A tough critique of Common Core on early childhood education

common-core2The debate on the Common Core State Standards has in recent months centered around the issue of how much fiction high school students should read. Here’s a tough critique on the standards and how they relate to early childhood education. It was written by Edward Miller, a writer and teacher who lives in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. He is the co-author of “Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School,” and you can reach him t [email protected]. Nancy Carlsson-Paige is professor emerita of early childhood education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the author of “Taking Back Childhood” and you can reach her at [email protected]

By Edward Miller and Nancy Carlsson-Paige

Recent critiques of the Common Core Standards by Marion Brady and John T. Spencer have noted that the process for creating the new K-12 standards involved too little research, public dialogue, or input from educators.

Nowhere was this more startlingly true than in the case of the early childhood standards—those imposed on kindergarten through grade 3. We reviewed the makeup of the committees that wrote and reviewed the Common Core Standards. In all, there were 135 people on those panels. Not a single one of them was a K-3 classroom teacher or early childhood professional.

It appears that early childhood teachers and child development experts were excluded from the K-3 standards-writing process.

When the standards were first revealed in March 2010, many early childhood educators and researchers were shocked. “The people who wrote these standards do not appear to have any background in child development or early childhood education,” wrote Stephanie Feeney of the University of Hawaii, chair of the Advocacy Committee of the National Association of Early Childhood Teacher Educators.

The promoters of the standards claim they are based in research. They are not. There is no convincing research, for example, showing that certain skills or bits of knowledge (such as counting to 100 or being able to read a certain number of words) if mastered in kindergarten will lead to later success in school. Two recent studies show that direct instruction can actually limit young children’s learning. At best, the standards reflect guesswork, not cognitive or developmental science.

Moreover, the Common Core Standards do not provide for ongoing research or review of the outcomes of their adoption—a bedrock principle of any truly research-based endeavor.

It’s bad enough to set up committees to make policy on matters they know little or nothing about. But it’s worse to conceal and distort the public reaction to those policies. And that’s exactly what happened.

Take a look at the summary of “public feedback” posted on the Core Standards website. It is grossly misleading. First of all, calling the feedback “public” is wrong: the organizers of the standards would not make public the nearly 10,000 comments they say they received from citizens. The summary quotes 24 respondents–less than 1/4 of 1 percent of the total–selectively chosen to back up their interpretation of the results.

Reading this summary, one gets the clear impression that the reactions to the standards were overwhelmingly positive. “At least three-fourths of educators, from pre-kindergarten through higher education, reacted positively or very positively to each of the general topics,” reports the section on the math standards. The summary concludes: “The feedback is, overall, very good news for the standards developers.”

Early childhood gets few mentions in this summary. The first one, on page 3, quotes an anonymous respondent: “Add pre-k standards.” In other words, not only do educators supposedly like the K-3 standards, they want them pushed down to even younger children. (In fact, that’s what’s happening now in many states.)

The authors of the summary do say that a “group of respondents believe the [K-3] standards are developmentally inappropriate.” They characterize that group as being mainly parents who are concerned that “children are being pushed too hard.”

But they don’t even mention a critically important statement opposing the K-3 standards, signed by more than 500 early childhood professionals. The Joint Statement of Early Childhood Health and Education Professionals on the Common Core Standards Initiative was signed by educators, pediatricians, developmental psychologists, and researchers, including many of the most prominent members of those fields.

Their statement reads in part:

 We have grave concerns about the core standards for young children…. The proposed standards conflict with compelling new research in cognitive science, neuroscience, child development, and early childhood education about how young children learn, what they need to learn, and how best to teach them in kindergarten and the early grades….


The statement’s four main arguments, below, are grounded in what we know about child development—facts that all education policymakers need to be aware of:

1.  The K-3 standards will lead to long hours of direct instruction in literacy and math. This kind of “drill and grill” teaching has already pushed active, play-based learning out of many kindergartens.

2. The standards will intensify the push for more standardized testing, which is highly unreliable for children under age eight.

3. Didactic instruction and testing will crowd out other crucial areas of young children’s learning: active, hands-on exploration, and developing social, emotional, problem-solving, and self-regulation skills—all of which are difficult to standardize or measure but are the essential building blocks for academic and social accomplishment and responsible citizenship.

