Note to Kindergartners: Only Bubble-Filling Will Get You 'College and Career Ready'

This is adapted from What If Everybody Understood Child Development?, to be published this month by Corwin Press.

A lot of what I read these days about education frustrates me. But one of the most frustrating stories I've come across in the past year was written by Valerie Strauss, education columnist for the Washington Post. Its title was "Kindergarten show canceled so kids can keep studying to become 'college and career ready.' Really."

I'm certain she added that last word to the headline because such a thing is almost impossible to believe. Almost. To anyone who's been paying attention to the current educational climate, this is stunning and sickening, but not necessarily shocking.

Here's the letter, sent by the school's interim principal and four kindergarten teachers, to parents upset by the cancellation:

We hope this letter serves to help you better understand how the demands of the 21st century are changing schools, and, more specifically, to clarify misperceptions about the Kindergarten show. It is most important to keep in mind is [sic] that this issue is not unique to Elwood. Although the movement toward more rigorous learning standards has been in the national news for more than a decade, the changing face of education is beginning to feel unsettling for some people. What and how we teach is changing to meet the demands of a changing world.

The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers. Please do not fault us for making professional decisions that we know will never be able to please everyone. But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.

It disturbs me every time I read it -- for so many reasons. Among them is the clear implication that the arts are considered of so little significance as we prepare children to become "college and career ready" that even in kindergarten children are learning there are only certain skills worth having.

Let's look more closely at the letter, beginning with the statement that reading, writing and the abilities to work collaboratively and to solve problems are "valuable lifelong skills." I agree wholeheartedly. What frosts me is the idea that these skills are better gained by "academic" subjects and test-taking than through the arts.

What is the better way to ensure a love of the written and spoken word -- being forced to read assigned stories, to memorize spelling words and definitions on which they'll be tested, or bringing words to life through a play? Perhaps by writing poetry and songs?

What is the better way for children to prepare to become coworkers? Sitting at individual desks prepping for tests and then filling in bubbles? Or could it be by having them collaborate on a project that brings them joy and a sense of fulfillment?

The same can be said for learning to solve problems. I hardly think that being force-fed information that's later regurgitated on tests is the best way to acquire this skill. Instead, why not give students the opportunity to solve actual problems -- such as those that might arise in the creation and production of a play?

How about the last sentence in that letter -- about having the interests of all children in mind? Are they kidding? Are there not children with the potential and passion to go on to become brilliant chefs, landscape designers, master craftsmen and architects? To become writers, painters, choreographers, composers and actors? What will happen to their potential and passion when given no soil in which to grow? When the focus of their education has been "drill and kill?"

Is creativity (the ability to solve problems and to see beyond what already exists -- and an essential element of the arts) not going to be required of our future scientists, entrepreneurs, doctors, inventors and technologists? Is creativity not necessary in all aspects of life? How is it supposed to be fostered in students if all they've been taught is to follow directions -- and that there is only one right answer to every question?

Further, how will today's students learn to look for and appreciate aesthetic beauty when it becomes clear to them in their earliest years that it's not valued? A life without beauty is nothing to aspire to.

Finally, there's the contention that the "demands of the 21st century" are responsible for this action. If ever there was a century demanding imagination and self-expression -- both of which are nurtured by the arts -- it's this one.

I honestly can't believe I have to argue these points; they seem like so much common sense. But, sadly, as I find myself saying on far too many occasions, common sense has gone the way of the dodo bird where education policy is concerned.

In an Edutopia piece, author Fran Smith writes,

Years of research show that [arts education] is closely linked to almost everything that we as a nation say we want for our children and demand from our schools: academic achievement, social and emotional development, civic engagement, and equitable opportunity.

Yet again, policymakers are ignoring the research.

In a BAM Radio interview, Jennifer Stuart, a school art coordinator, asked "What do we value, and what kind of people do we want to have in the world?"

It's a great question -- and one I think policymakers and education reformers ought to spend more than a little time pondering.