Developmentally Appropriate Practice and the Florida Standards

Thanks to Wendy Bradshaw, Lakeland Educator, for providing this research.

The Florida Standards are a minimally altered version of the Common Core Standards, and as such are subject to the same criticisms regarding developmentally appropriate practice. This is a compilation of some of the most compelling evidence indicating a need to re-envision educational standards, models, and practices in the early grades. Expectations of young children have changed dramatically over the past twenty years, but children’s neurological development has not. In short, ratcheting up the difficulty of standards cannot and does not speed up children’s biological maturation (Ganem, 2015; Gueddemi et al., 2012; Pappano, 2010; Walton, 2014).

Developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) is a strongly supported early childhood education framework grounded in the scientific literature on child development and effective educational practices, and incorporates both theory and research (NAEYC, 2009). DAP recognizes the interrelated contexts of early learning skill domains and emphasizes the variability both in early learning opportunities (prior to school) and developmental maturation rates up until age 8. The DAP framework calls for school environments which are able to adjust to this variability between children and provides an educational foundation through active learning experiences tailored to the rapidly changing abilities and needs of young children (NAEYC, 2009). Unfortunately, this framework is often at odds with the tightly scheduled and pedantic approach taken by most districts to implement the standards. The focus is on teacher-transmitted information instead of experiential and student-constructed learning shown to lead to both creative and critical thinking (Kuhn,2005; Miller & Almon, 2009). Furthermore, research consistently indicates that there is no long term benefit to using formal or scripted academic approaches with young children, and these actually may result in both short and long term negative consequences (Almon & Miller, 2011; Gueddemi et al., 2012).

Results of Experiential vs Didactic Early Instruction

Early childhood classrooms which focus solely on academics largely exclude opportunities for students to develop and teachers to shape social and emotional skills which may be associated with increases in behavioral concerns and mental health problems (DeVries, Reese-Learned, & Morgan, 1991). Students who attended didactic and teacher centered kindergarten were rated by subsequent teachers as less willing to follow directions, more distractible, and less prosocial than those in classrooms utilizing child-initiated learning (Hart, Charlesworth, Burts, & DeWolf, 1993). Two more recent studies found that explicit, direct instruction in tasks resulted in children being less likely to demonstrate creativity and exploration (Bonawitz, Shafto, Gweon, Goodman, Spelke, & Shultz, 2011; Buchsbaum, Gopnik, Griffiths, & Shafto, 2011). This is concerning, given that creativity, a trait highly sought after in the business sector (IBM, 2010) has been on the decline in the United States since the 1990’s (Kim, 2011). Findings in favor of experiential early childhood classrooms have been borne out repeatedly over time and across countries. For example, In the 1970’s, Germany considered switching from a play-based experiential kindergarten model to a more didactic and academically rigid model. Students from 100 kindergarten classrooms, 50 of each type, were followed through 4th grade. Findings indicated that by age 10, students from the experiential kindergartens overwhelmingly outperformed those from the academically rigid classrooms in reading and mathematics. They also were rated as more socially competent, creative, orally expressive, and industrious (Darling-Hammond & Snyder, 1992). As a direct result, Germany resumed their focus on play-based kindergartens.  There are also long-term implications for minimizing and eliminating experiential learning and prosocial development in favor of rigid academic models. Jones and colleagues (2015) completed a 20 year longitudinal study which found that kindergarteners’ social skills “were significantly and uniquely predictive” of whether they graduated from high school on time, completed college, obtained stable employment as young adults, and were employed full time as young adults. Conversely, those who lacked social competence in kindergarten had more negative outcomes by age 25, such as a higher likelihood of being arrested for a serious offense and having substance abuse behavior.

