A recent report, “Little to Gain and Much to Lose,” calls for a moratorium on kindergarten Common Core reading standards. The report argues that “many children are not developmentally ready to read in kindergarten.” Therefore, expectations for reading in kindergarten should not be forced on children, who “learn through playful, hands-on experiences with materials, the natural world, and engaging, caring adults.”
The report raises a pressing issue that we face every day at Harlem Link Charter School. We are struggling to balance the needs of children to play and explore with the academic demands that are heaped on us not only by the Common Core, but also by the imperative to improve college and life outcomes that spurred the Common Core’s development. We want children to spend more time with blocks, developing spatial awareness, nimble brain functioning, and problem solving skills. At the same time, we feel pressured to put the blocks away and take the pencils out.
While talkative experts are ready to pounce on “Little to Gain” to attack Common Core, the real dilemma it points out will never be resolved as long as we ignore the root of the problem.
Unstated in the report is the socioeconomic divide of “developmental readiness.” Here’s the sad and scary truth: Children from higher economic classes, and whose parents have a higher level of education, enter kindergarten with far more literacy and language experiences than children from lower economic classes. In simpler terms, wealthier parents tend to read and talk to their kids a lot and do those things with purpose and verve. Lower income parents, much less so.
The authors throw “developmental readiness” around as if it were an innate, biologically determined quality that each child brings to school. Nonsense. Child development is highly dependent on environmental factors, and home experiences trump just about everything else when it comes to being “developmentally ready” for kindergarten. The now-famous 1995 study by Hart and Risley demonstrated that by age 3, children from lower-income families typically have heard 30 million fewer words than their affluent peers.
Taken to its logical conclusion, the “Little to Gain“ report says to me, “Some kids just aren’t going to go to college. They enter kindergarten not ready to read, so why force them?”
On the other hand, study after study shows that if you aren’t ready to read in kindergarten, you better catch up fast, because by the time you should be going to college, you’ll be looking for a minimum-wage job.
So implicit in the report, for me, are two real questions, neither of which are answered:
- What do educators and policymakers do about the massive word gap that lower-income children face even before they enter kindergarten?
- What do we do for the children, regardless of the income of their families, who enter kindergarten “unready” for reading?
As I said above, we’ll never have a satisfactory answer for Question #2. I know. I’ve been trying to find the balance for the last 10 years. It’s a wild ride on this particular pendulum.
But Question #1 does have an answer, and done well, it will attack the root of the problem.
The answer is about parent education and parent resources. Our school has many families who prove that low-income doesn’t have to mean a literacy-poor home. (That’s not to say some parents don’t need extra support – how can you read to your child every night when you are a single parent working the night shift?)
There are multiple organizations working to educate parents on how to support literacy at home, beginning at birth. As part of our new Start to Finish program, we partner with Reach Out and Read, through which pediatricians provide books and training to new parents. The Parent-Child Home Program sends literacy specialists on structured visits to low-income homes to teach parent-child interactions that promote literacy.
It’s time that elementary schools saw contributing to the solution for Question #1 as a central part of all of our efforts. We must work together to ensure that no community is labeled “developmentally unready.” Every school should be engaged in supporting community members to meet the vision of the Parent-Child Home Program: “Every child enters school ready to succeed because every parent has the knowledge and resources to build school readiness where it starts: the home.”
When that vision is met, there could be a proper celebration in every kindergarten class, and a developmentally appropriate one: a block party.