Standards Don’t Educate; They Sort

by Rick on May 8, 2014

Washington Post, May 7th: “Math, reading performance is stagnant among U.S. 12th-graders, assessment finds. All this effort on standards and test scores and still no change. Hmmmm.

DSC00158But there are those who predicted that teaching directly to standards would only make a bad system worse. Maybe we should listen. A teacher in New York, for instance, sent me this report three years ago:

“Kindergarten is now the learn-to-read year in New York public schools. Teachers tell parents at parents’ night that according to ‘school standards’ their child should be reading by the end of kindergarten. A teacher told the parent of a smart, well-adjusted 5-year-old in October that her daughter was ‘behind’ in reading. Coupled with NYC’s late cut-off of Dec. 31 this is doubly distressing. Many are only four when they start kindergarten.

“The schools use Lucy Calkin’s A-M letter-based progression of reading ability. While the program is generally good, the leveled reading ability is damaging. Kindergartners learn in the fall that they are a level A or level B and are told their goal is to advance to the next letter. They compare letters with each other.

“We know what this does to children who fail to move up a letter as their friends become C’s and D’s. One precious five-year-old asked me what my pre-k daughter’s reading level was. I laughed and asked her if I had a reading level too? I told her, ‘I read books that I like.’

“In one second grade classroom on the Upper East Side students in mid-year ranged from levels G to M. During independent reading they could select books only from their leveled bins. They read in order to take tests on the computer that check and reassign their levels. The principal and teachers stress reading goals by telling the students what letter-level they should be by the end of the year. They do this repeatedly.

“Children are also pushed to read beyond their level of comprehension. The pleasure of reading is greatly diminished by eliminating choice and making kids read books that are constantly a little too hard for them or that they may not understand. This sends children the wrong message about reading. Reading should be about understanding and enjoyment.

“This leveling is seductive. Every kindergarten parent would love to think their child will be an early reader. When they are not, they are unnecessarily anxious. I’ve talked to some about how making reading a competition is counter-productive. I’ve pointed out that it is more important that their child like what they read and are able to understand it. Doesn’t make a dent.

“I decided to keep my 5-year-old (September birthday) home with me this year because of this obsession with ‘standards.’ My daughter loves to be read to, and I want her to continue to love reading as she learns to read. I don’t want her feelings to change or her confidence to fall when she’s asked to begin to learn to read. By having her at home, we can continue to read together for all the right reasons, and I will help her learn when she is ready.”

From coast to coast American children are being sorted rather than educated, and this teacher gives us a window into the mechanics of it. Emphasizing “standards” sounds like common sense, but it doesn’t work; it backfires. Kids don’t perform better with benchmarks. Labels have the opposite effect on both the “gifted” and the slow (Carol Dweck, 2006, Mindset, The New Psychology of Success).

Why do kids drop out when they get to high school? The reason is staring us in the face. By fourth grade they know what their chances are, and that their only hope is to get out of a system that will likely keep putting them down.

Seventy-five percent of brains are wired to learn to read naturally anytime from age 3 to age 9 (6.5 on average). The Orton-Gillingham method works with 99 percent of those that aren’t. Leveling is an artificial, arbitrary and unnecessary construct that interferes by creating self-fulfilling prophecies.

Most teachers I know are good educators trapped in a management system that is not great for any child, saps many children of their potential, and deprives our nation of vast qualities of valuable human resources. Most of us go along with it as we unwittingly drop our children off at the processing plant.

Soul, not standards, is the missing piece in our educational system. Educators lead; management sorts.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Cindy Scott May 8, 2014 at 4:24 pm

So many good points to think about in this post. Do you remember when kindergartners used to just walk in the door every September, and that was good enough for us?

Young children will eventually read, but we can crush their confidence and joy for learning in a factory of misfitting standards. Will we ever get back to respect and reverence for what children need? They are not clay to force in a mold.

Rick May 9, 2014 at 7:04 am

Thank you, Cindy. Yes, they are clay shapers, not the clay itself. Yes, criteria number 1 for whether we are educating or just doing school:
do we think we are shaping kids, or are we creating the conditions for them to shape themselves more effectively, gracefully, creatively.
Thanks

Shirley May 14, 2014 at 10:23 am

“Creating Conditions” would be a great name for a learning centre for children. I purposely avoided the word “school”.

Your sentence: “Most of us go along with it as we unwittingly drop our children off at the processing plant.” makes me feel guilty, doubly so because I know I’m not unwitting, just sort of trapped and sucked into the status quo.
The scenario reminds me of Gary Larson’s cartoon of a field full of sheep and one sheep stands up and yells over the flock, “What are we? Sheep?”

Rick May 18, 2014 at 7:40 am

I know, Shirley. What are we sheep to do?

Ray May 29, 2014 at 2:32 pm

Hi Rick,
What are we sheep to do? We wake the flock up! That’s what. Make some noise. Teachers, administrators and parents all want change, but we can’t change too fast. It might upset some people. You know the money people. If we survive, schools of the future won’t look like schools today. In fact they won’t look like school at all. I agree Rick, we do need to bring soul into the schools. Teachers do that most every day. Students do that every day, but they are forced to meet artificial standards that fail to take into account the teaching and the child. While we are at it, let’s also bring back recess, milk and cookies, nap time, art, assemblies that teach and love. Let’s bring in a whole truck load of love. I think the soul would like that.

Sheryl Morris June 6, 2014 at 10:01 am

What if enough of us (parents, grandparents, teachers) went to our local school board meetings, persistently, patiently, and asked the questions, “What about this Montessori schooling I am hearing about?”
“What about this Waldorf schooling I am hearing about?” “I’ve even heard that there are public Montessori and public Waldorf schools; why not here for our children?”
Persistently and patiently because it takes ever so long for so many to come around to change. Persistently and patiently, because so many shut out their own best interests and those of their children, because they don’t or can’t think differently too quickly, if at all.

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