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