From Kindergarten to College: How a Push for “Readiness” Fails Learners


On Saturday, October 14th, I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel titled Reclaiming Childhood and Restoring Teacher Voice in the Age of Standards-Based Accountability at the Network for Public Education 4th Annual Conference in Oakland, California. Moderated by Susan Ochshorn from ECE Policy Works, early childhood teachers Bianca Tanis, Michelle Gunderson, and Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin and I took turns discussing how the attack on public education combined with the attack on human rights impacts our work as early childhood teachers, educators, and activists.  During the Q&A session, a young man asked what he could do as a high school teacher to make sure his students were ready for college and still allow them to play. First off, kudos to any high school teacher who welcomes play into their classroom! As a college professor, I shared with this awesome teacher, my belief that sustained, engaged, thoughtful, intrinsically driven play is probably the best way to prepare students for college. Unfortunately, most of my freshman struggle to adapt to college, because although they are products of the “college and career readiness” mantra, they are far from ready to succeed in college.As the push for test-based accountability has narrowed the curriculum and reduced instruction to an intense focus on test-prep, college readiness becomes more and more elusive.  The number one skill most college professors want from their students is the ability to think critically. This includes self-reflection, making connections to course readings, and finding sources to support your argument. In the past 13 years of teaching college-level courses, more and more of my students struggle with these tasks. They want a multiple-choice assessment instead of the higher order thinking assignments we tend to assign. And after spending years learning how to do “close reading” of short informative essays, they find reading a chapter difficult and tiresome.  I can only imagine how different the situation might be if they engaged in free play during high school or had the benefit of a project or problem-based curriculum.

This desire for readiness is not new, evidenced by the increase in kindergarten readiness assessments. As the demand to raise test scores grew, the use of assessments in kindergarten expanded to close the “achievement gap” between certain groups of students. This may sound like a good approach to helping all student succeed, but when you combine a push for readiness with test-based accountability, you create a recipe for disaster. The pressure of test-based accountability puts the responsibility for learning on the teacher and the school who ultimately must ensure students are ready. Ready for what? For students to be ready to learn, they need to recognize that they must take responsibility for making learning happen. Teachers, parents, and the community can support young people by providing them with rich learning experiences that pique their curiosity and motivate them to learn more. Standardized assessments in kindergarten or high school are a barrier to authentic teaching and learning. Opportunities for self-directed learning can best develop true readiness to learn. And the best form of self-directed learning is PLAY!

Many thanks to Susan DuFresne for capturing and sharing a video of the panel. To view the video please, click below: