PARCC vs. Real Learning

This morning I sent both of my boys off to the same school, but they had two very different days ahead of them. Younger was packing up his bag with quiet activities – a book to read, a notebook to scribble in – because he would be refusing his PARCC test. This is the third day in two weeks that he would have to sit for the first 90 minutes of his school day twiddling his thumbs.

Older Son, on the other hand, had his 8th grade science project presentation today. A huge day – one that has been a benchmark since his first year of middle school. He was packing his bag with reports, models, and items he had used in his experiment. He was practicing his speech and worrying that he would forget all the tests he’d done. His excitement and nervousness were palpable. I was teary and bursting with pride as I watched this handsome young man head to the bus stop.

When Older first got to middle school we went to the 8th grade science fair. Judging from that night, I thought I’d be working on this project with him for weeks. They looked so elaborate, so detailed and involved, I imagined how complicated going through this process would be. I expected nagging, tearing around town for last-minute supplies, lots of tears and drama as I painfully forced calmly helped him get it done.

The truth was completely the opposite. Older Son worked on this project with his partner for weeks. They got together after school, made their own schedule, urged me to get on board when I wasn’t paying enough attention to their needs, and generally handled everything themselves. They spent one easy afternoon doing their tests and then invited friends over to run a second round. The result was good data, an amazing looking display, and a great experience with project planning and organization.

This is real education. The kids were allowed to choose their own experiment or project based on their interests. They were given a timeline and guided on how to plan and achieve all the steps they needed to finish. They had to write a theory and use scientific method to prove or disprove it. They experimented and then evaluated their data so it could be presented in a clear and attractive way. They had unexpected results that led them to ask more questions.

The learning from the science project will remain with my son because, among other things, it taught him a valuable skill in life: think for yourself. My other son was enduring the polar opposite through his experience with the PARCC test.

As I’ve become more involved in fighting PARCC, I’ve heard horror stories from parents. Kids who were forced by teachers and administrators to take tests even after their parents refused. Kids coming home in tears after being told they didn’t have to take the tests and then being coerced them to take them after all. Kids who normally receive classroom support on a special education plan taking tests – that are completely beyond their capability – without the help of their paraprofessional. Parents being lied to about the legality of what’s happening in their childrens’ schools. Teachers whose right to free speech has been essentially revoked by corporate interests. The testing companies are counting on parents to continue not thinking for themselves.

IMG_0464My sons get a good education when their teachers are in charge of what they’re learning. I was crowing last week when Younger Son came home with a permission slip for a field trip to the symphony to see Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” Sure, the kids won’t get it. They’ll spend more time jostling around in their seats than listening to the music. But maybe they’ll remember something. The form came with a flyer explaining how revolutionary the ballet was and how people almost rioted during its first performance. The conductor explained that “this is one of the most important pieces of music ever written” and how Stravinsky was a rebel. I feel like my children today are having to continue that tradition just by refusing to take a test in their school.

The tale of my two kids on this beautiful spring day was the difference between real education and corporate education. Our obsession with applying a business model to our schools strips teachers of their credibility and turns our kids into child labor for testing companies. Even in the face of everything we know about brain science, and more and more real evidence that our children need variety and spontaneity to learn, we are still quietly accepting that businesses know more about education than our teachers do. This is wrong, and it has to stop.

I urge anyone in MA to write to their house representative in support of the bills listed on this page: Mass Teachers and Parents United

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Pawns in the Game of Common Core Chess

Here’s something new. Louis CK has a new season of his show starting tonight, and while on the press tour he has decided to start a battle against common core standards. Just when I thought I couldn’t love him anymore.

I came across this information in this month’s New Yorker blog, which mentions US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s battle FOR common core and support of standardized testing. In Arne’s opinion, opposition to the Common Core State Standards has come from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were. You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.'”

Wow. There are so many things wrong with that statement I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s just start with my rage. My privileged, white suburban mom rage.

