Kindergarten Testing and Education Reform

Washington Post education blogger Valerie Strauss (who has written about Montessori, as noted on TMO) has picked up an oregonlive.com op-ed about kindergarten testing in Oregon. Oregon five year-olds were able to name 19 letters out of 100 in a one-minute test.  Strauss is appropriately appalled about intensive timed testing of young children, and she goes on to detail the increasing focus on academic content and testing in early childhood education.  (Comments are still open on her blog.)

But from the Montessori perspective, it’s also appalling, or at least disappointing, that preschoolers are arriving in kindergarten without the ability to recognize letter sounds.  Because we know literacy in young children is developmentally normal and can emerge spontaneously in the appropriate environment without traditional adult-directed instruction and intrusive assessment.  It happens every day in Montessori Children’s House classrooms all over the world.

Strauss goes on to describe an ideal education model:

Research shows that children learn best when they have hands-on learning experiences, engage in structured play, experience facts within meaningful contexts, invent their own problems to explore and solve, and share their own solutions. The current emphasis on standards and testing has led many schools to over-focus on assessment at the expense of meeting children’s developmental needs and teaching meaningful content. Play and activity-based learning have been disappearing from many early childhood classrooms, and – along with them – children’s natural motivation and love of learning.

Emphasis added.

Finally, Strauss wraps up with a list of early childhood education practices to address the absence of this model.  Here’s her list, annotated with observations from our world:

Program practices:

1. Promote programs that are based on current research on how young children learn best.

Montessori: Not “based on”, but in line with.

2. Promote meaningful, hands-on learning experiences in classrooms for young children.

3. Work to ensure that teachers provide well-thought out educational experiences that demonstrate knowledge and respect for each child.

Montessori: check, and check.

4. Work to ensure that children have literacy experiences that include storytelling, quality children’s literature, and acting out stories rather than activities that isolate and drill discrete skills.

True Stories.  Literature. Reading Analysis.  Check.

5. Help teachers skillfully build curriculum from what children can do and understand instead of direct teaching skills that are disconnected from children’s understanding.

Essentially describes the first principles of Montessori pedagogy.

8. Work to ensure that teachers who have specialized training in early childhood education are placed in classrooms for young children.

Emphasis added.

Assessment practices:

1. Encourage policies that protect children from undue pressure and stress and from judgments that will have a negative impact on their lives in the present and in the future.

Respect children and their natural development.  Check.

2. Promote the use of assessments that are based on observations of children, their development and learning.

Emphasis added.

3. Work to ensure that classroom assessments are used for the purpose of improving instruction.

4. Support efforts to eliminate testing of young children that is not intended to improve classroom practice.

5. Eliminate labeling and ranking of children based on standardized tests.

Not a lot of classroom assessment, testing, and ranking in (mixed-age) Montessori environments.

What family members can do at home

1. Provide young children with space and time to play at home and in the neighborhood.

2. Read good quality children’s books and limit screen time.

3. Resist reinforcing the school’s agenda – drilling for skills – and replace it with opportunities for meaningful learning

Key features of parent education at many Montessori schools.

Strauss is appropriately worked up about the way reform is pushing content and testing that’s not appropriate.  But we in Montessori have a time-tested approach that brings together almost all of these elements and introduces the academic content without force-feeding or intrusive testing.  There is a national push on for “high-quality” early childhood education, and we have something really valuable to add to the conversation.

More in the next day or two on how we can do that.

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