Education Reformers Are Waging a War on Play

Shortly after the pandemic halted in-person instruction in March 2020, media outlets began to warn that school closures would permanently mar the academic development — and future earning power — of school-age children. They bemoaned a “lost generation,” with one particularly hysterical report estimating that missed instruction during 2020 would result in the collective loss of 13.8 million years of life.

But faced with the undeniable reality that school disruption has been harmful — hitting vulnerable and marginalized kids the hardest — Joe Biden’s Department of Education supplied the same discredited Bush- and Obama-era prescription that has poisoned K–12 classrooms for the past two decades: more testing to measure the problem. And as the Right graduates from testing and charters to openly advocating for an end to public schools, establishment Democrats seem incapable of offering a robust counternarrative. What’s the point of defending public education if we’ve already lost?

In the neoliberal school reform era, America’s major parties forged a truce: Republicans accepted a liberal, secular language of equity, opportunity, and empowerment, while Democrats signed on to a privatization agenda that promised to erode teachers’ unions and democratically elected school boards. Foreclosing the possibility of wealth redistribution, prominent Democrats declared that alleviating poverty was a matter of making poor kids study harder.

The age of bipartisanship is now becoming a distant memory, with Republicans abandoning the compromise. Still, Democrats remain attached to the same calcified education reform narrative, despite the fact that their technocratic response to childhood inequality has proven both ineffective and deeply unpopular.

And while the learning loss discourse has been largely eclipsed by the K–12 culture wars, the effects of this latest push to measure and remediate are being felt in public schools. These effects are perhaps nowhere more heartbreaking than in early childhood classrooms, where testing pressure has forced educators to prohibit kids from acting on one of our most elemental human instincts: the drive to play.

In a 2016 study titled “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” researchers from the University of Virginia used nationwide data to show that kindergarten had changed dramatically following the 2001 passage of No Child Left Behind, which enshrined standardized testing in public schools. With Bush decrying the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” testing mandates were framed as a tool to combat socioeconomic and racial inequality by forcibly raising schools’ requirements for so-called college and career readiness.

Between 1998 and 2010, kindergarten teachers’ expectations for math and reading acquisition shot up, as did the amount of time children spent being instructed on discrete skills previously deemed beyond the reach of kindergarteners. Compared with their 1998 counterparts, kindergarten teachers in 2010 were far more likely to believe that academic instruction should begin prior to kindergarten, and that children should leave their classrooms knowing how to read.

For wealthier families, the cultural shift from kinderplay to kindergrind entailed a fine-tuning of early childhood to optimize the chances of an Ivy League future. For poorer families, it meant coming to terms with the increasingly dominant role of scantrons and skills tests in the first years of school.

The University of Virginia researchers documented striking increases in the use of direct instruction and standardized testing in kindergarten, paired with substantial reductions in time spent on art, music, and child-led inquiry. Sand and water tables and dress-up corners were replaced with worksheets, textbooks, homework assignments, and programs that teach kids how to correctly darken bubbles on multiple-choice tests. While these consequences were widespread, they were most extreme in classrooms serving non-white students, as teachers were tasked with closing the achievement gap and reducing future inequality through intensive workforce preparation.

The year the researchers’ datasets ended, Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program ramped up the financial incentives for states to punish districts, schools, and teachers who failed to produce ever-higher test scores — regardless of the fact that it’s mathematically impossible for all students to score highly on a norm-referenced test, or for schools to continue to raise scores year after year. Under Race to the Top, states needed to adopt uniform curricular standards in order to compete for federal funding.

The Bill Gates–funded Common Core kindergarten standards do not recognize anything unique or magical about childhood. Rather, they’re based on the assumption that kindergarten learning should look more or less like a watered-down version of college learning. Many states have extended this theory into pre-K. Evidently unconcerned with the implications of killing recess, Democrats embraced forced academic rigor as their primary solution to America’s economic problems.

Anyone who has ever worked with young kids understands that they learn through play. When I watch my toddler build a block tower, it’s clear she’s working out mathematical concepts and conducting rudimentary physics experiments, propelled by her native curiosity. Through self-directed movements, small children discover their ability to act on the physical world, altering it with intention.

Nancy Carlsson-Paige, childhood scholar and cofounder of the nonprofit Defending the Early Years, explained to Jacobin that “play is often considered the engine of development because it is through play, when understood in its broadest sense, that children accomplish most of their learning in the early years.”

As children narrate their play, they form thrilling connections between language and material reality — what the Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire referred to as “reading the world.” Freire argued that teaching that merely “deposits” abstract verbal knowledge content produces a fragmented worldview, breeding cynicism and disengagement. But when we learn language organically in the course of childhood adventure, we come to appreciate the relationships between words, ideas, and actions. This integrated worldview makes possible a critical awareness of our individual experiences within the context of larger structures.