I happen to know my kids pretty well. I know they’re not Einstein, and I know they’re also pretty damn smart. I also knew what I was getting into when I made the choice to live in my town, all by my big grownup girl self (and I managed to make these life decisions without the benefits of MCAS, PARCC, or Common Core in my public school education!).

I know that my kids aren’t stressed out because they’re over-scheduled privileged white suburban youths. Their weekend soccer games are their outlet, the place they get to shine, as opposed to the school system that tells them they are built wrong (but perhaps I’m just an overwrought soccer mom whose priorities are in the wrong place).

My kids are stressed out because every day they are made to feel there is something wrong with them if they can’t easily understand the work they’re supposed to be breezing through and producing results on. They’re stressed out because every night we struggle through homework for hours and spend most of that time with nobody in the house, including mom and dad, understanding the meaning of the questions or the point of the exercise.

My kids are stressed out because they hear that their teachers are doing a shoddy job when everyone in the class hasn’t gotten stellar ratings on a test that shows absolutely nothing about their abilities or chances for future success in the real world, where people’s talents and performance aren’t based on filling in bubbles on a page.

As to Arne’s opinion on us suburban moms and how we feel about our schools: my kids have had what I feel to be the best education they could in this day and age, and that is in spite of testing, not because of. They’re getting a good education because of their TEACHERS, who are outrageously dedicated and caring despite the ridiculousness of the situation they’ve been put in, and the incredible (and unnecessary) amount of stress they have to shoulder on a daily basis.

That the head of the education department in this country considers parents to be whiners because their kids aren’t successful is telling. It shows the true depth of his ignorance regarding the people he’s serving.

The Washington Post further states that “when confronted with the truth through lower test scores and other indicators, the unhelpful response, in Arne’s view, is to say, ‘Let’s lower standards and go back to lying to ourselves and our children, so that our community can feel better.’ The more productive response for a community or a state is to ask, ‘What can we do to get better, so our students can graduate from high school, succeed in college and be competitive for good jobs?’”

I’d say the most productive response would be to say, why don’t we ask the experts what children need to succeed in school? And why don’t we leave that schooling in the hands of the educators who actually have experience, knowledge, education, and wisdom in the area of working with children? And why don’t we take some of the billions of dollars we’ve spent on testing and put that back towards education?

Aye, there’s the rub (Hamlet reference. I know that from my public school education). Far too many people are making far too much profit off our children. That’s why they are no more important than numbers on a graph, and their mothers are marginalized as hysterical, spoiled, over-reacting princesses when we question why our kids, teachers, and schools are suffering.

I have to fight the battle every day to convince my kids that school is important and homework is important even when I don’t believe in the system. It can be easy for people like Arne Duncan to confuse my frustration with white suburban privilege. I do believe in my schools and teachers. I believe in my kids. And I’m bright enough to be able to see when they are being used as pawns in a political game, and then blamed for not knowing how to play.

This year I let my kids choose if they wanted to opt out of their standardized testing. They wanted to do it, if only because of the candy and free time at the end of the day. Next year I don’t think they get the choice. They will not be subject to this madness any more. As a parent, it is my job to protect my children from those that would abuse them, and that includes the unskilled, ill-informed politicians who are wrongly in charge of their education. Arne, we’re not playing your game anymore.

How to Keep Six Kids Happy

One of the hardest things I had to get used to when I opened my day care was slowing down to kid speed. I mean, really slowing down. While taking care of little ones you can get in a rush pretty easily. But trying to get three toddlers down the front steps without falling and scraping their noses on the pavement can be an excellent exercise in taking one’s time.

Adults are always in a rush. Our heads are always in two (or more) places at once. We have pressures and stress and things to do and events to plan and people to care for and the news and our jobs, and all that noise in our heads makes it very difficult for us to actually be where we are.

Kids are always where they are. They might have some worries or be upset about something, but they’re still firmly planted in this moment. They see everything so clearly. I’m not talking about a life lesson, pay attention to the details, smell-the-roses kind of thing, but finding a way to connect with them, because our heads are in the clouds but theirs are in the now. (Ironic. We like to think it’s the other way around.)