Reading and Florida Standards

Formal reading instruction is now being directly taught in kindergarten according to the Florida Standards. Schools must have at least 90 minutes of English/Language arts instruction in an uninterrupted block each day, while the lowest performing schools have an additional 60 minutes added to that block. However, the scientific research base does not support the idea that earlier direct instruction in reading is better, and in fact, some studies indicate that it may be harmful. Suggate and colleagues (2013) found that by age 11, children who attended experiential and language-rich early programs but did not receive direct reading instruction until age 6-7 years (i.e. first grade) performed as well or slightly better than students who received early direct instruction in reading (beginning at ages 4-5 years).  A comparison of PISA scores across 55 countries found no association between reading scores and early reading instruction (Suggate, 2009), suggesting that there is little to no benefit in the didactic models we have adopted which minimizes the time available for language-rich and student-directed experiences.

Concerns have been raised by the none other than authors of the ELA standards themselves. In an interview with Dr. Mark Bertin (2014) Dr. Moats, one author of the Common Core foundational reading standards stated “Realistically, at least half, if not the majority, of students are not going to meet those standards as written.” She continued to explain, “The standards treat the foundational language, reading and writing skills as if they should take minimal time to teach and as if they are relatively easy to teach and to learn. They are not. The standards call for raising the difficulty of text, but many students cannot read at or above grade level, and therefore may not receive enough practice at levels that will build their fluency gradually over time.” For example, the Florida standards expect kindergarten students to be early readers as opposed to emergent readers, which is too developmentally advanced for many children and severely limits the time dedicated to students learning and practicing skills critical to later reading comprehension such as oral language skills, building background knowledge, and developing a rich vocabulary (Carlsson-Paige, McLauglin, & Almon, 2015; Bank Street College of Education, n.d.; Cunningham & Allington, 2011).

The Florida writing standards are also problematic in that they are interpreted by many districts to mean children should exit kindergarten writing paragraphs on a topic, in direct opposition to findings that “Educators who attempt to teach writing letters before the age of 5.5 (when most children can perceive and execute oblique lines of letters) are doing their young students a disservice, which may possibly result in a child internalizing failed attempts at writing before his or her developmental capacity for the task exists (Gueddemi et al., 2012, p. 16).” Dr. Moats (2014) spoke to the inappropriateness of the current standards, saying “We need a foundational writing skills section in the CCSS, with a much more detailed progression. We should not be requiring third graders to compose on the computer”

In response to the standards, many districts have turned to scripted curriculum programs and enforce strict adherence. Unfortunately, most studies of scripted curriculum programs have found them to be either no more successful or less successful than unscripted approaches at improving student reading achievement (Miller and Almon, 2009, p. 44). These scripted curriculum programs also prevent teachers from choosing from a variety of high interest texts at different reading levels which leads to higher reading achievement (Pondiscio and Mahnken, 2014).

Mathematics and Florida Standards

There are multiple critiques of the math standards based on their lack of attention to child development norms (Kamii, 2015; Guddemi, 2012). Constance Kamii, a researcher and expert in early learning of mathematics, has expressed grave concerns with the CC mathematics standards and wrote a brief paper dissecting several of these standards and explaining why they are not developmentally appropriate as written. In short, young children must develop logico-mathematical understandings through repeated direct interaction with materials. While educators can provide opportunities and materials for students to encourage these understandings, they are not able to be directly taught before children have reached a certain level of cognitive ability. The challenge with many of the math standards in grades K-3 is that they require a higher level of cognitive ability than students have reached in their development. For example, first graders are expected to “Determine the unknown whole number in an addition or subtraction equation relating to three whole numbers. For example, determine the unknown number that makes the equation true in each of the equations 8 + ? = 11, 5 = __ – 3, 6 + 6 = __.” However, Kamii states that the thought of 6/7 year old children is not yet reversible, so only the last of those equations is appropriate for first graders. Furthermore, through her research, she has shown that children who cannot solve missing-addend problems at the end of first grade are able to solve them by the end of second grade without any instruction (Kamii, Lewis, & Booker, 1998). The Florida standards ask kindergarteners to represent up to 20 items, add and subtract within 10, and and compose/decompose numbers from 11-19. Researchers at the Gesell Institute of Child Development report that children must be able to conserve sets of 13-20 items before they will be successful at simple calculations beyond mere memorization. However, that ability often does not emerge until students are nearing 6 years of age, near the end of most children’s kindergarten year (Guddemi, 2012). According to Geary and colleagues (2013) children who enter school behind peers in the use of “counting procedures tend to catch up to with other children within one or two years.” While kindergarten students can be heavily guided, prompted, and drilled to achieve a surface understanding of some of these skills (National Research Council, 2015), it involves much extra time that could be spent focusing on the other domains of child development which are now being ignored. Why are we spending valuable instructional and remediation time forcing skills which will come naturally to most children a year later with no overall net loss of time but much saved frustration?

