Acceleration is the new pandemic buzzword brought to you by pro-privatization school reformers. Students may have missed some in-person schooling, even though most learned remotely or in person. Still, the frenzy surrounding learning loss is mounting.
The pandemic has given rise to a new way to reframe the old learning gap talk, with new terminology, acceleration. If students have missed out on schoolwork, they’re told they need to accelerate and catch up if they’ve fallen behind.
The fear is that the pandemic will be used as an excuse to push students harder. Poor students will bear the brunt of this, a doubling down on strictness.
But all students are affected when advanced learning disregards a child’s development.
This message has festered for years, starting with No Child Left Behind. Failure was not an option, we were told, as they continually raised the ante. If students did well, the test wasn’t hard enough. If they did poorly, teachers were blamed.
Then came Race to the Top. If racing isn’t accelerating, what is? Here we got Common Core, repeatedly shown to be lacking, most recently by Tom Loveless at the Brookings Institute.
But it doesn’t seem to matter that Common Core fails. It’s hard to find any curriculum program that doesn’t have the word core in it.
How have these policies hurt students? They’ve raised expectations to unnatural levels.
In 2015, long before the pandemic, Erika Christakis described it well in The Atlantic.
Step into an American preschool classroom today, and you are likely to be bombarded with what we educators call a print-rich environment, every surface festooned with alphabet charts, bar graphs, word walls, instructional posters, classroom rules, calendars, schedules, and motivational platitudes—few of which a 4-year-old can “decode,” the contemporary word for what used to be known as reading.
Pedagogy and curricula have changed, too, most recently in response to the Common Core State Standards Initiative’s kindergarten guidelines. Much greater portions of the day are now spent on what’s called “seat work” (a term that probably doesn’t need any exposition) and a form of tightly scripted teaching known as direct instruction, formerly used mainly in the older grades, in which a teacher carefully controls the content and pacing of what a child is supposed to learn.
In 2016, Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham, and Anna Rorem asked, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?”
Recent accounts suggest that accountability pressures have trickled down into the early elementary grades and that kindergarten today is characterized by a heightened focus on academic skills and a reduction in opportunities for play.
They [teachers] devoted more time to advanced literacy and math content, teacher-directed instruction, and assessment and substantially less time to art, music, science, and child-selected activities.
Don’t forget the original definition of kindergarten. It means the children’s garden.
In 2002, educator Susan Ohanian’s book What Happened to Recess and Why are our Children Struggling in Kindergarten? said everything in the title. The book is a painful but necessary read.
If there’s doubt about the importance of recess, or the trouble with making young children sit for long periods, or the consequences of denying children frequent breaks, also read Recess: Its Role in Education and Development by Anthony D. Pellegrini, or Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown, M.D.
Today, children are lucky if they get one 20-minute break! Often even this is micromanaged by adults telling children what they should play.
How could anyone think it’s fine to deny young learners intermittent breaks during the day to recharge while wondering why children don’t get high test scores?
The age where students bumble their way into puberty is not for the faint of heart. Children must think about a career, not in a curious manner, but with a serious career assessment that determines what track they’re on and the information collected online.
Teacher Phyllis L. Fagell wrote in The Washington Post in 2015:
The stress level among my 13 and 14-year-old students approximates what I saw several years ago when I counseled high school seniors. There is a sense that they need to follow a prescribed path, to perform well in every discipline. Parents and students fear that even middle school choices might have an impact on college admissions.
Some school districts promote high school coursework in middle school because high school doesn’t come soon enough in a child’s life.
There was talk in the past by those who want to privatize schools to let students end high school early. (See The New York Times High Schools to Offer Plan to Graduate 2 Years Early by Sam Dillon, 2010), but it didn’t seem to become popular.
Now the current idea is to make the high school into a community college.
For years high school students have been pushed to take AP courses.
This past year has been difficult for students, and some may not have learned as much as possible due to the pandemic. They may need help to pick themselves up, and if that’s what the school means by acceleration, fine. But ask if classes will include realistic age-appropriate expectations.
It’s also not to say that advanced classwork doesn’t have its place. No child should be kept back from learning what they need at the speed at which they require it. It involves good teaching, discussion, and observation to determine how to make learning challenging but not overwhelming.
But putting all children on the fast track is dangerous. Many will shut down if they can’t do the work and see themselves as failures.
No brain science says a kindergartener should be doing first-grade work, or a middle schooler needs high school courses. Making it seem like that’s a normal thing to do is what’s dangerous. It will leave many children, capable of learning well, behind.
Some children can navigate their way through the accelerated pressure. Others won’t. Acceleration. When you see that word, ask who’s saying it and why.
Stephen D. Abney says
Thank you for that synopsis and the sources.
