The changing culture of childhood: a perfect storm.
Educational organizations (Conferences, meetings and seminars)
Educational programs (Forecasts and trends)
Education, Elementary (Forecasts and trends)
Education and state (Evaluation)
Educational technology (Evaluation)
Frost, Joe L.
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Name: Childhood Education Publisher: Association for Childhood Education International Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Family and marriage Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2007 Association for Childhood Education International ISSN: 0009-4056
Date: Summer, 2007 Source Volume: 83 Source Issue: 4
Event Code: 010 Forecasts, trends, outlooks Computer Subject: Technology in education; Market trend/market analysis
Product Code: 9105110 Education Programs NAICS Code: 92311 Administration of Education Programs
Organization: Association for Childhood Education International
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

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Expanded from keynote address, ACEI Annual Conference, San Antonio, Texas, April 12, 2006.

A kind of "perfect storm" is now brewing in the education and development of children in the United States. Those who have not lived or explored the history of education in the United States; have not experienced both poverty and abundance; have lived lives sheltered from the barrios, slums, homeless shelters, and epidemics; or those unfamiliar with the rich legacy of history and child development scholarship on the nature of learning and relevance of culture are repeating the mistakes to be found in the history of U.S. education.

A combination of interrelated elements is currently changing the face of the civilizing traditions of U.S. education and forming a new culture of childhood. These include: 1)the standardization of education; 2) the dissolution of traditional spontaneous play; and 3) the growing specter of poverty in the United States and around the world.

The Standardization of Schooling

The standardization of schooling began as a state effort to improve achievement and reduce drop-outs by implementing the high-stakes testing movement, later known as No Child Left Behind. From the beginning, a fundamental fault of ignoring individual differences in all dimensions of education and child development spelled failure for this program. Well before the advent of the testing mania, educators learned the lessons of such folly from the scholarly research of the child study movement in the early 1900s, which was influenced by such philosophers as Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Hall, and Dewey, and later Piaget and Vygotsky. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, U.S. educators and child development professionals framed their work around conclusions from extensive research at major universities throughout the nation and refined their work through ever-growing research during the second half of the 20th century. I search in vain for the scholarly underpinnings for high-stakes testing.

Historically, scholarship led to emphasis on individuality, creativity, cooperative learning, community involvement, and balancing academics, arts, and outdoor play. Assessment of young children became an ongoing process, involving intensive study of children, testing for diagnostic purposes, individualized assessment, and teacher observation and judgment. A mechanized model of education focuses on one-size-fits-all testing and instruction and was never accepted or recommended by national professional organizations, never supported by research, and never embraced by educators and child development professionals.

In the No Child Left Behind program, high-stakes testing was to be the motor driving the standardization movement. Widely implemented in Texas, this movement was called the "Texas Miracle," because of early reported dramatic improvement in test scores--a promise to be dashed as evidence showed that the "improvements" were confounded by cheating and political deals with publishing companies (CNN, 2005). In 2004, the Dallas Morning News (Austin American-Statesman, 2004) found evidence of cheating in Houston and Dallas, and suspicious scores in dozens of other Texas cities. For example, 4th-graders in one large city elementary school scored in the bottom 2 percent in the state while the 5th-graders in that school ended up with the highest math scores in the state, with more than 90 percent of the students getting perfect or near-perfect scores. No other school ever came close to that performance. The U.S. Department of Education named this school a Blue Ribbon School and the superintendent of the district was named U.S. Secretary of Education.

In September 2005, the Education Policy Studies Laboratory of Arizona State University (Nichols, Glass, & Berliner, 2005) published yet another study concluding that "pressure created by high-stakes testing has had almost no important influence on student academic performance" (p. 4). This study, conducted in 25 states, found a negative effect on minority students and illuminated the performance gap between white and minority students and between students from middle- and upper-income families and those from low-income homes. Such gaps come as no surprise to those who have studied the research on class, race, and educational achievement over the past half-century.

The prominent Latino authors in Angela Valenzuela's book Leaving Children Behind: How "Texas-style" Accountability Fails Latino Youth (2005) reveal the same kind of creeping, hidden discrimination that led to the civil rights struggle in the United States and the recent riots by disenfranchised minority youth in France and other European countries. The state's methods of collecting and reporting high-stakes test scores "hide as much as they reveal. ... When skyrocketing dropout and projected retention rates are factored in, the state's 'miracle' looks more like a mirage" (p. 1). These Latino scholars contend that high-stakes testing is harmful to all children, but especially poor, minority, non-English-speaking children; they state that children have a right to be assessed in a fair, impartial manner, using multiple assessment criteria.

