This week I had an epiphany.
After working with college teacher education students and visiting many prekindergartens and kindergartens in New Jersey public schools, I began to realize why so many of these classrooms seem to be missing what used to be the hallmarks of good practice for these grade levels – a tug of war between accountability, student assessment, and what the state of New Jersey recognizes as good early childhood educational practices including the recognition that young children do not develop at the same rate across all developmental domains.
I have observed that many early childhood learning centers and schools that include our youngest learners are led by principals and supervisors who are unfamiliar with early childhood development and developmentally appropriate teaching practices for children of these ages or who have forgotten about what these environments should look like as well as what appropriate early childhood teaching strategies are. For the most part, there are no specialized programs to prepare principals for managing and leading schools that have children in prekindergarten through third grade. First broadly circulated through online reports on the New America Foundation website, a major report about principal preparation for schools with early childhood programs was released by the NAESP – National Association of Elementary School Principals- (https://www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/leading-pre-k-3-learning-communities-executive-summary.pdf).
So, given my experience with early childhood teaching and environments as well as teacher education, I wondered why teachers and principals are not familiar with New Jersey’s implementation guidelines for prekindergarten and kindergarten, which can be found on the New Jersey Department of Education site (http://www.state.nj.us/education/ece/guide/) as well as why there is no insistence that the written standards and implementation guides are followed.
What I realized and most people have said repeatedly is that kindergarten is the new first grade and prekindergarten is the new kindergarten. The interesting point is that although everyone seems to realize this, no one has really effectively challenged it. Why? What keeps us from doing the right thing for our youngest learners? What is this doing to the education of young children and their feelings of self-efficacy? What happens when children are being taught in ways that are developmentally inappropriate and ignore the variability in children’s development at these ages? Are children deciding that they are not smart and cannot learn at the ripe old age of 5?
We need to go back, take a deep breath, and sit down and read what the NJDOE as well as national education associations, such as NAEYC, have put on their websites pertaining to how young children should be taught and how their environments should be structured to reach the standards that the State has set. We need to have discussions about the conflict between good early childhood practice and the pressure of test scores and teacher evaluation that seem to be pushing early childhood teachers and principals to set up young children for frustration and feelings of failure during their first two years of formal public school education. Let’s rethink our push for big data assessment at the expense of what is actually happening in each classroom. Let’s make sure that everyone who works with young children has enough preparation in early childhood education before they are placed in classrooms with our youngest children.