All Work and No Play

How educational reforms are hurting our preschoolers

By Sharna Olfman

Photo: Jean-Claude Lejeune

Education in America is undergoing a sweeping reform. Its guiding mantra is “Standards, Accountability, Testing, and Technology,” and its effects reverberate from ivory towers to Head Start programs.

At the preschool and kindergarten level, it translates into early academics, “scripted teaching,” desk work, computer-based learning, and a paucity of play. As a result, a rich multidisciplinary literature demonstrating the critical role of play for cognitive, social, emotional, and ethical development—a literature that was decades in the making—is being ignored.

Remarkably, current educational reforms are not driven by the findings and recommendations of educators and child-development experts, but by politicians and policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels, with the express intention of ensuring America’s competitive edge in the new information-based economy. This agenda was first articulated in the 1983 report A Nation at Risk, issued by President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence:

If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system. . . . Learning is the indispensable investment required for success in the ‘information age’ we are entering.

The “high-stakes” testing movement and race to “wire the classroom” were launched by Reagan in 1983, given renewed vigor by presidents Bush and Clinton, and have now gained further momentum with George W. Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which received overwhelming bipartisan support. On January 16, 2003, the current administration announced that it was implementing a standardized assessment of all 4-year-olds in Head Start programs nationwide to assess reading readiness, thus officially delivering “high-stakes” testing to preschoolers. In addition, the Early Care and Education Act, now before Congress, will give bonuses to states that demonstrate that their preschool programs are successfully teaching early literacy skills, necessitating even more academic pressure and wide-scale testing of preschoolers.

Testing and Technology: A Failing Grade

Given that education reform is now spearheaded by politicians and the corporate elite rather than by experts in childhood, it comes as no surprise that the “accountability” movement, now in its 20th year, and its handmaiden, the “wired classroom,” have not only failed to improve education, but indeed, have undermined it. Recent results of the congressionally mandated National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly referred to as the Nation’s Report Card, which has been assessing school performance for almost 30 years, reveal that states with the highest stakes attached to standardized testing are more likely to perform below average on the NAEP, whereas states that give minimal import to standardized tests are more likely to perform above the average. Furthermore, in 1998, the highly acclaimed Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), which compared a half-million students from 41 countries, revealed that U.S. high school seniors were tied for last place in math among developed nations.

‘Teaching to the Test’: Narrower and Shallower

The impact of tying teachers’ and administrators’ bonuses, salaries, and job security; state and federal and funding of schools; and students’ graduation to standardized tests is that teachers are compelled to “teach to the tests.” The tests, which are usually multiple-choice, merely sample the curriculum and do not assess depth of understanding, meaningful application of knowledge, or original thinking. Consequently, the curriculum becomes narrower and shallower, and drills, rote learning, and practice tests increasingly dominate the teaching methods.

Peter Sacks in Standardized Minds notes that James Stigler and his colleagues from UCLA demonstrated this by analyzing videotapes of Japanese, American, and German high school math classes as part of the TIMSS assessment: “[R]ote, mechanical, and superficial teaching was far more evident in the American classrooms than in Japan.” The Japanese lessons covered much less content in any given class as compared to the American lessons, but did so for the purposes of achieving depth of understanding, and meaningful and creative application of the concepts.

In the race for high test scores, kindergarten students and even pre-schoolers are now subjected to a similar barrage of academic drill work at an age when they are meant to learn through play and hands-on experience. If the NAEP and TIMSS results are any indication, these teaching methods are unsuccessful; yet, they are being introduced at increasingly younger ages, in the vain hope that they’ll somehow “take,” if we start young enough.

Screens in Preschool: ‘Failure to Connect’

A very similar scenario prevails with respect to computer use in the classroom. As Jane Healy documents in Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds and What We Can Do about It, children with specific handicaps and older children benefit from thoughtful applications of computer and Internet technologies. But their use with preschoolers and children in the early grades actually undermines the very skills that they are intended to support: literacy, higher-order thinking, problem solving, and creativity. Even when young children learn to decode the words on the page with the aid of reading software, they are often unable to understand what they have read, let alone apply the knowledge meaningfully, a trait that Healy terms “alliteracy.” And certainly, the pervasive presence of screens in our culture undermines the desire to read. As Barry Sanders argues in A Is for Ox, the proliferation of screen technologies actually threatens to eradicate literacy.

Testing and Technology: The Key to Their Popularity

And yet, despite these dismal prognoses, the titans of testing and technology remain popular among policymakers and the general public. Given the appalling results of these reforms so far, their appeal is remarkably robust. Why? Perhaps the rhetoric surrounding them contains a piece of the puzzle. Standardized testing and access to the Internet are nowadays touted as the great levelers in society which will ensure quality education for all. “No Excuses” is the motto of the No Child Left Behind act. Parents are told that all children and schools will be held to a uniform standard of excellence and given access to the same vast store of information through the Internet. And so, whether a child becomes a president or a street person depends exclusively on her own effort and resolve.

