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Are education reforms harming poor kids? Study finds testing is pushing out play for young kids

California Children's Academy Budget Cuts Preschool Education

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A teacher at Jardín de Niños plays with kids at the school in Lincoln Heights, which receives funding from the California Department of Education.

A new survey by a nonprofit to find out how current education reforms are affecting early education teaching and learning, has found that poor children are receiving a developmentally inappropriate education in their earliest years while their more wealthy peers are likely to get more appropriate lessons.

It's not a scientific study - it wasn't randomized or controlled. Defending the Early Years posted the survey on its website and invited teachers and administrators to answer questions about education in the classroom for preschool to third grade. DEY's mission is to mobilize educators to take action around public policy issues that affect early education. 

The group said 185 teachers from Pre-K to third grade took the surver. And their responses, Defending the Early Years said,  suggest a “disturbing” shift is underway in how the youngest children are educated, especially in classrooms that rely on public funding: K-3 public schools and head start preschool programs.

The survey asked teachers questions about play-based learning – did it happen and how often -- and for their opinion on whether what they were teaching was developmentally appropriate for the age group.

“Play is the primary way that young children make sense of the world around them, learn new ideas and skills, develop creative thinking and problem-solving skills, and deal with stress," Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin, Director, said in a blog post. "Furthermore, what is learned through play provides an essential foundation for later academic learning. Early childhood teachers are trained to promote the optimal development and learning of young children through play.”

The survey was conducted during the 2012-2013 school year. Public school teachers reported overwhelmingly  -- 69 percent -- that their students did not have enough time for “play and exploration.” Teachers commented that they feel pressured to adhere to an academic formula that includes very little play, and academics that traditionally occurred in higher grades.

Perhaps more stunning was that 85 percent of public school teachers said they were required to engage in activities that are not developmentally appropriate for the age group they are teaching.

Many teachers in publicly funded schools and centers reported a dramatic increase in the testing of young children. One New York City kindergarten teacher with 15 years experience responded:

Kindergarten students are being forced to write words, sentences, and paragraphs before having a grasp of oral language…We are assessing them WEEKLY on how many sight words, letter sounds, and letter names they can identify. And we’re assessing the ‘neediest’ students’ reading every other day.

Teachers also reported what they perceive to be a correlation between increased pressure on young children through testing and developmentally inappropriate curriculum with worse social behavior. Younger and younger kids are being disciplined or even suspended for acting out.  Another teacher wrote in the survey:

Our district has seen a large increase in serious negative behaviors; yet do not want to look at the correlation between this and our increased expectations. Instead, we suspend five and six year olds.

Interestingly, the survey showed that teachers from private schools were more able to use play in the curriculum, were not testing as much, and they reported more developmentally appropriate curriculum.

The non-profit concluded that:

Children who attend private preschools receive a curriculum better grounded in play-based learning and child development principles, and this was reflected in the survey. Poorer children, because they are more likely to attend publicly funded programs, receive an education that is more inappropriate developmentally; they have less time for exploration, play, and active learning, and spend more time in direct instruction and with inappropriate testing.

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