For instance, the other day Mr. E saw the fan icon on the microwave, which spins, and said, “Wheel.” (The boy loves wheels.) From his perspective, that’s totally a wheel. And yesterday one of my girls gave me a colorful fall leaf. We looked at how pretty it was, then I absentmindedly started spinning it between my thumb and finger. This was like a whole new world of awesome. She stared at it for minutes while we both got a little entranced at the sight.

So I’ve found that one of the key aspects of successfully working with kids is seeing what they see. It takes practice, training, and an awareness of everything that’s going on around you. I have to know where everyone is, what they’re up to, and who’s playing with what toy, in case someone comes up and grabs it out of their hands.

When you are connected on this level, and can step in to any argument, and know what’s going on, and how to fix it, and talk for them, and walk them all through the solution, and make sure everyone is treated fairly: you will rock at taking care of kids. (And extra bonus: they will trust and adore you.)

I started a new, young group last month and my head was spinning. I was going in ten directions at once, barely keeping up, something always needing to be done and someone always needing my attention. I felt pulled in all directions and wasn’t sure I could keep up the pace.

Then I got sick. I thought I was doomed for sure. If I can’t keep up top speed, this ship is sinking. But here’s the weird thing: when you’re sick, you slow down. My head hurt so much I couldn’t run around, so I just sat, and the kids came to me. They each got a little fix of my attention in turn, and then they were happy to go off and play.

Instead of being on my feet and missing something, I could watch all that was happening and help them move through the day so much easier. There wasn’t as much attention-seeking behavior (which is our nice professional way of saying “bad”) because I was connected with them much more consistently.

Another trick I used is listening to everyone’s side and not having to “punish.” I have an infant now and while I’m busy feeding or changing her, plenty of other stuff is going on with my wild bunch. An adult may look at a situation and think, this child needs a punishment. When actually the other kid – as long as they get their toy back – could care less.

Children mostly just want to be heard. If I can listen sympathetically to both kids and name their feelings for them, they’re satisfied. By the time they’re done talking to me about what happened, they’ve moved on to the next thing and forgotten about what caused the hurt in the first place. This doesn’t excuse all behavior but it saves a lot of hurt feelings on both sides of a fight. Sometimes being heard is more important than seeing a friend get in trouble.

Another great technique I’ve fallen back on recently is broadcasting. While I’m under that baby (or suffering from a sinus headache) and watching what the kids are doing, I repeat it back to them. “Mr. O’s mowing my lawn – awesome! I needed that done. Wow Ms. G, that was a big jump.” When you verbally connect with the kids – even if they don’t respond or even seem to notice – they know you’re present and you care about them. They eat it up.

I feel better now, but I’m consciously keeping a much slower pace. I’m spending as much time as I can not rushing, not moving around. Sitting right down on the floor in the middle of the kids and observing. Being calmer and less agitated by all the things I have to get done, and finding that some of them I don’t really have to do. Maybe just keeping the peace is the most important one.

Yep. Child Care is Expensive.

Ooo, I love it, just love it whenever a new article about the high cost of child care comes out. This one by Alissa Quart covers the usual territory. Parents who use child care are stumped, and rightfully so, as to why they should work full-time and be away from their children, and then hand over most of that pay to someone else to watch said children.

With the biggest complaint being the cost and scarcity of care, the next question is why are we paying this much money for sub-par care? And then comes the litany of horror stories, which this article dutifully serves up.

That’s the part that always makes my skin crawl. Every time you hear “this woman locked the kids in one room for six hours” it makes us all look bad. The vast majority of child care providers (at least all the ones I’ve known in over ten years of doing this job) are dedicated, loving, incredibly hard-working women who would do anything for their kids. They are, in fact, required to go above and beyond by state regulations that have them putting in many unpaid extra hours after their long day with the kids is over. But I digress.

