My view: Obama, Romney need to know one thing about early childhood education – start over
August 29th, 2012
03:39 AM ET

My view: Obama, Romney need to know one thing about early childhood education – start over

Courtesy Phyllis BretholtzBy Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Nancy Carlsson-Paige is professor emerita at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she taught teachers for more than 30 years and was a founder of the University’s Center for Peaceable Schools.  A strong advocate for public education, Nancy speaks and writes on a variety of education and parenting topics. Her most recent book is ”Taking Back Childhood: A Proven Roadmap for Raising Confident, Creative, Compassionate Kids.”

(CNN) - Here’s what I would say to the presidential candidates (in case they ask me) about what we need to do to give the best education possible to our nation’s youngest members.

I would start talking in a pretty loud voice to make sure they can hear:  You are going in the wrong direction with policy-making for early childhood education! Please back up and start over.

And this time, put early childhood educators at the head of the policy-making table.

Most classrooms for young kids today are driven by a myriad of developmentally inappropriate standards-based tests and checklists. Policy mandates are causing a pushdown of academic skills to 3, 4 and 5 year olds that used to be associated with first-graders through third-graders. Young kids are expected to learn specific facts and skills at specified ages, such as naming the letters and counting by 2’s, 5’s and 10’s.

This has led to more teacher-directed “lessons” and a lot more rote learning by kids who try to learn what’s required but don’t really understand.

Many early childhood teachers do not like these policies and how they are affecting their classrooms. They don’t like them because the policies are not based on what teachers know about how young children learn - the decades of theory and research that form the knowledge base of early childhood education. Young children learn through activity, through direct play and hands-on experiences that promote creativity and thinking skills. They need to see facts within meaningful contexts, to invent their own ideas and problems to explore and solve.

If you go into a really great kindergarten classroom, you’ll see blocks, easels, a science table, dramatic play, lots of books, building and art materials of all kinds and kids interacting with enthusiasm and visible joy.  You’ve probably seen classrooms like this.  Your own children probably went to them.

But I wonder if you have seen some of the kindergarten and pre-K classrooms like those I have visited this year - devoid of materials, eerily silent, where children sit as teachers drill them on facts from a prescribed curriculum. Classrooms where teachers spend long hours testing individual children at a computer while the rest of the class sit copying from the board - no talking.

Giving tests and assessments has become much too big a focus in early education.  Teachers of children in pre-K, kindergarten and first and second grades are spending far too many hours administering and scoring tests instead of meeting the needs of the whole child.  As teachers strive to get the scores up, they depend more and more on scripted curricula designed to teach what is on the tests.

Standardized tests of any type don’t have a place in early childhood.   Kids develop at individual rates, learn in unique ways and come from a wide variety of cultural and language backgrounds.  So it’s not possible to mandate what any young child will understand at any particular time. It’s much better to have well-prepared teachers who can assess a child’s individual abilities, needs and interests and then design teaching and learning for each child from there.

Sadly, the worst of the restrictive, standardized, drill-based education is happening in our poorest communities.  More often the teachers in these underfunded schools have less training. They are more dependent on the standardized tests and scripted curricula and more willing to impose them.  These teachers haven’t learned what they could do instead of the drills and tests, and they haven’t learned how harmful these approaches are for kids.

I wish you could see the faces of kids in the low-income communities I visited this year.  They are scared, sad and alienated.  I see on them an expression that says, “School is not fun, and it is not for me. I want out of here.”

Early childhood teachers whose professionalism is now hamstrung by current policies are leaving the field in great numbers.  They can’t teach using their professional expertise and many detest having to follow a prescribed curriculum with which they don’t agree.

As one teacher said recently to Defending the Early Years (DEY), “I feel disrespected as a professional, my students feel the pressure and the parents are confused. I see kids with eyes glazed who are simply overwhelmed by being constantly asked to perform tasks they are not yet ready to do. I finally had to leave my classroom and retire early.”

At the same time, teachers with less training are entering the field and are found in much greater numbers in low-income areas.  But we need more highly qualified teachers of young kids, not fewer.  We need to finance teachers’ education and their professional development so we have the most qualified teachers working with our youngest learners, especially in poor communities.

Many people say we need to put more money into early childhood education.  And we do. We need quality, affordable education for all of our nation’s children.  We are the richest country in the world!  Surely you can figure out how to come up with the funds to provide great early education for all our nation’s kids.  Where there’s a will there’s a way.

But it has to be education built on the knowledge base of the early childhood field. It has to grow from children’s ability to be learners - intellectuals and artists - and not on your top-down expectations.

