at Goteborg University in Sweden (of course)—to the Early Childhood and Parenting Collaborative at the University of Illinois, in Champaign.  Aren’t they lucky?

In the meantime, Katz has penned a short paper for Defending the Early Years (the DEY Project), in which she makes the distinction between academic and intellectual goals for young children.   For those who are too busy engaging little minds or soothing anxious test-takers  to manage an eight-minute read, the video (above) is a quick four minutes.

In a discussion that has become intensely politicized—to the detriment of children’s well-being—Katz hovers above the fray, in her inside, unassuming early childhood voice:

The extent to which academic instruction should be a major goal of the curriculum for preschool and kindergarten children is a constant topic of debate among the many parties concerned with early childhood education.  The introduction of local, state and national standards has exacerbated the complexities involved in resolving these issues.

I am suggesting that perhaps one approach to resolving some of the dissension concerning curriculum focus in the early years and about the potential risks of premature formal academic instruction is to examine the distinctions between academic and intellectual goals—perhaps during all the years of education

Katz rejects the idea that spontaneous play, “…creating objects with clay, building with blocks, listening to amusing stories, and other pleasant experiences” is incompatible with academic skill formation and knowledge, “…the alphabet, days of the week names of the months, the calendar, counting.”  The goal for education at all points along the spectrum, she argues, “must be to provide a wide range of experiences, opportunities,  resources and contexts that will provoke stimulate, and support children’s innate intellectual dispositions.”

Here’s what it would look like:

An appropriate curriculum in the early years is one that includes the encouragement and motivation of the children to seek mastery of basic academic skills, e.g. beginning writing skills, in the service of their intellectual pursuits.

Extensive experience of involving preschool and kindergarten children in in-depth investigation projects has clearly supported the assumption that the children come to appreciate the usefulness of basic academic skills related to literacy and mathematics as they strive to share their findings from their investigations with classmates and others.

And this is Katz on school readiness and the intellect:

…it is widely assumed that because some young children, especially those of low-income families, have not been exposed to the knowledge and skills associated with ‘school readiness’ [learning language, and reading books: see the “word gap”]  that they lack the basic intellectual dispositions…to make sense of experience, to analyze, hypothesize, predict, as do their peers of more affluent backgrounds.

Such children may not have been read to or to have observed adults habitually reading, or perhaps have never yet used a pencil at home.  But I suggest that it is reasonable and perhaps also helpful to assume that they too usually have lively minds.

For all children, the “mindless, trivial if not banal activities frequently offered in child care, preschool and kindergarten programs”—not to mention test preparation and anxiety—are squashing this innate intellectual curiosity and drive.

If we are talking about real equality and equity, if early education is part of addressing the “civil rights issue of our time,”we need to do some real soul-searching.

 


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The Color of Success: Eva Moskowitz's Academies of Misery

Recently, after pressing “publish” and posting “Tenicka Boyd Opts Out of the Opt-Out Movement” to my blog, I panicked.  Who was I—a white, privileged, card-carrying member of the northeastern elite—to challenge this woman of color? Where did I come off foisting my progressive, developmental interactionist approach on someone who thinks children are better off enduring endless testing?

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Rooted in “interconnected spheres of thought and emotion,” this philosophy spawns teaching that puts a high premium on meeting children at their particular stage of growth, and engagement with people, the environment, and the community.   It says nothing about testing in overdrive.

Was I some kind of a whacked-out cultural supremacist?  Never mind that Boyd was opting in for precisely that kind of philosophy when she sent her own daughter to P.S. 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, whose principal has taken to the pages of the New York Times to protest the way things are going for young children and education policy today.

“Have you read anything by Denisha Jones?” asked Geralyn McLaughlin, director of the DEY Project (as in Defending the Early Years). Jones, a veteran professor of early childhood education who has taught kindergarten and preschool, is a leader in fighting the Common Core State Standards.

