You Can’t Force Developmental Milestones: A Parent’s Perspective on the CCSS Kindergarten Foundational Reading Standards

In a recent Facebook discussion about PARCC and the Common Core State Standards, I commented that the Common Core standards are developmentally inappropriate in the younger grades. Another participant in the discussion challenged that assertion, and pointed to the CCSS kindergarten literacy standards. He asked me to identify what was inappropriate in them.

Here’s an edited and expanded version of my response:

I think pointing to the Reading:Literacy Standards (Kindergarten) for an analysis of developmental inappropriateness misses the mark. My concern with the standards for the youngest grades is not with the Reading: Literacy Standards, which are about comprehension and understanding stories, but rather with the Reading: Foundational Standards (Kindergarten), which are about phonics and decoding words. The Reading: Foundational Standards require ALL kindergartners, for instance, to be reading CVC words (i.e., 3 letter short vowel words) by the end of kindergarten, unless those words end with r, x, or l. Requiring such phonics-based reading skills at that level by the end of kindergarten is developmentally inappropriate for many five year olds. I can tell you that from my own experience.

I have two girls. Both have September birthdays. For a whole host of reasons, none of which I’m interested in debating here, we made the decision that we were fortunate enough to have the resources to make — we gave both of them an extra year of private preK. As a result, both started kindergarten just before they turned six, rather than just before they turned five.

Both of my girls are bright, capable, and inquisitive. But they’re also very different kids, with different learning styles, interests, and developmental paths. As an aside, I can’t tell you how glad I am that I have two kids, because seeing how different my younger daughter’s path is from my older daughter’s is a constant reminder of how amazingly different two typically developing small humans from the same gene pool really can be. It’s remarkable to see — and a constant source of wonder for me.

As I hope my regular readers might imagine, my house is full of books. We don’t have a family room, but in addition to our living room, we do have a dedicated library on the first floor of our house, and it was that library with its floor to ceiling built in bookshelves that made me fall in love with this house. But even the library doesn’t come close to holding our book collection. I’m not quite like my old friend Mel, of blessed memory, who, with his wife, had to move out of his four bedroom house to make room for the books it contained (he and his wife went to live in a small apartment nearby instead), but if it wasn’t for the Kindle, that path might have been part of my future.

We’ve read to our kids regularly since they were in utero. Not surprisingly, our collection of children’s books has mushroomed. My oldest has four bookcases in her room, and my youngest can’t contain her books on the 3 bookcases in her room. I belong to a book club, I read regularly for pleasure (and let my kids see me doing so), my kids know that I taught high school English Language Arts, and it’s been clear to my kids for their whole lives that understanding life through literature is central to our family values.

My oldest started asking me to teach her how to read shortly before her fourth birthday. Although my academic training was in teaching middle and high school, I was game to try. So I picked up a few resources, and we gave it a whirl. However, despite the fact that she already knew all of the letters and their sounds, it quickly became clear that she simply wasn’t ready, so we put formal reading instruction aside. I think we made another stab at it about three or four months later, but again, no dice. We tried it once or twice more, but each time the frustration for both of us outweighed any benefit, so we stopped.

Then, in about March of her last year of preK (so she was five and a half at that point), it was like a switch turned on. Within about a week of her renewed request for reading instruction, she was suddenly reading, fluently, anything and everything she could get her hands on. She never looked back. By the time she entered kindergarten six months later, she was reading — with comprehension — a wide variety of texts, including simple chapter books. She’s continued to gobble up books — and to love reading — ever since.

Obviously, meeting the kindergarten foundational standards would have been a no-brainer for my oldest. But remember, she had the gift of that “extra year,” so she started kindergarten weeks before her sixth — not her fifth — birthday. That was before our district’s Common Core implementation, but I’m not sure reading would have been so straightforward for her if she’d been forced to heavily drill phonics-based reading skills during what ended up (because of our choice) being her final year of pre-K. It’s clear to me from trying (at her request) to teach her that she simply wasn’t ready for phonics-based reading instruction at that time, but that’s when many kids — especially those who have fewer financial resources — enter kindergarten.

My youngest is a kindergartener right now. Like her sister, she also has a September birthday, so she turned six shortly after school started in September. Unlike her sister, she didn’t start kindergarten reading — and there is no way she was ready developmentally a year ago, even though she met the kindergarten cut off back then (i.e., she could be in first grade now). Now, she is on track to meet the standard that requires reading CVC words by the end of the year, but that’s only because she was fortunate enough to start kindergarten just before her sixth birthday rather than just before her fifth. Many — probably most — kids in our country don’t have that luxury.