4. There is little evidence that standards for young children lead to later success. The research is inconclusive; many countries with top-performing high-school students provide rich play-based, nonacademic experiences—not standardized instruction—until age six or seven.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children is the foremost professional organization for early education in the U.S. Yet it had no role in the creation of the K-3 Core Standards. The Joint Statement opposing the standards was signed by three past presidents of the NAEYC—David Elkind, Ellen Galinsky, and Lilian Katz—and by Marcy Guddemi, the executive director of the Gesell Institute of Human Development; Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld of Harvard Medical School; Dorothy and Jerome Singer of the Yale University Child Study Center; Dr. Marilyn Benoit, past president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; Professor Howard Gardner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education; and many others.

We know that the instigators of the standards at the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers were aware of the Joint Statement well before their summary of public feedback was written. Copies of it were hand-delivered to eleven officials at those two organizations, including Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the CCSSO, and Dane Linn, director of the Education Division of the NGA, who were primarily responsible for the creation of the standards.

We called Mr. Wilhoit and Mr. Linn (who is now vice president of the Business Roundtable), along with several other people involved in the process, to ask them to comment for this article on the way the public feedback summary and the K-3 standards themselves were written. None of them returned our calls.

Why were early childhood professionals excluded from the Common Core Standards project? Why were the grave doubts of our most knowledgeable education and health experts missing from the official record of this undertaking? Would including them have forced the people driving this juggernaut to face serious criticism and questions about the legitimacy of the entire project?

The Common Core Standards are now the law in 46 states. But it’s not too late to unearth the facts about how and why they were created, and to raise an alarm about the threat they represent.

The stakes are enormous. Dr. Carla Horwitz of the Yale Child Study Center notes that many of our most experienced and gifted teachers of young children are giving up in despair. “They are leaving the profession,” says Horwitz, “because they can no longer do what they know will ensure learning and growth in the broadest, deepest way. The Core Standards will cause suffering, not learning, for many, many young children.”

Our first task as a society is to protect our children. The imposition of these standards endangers them. To learn more about how early childhood educators are working to defend young children, see Defending the Early Years.


