Tag Archives: College

Word Gap, Play Gap

A recent report, Little to Gain and Much to Lose, calls for a moratorium on kindergarten Common Core reading standards. The report argues that the “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. We are struggling to balance the developmental needs of children to play and explore with the academic demands that are heaped on us not only by Common Core but also by the imperative to improve college and life outcomes that were the impetus of Common Core’s development. Every year we at Harlem Link want children spend more time with blocks, developing spatial awareness, nimble brain functioning and problem solving skills. At the same time, we feel pressure 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 esteemed authors of the report and other critics point out a dilemma we will never resolve 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 three children from lower-income families typically hear 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, “If you aren’t ready to read in kindergarten, you better catch up fast because by the time you should be going to college, the odds are you’ll be looking for a minimum-wage job instead because you won’t be qualified for higher education.”

So implicit in the report, for me, are two real questions, neither of which is answered by the report:

  1. What do we educators and policymakers do about the massive word gap that lower income children face even before they enter kindergarten?
  2. 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 and break the cycle of poverty.

The answer is about parent education and parent resources. Our school has many families who prove that a low-income doesn’t have to mean a literacy-poor home (although some parents need extra support and creativity; 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 literacy-supporting parent-child interactions.

It’s time that elementary schools saw contributing to the solution for Question #1 is 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, and a developmentally appropriate one: a block party!

This post also appeared on Chalkbeat NY.

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The True Measure of a School

Where are the kids 10 years later?

Do you even know?

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College Cheers and College Boos

At our biweekly whole school assembly yesterday, I introduced college cheers to our 300 scholars.  For the first time this year, pushing the message about the importance of college more prominently, we have asked teachers to name their classrooms after one of their alma maters.  I took the time yesterday to explain why we have these college names adorning our rooms.

The high point of the assembly came for me when I got them all pumped up and screaming my alma mater’s cheer, “Hoya Saxa!” and then told them that not everyone gets to go to college.

I didn’t expect it, but kids across all the grades from kindergarten to fifth were visibly upset.  Some of them actually started booing, and it grew to a crescendo.  We are talking about an assembly that is normally calm, composed and silent when someone is talking.  And they were booing like it was really a pep rally and the other school’s sports team showed up!

Of course the room was drop dead silent again when I told them what they had to do, and what they were up against, to get to college.  Work hard, listen to your parents and teachers, do your best in school, and get to school on time, every day.  (We later handed out our 100 Perfect Attendance certificates for September to the scholars who were on time every day in the first month of the year.) 

And when I told them that I expected every single one of them to go to college, the tone changed once again.  A groundswell of clapping, and soon thunderous applause from all the adults and kids, and a spontaneous cheer the likes of which I hadn’t heard since our graduation at the end of June. 

The experience made me realize: kids need to know.  They need to know the dropout statistics, the college statistics, the challenge of getting into the college of your choice.  Georgetown accepted less than 20% of its applicants again last year.  And something like 1 in every 7 African-American or Hispanic student drops out before even finishing high school, a figure that is probably severely under-reported.

They need to know that we are counting on them to make the choices that will prepare themselves for college.  It’s one reason why we have Responsibility as one of our six core values, and I’m sure it’s why the Success Charter Network has Agency as one of its core values. 

Many of my little scholars were genuinely surprised to hear that not everyone goes to college.  It can be hard for them to connect the reality they know on the outside of school with the safe bubble we have created within school.  If we don’t make sure kids know about the urgency of this problem, how can we expect them to act on it?

If we are to turn all those boos into cheers, then it’s time to put public embarrassment about our collective failure to provide equitable instructional access to all students behind us–and to tell the truth.

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