Daily teaching and practicing the test has become the norm. Recess, arts, physical education, and creative inquiry are replaced with pizza parties, pep rallies, mock test practice, and teaching the test. Teachers, administrators, children, and parents face ever-growing pressure from threats of failure, retention, and demotion. As the schools focus ever more on bringing low-performing students up to grade-level standards, the most brilliant, most creative students, already performing well beyond their grade level are left to languish in mediocrity and sameness. "In recent years the percentage of California students scoring in the 'advanced' math range has declined by as much as half between second and fifth grade" (Goodkin, 2005, p. A-15). It makes little difference in this draconian system whether a child merely meets the grade level standard or far exceeds it.

Politicians, not educators, are framing the U.S. education system and radically changing the culture of education, and standardized tests are becoming the curriculum of the schools. As the testing movement spreads across the nation, the Texas miracle is recognized by educators, professional organizations, and a growing number of politicians as bureaucratic bungling.

High-stakes testing is damaging to children and teachers--emotionally, physically, and intellectually. Around the country, children are wetting their pants, crying, acting out, becoming depressed, and taking their parents' pills on the day of testing to help them cope. In 2005, several children doped out and were taken to hospitals on the day of testing. In this same city, a high school that received a "School for Excellence Award" in 2002 was declared "low performing" in 2004 because a small group of children with disabilities did not perform well on a test designed for typical children.

Creative approaches to teaching value the souls and intellects of children and reveal and complement the wonderful creative powers of the best teachers. While teaching to the test may falsely guide the poorest teachers who struggle for direction, the best teachers are bound to a humdrum existence, divorced from teaching to interests, talents, and abilities; bound to endless regimented paperwork, meaningless workshops and repetition; and reduced to stress and mediocrity. Standardized tests tell good teachers what they already know and take an awesome toll on their teaching effectiveness, health, and creative powers.

In many states around the country, kindergartens and preschools are no longer a place for play, singing, and art; no longer a place for lessons on cooperation and sharing, or learning to love compelling literature and telling stories. They are no longer a place of fun and joy. Now, 3- to 5-year-olds, some still wetting their pants, not knowing how to stand in line, sit in a circle, or follow simple instructions, spend much of their time drilling skills and prepping for tests. We teach little kids to walk and talk and play together, then we tell them to sit down, shut up, and take the test. Yet learning by rote--by memory without thought of meaning--has never been a sound educational process.

The Dissolution of Traditional Spontaneous Children's Play

The early 20th century was a period of unparalleled interest in children's play and playgrounds. The U.S. play movement saw the promotion of spontaneous play and playgrounds in schools nationwide. The report of the 1940 White House Conference on Children and Youth (U.S. Superintendent of Documents, 1940, p. 191) stated, "All persons require types of experiences through which the elemental desire for friendship, recognition, adventure, creative expression, and group acceptance may be realized.... Favorable conditions of play ... contribute much toward meeting these basic emotional needs." Play, the report stated, also supplies the growth and development of the child, and promotes motor, manual and artistic skills--all conclusions supported by research and experience throughout the latter half of the 20th century.

Traditional spontaneous play is declining in U.S. neighborhoods and schools, and school recess is declining (Pica, 2003, 2005). The Atlanta school system built schools without playgrounds to demonstrate their devotion to high academic standards (Ohanian, 2002). Across the United States, school districts are abolishing recess or denying recess to children who score poorly on tests (Ohanian, 2002, p. 12). The International Play Association reports that 40 percent of U.S. elementary schools are deleting recess or reducing recess time to prepare for tests. Psychology Today reports that 40,000 schools no longer have play times.

Spontaneous play is also disappearing from the streets of cities throughout the industrialized world. In 1979, Keiki Haginoya began his intended life's work of preparing photo documentaries of children at play on the streets of Tokyo. In 1996, he wrote a sad conclusion to his career. Children's laughter and spontaneous play, which once filled the streets, alleys, and vacant lots of the city, had vanished. His photos show the rapid loss of play space, the separation of children from natural outdoor activities, traditional games, and creative play--indeed, the transformation of children's culture.