My youngest, even more so than my oldest, is also a kid who gets really frustrated when asked to do a task she’s not yet developmentally ready to manage. Whether it’s academics or something else, when we’ve made the mistake of trying to push her to do something before she was developmentally ready, the result has been that she’s gotten really resistant to the task she’s not ready for, to the point that she ends up mastering it far later than I think she would have if we’d just left her alone.

I am convinced that forcing my youngest to learn phonics to read a year ago — when she could have already been in kindergarten — would have been a nightmare. In fact, I tried briefly, remembering her sister’s experience, but it quickly became clear that forcing reading before she was ready was a terrible idea. To be honest, even the tiny (and quickly abandoned) attempt I made caused some reading resistance, which I think we’ve pretty much managed to undo at this point, but it’s taken a lot of patience to get there.

Until now, my youngest just hadn’t hit the developmental switch required to read successfully. But that developmental switch — i.e., that point at which individual kids are ready for the abstraction necessary to be able to translate symbols on a page into the spoken language they’ve spent the last five years acquiring — it’s not something we can switch on earlier either by wishing or by imposing standards requiring it. Some kids are ready at four, some kids are ready at five, and some kids are ready at six. All of those ages are within the normal range for reading development — and despite taking some time to look, there’s nothing I’ve come across that indicates that an earlier reader’s long term outcomes will be better than those of a kid who learns to read later in the typical developmental range.

This difference among children — as illustrated by my own girls — is precisely why a standard requiring real progress toward phonics-based reading in kindergarten is developmentally inappropriate. As I learned in my educational psychology and reading instruction classes, by sometime between their sixth and seventh birthdays, most kids have reached the developmental milestone that allows them to learn to read. At the moment, although it’s a slower process than with my older daughter, I can see that my six year old is getting there. For instance, she’s finally suggesting, at least once in awhile (to avoid housework, but that’s another story), that she try reading with me. But again, she’s a full year older than many other kindergartners.

My youngest is bright and creative. In fact, I suspect that one of the reasons she’s relatively slow to read is because she can imagine alternate — and entertaining — realities for hours on end. That is, her imagination is so engaging that she doesn’t need authors’ stories to provide entertainment for her. As a result, reading — that is, the process of interacting with an author’s imagination — is less appealing for her, and so she’s less motivated to do it.

My daughters’ different experiences with learning to read are why I believe that the Common Core Reading: Foundational Standards for Kindergarten, at least, are developmentally inappropriate. Forcing phonics-based reading on kindergartners as a standard they must all meet to be on the path toward college and career readiness is counterproductive because it’s developmentally inappropriate for many five year olds. If my younger daughter had started kindergarten a year ago, as she could have, I suspect that she would have been subjected to a cascade of interventions. Those interventions would not have occurred because she had a learning disability or any other problem that needed addressing. Rather, she would have been subjected to such interventions because the Reading: Foundational Standards for Kindergarten are simply inappropriate for many five year olds.

The solution is to change the standards. Yet instead, their advocates often seem to be focused on interventions aimed at making all kids march in lockstep to a rhythm that fails to reflect the normal range of their developmental trajectories. It’s that insistence on lockstep, especially in the youngest grades, that frustrates me. Such insistence appears to mark the difference between endorsing a set of standards and advocating an ideology that allows no deviation from the party line. Our kids — especially our kindergartners — deserve better.

P.S. I think this story also explains why the developmentally inappropriate expectations of the CCSS reading foundational standards are only going to widen, rather than narrow, the achievement gap.  As noted above, the only reason that my little one will be able to meet the CCSS reading foundational standards by the end of kindergarten is going to be because she was privileged enough to have parents who could “red-shirt” her.  It’s the fact that we could afford to choose to keep her in a high-quality play-based preschool for an extra year that’s going to allow her to meet CCSS for kindergarten.  Not all families have that luxury: instead, the younger kindergarteners are going to be more likely to end up in repetitive, phonics and decoding focused response to intevention (“RTI”) or similar programs, which I think would have frustrated my little one further, and probably sent her even further down the path toward reading resistance.  How many children living in poverty are going to end up in that boat, because the standards themselves set developmentally inappropriate expectations?

Montclair Kindergarten Tours Moved To January

Below please find two letters to the Montclair community.

The first letter is to the parents of our incoming kindergartners to welcome them to our public schools and let them know that the school tours are coming in less than two weeks — from January 26-30 (rather than in late March as has been typical in recent years).