She is also a contributor to emPower magazine, where she has eloquently and persuasively lambasted the co-optation of the Civil Rights Movement by privatization,  and the proliferation of high-stakes testing in a piece with the wonderful title: “Empathy vs. Criticism: How to Respond to Those Who Think More Testing is Needed to Improve Public Education.”

Whatever did happen to empathy?

Here in New York City, Eva Moskowitz’s charter schools market in high test scores.  But how she gets them is another matter—one that has everything to do with the well-being of the children unlucky enough to win the lottery for one of the schools in her Success Academy ecosystem, sprouting like mushrooms all over town. Finally, her mad methods have been laid bare, in a first-rate expose by Kate Taylor, at the New York Times.

Here are some highlights.  These institutions are, needless to say, a nightmare for teachers, who are, apparently, leaving them in droves. According to Taylor, who relied on the latest school report cards from 2013-14, turnover at Success exceeded 50 percent in three of the chain’s schools:

Rachel Tuchman, 25, said that during her three years as a teacher at Success, she had friends who worked in the fields of finance and consulting, and she went to work earlier and stayed later than they did.

“You’re being treated like you’re on the trading floor at Goldman while you’re teaching in Harlem,” said Ms. Tuchman, who is now in her first year at Yale Law School.

One consequence of the competitive environment is a high rate of teacher turnover. Some teachers who left said that the job was too stressful. Others said they left because they disagreed with the network’s approach, particularly when they believed it was taken to extremes. In an internal email that some former teachers said typified the attitude at some schools, one school leader said that students who were lagging should be made to feel “misery.”

I’m worried about the teachers, of course; their well-being, autonomy, and commitment are all critical to best outcomes for teaching and learning.  But what about these young children, on the treadmill for college and career-readiness?

…at Success Academy Harlem 4, one boy’s struggles were there for all to see: On two colored charts in the hallway, where the students’ performance on weekly spelling and math quizzes was tracked, his name was at the bottom, in a red zone denoting that he was below grade level.

The boy, a fourth grader, had been in the red zone for months. His teacher, Kristin Jones, 23, had held meetings with his mother, where the teacher spread out all the weekly class newsletters from the year, in which the charts were reproduced. If he studied, he could pass the spelling quizzes, Ms. Jones said — he just was not trying. But the boy got increasingly frustrated, and some weeks Ms. Jones had to stop herself from looking over his shoulder during the quizzes so she would not become upset by his continued mistakes.

In Success schools, the approach toward discipline is “exacting,” and incentives are offered for good behavior.  Never mind that these kids will never know the joy of intrinsic motivation–you know, development of persistence and curiosity, and all that good stuff that propels children forward.  Who needs it?  And what about those third-graders, or older students, wetting themselves during practice tests? It builds strong character, right?

Rules are explicit and expectations precise. Students must sit with hands clasped and eyes following the speaker; reading passages must be neatly annotated with a main idea.

Incentives are offered, such as candy for good behavior, and Nerf guns and basketballs for high scores on practice tests. For those deemed not trying hard enough, there is “effort academy,” which is part detention, part study hall.

Ms. Moskowitz and a number of her teachers saw the network’s exacting approach in a different way: as putting their students on the same college track as children in wealthier neighborhoods who had better schools and money for extra help. Success students are generally barred from the city’s best elementary schools because they do not live in those schools’ zones.

“For affluent parents who are concerned about the test scores, they have an exit strategy — their exit strategy is to hire a private tutor,” Ms. Moskowitz said.

No one criticizes those parents, but “when we support our students, we get criticized,” she said.

Poor Eva.  It’s so tough to be evaluated, isn’t it?


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BBC News Flash: UK Mums & Dads Take the Lead on Leave

This just in via the BBC (“Business” section, mind you): Under a new law, effective today, 285,000 working couples are eligible to share the care between their babies’ birth and first birthday, or within a year of adoption.

They’re entitled to 50 weeks, 37 of them paid—and, are you ready?—after a compulsory leave of two weeks [... click post title to read more ...]


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