Haginoya's photos represent a sociological/psychological history of the cultural transformation--the construction of buildings and fences, the increase in cars, mass-produced toys, video game machines, and school entrance examinations. He mourns the demise of children's play and the end of his work:

If I look back over the past seventeen years, it appears that I have taken the last record of children at play in the city, and that makes me deeply sad.... Children have learned enormous things through play.... The mere thought of growing into a social person without the experience of outdoor play makes me shudder. (Haginoya, 1996, p. 4)

Kid pagers, instant messaging, video games, and chat rooms are replacing free, natural play in the fields and forests, a phenomenon Louv (2005) describes as "nature-deficit disorder." Even summer camps, only recently places for hiking in the woods, learning about plants and animals, and telling firelight stories, are now becoming computer camps, weight loss camps, and places where nature is something to watch, wear, consume, or ignore--places where attendance is linked to comfort and entertainment. If the present trends continue, summer camps may well become places to ditch children for tutoring on testing (Louv, 2005). In response, we have been transforming the playgrounds at our research site of three decades--Redeemer Lutheran School in Austin, Texas--into an integrated outdoor learning environment of playgrounds, natural habitats, and gardens. We see such work growing in acceptance, especially at child care centers where NCLB has only limited impact.

What is it like to bond with the wilderness? Having managed to survive the hazards of a childhood in the hillside farms and wilderness of the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas more than half a century ago, I offer a personal glimpse of a childhood among the creeks and rivers, hills and valleys, and among domesticated and wild animals on the farm and in the wilderness. I never understood why kinfolk visiting from cities would ask, "Don't you get lonely down here?" The word "lonely" was not in my vocabulary or experience, because the days were filled with plowing and digging in the earth, wondering about the arrowheads found there; drinking from cool springs on hot days; swimming in the creeks and rivers at the end of long, sweaty days; riding horses and playing rodeo in the barn lots on weekends; feeding the cows, pigs, and chickens; building tree houses and hideouts in the woods; hunting raccoons at night and squirrels and deer in the daytime; cutting trees and chopping wood; taking pride in baling hay with the grown men; exploring fields and woods while eating watermelon and muscadines; building fires and cooking fish on the river bank; scanning the forest ahead for thorn bushes, snakes, and wild game; lying on the creek bank in the springtime, watching the creative movements of clouds; and all the while reveling in a sense of deep satisfaction and appreciation of the ever-changing natural wilderness.

We gathered along the gravel road before daylight during the winter to ride the back of a pick-up truck to school stopping every half-mile or so to pick up other children who forded the river in boats or walked down out of the hills and valleys. We sat on sacks of mail, for the driver was also our mail carrier. We had five recess periods--before school and after school while waiting for the old truck to make runs over muddy road, and mid-morning, noon, and mid-afternoon. There was a level area in front of the school for organized games, most created by the children themselves, a creek along the back of the school for hunting frogs and building dams, and beyond that a pine-covered hillside. Here, we played war, built forts, and attacked the enemy with dead tree limb projectiles created by hitting the limb across a tree, breaking off the ends, which would fly through the air, creating disarray and, sometimes, a bloody arm or nose. All of this constituted, as it turned out, a rather complete yet formidable playground. Play was truly free, for teachers stayed indoors. We stationed a kid at the edge of the woods to alert the group when the teacher rang the bell and it was time for "books." The ragged army then trooped indoors barefoot, muddy, and winded, but ready to sit down and pay attention. ADHD and obesity were unknown in that school and I never saw an injury that led to long-term consequences. What a difference six decades makes in the work and play of children!

The standardization of U.S. education extends well beyond the classroom curriculum into the playgrounds. Since the inception of national playground safety standards in 1981, constant revision has led to a 55-page standard of growing complexity, internal inconsistency, and estrangement from creativity. The "modern playground" is, in the main, an assemblage of steel and plastic structures, differing little from place to place, and devoid of natural habitats. Litigation replaces common sense and personal responsibility, and competition from testing and technology and careless parenting are producing a generation of obese kids with growing health and behavior problems. Safety standards are needed, but they should be consistent across state and national agencies, simple and clear in their expectations, and addressed to hazards in consumer products that threaten disability and death. Living is fraught with risks--emotional risks, financial risks, physical risks. Risk is essential for physical development. Overweight children with limited physical skills are unsafe on any playground. The issue is not merely how to make playgrounds safe for children, but how to make children safe for playgrounds.

In failing to cultivate the inherent play tendencies of children in the outdoor world, we fail to plant the early seeds of passionate exploration, artistic vision, creative reflection, and good health. Childhood is the time when, and playgrounds and natural habitats are the special places where, the culture, arising from tradition, knowledge, and skills, is readily and rapidly assimilated into the growing brain and psyche.