Let’s reverse direction with early childhood education policy and this time, let’s get it right.  Let’s start with children and build from there - and please - start by putting early childhood educators at the helm.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nancy Carlsson-Paige.

soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. corny

    Thank you for u creating this content and help full to others....early child wood education is not studying.. is an learning early child wood age they are totally depends on parents and teachers... they can make and outcome of kids reality....

    September 6, 2012 at 6:06 am |
  2. Michelle

    I so so so so agree with this article!!! This is the way it should be!

    September 4, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  3. Dr. Vicki Folds

    My comment should have begun with "Telling is not teaching - doing is teaching!"

    September 4, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  4. Dr. Vicki Folds

    Tell is not teaching – doing is teaching – early childhood educatioan is all about engaging the child's hands to imprint the experience on the brain...looking at flash cards just doesn't cut it! Thank you for writing from the perspective of a true educator – unfortunately legislators are not educators...

    September 4, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  5. BA

    Children that are engaged in the learning the process...learn! The teach-preach philiospohy does not encourage or develope higher level thinking or ssupport inquiry based learning. Children learn through play...not by rote..

    September 3, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
  6. DJones

    This article completely misses on one main point. Time and again studies have proven that the best early childhood education comes from human interaction from mom and dad, not teachers. Children who stay home in a good environment and skip the whole Head Start thing out perform and are universally more stable. This article begins with the acceptance that mom and dad couldn't be bothered to raise their kids and that we must make the best of this negative social condition in America.

    September 3, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • autumntomas

      DJones, it wasn't that I couldn't be bothered with raising my children. I had to work to support them and I was lucky enough to be able to stay home with them for over a year. I agree that it all starts with the parents, but for those of us who have to work, a developmentally appropriate, child-friendly classroom with a qualified teacher is not too much to expect.

      September 11, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  7. hechternacht

    Thank you to Nancy Carlsson-Paige for raising this issue and keeping the quality of Early Childhood Education in the news!

    September 1, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  8. BaltimoreTeacher1

    This is not directly related to the article, but I am a Baltimore City teacher trying to find people who care deeply about education and want to play a role in making sure that students learn. Please read my message below. It is an EASY way to get my students excited about the world! Thank you.


    My students would like to here from you!!!!

    I am a teacher in Baltimore City, and I am trying to get my students excited about Geography.

    Please send my 7th grade students an email at with
    1. A positive message for the school year (just a couple of sentences)
    2. Where you live
    3. One interesting thing about where you live

    Please send us an email. I want my students to learn about different places in the U.S./world by actually hearing from people who live there. Thank you for supporting my students!!!

    *** Also, if you have a photo you'd like to attach of where you live, that would be great too!!

    September 1, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  9. Teresa

    Thank you!
    I am an ECE and I am SO disheartened when I walk into kindergartens these days. The principals -the ones who have no idea about how young children learn -are demanding inappropriate practice. It's tragic and we need to go back to the old school kindergarten model with blocks, clay, paint, etc.!! i.e. PLAY! Early childhood teachers need to be respected and trusted.

    August 31, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
  10. C. Smith

    "This is not an issue at the Federal level, so telling presidential candidates is unlikely to be helpful. All of the decisions except Head Start standards are made at the state level."

    Not so! Common Core Standards along with the RttT incentives have encroached on early childhood education in very inappropriate ways. Standardized testing mandates have set the tone and tenor for what early childhood educators will be and have been held accountable. The teaching to the test has started for five-year-old children and will affect preschoolers in the near future.

    August 31, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  11. Fran Simon, M.Ed.

    This is not an issue at the Federal level, so telling presidential candidates is unlikely to be helpful. All of the decisions except Head Start standards are made at the state level. It would be GREAT if we could have developmentally appropriate Federal standards, but in this country, that is unlikely to happen because this is one of those many state issues. You might want to tell your governor other state officials.

    The one thing I WOULD tell presidential candidates is that more funding is needed for professional development and preservice training, including offsetting the cost of college degrees for early childhood teachers..Funding streams for early childhood ARE controlled at the Federal level. As a college professor, I know you will agree that improving the educational level of ECE teachers is paramount to providing quality experiences.

    The second thing I would tell the candidates that that the Federal government should provide more funding for comprehensive early childhood programs that help parents afford quality care and help teachers earn a living wage. This, too is a Federal policy issue.

    I know policy can be confusing for everyone. It's important to check facts.