The second letter is to our community generally about the concerns I have regarding the district’s failure to adequately publicize this year’s school tours, especially given the major date change. I’m really disappointed at the extent to which Central Services dropped the ball on this one, and I hope that Dr. MacCormack, Matt Frankel, and the entire Central Services team will publicly apologize for their mistake.

Dear Parents of Montclair Pre-Kindergartners Who Are New to Montclair Public Schools,

As you might know, what sets out community — and our school district — apart is the diversity of our public schools. Our strength is that we are a rare suburban community in which our students come from all walks of life, and that students from different backgrounds have the opportunity to know and understand each other by sharing classrooms with each other for thirteen years. That diversity is what I love about Montclair, and it’s the reason I chose to move to this town.

As you might also know, although we are diverse as a whole community, historically some of our individual neighborhoods were not as diverse. As a result, on a historical basis, our neighborhood elementary schools as a whole were not as socioeconomically integrated as they could and should be. Eventually, under a combination of court and community pressure, our all-magnet elementary and middle school system was born to ensure that we have integrated public schools. For more details, please watch the terrific video that the PTA put together a number of years ago, which recounts the history of our magnet system.

I’ve been a public school parent here for 5 years now, and I love our magnet system. I love that each school has its own personality, its own unique strengths, and its own traditions. My kids love having their neighborhood friends and their school friends. And I really appreciate that when I thought the school my older daughter attended for her first three years was no longer the right fit for her, I had the opportunity to switch her to another fully public school. Montclair’s system is a grassroots, organically developed local system that is perfect for us because our community has tailored it to the community’s needs over the past 30+ years

But because our magnet system rests on choice, it all falls apart if the parents of our incoming kindergartners don’t have the opportunity to see and tour each of our elementary schools. Parents need to see how Nishuane and Hillside’s gifted & talented magnet works through its electives (here in Montclair, we call them C-Is and Aesthetics) system. Parents need to see Watchung’s science lab and greenhouse. Parents need to see Edgemont’s Montessori program in action. Parents need to see Northeast’s global studies theme, and Bradford’s university magnet program, and how Bullock’s environmental science theme relates to its beautiful new building.

The vast majority of our parents get one of their top choices for elementary school, but for parents to make informed choices regarding which school to list first, they need the opportunity to see and tour our schools.

For the last four years, school tours have taken place in late March to early April. Day tours occupied a week, and evening tours for working parents who can’t take time during the day took about two weeks to complete.

This year, the tours are taking place January 26-30th. Yes, that’s right, your primary opportunity to tour our schools is taking place 12 days from now. I know that when I was in your shoes, I had enough lead time to rearrange my work schedule to ensure that I could devote all five mornings of tour week to checking out Montclair’s elementary schools. I’m sorry that the district has moved the tours up by two months with almost no notice, and then compounded that issue by failing to effectively publicize them, so you may have to scramble to get them done, but I assure you that taking the time time visit all of our terrific elementary schools — during the day if you possibly can — is absolutely worth your while, and I, for one, welcome you to our community’s public schools.

And for the working parents who can’t get there during the day, to be honest, if I were you, I’d be outraged that they’ve doubled up evening tours so that it’s going to be impossible for you to get to all 7 schools. If you’re upset by this — as you should be — I’d take the time to reach out to our school board members and our central office staff to let them know that and to request a better tour schedule. You should also know that the elimination of some of the morning tours is new this year as well — I know how difficult it was to get the tours done with the old, more expansive schedule, so I don’t envy you trying to get this all done with the abbreviated schedule that’s been provided.

Central Office might have really dropped the ball on this one, but the major take away remains. Remember — our magnet schools are each unique, but they are also each strong public schools that will do a terrific job educating your child. Whether you get your first choice or last choice or somewhere in between, please know that this is a community that cares deeply about education, and that has the ability to offer your child a high-quality elementary school experience.

Please help to get the word out.

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine (4th grade and kindergarten parent)

 

Dear Montclair Taxpayers and Community Members:

For the past seven years that I’ve been in town, as I recall, the kindergarten tours were always well-publicized in advance with articles and notices about tour season in our local news sources (although less so last year than in prior years, so perhaps Dr. MacCormack simply doesn’t see the tours as a priority). But thankfully, Montclair Community Pre-K, at least, regularly advertised them for about two months in advance in its weekly newsletter. This year, however, the administration has not gotten the word out — there’s been nothing on Baristanet, nothing in the Montclair Times, nothing on Montclair Patch, and nothing in The Alternative Press — Montclair. (Although to be fair, there is elementary tour information on the Montclair Public Schools website — I have no idea when the middle school tours are happening, however).