The Impact of Poverty on the Culture of Childhood

Poverty has powerful associations with school performance and exerts severe limits on what high-stakes testing can accomplish. Thousands of studies show positive correlations between poverty and achievement for children of all ethnic groups (Berliner, 2005). We don't need No Child Left Behind to tell us where failing schools are located--we have known for over a half century. The childhood poverty rate in the United States is greater than that of 25 wealthy countries, and poverty in the United States is clustered among minorities (UNICEF, 2005). As a group, African American and Hispanic American 15-year-olds rank 26th among 27 developed countries in reading, mathematics, and science literacy (Lemke et al., 2001).

More than half of all children born during this decade in developing countries will live their childhoods in urban slums. A quarter of those living in the United States will start their lives in urban slums (Nabhan & Trimble, 1996). Such children will have precious little opportunity to smell the flowers, sift clean dirt between their fingers, build a private hut in the wilds, walk in the morning dew, hear the quiet sounds of small animals at dusk, or see the heavens and the Milky Way in their full glory. Such seemingly insignificant experiences are the stuff that bond children to the natural world, introduce them to beauty and belonging, and surround them with opportunities to sharpen their growing minds with emerging concepts of geology, botany, physics, mathematics, and language.

For two decades, Annette Lareau (2003) and her team of researchers studied the differences in child rearing in upper middle-class versus working-class homes. The parenting styles and the results are dramatic, not good versus bad, but radically different in ways that prepare children to be successful in school. Upper middle-class families are more deeply involved in all aspects of their children's lives--providing a wide range of learning experiences, engaging in a lot of talk, reasoning with them, scheduling activities and getting them there, fighting over homework. In working-class homes, play is seen as inconsequential--a child's activity, not for adults. There was less talk, orders were brusque but whining was less. Parents offered fewer explanations and children, like their parents, were more likely to be intimidated by teachers and others in positions of authority. Working-class children had more intimate contact with extended families, they were taught right from wrong, and in many respects they were raised in the healthier environment. However, as adults, the working-class children are not doing well. They were not prepared for a world valuing verbal skills and an ability to thrive in organizations. They are picking up the same menial jobs their parents held, while the upper middle-class children are attending good colleges and preparing for professional careers.

The first White House Conference on Children in a Democracy was called by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, just after the onset of world war and during a time of exploitation of minorities and political patronage threatening the democratic process. The conference report (U.S. Superintendent of Documents, 1940, pp. 192-193) concluded that families of low-income children, minority children, slum children, and children with disabilities were deprived of toys, books, recreational areas, artistic events, and community recreation and playgrounds--in many respects, mirror images of what we see today.

The 2003 Census Report shows a steady rise in the number of families in poverty each year since 1999. When power and wealth rule a political structure, education itself is discriminatory (Wallis, 2005). We have known for decades that poverty is a key factor in school failure, yet both state and national governing bodies accommodate lobbyists and corporations while neglecting health care, housing, and living standards for the poor. Promises that the federal No Child Left Behind program would be accompanied by funds to make it work have gone unfulfilled, and children of the poor, especially minorities, are again stuffed into poverty-area schools rated "low performing" and "unacceptable." Now, public schools are threatened as students failing the tests are shifted to charter schools of questionable credentials and results, thus depriving public schools of desperately needed funds.

We see a growing storm for America's poorest children, with shrinking resources for school books, health insurance, affordable housing, health care, and food stamps. One in six U.S. children is poor; four million Americans are hungry and skipping meals; 45 million have no health insurance; 14 million have critical housing needs (Wallis, 2005, p. 223). With funding cuts in education and social services, the growing cost of war, tax cuts for the wealthy, natural disasters, and political cronyism, we now have a crisis among the poorest children.

The plight of the poor and minorities is nowhere more apparent than in the inequity of concern for the residents of New Orleans, both before and after Hurricane Katrina. Even before Katrina, the New Orleans schools were a failing system (Gray, 2005): already $45 million in debt; plagued by leadership crises (four superintendents in four years), scandals, and a squabbling school board; and strapped for resources. A majority of the students failed mandatory tests. After Katrina, we see a crisis of major proportions among displaced people striving to put their lives back together and a school system $300 million in debt.

Poverty-plagued and overlooked schools exist through the United States, especially in the slums and barrios of the cities. In Chicago, students from poor neighborhoods fail to receive their fair share of school funding and attend schools with tattered textbooks, decrepit buildings, overcrowded classrooms, and poorly qualified teachers (Loftus, 2005). Frustrated, stressed-out teachers desert the profession or pray for the day they can retire. Teachers in a growing number of schools must teach only one way. Policymakers must decide whether they want skillful, creative teachers or robots. If they want the former, they must put their money into supporting educators in developing curricula and sharpening their teaching skills.