Carol- I am so appreciative of your fearless efforts to stand up to poor policies being pushed by the corporate Ed deformers. You are an inspiration. This is an honest and outstanding article.  
I would like to weigh in on the standards themselves. I think that they are, in fact, a problem. The creators, who are NOT educators, of the standards started at the top and worked backwards. Consequently, many of the standards are developmentally inappropriate and the impact on our youngest learns is of great concern. This year i have been mandated to test my kindergarteners 3 times a year. Since this testing is one-on-one, my students miss weeks of instruction. In all, 20% of the school year is now lost to testing. The testing does not inform my teaching, and these tests, not developed by teachers, are ridiculously poor. 
Nancy Carlsson Paige and Edward Miller recently addressed developmental issues with the CCSS in The Washington Post.  
I offer this as food for thought.
3/4/2013 8:32 PM EST
Again, sounds like a poor implementation of the standards (administrative, nationally, or otherwise) rather than the standards themselves. The CCSS don't mandate testing 3 times a year. It is unfortunate that some believe they do.
3/4/2013 9:03 PM EST
CCSS in and of themselves don't mandate the overtesting. But try to tell Arne and Bill and Michael Bloomberg and the Koch brothers (none of them actual EDUCATORS!) that we can unify a curriculum without the data. 
I don't agree with everything on the CCSS, but you have a about the implementation. BUT - RttT mandates that CCSS and testing go hand in hand.
3/4/2013 9:04 PM EST
That would be "have a point" about....
3/5/2013 11:43 AM EST
Additionally, because the standards were created by starting at the end of school and working backwards without regard to what children are best able to learn at what stages of development, generally speaking, there are indeed developmentally-inappropriate academic expectations particularly in the younger grades. That is NOT an issue of implementation, but of the actual curriculum.
3/5/2013 12:56 PM EST
Goalie2: it IS the standards themselves. At the lower end, they are idiotic--inappropriate, expecting students to perform at levels that are completely out of their reach. Please don't talk about raising the bar high enough. We wouldn't expect a six-year-old to bowl a perfect game using a 30 pound ball; we wouldn't expect a six-year-old to bat 300; we wouldn't expect a 6-yr-old to run a marathon. These expectations would be completely developmentally inappropriate--they'd be idiotic. Education experts who understand children's development have identified many standards in CCSS as inappropriate for children's development, and in fact as hurting kids. Why is that so hard to accept? 
3/5/2013 1:29 PM EST
I'm not an expert on early childhood, and I would never claim to be. I appreciate the discussion. I'm curious, what are some of the standards that are developmentally inappropriate?
3/5/2013 1:59 PM EST
Goalieo2: An article I wrote entitled, " Warning: the Common Core May Be Harmful to Children" appears in the March issue of the Phi Delta Kappan. In it I give examples of standards that are inappropriate for K-5 students or just irrelevant for any student. If you don't subscribe to the Kappan, get a copy from your local public library. 
Joanne Yatvin 
Disclaimer: I received no monetary or professional benefit for this article.
3/5/2013 2:35 PM EST
3/5/2013 9:27 PM EST
Thank you Tracey. As a high school principal, I am more familiar with secondary expectations and standards. I appreciate your insights.
2/27/2013 9:53 PM EST
@Goalie: You said, "And it is also untrue that early childhood (K-5) teachers weren't included in the formation of the standards. You can look up the authors and their credentials for yourself. " 
K-5 is not Early Childhood. Early Childhood encompasses birth-8YO. "Elementary" =/= "Early Childhood." Perhaps you missed this article from just last month here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/w... 
You also said, "I'm confused why you think the CCS don't aid in laying a foundation for students to succeed in reading, writing and math in the later grades." Here's is what children are NOT hard-wired for in their first 7-8 years ("Early Childhood," in other words): sitting for long periods of time, learning to read/decode words (many nations who kick our tails wait till 7YO for this!), pre-algebra, reading on a 1st or 2nd-grade level in K. What they ARE hard-wired for is running, walking, skipping, climbing, playing in sensory and tactile ways (sand/rocks/water/textures), painting, drawing, sculpting, games (both sitting-down games and running full tilt games), singing, playing instruments, making noise, getting messy, eating/drinking more or less at will (within reason), exploring ALL their senses in ALL their worlds on their own and/or with as little guidance as possible. A rich environment with lots of opportunity to do all these will give kids not only an intuitive understanding of their world on which to build the new stuff, but also opportunities to learn to regulate their bodies, to practice and refine social skills - all things many elementary-schoolers desperately lack in the quest for an ACADEMIC foundation, to the detriment of the rest of their persons.  
We make it harder than we need to, and the little ones are suffering. Come see what comes into my classroom, see how little self-regulation they have, how immature they are even for 6YO's, and THEN tell me I'm wrong.
Those who wrote the CCSS did not consult with the various expert practitioners that any normal person would have been in contact with for such an endeavor. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/w...
2/14/2013 11:26 PM EST
Those who wrote the CCSS did not consult with the various expert practitioners that any normal person would have been in contact with for such an endeavor. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/w...