These rhetorical strategies are irresistible on two counts. First, any thoughtful and ethical individual supports, indeed demands, high standards and accountability from the public school system. With the cooptation of the language of “standards,” it becomes difficult to stand in opposition. Unfortunately, the critical debate about what these standards should be and how they should be measured is not taking place. Second, the rhetoric of “standards” embodies the quintessential American Dream: “Hard work and fair play will liberate us from the bondage of blood lines, social class, and racism.”

The reality, however, is that the “accountability” movement is profoundly deepening class and race divisions. As Sacks noted in Standardized Minds:

[I]f social engineers had set out to invent a virtually perfect inequality machine, designed to perpetuate class and race divisions, and that appeared to abide by all requisite state and federal laws and regulations, those engineers could do no better than the present-day accountability systems already put to use in American schools.

Standardized Testing: Rooted in Racism

The use of standardized intelligence tests as tools of racist policies has a long and inglorious history in the United States. Terman and Brigham, the American Fathers of standardized testing, were overtly racist in their attitudes and agenda. Today, the rhetoric of testing is more politically correct, but the overall effects are the same; the measurements we are using to assess children are culturally loaded in favor of white middle- and upper-middle-class children. The race to “wire” the classroom often intensifies these problems. When poor school districts feel compelled to overcrowd their classrooms; strip their libraries; and eliminate music, art, physical education, and playtime in order to pay for computer and Internet access—so that their students can take “field trips” online—quality of education is tragically diminished. As a result, across the nation, poor and minority children in dramatically disproportionate numbers are failing, and are made to feel like failures.

Egalitarianism Versus Genetic Determinism

This sad state of affairs reflects a curious paradox at the heart of American culture. On the one hand, we embrace ideals of egalitarianism and self-determination. On the other, we are captivated by the deterministic notion that all of our traits, including personality, intelligence, creativity, and mental health, are chiefly determined by our genes.

Genes do contribute significantly to our physical and psychological makeup, but their effects are exquisitely sensitive to environmental input. Nevertheless, the media feeds our insatiable appetite for stories about the genome project, cloning, or the latest claim that gene A is the “depression” gene and gene B dictates our preference for Pepsi over Coca-Cola. And in this climate of striking cultural contradictions, we allow intelligence and achievement scores, which allegedly disclose children’s true abilities, to determine their future, regardless of their abilities in the real world.

Similarly, we seek to enhance our genetically programmed brains, which we liken to organic computers. If children are struggling in the classroom, we are more likely to tinker with their “hardware” by using drugs that increase attention or lessen anxiety than to address the underlying psychological or socioeconomic issues that give rise to their symptoms.

Environment has very little role in our gene-driven discourse on learning nowadays, so we have no qualms about holding different children or different school districts to the same standard, despite dramatically diverse circumstances. As a result, the following scenarios become increasingly common:

Mary attends a school that is rich in resources, with small classes, state-of-the-art science labs, yearly textbook upgrades, a beautiful library, weekly field trips, well-paid and well-educated teachers, and an abundance of parent volunteers. She lives in a safe neighborhood with lawns that beckon her to play, and has access to the finest medical care.

In contrast, Susan dodges bullets and drug dealers on her walk home from school. Her school is drafty, overcrowded, and has a high turnover rate of underpaid teachers struggling with dated textbooks. She had to enter the hospital as an emergency case before receiving treatment for a recent infection, and her devoted mother, a single parent, works two full-time, minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet. At 10 p.m., Susan still waits anxiously for her mother to return home from work, with the noise of the television to bolster her courage and keep her “company.” Before her mother returns, she warms a can of soup for herself and her little brother. She struggles to make sense of her homework, but fear and loneliness overwhelm her.

Mary and her school district performed well above average on the mandatory state end-of-year assessment. Her parents are proud of her test scores, and district teachers received handsome bonuses. But Susan missed the cutoff score by a few points and has to repeat her year. Her school district is in desperate need of resources and teachers but was denied both state and federal aid and placed on notice. Susan feels demoralized; her self-esteem is shaken. Her mother tries to enroll her in a neighboring school district with better resources but is told that they have a waiting list.

Meanwhile, Susan’s 4-year-old brother Joseph is enrolled in a Head Start program. His class is large, and the support staff has been downsized because a portion of the budget went to the purchase of new computers and reading software. Play has been eliminated from the curriculum to give children like Joseph a “leg up” in the academic race.

Joseph is small for his age, slightly malnourished, chronically asthmatic, and longs for affection and the opportunity to run freely and play, unfettered by concerns for safety. He struggles to sit still in front of the computer terminal. On the recommendation of his teacher, Joseph is sent to a local clinic where he receives a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and a prescription for Ritalin. He no longer disrupts the class. However, by the time Joseph is in middle school, he will have been held back twice and taken Ritalin for a decade. Lacking hope and incentive to do better, he will now hoard Ritalin and sell it on the street to buy clothes, CDs, or drugs that are more to his liking.

By the logic of “accountability,” Mary and Susan were measured by the same yardstick. So either Susan didn’t try hard enough or she is simply less capable than Mary. Clearly, though, the root cause of Susan and Joseph’s classroom struggles is not genetics or the absence of standards, but poverty, a two-tiered school system, and the absence of essential family services such as subsidized and regulated day care and after-school programs, a living wage, and humane medical coverage. Thus, under the guise of equality, the system privileges wealthy families and the corporations who manufacture the testing and computer technologies.

