Apr 042010

Dear Secretary Duncan,

I am writing to voice my concerns about the deeply misguided route down which you are taking early childhood education in the United States.

I feel this more strongly now than ever having just returned from Belfast, Northern Ireland, where I took Wheelock College students on a service learning program looking at the reconciliation efforts currently underway in schools.

My students, all of whom will be working with children and families when they graduate, were amazed to learn that the new curriculum for Northern Ireland, which aims to promote tolerance and decrease violence, has an increased focus on play in the early grades. The teachers there are eagerly embracing this shift because they see the positive effects of this new curriculum in their classrooms—children are better problem solvers and are more engaged with educational activities and each other.

Children playing in Northern Ireland

Over and over again, my students commented on how self-regulated, engaged, and competent the children they observed were, beginning as young as 3-years-old. This was especially striking when they saw 75 children ages 5-6 happily playing for 30 minutes on an asphalt playground with no equipment or play materials—and not one obvious instance of adult intervention was needed.  In contrast to the one-size-fits-all model so often used in the U.S., they saw classes busy with diverse activities like writing and drawing.  And, as the teacher circled the room to work with individuals, they witnessed how the children helped and shared with each other.  The teachers said they believed that the emphasis on play nurtured these vital life skills, a conclusion which is supported by a growing body of research that focuses on the educational value of play.

Play table in Northern Ireland

Mr. Duncan, my students voiced distress that your proposed Common Core Educational Standards for children as young as kindergarten in the United States is going in the opposite direction from the model they experienced in Northern Ireland. They are worried that these new standards will undermine play and put more focus on testing, which will ironically doom your admirable goal for introducing the standards—reducing the achievement gap between the black and white, rich and poor children.

My students began trying to answer an important question.  Why do the Northern Irish educational policymakers understand young children’s needs so well, while you and your policymakers here in the U.S. refuse to understand and promote young children’s optimal learning and wellbeing?  One key factor at the heart of your current misguided effort seems to be that policymakers in Northern Ireland listen to early childhood educators, the experts in the learning and development of young children, when determining educational policy. You, Mr. Duncan, do not seem to be doing so.  Only one member of the group creating the new U.S. standards has any clearly identified early childhood experience.

Now, more than ever, I believe that U.S. children are doomed to miseducation and worse if you do not heed the voices of those best trained to foster the wellbeing and education of young children—early childhood educators. It is not too late.*  Listening to the advice of leading early childhood educators in the U.S. is your best hope for creating policies that will reverse the disastrous course on which you are currently taking our young children and their teachers.

*Please see the Official Position Statement of the Alliance for Childhood voicing grave concerns about the new standards.  This statement has been signed by leading early childhood educators from around the country.