In Florida, this push to accelerate begins before kindergarten. Early in their kindergarten year, children take computer-based tests so the state can judge their pre-K. experience
Per the state, “Kindergarten students must demonstrate a score of at least 500 on the Star Early Literacy assessment to be considered ‘ready for kindergarten’.”
It should not surprise anyone familiar with Big Test, that about half of all the programs in the state fail It should also be no surprise that “ready for kindergarten” percentage ranges from 28% to 72% across Florida public school districts.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks for sharing, Stephen.
Roy Turrentine says
One of the interesting and perhaps frightening suppositions of this pedagogical thinking is that we should have ssome mechanism in the education of our youth that tells a child at an early age that he or she is not good at some set of ideas or skills. Finding himself unable to understand slant asymptotes in Algebra I (yes this is a thing) the student will perceive himself as “not good at math.” thus we are as a society restricting our pool of potential mathematicians to those who can understand it at an early age.
We are doing this without any debate on whether it will be good for our society if a majority of our society decides against the study of math. Similarly, other challenging topics elude students who decide that they hate reading, cannot learn maps, or almost any other thing we do. Why have we allowed a few people at the top of society to decide when we need to sift out the poor learners? This sounds like a debate we need to have before we go down that road.
Nancy Bailey says
“We are doing this without any debate on whether it will be good for our society if a majority of our society decides against…”
I’d say Common Core falls in this description. Good point. Thank you, Roy.
Sheila Resseger says
As an 8th grader many decades ago in Baltimore, MD, I was among those chosen to participate in an accelerated program in high school starting in 9th grade. Although high school started in 10th grade at that time, every year a batch of 8th grade girls (it was an all-girls public high school; there was an equivalent school for boys as well) were recommended to start the A course in 9th grade. We completed 4 years of high school in 3 years. Our senior year was college level work. I was accepted at the University of Maryland and received almost a full year of college credit on the basis of my school’s reputation and my grade (no AP tests needed). The A course was grueling. Out of 120 girls who began in the 9th grade, 10 of us completed the program. The others went into the regular college prep program, and have all done well in their lives. So, it was a rigorous program academically, but looking back, I wouldn’t recommend it for the pressure. I don’t think I’ve recovered yet from that pressure, which was totally unnecessary. It was only when I dropped out of college partway through the second semester of my sophomore year, that I was able to relax and begin learning on my own terms, which I then was able to do. That was my experience as a high school age student. That this is being foisted on the youngest learners and all k-12 students is Dickensian. “Acceleration” has no place in developing curious, creative, and self-confident learners.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Sheila. Learning shouldn’t be “grueling.” And now it’s pushed down to the youngest learners.
I hail from Baltimore MD!. I knew a girl who was accepted into that Accelerated program and she really needed to be there. She was super smart, curious and extremely motivated but she was lacking in the social skills of a normal middle school tween. As a sixth grader she was taking high school classes with teens much older and it was not good for her socially. It was a great program/school for those who were truly “gifted” and who wanted to be there. The problem was that a lot of parents got jealous because they thought their child/children was/were “gifted”. The program went away and GT was put into every school with very few children actually being “gifted”.
Nancy Bailey says
You bring up a good point, Lisa, about gifted programming. I’m also wondering and maybe you or Sheila could address this, did this program do something special to address social skills? The balance between programs that provide advanced work and socialization is tough for children who are truly on the high end of the scale. Also the idea that all children must do advanced work can make for much frustration, but I think that’s what is occurring in schools today. Technology can also complicate matters.
Thank you for your comment.
Why the sudden concern about students missing time in school? In high needs districts in (large and small) cities all across the country, missing significant time in school has been the norm for far too many students. Chronic absenteeism plagues these schools, affecting the very students who can least afford to be elsewhere. The fact that it is not a national scandal is surprising, Can you imagine a serious and conscientious student missing 20, 30, or even 40+ days a year? That’s not at all uncommon where the grip of generational poverty tugs in a different direction.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Rick. Excellent point. Poverty seems to always be ignored when it comes to judging schools, students, and teachers, It has always been important to have high expectations of students but how high is too high, and who is really benefitting?
Searching for students who are chronically absent…who on the outside benefits from that? Sorry to say. In today’s world money it’s about profit.
Nancy Bailey says
My thanks to the Network for Public Education.
All those in panic mode just need to take a deep breath. Students at virtually every grade level remain at heart, concrete and novice learners who experience 24 hour learning loss after most lessons. The truth of the matter is that teachable moments have always been few and far between. Ask any (math, science, social studies, ELA, foreign language, art, music, health, et. al.) teacher to list specifically what their incoming cohort needs to know upon entering their class in September and the that list will almost always be remarkable brief and concise. We would have been wise to use those lists as guidelines for this school year.