    August 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  12. Jamie Delaney

    fantastic piece by one of our field's most respected leaders!!! Thank you Ms. Carlsson-Paige!!! And thank you CNN for providing a space for this so very crucial crisis that is our "school" system!

    August 30, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Cathy

      Amen!! And thank-you~

      August 31, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  13. Michael

    I was quite fortunate growing up in a small town where the teachers actually taught their charges, moslty by playful interactions. Small class size meant that teachers could focus on kids having problems; play tme was also learning time. My parents also played a huge role in my learning, being involved in homework, taking time to answer the never ending questions (which led to the purchase of a set of encyclopedias in 1964). Thankfully, I never stopped wanting to learn new things every day, a trait that has followed me deep into adulthood. Understanding the Why and How is much more important than the What, not to mention far more fun.

    August 30, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  14. Kathy

    I truly believe that you sould put the blocks back in the classroom and use the smart boards less. Education and instruction need to make common sense or learning doesn't take place, just teaching. I believe that it needs to start in the way we teach teachers to teach. Stop looking at the teachers manual and start looking at the child (they don't come with manuals). Think of ways to have hands on experiences with common sense materials, they will recognize this and commit it to memory easier. Maybe curriculums shouldn't be written every 10 years, they should be wriitten for the class ahead of you. I just retired after teaching for 35 years, and loved every year.

    August 30, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  15. Louise

    Thank you for writing this. I think the questions we need to be asking are: What are 3-5 year olds not doing with their time because of the focus on academic skills? Developmentally, what is most appropriate for young children? What are the long term effects (on both academic success and physical / creative development) of pushing academics on pre-schoolers?

    This article addresses these questions:

    August 30, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  16. Lisa Sturgeon

    As an early literacy coach I could not agree more about the importance of educating our teachers. Professional development is crutial for teachers. They also need to be treated like professionals. Early childhood professionals need freedom from too much structured assessment and pursue more anecdotal while children are at play. This, as you expressed so well, is another critical piece for early learners. The following article shows just how educational toys can be utilized for the purpose of instructing early learners using toys and meaningful play activities. Parents and educators need to see all the learning opportunities play provides.

    August 29, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
  17. Robin

    Better yet, they should recognize that early education (with the qualities mentioned) is an integral part of OVERALL education policy and strategy. We place so much emphasis on remediation, testing, anti-bullying work, etc. in middle school and high school, but we forget that the groundwork for all of those things lies in an enriched early chlldhood environment and interactions. The way in which ECE is continually disregarded, and the way in which it is seen as peripheral, rather than central to the accomplishment of later education goals, is powerfully short sighted.

    August 29, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
    • Wanda

      Well said! I've spent the past few years living overseas and have seen the bad results from 'test guided' education. I am a former ECE myself and only with the success of my own children was I able to prove that test coaching in some cases from as early as 4 years old, is not education! I employed the techniques I learned to my own children and I'm very happy to say that all 4 have become very well balanced, professional adults. Three with Doctorates and one a MD. Children must be allowed to be children in order to achieve their full potential!

      August 31, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  18. Debra Murphy

    Thank you so much for stating what many of us have been feeling. We need to see more letters publicized!

    August 29, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
  19. erikc

    Playing and learning go so hand in hand that to leave out the playing is to limit the potential for learning. I think this goes for all ages, but it's so much more important for young children. I really do hope the politicians buy into this, regardless of party or beliefs.

    August 29, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  20. buckeyekate

    Most policies in education subscribe to the theory that what is good for one is good for all. What works for 12th graders must work for kindergarteners! We need to realize that 5 yr olds cannot do the same things as 18 yr olds. Once legislators wrap their heads around this fact then we can begin to do what is best for kids! Furthermore, if you don't know what is best for our youngest learners then simply ask someone who does.

    August 29, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  21. chrissy

    I do so agree . These new guidelines / competencies require children to be competent in certain areas at a younger age . I would rather see a child able to question and analyse than recite facts with no understanding . Teaching by rote might get kids through exams but does not make learning fun and enjoyable . In a pre school classroom I am looking for chatter , kids having fun in their play and learning from it , kids making guesses about what will happen if and how long will it take . If you don't make it fun kids dont want to learn Education becomes a boring need instead of instilling a thirst for knowledge

    August 29, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  22. Lynne

    This is so right on! Early childhood professionals need to be educating those making policy decisions that affect our youngest children. Children have been taken out of the equation- with all the emphasis on outcomes and no consideration for the unique ways that young children learn and make sense of the world.

    August 29, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  23. shelli

    Couldn't agree more!

    August 29, 2012 at 8:34 am |