An obvious answer to the question “Why do I keep working?” is that few people can afford to take themselves out of their career path. You step away and you’re out. This is a big decision, especially for someone who now has a home, cars, and a child to provide for. Moms who keep their full-time jobs are doing it for the good of their family, but they often get knocked for leaving their little ones.

Stay-at-home moms give up as much as working moms do by being away from their babies. They are walking away from a good career and all the benefits of it, the experience they’ve been building, and possibly everything they’d been preparing for up until that point. (That’s the power your child has over you, but that’s another story.)

Every family chooses what’s best for them and we all need to stop vilifying each other. But while we’re at it, let’s stop vilifying the child care providers.

The reason child care is scarce is because it’s an incredibly difficult job. Home child care providers are on their own with very little support. We work long hours, have incredibly stressful work environments, and a physically and mentally demanding job. But we are expected to be saintly at all times. We can’t make mistakes. So people burn out, and those who want to make a decent wage often go find another job.

It’s true, parents give us a huge chunk of their income. But we have no benefits, no paid time off, no sick time, and personally I just cover my bills. I can’t even get into the doctor for an appointment for myself or my children. I accrue nothing. There is no safety net. And the job is over-regulated by state agencies who don’t give the support necessary to cover their requirements.

Another thing that people often overlook is that when you work in child care, there is no upward mobility. You may become a director if you work in a center, but the stress of that job isn’t commensurate with the pay (again, very low, and “Director” at a child care center has far less cachet than “Director” at a company).

We often turn to the proposal of federally-funded child care, as Ms. Quart does in her article. But this idea usually makes people go ballistic. My taxes are not going to pay for your child!

Why doesn’t anybody get this enraged about their taxes paying for endless war, destruction, and general misuse around the world? It confounds me when people get angrier about taking care of babies and toddlers at home than they do about killing children in other countries.

But I digress.

Ms. Quart actually does a good job of hitting all the major points in the debate over child care, and I often found myself agreeing with her. But her conclusion touches on my single biggest problem with the way we view child care: that parents have “a discomfort with center-based day care and even the term ‘day care,’ preferring terms like ‘educational enrichment’ and, yes, preschool.”

This is the trend that makes all child care providers crazy. We know children. We know what they need. They don’t need early educational enrichment. We see what the school systems do to kids once they get there. They are over-tested, over-stressed, have no recess or down time, and then are blamed for bad behavior, which is a normal human child’s response to extreme pressure.

Providers know that we are the last bastion of protecting babies and toddlers’ freedom. What babies need is love, consistency, sleep, and fun. They do not need curriculum, and early enrichment will not help their future success. In fact, studies show that over-stimulation at early ages causes children to withdraw and perceive themselves negatively, while those in child-centered classrooms thrive.

Child care providers give kids what they need in so many more ways than “enrichment.” Nurturing and building a strong foundation of self-esteem leads to enrichment. We teach them ABCs and 123s, and that is an appropriate amount of knowledge for a toddler. The rest of what they need will come later.

Articles like this will always pop up every few months because of our country’s anti-woman, anti-family policies. The sweeping reforms often suggested by their authors aren’t backed up with enough political capital to ever happen. Child care is expensive, but not always as bad as they make out in the articles. It will continue to be hard to find as long as high quality is demanded but no support systems for providers exist. And the discussion is incomplete until you include and respect the voices of providers who actually do the job and have the wisdom needed to change the system.

Parents who have had to pay for child care are immensely relieved when their kids are old enough to attend public schools for free – which, egad – are supported by taxpayer dollars. So when the push gets big enough, when enough people demand subsidized child care, perhaps we’ll see a change. But a system that doesn’t value families, that pushes individual success above all else, that fights against health care and elder care and any kind of perceived “handout,” will never willingly embrace this idea on its own.

Why UPK is a Bad Idea

Everyone’s all abuzz about President Obama’s mention of universal preschool (UPK) in his state of the union address. I’m totally against it, and it’s shocking all the people who know me as a dedicated early childhood professional.

