What Betsy DeVos (and Education Policymakers) Should Know About How Kids Learn

by ParentCo. February 14, 2017

 colored pencils scattered on blue background

Education policy has been in the news quite a bit lately. You may have seen the headlines, due to Betsy DeVos’ nomination to be Secretary of Education, about controversial topics such as voucher programs, charter schools, gun-free zones in schools, and the proper role of the federal government in determining educational policy across all states. These are all critically important national and state issues. No question. How we solve these debates will impact the lives of millions of schoolchildren, as well as state and federal budgets, for years to come. It’s also safe to say that there has never been an education secretary as controversial as Betsy DeVos. Yet both her most ardent supporters and her fiercest critics agree that Secretary DeVos was nominated for one purpose: to shake up the educational status quo. For right now, I will leave aside the questions of DeVos’ qualifications to lead our nation’s schools. I will also leave aside the controversial, political debates about education policy. If I could speak to Secretary DeVos, here is what I would say to her, as the mom of two young children and a former teacher with a doctorate in development and educational policy: Our current system of educating our youngest kids is not working, and it absolutely does need a serious shakeup. Policymakers are not using what we know – and learn more about each year, from new scientific research – about young kids’ brains and how they learn, develop, and thrive. For example, early childhood educators and experts – the ones who know and see young children’s development most closely – were not included in the writing of the Common Core standards for grades K-3. Out of 135 people on the committees that wrote and reviewed these standards, now adopted by more than 40 states, none of them were K-3 teachers or early childhood professionals. Those standards have been criticized by hundreds of prominent educators, pediatricians, psychologists, and researchers (all early childhood specialists) for their development inappropriateness. In our schools, we continue to set unrealistic goals for our youngest students. We harm young children when we give them educational experiences that don’t fit their stage of development or their learning needs. In future debates about educational policy in a new administration, I hope that we don’t forget the littlest students.

Here’s what I hope every policymaker remembers about young children and how they learn

Mom and toddler learning to read

Earlier is not better

In today’s competitive world, it’s tempting to believe that because academic achievement can be so important for future adult success, it’s never too soon to start academic learning in young children. Sometimes it’s difficult to shake the notion that if you’re not giving your kid “an early start” with academic preschools, enrichment programs, and competitive sports, it’s your fault as a parent if your child is “left behind” by his peers. Increasingly, our schools reflect that focus on academic rigor at an early age. Today’s kindergarten (and even preschool) is actually more like the first or second grade of a decade or two ago. One recent study concluded that “kindergartners are now under great pressure to meet inappropriate expectations, including academic standards that until recently were reserved for first grade.” Today, kindergarteners devote much more of their days to practicing reading and math skills, often with textbooks and worksheets, and less to recess, music, art, and gym. Research suggests that an early start to academics is not what kids need to become successful, engaged learners. In fact, studies have shown that an early focus on formal instruction (instead of play-based learning) can have negative consequences for kids: more negative, long-term attitudes toward school, fewer attention skills, and more anxiety and stress. In many countries that outperform the United States in international tests – such as Sweden and Finland – formal schooling does not begin until at least age seven.

Early readers have no advantage over late readers

The Common Core State Standards include more than 90 academic standards for kindergarten. The Standards include “ a strong expectation that by the end of kindergarten children should be reading basic books on their own with purpose and understanding.” They should also be able to use the conventions of English – capitalization, spelling, punctuation – correctly in their own writing. However, research has shown that kids who are taught to read later, at age six or seven, can read just as well by fourth grade. On some measures, such as reading comprehension, they perform better than kids who are taught to read early.

Other things are just as important as academics

When a young child’s school day focuses on reading and other academic skills, other areas of development are neglected. The real focus of a child’s “work” during preschool, and kindergarten particularly, should be experimentation and play as well as “talking and listening,” rather than reading and writing, according to Erika Christakis, early childhood educator and author of “The Importance of Being Little”. She states, “We forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children’s understanding. By talking with adults, and one another, they pick up information. They learn how things work. They solve puzzles that trouble them.” When that relationship-building and early exploration are sacrificed, kids might show earlier “school readiness” skills, such as the ability to recognize letters and numbers, but their enthusiasm for school and passion for learning eventually suffers. They often lack the language, emotional development, and socialization skills that earlier generations possessed. Frequent movement, and not having to sit still for long periods, is crucial for young children’s learning and memory skills. Kids in big swing at the playground.

Play – not direct instruction – is how young children learn best

Direction instruction is a highly structured model of teaching in which teachers, often using scripted lessons, impart bits of knowledge and skills to kids. Is that the way young kids learn best? According to Defending the Early Years, “children learn through playful, hands-on experiences with materials, the natural world, and engaging, caring adults.” Increasingly, early childhood educators and researchers are worried about how much time young children spend being taught through “direct instruction.” In a pair of recent studies, young children participants were given a toy. One group of kids was told by a teacher how to use the toy. In another group, the children learned about what the toy did through exploration. Both groups of kids successfully learned the intended use of the toy, but the second group played longer with it, discovered additional uses for the toy, and displayed more curiosity than the children in the “direct instruction” group. Other research has concluded that early formalized learning may actually harm future academic performance. For instance, one study found that “by the end of the fourth grade those who had received more didactic instruction earned significantly lower grades than those who had been allowed more opportunities to learn through play.”

Little kids do not develop at the same rate

A clear takeaway from new research on kids’ brains is that you should not try to rush young children’s development. Just as you wouldn’t try to force a 10-month-old to walk before she is ready, kids are not ready to read or do math at the same age. I was an early reader, but my son, now five, is not yet reading and shows no interest.

Recess (and frequent breaks) are non-negotiable for young children

The American Academy of Pediatrics consider breaks from academics so important that it issued a policy statement about it. According to the statement, recess should never be withheld or cut because it “offers children cognitive, physical, emotional, and social benefits. It should be used as a complement to physical education classes, not a substitute, and whether it’s spent indoors or outdoors, recess should provide free, unstructured play or activity.” Furthermore, they “conclude that minimizing or eliminating recess can negatively affect academic achievement, as growing evidence links recess to improved physical health, social skills, and cognitive development.” As more and more elementary schools reduce or eliminate recess altogether, other countries integrate frequent breaks throughout the day. In Finland, since 1960, kids have been given 15-minute breaks each hour to keep them focused and engaged. In Japan, elementary kids also get a 10 to 15-minute break every hour.

Closeup of schoolboy and schoolgirl testing together

Standardized testing is unreliable in children younger than eight

Standardized assessments do not make sense for young children. Not only does it take time away from developmentally appropriate learning and can lead to harmful tracking and labeling, but kids are also not yet mature enough to understand complex instructions and to answer questions consistently. For instance, the results of a kindergarten test showed that the results had only a 50 percent chance of being accurate. How we educate our youngest students should authentically help their development as full human beings, not their ability to take bubble tests, to sit still at a desk, or to complete a worksheet. I hope that all education policymakers, including Betsy DeVos, begin to pay greater attention to the science of how young children learn. Right now we are sacrificing too much play, joy, and imagination in the classrooms of our youngest kids for the sake of teaching isolated skills and facts. Whether or not you think that Secretary DeVos is the right person for her new job, let’s all get behind “shaking up” the educational status quo for little kids.



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