The impulse to play is as universal as walking or talking. Setting their own pace, kids imaginatively play out experiences that are scary or confusing, gaining confidence in their ability to manage uncertainty. Play is what first allows us to experience ourselves as creative “species-beings.” Supporting children’s need to play is a matter of supporting their need to be conscious humans, fully possessed of their capacity to make choices and effect change.

Early childhood educators have long understood the power of play, and have developed play-based pedagogies that are supported, in Carlsson-Paige’s words, by “decades of research in child development and neuroscience.” But as education reform applied scientific management principles to learning, educators’ expert knowledge of their students’ social, emotional, and cognitive needs was devalued.

Although federal legislation does not require standardized testing until third grade, the intensely punitive pressure to raise those third-grade scores has prompted states and individual districts to roll out their own early childhood assessment mandates, meaning that many children experience testing and test prep in kindergarten and even pre-K. Young kids with short attention spans are now expected to absorb “rigorous instruction,” demonstrating their achievement on exams that hold little, if any, predictive value. Carlsson-Paige told Jacobin:

During the ed reform era, we have seen a worrisome rise in direct teaching with young children — sitting them in chairs and drilling them on specific facts that are not connected to the foundational learning they accomplish through play. . . . This kind of learning can be easily forgotten because it isn’t genuine learning. Drill-based instruction has been thrust on low-income children of color much more than on children from wealthier families, robbing them of the most critical experiences they need to build the foundation for later academic success. This disparity has been heightened by the pandemic, by the lack of understanding about how young children learn, and by the false worry over “learning loss.”

While No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top failed to produce meaningful gains in test-based achievement, changes in the organization of early childhood education have coincided with an apparent rise in anxiety and depression among young kids. Carlsson-Paige told Jacobin that the “increased stress levels in children and youth created by the overfocus on data and accountability . . . are well documented,” adding that additional pandemic stressors — “illness, fear of illness, death of loved ones, confinement, hours every day spent on screens, the loss of social interaction” — have added to the crushing burden small children now feel.

As play and movement are restricted, kids who rebel against the inappropriate demands placed on them risk being pathologized or excluded. Research has shown that children in states with especially stringent test-based accountability laws are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed psychostimulant medication. Carlsson-Paige and others have linked play deprivation to the horrifying surge of preschool suspensions, suggesting a broad connection between high-stakes testing and the school-to-prison pipeline.

When we prevent children from playing, we are interfering with their development. We’re forcing them to see school as a dull, taxing place in which their creativity — their genius — does not matter. We’re denying them opportunities to collaboratively investigate the world, insisting that they blindly obey orders which make no sense. In these respects, it’s fair to say that we are preparing kids for experiences they will face in the job market. We are not, however, giving them tools to imagine alternatives and proactively contest the forces that make life so needlessly hard.

Assessments do show a pandemic-driven slowing of progress in reading and math, especially among economically and racially marginalized kids. However, extensive research tells us that the main thing standardized tests measure is poverty. We don’t need scary buzzwords or costly diagnostic tools to appreciate the fact that people are living in states of insecurity and deprivation. It stands to reason that remote schooling posed particular problems for kids without stable housing and food, reliable internet, a quiet place to study, and family members with time to act as academic coaches. The hysterical learning loss headlines might as well read, “Research shows that in the absence of food, people grow hungry.” Well, yes. But what are we prepared to do about it?

A staggering number of American children saw their lives upended by tragedy in the last two years. What they need now more than ever is the space to just be kids: to play and explore, to connect with others, and to indulge the sense of wonder that is every child’s birthright. The notion that more and more rigorous instruction can stem the tide of inequality may have been convincing in the ’90s. But given everything we’ve seen since then, it rings hollow.

For thirty years, polling showed Americans trusted Democrats more than Republicans as far as schools were concerned. But data suggests Republicans are now closing that gap. This shift is pretty astonishing when you consider that the GOP is home to some broadly unpopular educational trends: a libertarianism focused on totally dismantling public schooling and a rising illiberalism that attacks individual teachers and seeks legislative bans on specific books and perspectives. The fact that Democrats are managing to lose education votes shows just how little the public is motivated by the bootstraps accountability narrative to which they’ve committed themselves.

People don’t respond well, it appears, to policies that surgically remove fun from childhood. And they don’t appreciate the illogical, scolding suggestion that their hardships were caused by poor study habits.

The idea that pandemic learning loss will be the driver of future income inequality gives cover to the real drivers of inequality: employers who pay starvation wages, and lawmakers who do those employers’ bidding. To actually address poverty, we need universal programs that allow people to eat and exercise agency, and labor laws that make it easier for workers to collectively demand what’s fair. To the extent that schools can help level the playing field, they will need to nurture capacities like criticality and solidarity that enable us to win power on the shop floor and elsewhere.

As long as we view education as the solution to an unjust society, we’ll be doomed to fail. Children don’t need more “access to opportunity” so they can have some increasingly slim hope of future stability. They need access to safe, healthy lives in which they are free to prioritize joy.

Stefani

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