Kozol (2005) tells stories about the dedication of teachers and the generosity in spirit of the children in the South Bronx; yet, in one school, only 65 of the 1,200 ninth-graders are likely to graduate. He points out that Mississippi spends $4,000 per pupil, inner-city Philadelphia schools get $6,000 per pupil, New York middle-class suburbs get $12,000 per pupil, and some very wealthy suburbs get $24,000 per pupil. Yet, all are held to the same standards and all students take the same standardized exams. What history and research have always shown, but what policymakers ignore, is that poverty and hopelessness are fundamental causes of illiteracy and school failure in the United States. Regimented schooling does not address the problem of poverty.

Countering the Growing Storm

Author and poet Robert Louis Stevenson, sickly and in bed as a child, once watched the lamplighter move from place to place lighting the oil street lamps. He commented to his mother, "A man is coming down the street making holes in the darkness." We can all make little holes in the darkness and these holes can grow to illuminate entire neighborhoods, towns, and cities. Peaceful, informed dissent is a cornerstone of democracy and Americans are stepping up to protest the growing storm of elements that are eroding the culture of childhood. In April 2005, the Associated Press reported that the National Education Association (NEA) and school districts in Vermont, Michigan, and Texas, along with NEA chapters, were suing the federal administration for failing to provide support for the No Child Left Behind Act. In 2005, the Utah state legislature filed a lawsuit challenging the No Child Left Behind law, arguing that it is illegal to require expensive standardized testing for which it does not pay (Gillespie, 2005, p. A-10). Also in 2005, the NEA filed a lawsuit on behalf of local school districts and 20 state union chapters. A glimmer of hope emerged in November 2005, when the U.S. Secretary of Education, under fire from governors of several states, proposed allowing schools in some states to use children's progress on tests as evidence of success.

Who opposes high-stakes testing? Is it merely a handful of disgruntled parents, teachers, school boards, and professional organizations? Hardly. More than 70, and counting, professional organizations are in opposition, including such groups as the International Reading Association, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, American Educational Research Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the National Parent Teacher Association, the National Association for Elementary School Principals, the American Association of School Administrators, Students Against Testing, the National Association of School Psychologists, the American School Counselor Association, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and the Association for Childhood Education International.

None of these organizations opposes meaningful testing or high academic expectations, nor do they hold that accountability is unnecessary. They simply contend that the system is deeply flawed. They promote assessments based on decades of research and experience; both formative and summative assessment, making decisions from multiple forms of assessment, not on a single test, adjusted for special needs and culturally different children; involving classroom teachers in assessment; and rejecting the use of test scores for punishing or rewarding administrators, teachers, and children.

Fortunately, private preschools remain relatively untouched by NCLB, although Head Start and other tax-supported early programs are under pressure to conform. Yes, professional standards and guidelines are essential, but look to those developed by such century-old organizations as NAEYC and ACEI--standards built by top researchers and successful practitioners worldwide, tied to the voluminous research of the past century, and refined by decades of experience.

High-stakes testing is not only wrong--it doesn't work. We are cultivating a culture of mediocrity and sameness and abandoning traditional ideas of creativity, ingenuity, ethical behavior, and imagination that make cultures and countries great. The most powerful policy for improving school achievement is reducing poverty. Focusing public policy on neighborhoods and families is an infinitely better strategy than focusing on testing to determine what we already know.

A reasonable substitute for the ill-founded emphasis on drill and testing for the very young would be to focus on encouraging parents to turn off the televisions, video games, and cell phones, and instead engage their children in conversation, take them to places of educational interest, read to them, teach them about the world beyond cartoons and video games, and teach them the value of giving over taking. Public policy should be directed toward rebuilding poverty-stricken neighborhoods, ensuring good jobs, medical care, and superior schools for all children, but especially for the very poor.

The impact of poverty, the demise of play, and high-stakes testing collectively are like the perfect storm. Each element contributes its destructive force, creating enormous potential for failure and damage to children--a sociopolitical system out of control. We must replace reactive, standardized learning with creative, thoughtful, introspective, interactive learning. We cannot allow the present generation of children to be the last to taste the joy of creative teaching and learning or to experience the delights of living with nature; the last children to know the collective inspiration of free, spontaneous play, and the separate peace of nature with all its fantasy, beauty, and freedom; the last to know the teachers and classrooms that molded people from all over the world into a fruitful, generous, and creative society. The engine that drives high-stakes testing, dismisses the value of children's play, and ignores the poor is a political engine. If we speak out, we can prevail; the storm will pass and good sense and a confluence of cultural creativity will return to the classrooms.


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Joe L. Frost is Parker Centennial Professor Emeritus, University of Texas, Austin.
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