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Starving the Child

A friend of mine who teaches at another school shared a quote recently which he heard from an early childhood specialist: “Just because a famine is coming, doesn’t mean you starve the child.” The woman made the comment in regards to the misguided approach some schools are taking to push test prep into the lower grades. I think it sums up the tragic mistake of stripping away effective child-centered/play-oriented activities in favor of “drill and kill” instruction pretty well. But I also think her words hold true for the older kids as well.

Thanks to the new testing schedule, schools like mine have a little bit more breathing room in our curriculum. The run-up to winter break is no longer a frantic race to prepare the students for the English language arts exam a week or two after the vacation. But that doesn’t mean that high-pressure test prep won’t eventually take hold. In fact, I’m guessing soon after we return from break, the grueling march to get our kids ready will begin in schools like mine across the city.

But are we starving the kids to prepare for a famine? In many ways, and to varying degrees depending on a school’s approach to test prep, kids are deprived of meaningful, rich, effective instruction in the weeks or months leading up to the state exams. This may or may not prepare them better for this year’s test, but it undoubtedly shorts them in the long-term.

First, when Kaplan or Pearson test-prep materials take the place of a well-planned read-aloud or time for guided reading, the kids don’t learn as well. Second, the pressure and dullness of test prep certainly takes most of the fun out of learning for the kids. So ultimately students are learning less, and they’re enjoying learning less. This is not a formula for long-term success.

I can only hope as standardized tests become more authentic and meaningful, this practice will finally be exposed for its uselessness and be discarded. For the present, there are too many second-graders who are being forced to fill out weekly multiple-choice tests “to get ready” and third- through eighth-graders whose classrooms are taken over by a test-prep mentality. We are not helping these children by “starving them” in anticipation of the “famine.”

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