Education Reform Is Malpractice

Irony is often amusing. When the future of millions of children is at stake -- not so much.

The tragic irony in education is that the policies and practices enacted in response to concerns over low achievement will further disable a generation of children already hobbled by poverty. Education reform is educational malpractice and is disproportionally affecting young girls and boys of color in the least privileged communities.

Many others (and I) have revealed the perils of privatization, fraud in public schools, the deception of the charter movement, the massive influence of Pearson and other profiteers, and the negative effects of the testing and accountability era on most children and teachers. Nonetheless, I think we underestimate the deeper damage being done to poor children of color in the service of so-called reform.

Political rhetoric about an education crisis has gone on unabated since the 1983 publication, A Nation at Risk. That "call to action" has been fully discredited in subsequent years, but has driven horrible policy ever since. It is as though we have administered chemotherapy to a generation of kids who actually didn't have cancer. It has, as you might expect, made them sick.

For privileged kids the effect is less grave. Affluent communities have richer resources, more early childhood opportunities and have been able to resist the incessant pounding of reform either explicitly or subversively. Parents in these communities have social and political capital. Many schools have resisted testing and test prep. Pre-school and kindergarten programs have remained play-based and joyful. While the overall impact of education reform has been irritating and distracting, it has not significantly changed daily life in most schools in privileged communities.

The real target of education reform is the so-called achievement gap between white and black, rich and poor. On various measures, particularly the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the gap in test scores has been relatively consistent for more than 20 years. But rather than respond to the poverty and racism that surely account for this gap, reformers have prescribed some stern educational medicine: Rigor, early academics, strict discipline, high expectations, "no excuses," longer school days, longer school years, and constant measurement.

The aggregate effect of this "treatment" is the loss of childhood. Little children march silently in little uniforms to their desks, where they will chant trite slogans and receive large doses of direct instruction. No time for imaginary play, no time to waste. No excuses.

It makes me so angry that I can hardly continue writing. Even if it "worked," which it decidedly does not, it would extract too high a price. Are poor children of color a problem to be solved at the expense of their own carefree, pleasurable childhood? But it's not only the surrender of childhood that infuriates me. All evidence suggests that these educational practices will exacerbate the very problems education reform claims to address.

In a previous blog post I alluded to research cited by Boston College's Peter Gray. These findings are unambiguous and unsurprising to any well-informed early childhood educator.

Free, imaginative play is critical to cognitive and emotional development. Children in "direct instruction" pre-schools and kindergartens do less well on all measures in later school years. It seems clear from numerous studies that the deficits created by omitting or truncating this crucial stage of child development are long lasting and devastating. Perhaps the most comprehensive illustration is in The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40. Like the other studies cited by Peter Gray, this remarkable report summarizes poor educational outcomes, higher incarceration rates, lower incomes and family dysfunction associated with early academic rigor.

A recent PBS report summarized similar findings from a recent study at Penn State that demonstrated the powerful correlation between social skills in early childhood and later life success. The report said, " . . . we were able to follow these children (with better social skills) for over 20 years, and were able to see these markers of well-being across domains of education, employment, criminal activity, mental health, substance abuse, and use of public services."

Multiple studies show what child development experts, progressive educators, neurobiologists, cognitive psychologists and good teachers have known for decades: Early childhood education should be - must be - play-based and focused on social development. Children should explore at their own pace, negotiate relationships with other children and with adults, daydream, be silly, try things out, and try things on. In other words, becoming a successful adult requires being a child - a real child, not a small adult in a uniform, absorbing a teacher's instruction and conforming to ever-higher "expectations" in a "no excuses" factory.

We know which early childhood experiences are associated with the best adult outcomes, yet education reformers are pressing exactly the opposite things on the least advantaged children in America. Will someone explain that to me?