In order to implement the CCSS in the best possible way, the CCSS rollout itself must be slowed down. While I think that a core set of standards is long overdue, the current state of the CCSS leaves a tremendous amount to be desired. It would have been a good, common sense idea to include actual educators in the process rather than silencing them by giving lip service to a pre-selected few. The result is we are faced with a set of standards based largely in ideology, Why else would experts on early childhood education , child psychology, pediatricians, essentially the whole of the community of expertise on the subject have been ignored? http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/w... Similar failures were seen in other subject areas. http://wheresthemath.com/math-standards/common-cor... http://wheresthemath.com/math-standards/common-cor... The reason? The rush to get the product to market and the view that the predictable collateral damage from fixing it later was an acceptable price to pay, the cost of doing business. Sounds just great for our kids futures.
Excellent expose! Read about my findings when I inquired in 2010 if there were any child development experts involved with drafting the standards! http://www.buildbetterschools.com/?p=1605
At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, the list of people who were NOT included on the development of the early childhood core standards is dumbfounding, even horrifying; particularly given that there was not one teacher or early childhood specialist out of 135 people. Just what gives?!? WHO made the decisions to choose the people that DID write the guidelines?
1/30/2013 2:53 AM EST
Read Charlotte Thomson Iserbyt's book The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America. http://www.deliberatedumbingdown.com/
First of all, I have been teaching with these standards for nearly two years in a first grade environment and young children are able to learn much more than we give them credit for. Second, there is little skill and drill and what we do is to give students adequate practice in foundational skills. The CCSS part of their day is explaining their thinking, understanding the process of numbers and operations, and having opportunities to solve problems. Thirdly, I know just from the statistical information from my 12 years of teaching kindergarten and first, that students come in with less basic knowledge every year since the first year I taught primary. Somehow we have to make up for what families haven't given their children. Lowering the bar or keeping the bar low doesn't make up for that. I don't miss the old standards at all, where lower level thinking and skills filled the day with mind numbing activities. I am tired of people saying we shouldn't do this and their reasons don't address the fact that as a nation we are falling far below other nations. I teach to the highest child in my room and I challenge everyone else to reach that bar. The reality is that they all don't, but trust me, they achieve far more than when the bar is set low. I have teachers from other schools visiting my room just to see what my "ordinary students" have achieved. Common Core has raised the bar for me and for the students. Theorize all you want, but start asking teachers who are actually implementing these standards. Include us in the conversation for a change. 
1/29/2013 7:56 PM EST
I don't disagree that many students are capable of more than we give them credit for. In many ways, we both over- and under-estimate especially the very young. I had one child who was reading fluently by 2 months and another who'd taught herself to read simple CVC words by 3YO and is super-quick at math, so I'm with you there. 
That said, in my neighborhood school are children in kindergarten who simply are not able to handle even their emotions or their bodies, let alone 5 hours a day with pencils. In some cases the only meals they get are school food - and when "breakfast" is a Danish and it's STILL better than a meal they'll get at home, that says something. They *may* be raised by one of their parents - or a grandparent (who may or may not be in a position to do so) - who may or may not speak English, who may or may not have an income that allows for more than the monthly rent (forget heat or food or being raised in an interactive environment). These kids DESPERATELY NEED to become acquainted with their bodies - their projects aren't as safe as many neighborhoods - and their souls. They need to learn social skills that don't involve yelling or hitting, because that's all they've known for 5 years. 
For these kids, the act of sitting in a seat for more than 2 minute, or of sitting in a group on a carpet for more than 20 seconds without purposely "interacting with" (aka "kicking" or worse!) the nearest student to them is impossible - forget HOLDING a pencil, let alone writing with it without 1-on-1 adult assistance. What then happens to the other 25 kids in the class, at least 3 of whom are in the same boat?  
And yes, they absolutely CAN LEARN, but I maintain that it is STILL not appropriate in ANY way for most of them to spend so much time sitting and so little in unstructured time. 
Here is my dream school, complete with my thoughts on early childhood, FWIW: http://crunchyprogressiveparenting.blogspot.com/20...
1/30/2013 7:27 AM EST
Oh, good grief - my older kid was reading fluently by 26 months, not 2! LOL
1/30/2013 8:38 AM EST
You are right CrunchyMama and that is where differentiation comes in. I am all in favor of movement in the early years, but that doesn't mean common core isn't appropriate. In fact, programs like Arts Integration and Common Core align very well together and the students have the benefit of expressing themselves through movement, art and drama. Collaboration doesn't have to be at a desk. They can move around the room to each other. I have many common core aligned projects that require them to be out of a chair.
1/30/2013 9:59 AM EST
