Dr. Ken Wagner, Rhode Island’s new commissioner of public education, was asked what strategies he would propose to address the achievement gap between students of color and their Caucasian counterparts at the July 13 joint meeting of the Board of Education and Council on Elementary and Secondary Education at which his nomination was confirmed. (video available here)
What is essential for closing the achievement gap, he said, is to have the same “high learning expectations for all students.” In using this phrase, he is referring to the Common Core State Standards. These standards, along with the EngageNY curriculum aligned to them, a curriculum which Dr. Wagner has taken credit for developing in NY State, have been declared developmentally inappropriate for young children by many experts on early childhood education. (See Joint Statement of Early Childhood Health and Education Professionals on the Common Core Standards Initiative)
In his remarks, Wagner disparaged these authentic voices by claiming that ideas on developmental stages by the esteemed child psychologist Jean Piaget are passé. According to Wagner, “Now the consensus seems to be much more that students can achieve things never thought possible, provided the right supports.”
I am curious to know which experts on early childhood development Wagner was referencing. There is an article by cognitive psychologist Dr. Daniel Willingham that seems on the surface to corroborate Dr. Wagner’s point. (“Ask the Cognitive Scientist: What Is Developmentally Appropriate Practice?”(AMERICAN EDUCATOR, SUMMER 2008) Willingham does indeed critique Piaget’s developmental stages and finds them wanting. However, he also states: “… changing strategies and experimenting with different methods of presenting and solving problems may be a more effective way to improve instruction than trying to match instruction to children’s developmental level.”
If you substitute the Common Core Standards/EngageNY rigid pacing for the words “developmental level,” you have an argument for not following scripted lessons paced according to grade level, which is what EngageNY provides. Scripted lessons means that teachers are provided with specific questions and explanations they are to use to teach each lesson, and students are expected to respond in predictable ways. For anyone who has spent any time with children, it should be clear that their responses are and should be unpredictable—effective teachers are open to the teachable moment, and this is a crucial tool for reaching and engaging students.
Declaring that young children can handle more difficult concepts than we have given them credit for does not translate into saying all children in the same grade should be held to the same content at the same pace, which the Common Core, EngageNY and accompanying testing essentially require. Why are Dr. Wagner and other adherents of lock-step learning using an anti-Piaget argument as an excuse for what actually amounts to what many veteran teachers consider educational malpractice? What comes to mind is how convenient this argument is for stifling objections to the scripted materials that state departments of education and districts want teachers to follow.
I found it ironic that when questioned by the student representative at the Board of Education meeting, who asked if the Common Core Standards truly allow teachers to address individual students’ learning, Dr. Wagner responded: “So the standards are not prescriptions. … I do not see this work as scripted. … It’s about justice.” Numerous experienced teachers and others knowledgeable about young children disagree.
According to the testimony of Dr. Walter Schartner, Sayville School Superintendent with 41 years of experience in education, and 26 years as an administrator:
“The NY State modules and domains that script what teachers—very, very successful, highly effective teachers–do is the problem. … I hope everybody else has a chance to go onto EngageNY, and look on how scripted these modules are, in terms of the first two minutes do this, the next eight minutes do this. It’s an insult to our teachers ….”
Programs serving young children need highly trained, autonomous teachers who are aware of the developmental appropriateness of content and process for the growth of the individual children in their charge. Those who are obsessed with a rigidly paced, standardized-test/data informed approach see value in “outcomes” and “accountability” rather than in respecting the lived experience of children.
When will sanity be restored to teaching and learning? Our children deserve it, and the clock is ticking.