But Amy, don’t you love the little children? Don’t you think they deserve the best start they can get? As an early childhood educator (ECE), don’t you agree this is a long time coming and should be a natural next step?

As an early childhood educator, I know what happens when government gets involved in education. It’s not pretty.

But before I begin on early education, let’s look at our track record with our existing school system. Which, globally, ranks somewhere in the middle. Just average, in the richest and most powerful nation on earth.

There are a million reasons for this, but I’ll just go on my family’s experience. Like the rest of the nation, my kids are getting a mediocre education. They’re being standardized-tested to death. They don’t have recess so they can have more test prep time. We’ve only been able to keep a music program because the music teacher is also the gym teacher. And THAT’S because my town is down fourteen teachers this year. I’m not talking luxuries here. We haven’t asked for an iPad for every student. We. Need. Teachers.

That’s not an outrageous expectation, is it?

So let’s apply this winning formula to preschool. In the decade I’ve been in this field, the more that “education” creeps into the picture, the less real care for children remains. That’s why I don’t like education reform in the manner it’s done today. Because as an ECE, I know what kids really need to learn, and it’s usually the opposite of what education reformers think it is.

When the regulations come down, they require child care providers to have degrees. I have seen my field be quietly but systematically stripped of some of the wisest, kindest, most sympathetic and caring teachers because they didn’t have college degrees.

These are the women who taught and helped me when I entered the field. I am living proof: you can NOT learn what you need to know to work with children in a college classroom full of adults. As my kindergarten teacher aunt said, “Amy, they’ll eat you alive.” She was right, and I had to learn the hard way, almost not making it past my third year. I had a master’s in education but was totally unprepared to work with children.

Some people are convinced that accreditation is the best route for ensuring quality programs. My kids went to the best preschool I’ve seen in my experience. But the director was forced to close after becoming nationally licensed, only to find out that the amount of work required to maintain that status cost too much to run her business.

Our closest relative to UPK, Head Start, is failing, with 100,000 children being cut out of the program this year. When the budgets come down and my child care friends are shocked at the programs we’re losing, I always remind them: Women and children first!

Add to all this the simple problem of staffing. A child care center is expected to provide nine to ten hours of care for an eight-hour working day. The pilot UPK program now being run in Massachusetts requires the same full-day, full-year services.

Think for a minute about how long schools are staffed. Half of a year, for six hours a day. And we are barely keeping them alive as it is.

So we would be asking our preschools to be something between a child care and a school, but so much more. Where will the staff come from? Child care worker is still one of the lowest-paid professions in the country, making less than minimum wage in some areas.

On top of her normal child care duties (which is enough work to kill an ox), a Head Start provider must do hours of paperwork, plan individual curriculum for each child, perform assessments and plan goals, meet with parents on a monthly basis, and have a state employee review her curriculum and facility every other month. For all this extra effort she earns an extra $8.40 per day. This is shameful.

I don’t even have the space to get into curriculum changes and the impact on programs – and the children they serve – here. I still have some semblance of control over my little world, and I’m holding onto it for dear life.

The fact that I can even let my kids swing is in jeopardy, as I’m barely allowed to keep my grandfathered-pre-new-regulations swingset. I won’t be surprised if they make me remove it after the next round of changes. And then I’ll tell the kids, whose best interests have been served, that the swings are just too dangerous and scary.

We, as a country, have never had the money to back up government mandates. Period. So our schools, preschools, and Head Starts struggle under the burden of unfunded regulations that can’t possibly be maintained. How is any of this, in any way, good for the little children? In fact, I do love them. That’s why I try to protect them from a system that puts their real, true educational needs last.

Many people have pointed out that we can only move forward with a first step, and Obama simply took the first step. That’s great. Of course kids deserve a real education and more than just pipe dreams being used as filler in political speeches. I hope that this will be done the right way someday. But let’s fix the educational system we have now before we drag our four-year-olds into the debacle.