Standardized Assessments

Standardized assessments have become common measures in the early grades (K-2) despite strong concerns from professional groups, such as the National Association of School Psychologists (2005) who state that “evidence from research and practice in early childhood assessment indicates that issues of technical adequacy are more difficult to address with young children who have little test-taking experience, short attention spans, and whose development is rapid and variable.” Following the passage of No Child Left Behind, the National Research Council (1999, p. 279) cautioned against using standardized tests with young children because “problems of test validity are greatest among young children, and there is a greater risk of error when such tests are employed to make significant educational decisions about children who are less than 8 years old or below grade 3—or about their schools.” Despite these and other cautions, standardized tests are regularly used in Florida to assess K-2 students and make decisions about student promotion and retention as well as teacher evaluation. Furthermore, computer-based assessments are now required of children in the early grades, despite a lack of research determining the reliability and validity of these computer based measures compared to traditional measures (Barnes, 2010). Since many students have little to no access to computers or training in computer skills in these grades and are still developing fine motor skills, it stands to reason that students are likely not demonstrating their true academic abilities because of this lack of computer proficiency (Barnes, 2010; Thurlow, Lazarus, Albus, & Hodgson, 2010).

Closing the Achievement Gap

The achievement gap between high and low income families continues to grow (Reardon, 2011). While most studies of children from high-poverty backgrounds focus on preschool, there are still lessons to be taken, as preschool and kindergarten attendance are still voluntary in Florida and many low income students enter school without having attended a high quality prekindergarten program. Furthermore, preschool programs are increasingly emphasizing direct teaching and assessment of academic skills, to the exclusion of play (Marcon, 2002). The most famous study, the Perry Preschool Project has followed a cohort of low income children from preschool throughout their lives, with the most recent findings released on their life outcomes at age 40. Participants who were in experiential and play-based preschool classrooms have higher rates of college completion, employment, and home ownership, are more financially stable, and have fewer instances of arrest and incarceration than participants in didactic preschools or with no preschool experience (Schweinhart et al., 2005). More recently, in the U.S., Macron (2002) conducted a longitudinal study of 343 students — 96% African American with 75% of the children qualifying for subsidized school lunch. She found that students in academically oriented programs performed the same at the end of grade 3 as those in programs emphasizing experiential learning and play. However, after six years of school, students who had been in the groups that were “more academically directed earned significantly lower grades compared to children who had attended child-initiated preschool classes. Children’s later school success appears to have been enhanced by more active, child-initiated early learning experiences.” Sektnan and colleagues (2010) examined data on 1,298 children for relationships between early family risk, behavioral regulation of children at 54 months and kindergarten, and academic achievement in first grade. They found that low family income had a significant negative effect on first grade reading, vocabulary, and math achievement and that children rated higher in behavioral regulation by kindergarten performed better academically in first grade. These results suggest that disadvantaged children may “have less exposure to learning materials that can support achievement, contexts that promote behavioral regulation, and opportunities to practice these skills (Sektnan, McClelland, Acock, & Morrison, 2010).” Creating supported play-based opportunities for students to develop and practice these skills in kindergarten might well contribute to better long term academic achievement for these students.

References

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Key messages distilled here : http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/KeyMessages.pdf

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