Admittedly, the story of Susan and Joseph might have turned out differently. They might have beaten the odds, succeeded academically and gone on to successful careers; many such children do just that. However, the issue is not whether it is possible to do so, but whether it is morally defensible to require some children to leap over so many additional hurdles along the way.

The ‘Information-Processing’ Approach to Education

Although the current educational climate creates unequal conditions for poor and minority children, it is important to emphasize that it is actually less than optimal for any and all children. The proliferation of computer and Internet technologies has altered how we conceptualize learning, and the educational goals we establish for our children are to their detriment.

In the 1960s, inspired by breakthroughs in the computer field, psychologists created the “information-processing” model of cognition, which likens the mind to a computer. Information-processing research analyzes how children manipulate information in order to solve problems, and has generated beneficial learning strategies in circumscribed situations, such as approaching a particular content area more efficiently or supporting children with learning disabilities.

Beyond that, however, information-processing research has had a profound influence on curriculum development in the average American classroom, eclipsing other approaches to cognition that were once more influential in the field of education, including Piaget’s stage theory and Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory. Piaget’s work underscored the value of experiential/discovery learning, and the need to be aware of developmental time lines and individual differences. Vygotsky emphasized that learning is a culturally embedded activity that requires sensitive mentoring.

However, the presence of computers in the classroom and the pressure to prepare children for standardized tests mesh well with the information-processing approach. The Piagetian revolution that transformed the classroom in the ’60s and ’70s from a place of passive learning to an experiential workshop, and the opportunities for one-on-one mentoring afforded by small class size, are rapidly receding into the background and being replaced by “scripted teaching” and computer programs that prepare children for multiple-choice tests.

There is a potent synergy between mechanistic models of the mind and the current technological revolution that numbs our hearts and dulls our minds, so we become increasingly comfortable with the idea that children are information processors—or that the mind is an organic computer and that education should have the explicit goal of preparing our children to serve technology-based industries. In the current climate, one that is rife with contradictions and an overweening technocratic agenda that blinds us to our children’s real needs, it becomes easy, indeed expedient, to overlook the glaring limitations of a mind-as-machine metaphor.

So let us be clear. In sharp contrast to a computer, a child possesses a self, which imbues her with the desire to give her life meaning, purpose, and a moral compass. A child is motivated to learn by the desire to be grounded in her family, in her community, and in the natural order, and yet at the same time to express herself and place her own personal stamp on the world. Her thinking is infused with emotion, sensory and bodily kinesthetic experience, artistry, imagination, and soulfulness. It is through this uniquely human prism, in the service of uniquely human needs, that she processes information.

Thus, it is a tragic irony that we idealize the disembodied, emotionless computer and try to teach our children to think according to its operating principles. Unfortunately, however, when mere information is what we seek to instill or elicit from our students, the content and context of the information at issue become completely secondary to one’s ability to access and manipulate it. Real psychological growth ceases, and the educational system encourages a growing cynicism and despair, evidenced in a recent upsurge in adolescent homicide and suicide attempts.

Photo: Jean-Claude Lejeune

Developmental Stages:The Missing Link

A significant flaw in the information-processing model is that (1) it does not recognize the role of biologically influenced stages of development, and (2) it artificially separates cognitive processes from other lines of development. Piaget taught us that development unfolds over time in recognizable stages that nonetheless allow for considerable individual variation.

In each of these stages, a child’s understanding of her world is qualitatively different. In the preschool and kindergarten years, children learn optimally through play, hands-on experience, artistic expression, and sensitive mentoring. In addition, it is now apparent that all modes of development, including the intellectual, social, emotional, ethical, personality, and physical, are inextricably linked. We embrace stage theories that pertain to our children’s physical development: They must be able to sit before they can stand, stand before they can walk, and so on. We understand that the child who enters puberty at 16 as opposed to 11 is nonetheless normal, and may tower over us five years hence. However, we have no such patience with cognitive abilities. Woe to the child who, for example, comes late to her handedness, and consequently reads and writes at 7 rather than 5! In the absence of sound guidelines to inform curriculum development, we have no qualms about taking a curriculum designed for students in grade one and forcing it on preschoolers to boost their achievement. At the same time, we demote play, artistic expression, and experiential learning to the status of mere diversions (in between the “real” work contained in worksheets) and substitute face time with computers for human mentoring. Then, when students struggle with the content or format of the curriculum, we bristle with an impressive array of psychiatric labels and a powerful pharmacopoeia of psychiatric drugs, when often what is needed is the patience and sensitivity to allow their development to unfold, and humane teaching methods that do not compartmentalize thought, feeling, and social development, as we typically insist on doing.

Reprinted from All Work and No Play: How Educational Reforms Are Harming Our Preschoolers. Edited by Sharna Olfman. Copyright 2003 by Sharna Olfman. Reproduced with permission of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., Westport, Conn.