Big Bird is Saved!

As I was looking around my child care room today I noticed exactly how many ways PBS is part of my life – literally on a daily basis.

Miss S got me started. She picked up my Oscar toy and asked what it was for. I said, “When those men were running for President, one of them said he would get rid of ‘Sesame Street.’ But he didn’t win, so I put Oscar out to celebrate.”

She said she knew, and started speaking quite eloquently about it. I’ve had her since she was two – I forget she’s in second grade now and can comprehend things.

She told me that a boy in her class talked about it because his mother works for PBS. I said, “He must have been afraid that his mother might lose her job.”

She nodded, very serious. Then she asked, “No PBSKids?” Which is one of her favorite things to play on the computer, and it’s one of the ways I entertain her when the littles are napping.

I said yes. Then Younger Son asked, “There’d be no Wild Kratts?” and I was actually a bit stricken.

Through their shows, the Kratt brothers have stoked my son’s love for everything wild. He is obsessed with nature and all its creatures and how to preserve it. In fact one of the things he wants to be when he grows up is someone who “travels the world and helps animals.”

So with this conversation in my mind, I began to pick out all the things I see every day that came from PBS.

This poster came with my “Mr. Rogers Plan and Play” curriculum book. Most of the time I forget it’s there, like everything that eventually blends into the walls, but whenever I do notice it I get a smile.

I made this t-shirt for my sister but she’s not sure she can wear it in public without offending people. It’s a nightshirt now. (For those of you who don’t remember, it was “The Electric Company” teaching us about tolerance. What nonsense PBS fills kids’ heads with!)

I found this gem in a library book sale and as soon as I opened the book I remembered the pictures from reading them as a child. It was a visceral reaction.

OK I’ll just say it. I was screaming at the book sale and embarrassing my children.

On Monday of this week we listened to “Songs From the Street” while we were using Play-Doh. I used the Frontline website to research an education article the other day, and recommended a Nova documentary about doctor-assisted suicide to a friend. The list is practically endless.

I don’t know if the President even has the ability to eliminate PBS. But I’m just so glad we don’t have to find out.

By the way. Best children’s book ever?

Babies Who Teach Themselves

I took this amazing video of one of my babies a few weeks ago, but sadly I can’t post it here. I was hoping to but I’d have to pay WordPress $60 for the option. I haven’t bought myself new work shoes in over a year. The video option ain’t happenin.

So picture if you will: a nine-month-old baby sitting on the 4′ X 5′ patch of wooden floor between the playroom and livingroom. He has a plastic pot from the cooking set and he’s bouncing it around on the floor. It’s spinning and rolling around, making a cool popping noise.

The edge of the carpet in each room delineates this perfect play space, because when the pot hits either rug, it stays close. Every time it stops moving he scoots over to grab it. He throws it again and the cycle begins anew (except when he takes occasional breaks to chew on it).

He does this for about half an hour every day, I’m not kidding. He’s totally focused, not paying attention to or even interested in whatever chaos is going on around him. He’s just totally zeroed in on that pot. It’s very zen, to be honest. I love watching him do it.

As I watched him I realized he was hitting about a dozen learning targets in just this simple action. He’s getting hand-eye coordination, learning to recognize sounds, working on both small and large motor skills. He’s entertaining himself – not only is that a small miracle for a nine-month old, but that’s what you call self-directed learning.

About a week after he started doing this, he was crawling.

Can you imagine? All the amazing things going on in his brain during those quiet moments, all the growth he’s experiencing with this “child’s play.” To the casual observer it would seem like nothing, but I guess it’s true what they say – play is children’s work.

And how can I quantify this on a report? If I write “Mr. W played with a cup for half an hour” I’d look totally negligent. Yeah, I left some trash on the floor and when he found it he had something to play with… As my husband would say, here come the people with the clipboards.

But any smart grownup knows the box is the best part of the new toy.