I only realized this was an issue when I received a note from the coordinator for the Hillside tour committee and I started to ask myself why the tours were so early this year. Then I realized that I hadn’t seen any notice of them in any of our local news sources (I read our local news regularly), and I realized that we have a real problem

Tonight I sat through a good chunk of the long but at times quite illuminating Board of Education workshop meeting so that I could raise this issue during public comment. I was the only member of the public there tonight, so my comment itself didn’t reach many people. In particular, I have to admit that the more I thought about this issue, the more annoyed I became. If the school tours are not well-attended at their scheduled times, there is going to be huge pressure on our individual PTAs to offer private tours to those who miss the public ones. That’s an enormous burden to place on our individual school-level PTAs, especially considering that this bureaucratic screwup is not theirs, but rather falls soundly on the shoulders of our Central Office staff. Perhaps this year, given that it was a Central Office screwup, district staff should be responsible for conducting the private tours, rather than our volunteer PTAs

In particular, I’m annoyed because, as I understand it, as of the 2014-2015 academic year we are now, for the first time since at least before the Great Recession, paying a part-time communications/public relations person, Matt Frankel, a significant salary to do our district’s public relations.

Mr. Frankel approached me immediately after my comment, and asked me to further explain what the issue was, since he clearly had no idea what I was talking about, and he stated that he was unaware of the issue until I raised it. Wow. Just wow. I’m honestly shocked, especially given how critical it is to ensure that parents new to the district have the opportunity to tour our schools and learn about our magnet system. That is, of course, if you think that our magnet system is a priority.

After I explained the issue in more detail to him, Mr. Frankel then suggested that he could do an email to current public school parents to publicize the tours. I pointed out that an email to current public school parents, while helpful, wouldn’t really solve the issue given that the point of school tours is outreach to next year’s new-to-the-district kindergarten families, who by definition wouldn’t receive an email to this year’s public school parents, and that the tours need to be publicized in our local media. Mr. Frankel continued asking me for additional ideas, at which point I politely suggested that since he is getting paid to do our district’s communications and I am not, perhaps he is best suited to figure out how best to communicate with the public to get the word out.

Let’s put it this way: my first interaction with Mr. Frankel didn’t give me great confidence that he’s worth the salary that’s coming out of my tax dollars. Hopefully he will redeem himself in the next eleven days.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the question of why the tour dates were changed from the late March/early April time frame of the last four years. (FYI, I reviewed my old emails, and I can see that prior to 2011, the tours were in February — I do recall that the district made this change, because when I wanted to do some limited tours again for my younger daughter I was surprised that the tours were so late — but unlike for this issue, it wasn’t a big deal to go on tours that were later than I expected, because obviously I hadn’t missed them). The reason for the last minute change this year, of course, is poor planning around the PARCC testing. Because the PARCC testing will take up the entire month of March, the district can’t conduct the tours then. And then a combination of Good Friday and spring break makes the rest of April problematic as well, especially given that the kids will be right back doing more PARCC assessments at the end of April and for most of May.

Given the importance of the school tours to Montclair’s community, there is no question that the administration should have been planning how to handle the tour calendar given the logistics challenges created by PARCC. But it seems that Central Office dropped the ball. I’d signed up to be a Hillside tour guide back on the first day of school last September. Here’s the start of the email I got on January 5th from Hillside PTA’s tour coordinator: “Surprise! It’s tour season! We were just informed today that Montclair’s elementary school tours will take place January 26-30 with an evening tour at Hillside yet to be scheduled.”

Our magnet schools mean the world to me, and ensuring that our community’s parents continue to support them is critical. That support doesn’t always come easily, but a big part of what generates it is having the opportunity to see all of the magnet schools in action. By failing to publicize the tours early and effectively, Central Services really dropped the ball on what should be a top communications priority. I hope that the members of the Montclair Board of Education will keep this in mind when they decide whether Central Services staffers should be awarded merit bonuses next fall.

Finally, thank goodness for the opportunity to provide public comment tonight so that I could raise this issue to the Board and Central Services staff — this once again demonstrates that there are good reasons why the public is invited to attend and comment on how we’re running our public schools, which are, of course, spending our precious tax dollars. During the workshop portion of the presentation, I heard some really negative comments from certain board members regarding the public comment tradition here in Montclair, as well as some occasionally frightening suggestions from the District’s consultant about methods for handling public comment. Perhaps our Board needs a reminder that these are the public’s schools with the great majority of their funding coming from local taxpayers, and that as the policy making entity for our town’s public schools, the Board of Education earns — or fails to earn — the public’s trust by listening to and taking action in response to the public’s concerns, be they large or small.

Best regards,

Sarah Blaine