Why Early Academics at Preschool Are Harmful: A Teacher Explains

The author is a former preschool and kindergarten teacher with a master's degree in special education. She advocates for kids to play more.

A push-down curriculum forces academics onto preschoolers even when some aren't developmentally ready, causing them undue confusion and frustration.

A push-down curriculum forces academics onto preschoolers even when some aren't developmentally ready, causing them undue confusion and frustration.

What Is a Push-Down Curriculum?

Ironically, many parents are unfamiliar with the term, push-down curriculum, but regularly grumble about it. They bemoan that what was once taught in third grade is now taught in second, what was once taught in second is now taught in first, and what was once taught in first is now taught in kindergarten. Sadly, for those of us who work in early childhood education, we clearly see that nowhere is the negative impact of a push-down curriculum more glaringly tragic than at our preschools. It’s gotten so bad, in fact, that we’re faced with the moral dilemma to instruct in ways that we know are developmentally inappropriate and potentially harmful to our students or exit the profession that we love.

Our country’s crusade for academic rigor has prompted an increase in high-stakes testing, time-consuming student assessments, and nation-wide standards such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core. While the intent of these measures was never meant to affect preschools at all, let alone radically transform them, this has been the unfortunate outcome. The once expansive scope of early childhood education—to make kids curious, imaginative, and excited about learning—has been reduced to the single aim of preparing them academically for kindergarten.

1. Common Core

Common Core—standards to make K-12 education uniform across the country—has dramatically impacted preschools for the worse. Responding to its detrimental impact, scholars in early childhood education have started a coalition, Defending the Early Years, to combat it. Their mission is to “defend play and playful learning in today's world of over-testing and corporate reforms that devalue the rights of children and the craft of teaching.”

With every good intention in the world, though, this organization is in a lopsided battle akin to David fighting Goliath. The Gates Foundation—led by Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, and his wife, Melinda—has already donated over $200 million to advance Common Core. Sadly, the budget at Defending the Early Years is .006% of that. While Mr. Gates is undeniably a leader in the tech world, his knowledge of early learning is sadly lacking. It's a tragic state of affairs that this billionaire is setting policy in early education and not those who have devoted their lives to studying how young children learn best.

Despite their deficit of funds, the leaders of Defending the Early Years are not backing down—empowered by their passion for kids. They advocate for them by pressing for the following:

  • Acknowledgement that academic rigor has no place in early learning. Naming letters and numbers is superficial compared to the bigger picture of encouraging creativity, imagination, problem solving, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, social skills, and self-regulation.
  • Recognition that preschool teachers are professionals in their classrooms. Don't take away their autonomy—making them stick to a script designed to get higher test scores. Let them be creative, innovative, and original.
  • Admission that children in low-income communities who attend government-run preschool programs are being disproportionately hurt by academic rigor, student assessments, and adult-centered classrooms. While youngsters in wealthier communities continue to enjoy play time, the arts, and child-centered activities, youngsters in government-run preschools endure too much testing, seat work, and rote learning. Unfortunately, these government-run preschools are under the thumb of politicians and bureaucrats and must show good test results to get funded.
  • Acknowledgment of the disparity in preschool programs between rich and poor. According to the Department of Education, 8,000 children from public preschools get suspended at least once in a school year (many get suspended more often). A disproportionate number of these youngsters are poor black boys who are reacting adversely (and quite naturally) to a play-deficient environment.

In this video, the director of Defending the Early Years explains that there's no research that shows early reading instruction is advantageous to children, but there is evidence to show it's detrimental.

2. Government Interference

Experts are predicting that our nation will soon face a severe teacher shortage, forcing school districts to hire those with only an undergraduate degree and not a teaching credential. The federal government has largely created this problem by prioritizing standardized testing over personnel, stripping teachers of autonomy in their classrooms and diminishing them as professionals. Countries with much-envied school systems—Finland, Japan, and Germany-—treat their teachers with tremendous respect and give them a lot of power to instruct as they see fit while we do the opposite.

As a result, talented, committed and goodhearted people who chose teaching as their career path—not to get rich but to help children learn and grow—are now leaving. They're fed up with their new duties: teaching to the tests, administering tests, and pretending as if test results are the be-all and end-all in determining student success.

This is especially true with early childhood educators who are now expected to disregard what they know about developmentally appropriate practices, namely that kids learn best by playing, pretending, and interacting. They’re tired of being expected to act as if all children are “standard,” evolving in the same way and at the same rate, when they know that this is patently false and that there are huge variations in the way kids develop. They’re disturbed by being required to instruct in a manner that causes little ones undue frustration and confusion. One teacher sums it up for so many when saying: “I see kids with eyes glazed who are simply overwhelmed by being constantly asked to perform tasks for which they are not ready to do.”

When knowledgeable educators exit the profession, they leave a void that's filled by inexperienced folks who get indoctrinated by the prevailing call for academic rigor. They lack an adequate background in early childhood education so they go along with the government's plan that involves too much seat work, too much testing, and too many structured lessons and not enough creativity, exploration, and movement. Low income areas get hit the hardest by the influx of unqualified educators. Programs, for example, such as “Teach America” recruit graduates fresh out of college, give them minimal training, and then send them out to teach in some of the most challenging places.

3. Parental Ignorance

Some parents—combining demanding careers with hectic family lives, battling traffic and long commutes, and struggling to keep up with the latest technology—have no time left over to read about issues in early childhood education. If they’re exposed to the subject matter at all, it’s usually the musings of a Facebook friend or the perspectives of a neighbor and not the expertise of a professional in the field. It’s this parental ignorance, though, that has led parents to not only accept a push-down curriculum but to view it as positive. Some ill-informed moms and dads even boast when their kindergartner learns to read or their preschooler writes in a workbook.

Unfortunately, these parents are woefully uninformed about the harmful effects of a push-down curriculum and the enormous benefits of play. Here is what they need to know:

  • Play is how children learn. It enhances language development, social skills, gross and fine motor acquisition, imagination, and creativity. According to renowned psychologist, Erik Erikson, those who are play-deprived as young children may become adversely affected in their later learning.
  • Finland now leads the way as a model for superior schools. Play there is highly esteemed. Formal academics in Finland don't begin until age 7. Seven and 8-year-olds have a half day of academics combined with a half day of play.
  • Research shows that all people—young and old—should go outside for at least 2 hours each day. The exposure to the outdoors regulates our metabolisms, lifts our moods, and reduces stress.
  • While play in the US has sharply decreased, anxiety, depression, narcissism, and obesity have sharply increased.
  • Earlier does not mean better. Readers at age 5 have no long-term advantage over those who learn to read at 6, 7, or even older.

In this must-see TED Talk, Dr. Peter Gray explains why play is critical for the emotional, cognitive, and physical development of children and how too little of it can lead to mental health issues and societal problems.

What do you think?

© 2015 McKenna Meyers

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