But a large part of how young children are hard-wired to learn the first 5-7 years has more to do with unstructured play, with social interaction (guided, perhaps, but more spontaneous), with free experimentation, and with large movement. There's moving from chair to carpet to chair to other desks and there's running full-tilt on the playground and climbing the structures and swinging from them. There should be precious little structured pencil use in or before Kindergarten, but since kids have to learn the entire alphabet and how to write 52 letters (upper- and lower-case) and numbers, there's nothing for it but tracing and writing and more tracing and more writing, often for 5 hours a day; pencil use should still be experimental and creative then, and that grip should also have the chance to be used with crayon, paintbrushes, the works! Differentiation is all well and good, but when the parts of children that they SHOULD be growing aren't being allowed to, it's to their overall detriment, Common Core be damned.
1/30/2013 11:42 PM EST
I don't doubt that many children can learn these things, but should they? 
I gave feedback on the draft standards, and many of the early childhood literacy standards directly reflect the same approach to teaching reading that we wasted $6 billion on in Reading First. Many of the things in the standards don't need to be learned in order to be a good reader, and once science and social studies and health ed standards get added, the overall effect will be to push PK-3 teachers to use more inappropriate methods.  
They simply don't reflect the approach to education that works best in the long run for the goals parents and employers value most.
"Too many schools place a double burden on young children. First, they heighten their stress by demanding that they master material beyond their developmental level. Then they deprive children of their chief means of dealing with that stress—creative play." 
It is not that reform is a problem. Instead, it is the education establishment's approach to reform that is at issue. My two-cents at; http://www.examiner.com/article/missing-the-educat... 
Those people didn't respond to our critiques or direct emails either. We detect a pattern. 
Meanwhile, some kindergarten teachers feel compelled to carry out Common Core's questionable directives. We know that because our blog reports search terms that direct traffic to our site, and a fairly common search is ``kindergarten worksheets'', even though we write about worksheets in the pernicious sense. 
1/29/2013 8:01 PM EST
If by "feel compelled to carry out Common Core's questionable directives" you mean "want to keep their jobs, then yes, I guess they do. 
I worry when I see a couple of the kindergarten teachers I see around MCPS (I get around as a teacher and a sub, so I will not be specific as to which school or even which area). I see teachers who are doing OK and some who are overwhelmed. When I read posts from other teachers - of special ed/autistic/Downs Syndrome children, for example - who are expected to drag these kids through standardized testing whether or not these children can even toilet themselves, I see a similar sort of hopelessness in their faces and demeanors, and I know it won't be long before we lose people who would otherwise be fantastic teachers of the youngest and most vulnerable among our students. 
Do they *want* to do these damned worksheets? I'm pretty sure that the vast majority of them do NOT. It's not "compelled," it's "required." For all I know, it's the worksheets or the pink slip so someone ELSE can give the [expletive] worksheets. >
President Obama promised to be the "data President" regarding education, but instead his administration has ignored the body of knowledge about how children learn. Why?
1/29/2013 4:32 PM EST
Follow the money.
Maybe these governors should have appointed committees to offer core standards to parents rather than educators. The children who come to school ready to learn are the ones that benefit from such standards in the first place. Those who aren't, fail no matter what the teachers do and no one is addressing that.. Let's stop putting the whole burden of our failing students on teachers and take some responsibility for those failure ourselves. Good luck with that.
1/29/2013 2:02 PM EST
You're right, rc53, that we should stop blaming teachers for all the failures of the system, and that parents could use guidelines for helping their children at home. But I disagree with your statement that standards benefit the children who come to school "ready to learn." In fact, every child is ready to learn. Young children do nothing but learn. What are they learning, though? The Core Standards require schools to teach many children that they are stupid.
1/29/2013 6:54 PM EST
Anyone read Alfie Kohn's article regarding the term "Ready to Learn"? Interesting read.
1/29/2013 8:01 PM EST
Alfie has a WAY better handle on how kids learn and process than Arne Duncan.
I like the Common Core requirements for literacy and language arts for older students and have no problem with incorporating some of the reading into coursework other than language arts.  
The kindergarten and first grade requirements fail to recognize the broad range of development among children. More boys are going to look like failures because a lot of boys don't sit still very well in the early years to learn although this is true of some girls also. Lots of kids also aren't ready to read in kindergarten and first grade.  
1/29/2013 8:03 PM EST
I may not agree with you all the time, but you especially hit the nail on the head here: "The kindergarten and first grade requirements fail to recognize the broad range of development among children. More boys are going to look like failures because a lot of boys don't sit still very well in the early years to learn although this is true of some girls also. Lots of kids also aren't ready to read in kindergarten and first grade."
2/4/2013 4:34 PM EST
So why then does the teacher spend the majority of the day teaching to the whole class?
The accountants are making the rules. It's as if we're subject to IRS audits every day.
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