Back in Feb. 17, 2012, a paneled discussion at Princeton University’s McCosh Hall was attended by NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf. During that conversation, he stated that one of the downfalls of the policies set by No Child Left Behind was inadvertently creating schools that took on the wrong approach to teaching. How teachers taught was of great concern. Across the nation, educators were found teaching to the test and drill-and-kill teaching. As part of the Common Core educational reform, goals are set at the federal level but educators at the local level are not told how to achieve the standards set by the Common Core. For early learners like kindergarteners, play is welcomed as the approach to teaching.
The Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach. For instance, the use of play with young children is not specified by the Standards, but it is welcome as a valuable activity in its own right and as a way to help students meet the expectations in this document.
New Jersey Department of Education echoes this sentiment in both math and language arts. In the document entitled Teacher Practices Related To Common Core State Standards For Mathematics, the NJ DOE states “ Encourage children to count to 100 through daily routines (e.g., games which involve counting played in small groups; “Let’s see if 100 steps will take us all the way to the playground.”).” In the document entitled, Teacher Practices Related To Kindergarten Common Core State Standards For English Language Arts, the DOE states,
In kindergarten, teachers need to capitalize on the active and the social nature of kindergarteners and their instructional needs to include rich demonstrations, interactions, and models of literacy during projects and play activities that make sense to five and six year-old children.
Having recently completed a student teaching experience at a New Jersey charter school, I have come to realize that not all kindergarten teachers approach early learning from a play-based perspective. Worksheets dominate the classroom setting and testing is regularly administered to kindergarteners. Participating in student teaching, field studies and practicums in charter and traditional public schools, others pursuing elementary and early education certification found paper and pencil driven instruction, too. While it is highly possible that I experienced an aberration in charter education, the experience may be indicative of the state of charter school education. In 2008, William Paterson University found that kindergartens across New Jersey’s Abbot districts, where most charter schools serve, are engaged in the kind of teaching Commissioner Cerf denounced.
- Instruction was primarily whole group
- Worksheet use was dominant
- Hands on materials were not used in over half of the classrooms
- In most classrooms, teachers did not have informal conversations with children
- In most rooms, children did not converse with their peers
- Scant evidence of scaffolded instruction and/or differentiation;
- Insufficient use of authentic children’s literature;
- Limited opportunities for child choice during the school day;
- Not enough emphasis on issues of diversity;
- Most programs did not offer daily gross motor opportunities to children.
With Common Core standards, comes increased responsibility to ensure that children, even our youngest learners, meet standards. NJ DOE has a draft of standards for preschool. The draft states “Give children opportunities to see connections in fun and playful ways. Tap into children’s passion and enthusiasm and build on it (e.g., a child who is interested in spiders can read about them, play games about them, observe them, draw them, and write stories about them).” The state of New Jersey has set standards for math and language arts in public preschools.
|An example of mathematics standard||Represent addition and subtraction by manipulating up to 5 objects: (a) putting together and adding to (e.g., “3 blue pegs, 2 yellow pegs, 5 pegs altogether.”); and (b) taking apart and taking from (“I have 4 carrot sticks. I’m eating one. Now I have 3.”).|
|An example of language arts standard||a) Print many alphabet letters. b) Use frequently occurring nouns and verbs. c) Form regular plural nouns. d) Understand and use question words (e.g., who, what, where, when, why, how). e) Use frequently occurring prepositions (e.g., to, from, in, out, on, off, for, by, with). f) Begin to speak in complete sentences.|
These standards, designed for public preschools, will very likely permeate the state of New Jersey, but the approach to reaching these standards will vary greatly. Educators fear how teachers will teach to these standards. They fear worksheets, drill and kill teaching, and teaching to the standards will become the approach of choice for many preschools.
Montessori preschools since its inception have had an approach to early childhood much in line with Common Core’s promotion of using play to teach. However, Montessori teachers do not call it play, they call it work. Tim Seldin, President of Montessori Foundation, shares the philosophies of Montessori preschools.