What is developmentally appropriate?: The CCSS, early childhood education, and UDL

i recently completed an internship with the Department of Defense Education Activity. This blog is my opinion and does not necessarily reflect that of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the Department of Defense Education Activity. 

The first is more or less an excerpted article by retired education professor Joseph Ricciotti written for major newspapers in Connecticut (Ricciotti, 2014, downloaded from http://dianeravitch.net/2014/10/06/joseph-ricciotti-common-core-takes-the-joy-out-of-learning/ on October 6, 2014). Ricciotti insists that the CCSS does not treat teachers or students with dignity. Among his assertions are that the CCSS is developmentally inappropriate. For example, Ricciotti cites Angie Sullivan, a kindergarten teacher, complaining about how her students are required to write opinion based essays. Sullivan states that the third grade curriculum has essentially been pushed down to kindergarten (Ricciotti, 2014, cited by Ravitch, 2014, downloaded from http://dianeravitch.net/2014/10/06/joseph-ricciotti-common-core-takes-the-joy-out-of-learning/)..

Sullivan is a kindergarten in Nevada and is an anti-Common Core leader in that state. Sullivan cites her concern as being mainly concerned with the appropriateness of the CCSS / Nevada standards (Ravitch, 2014, downloaded October 6, 2014 from http://dianeravitch.net/2014/10/06/nevada-can-a-5-year-old-write-a-fact-and-opinion-paper/).

Sullivan goes on to cite a letter of objections put forward by the Alliance for Childhood (2010, March 2, downloaded October 6, 2014 from http://www.edweek.org/media/joint_statement_on_core_standards.pdf).   The Alliance for Childhood objected to the Common Core based upon four objections. First, the new standards, they believe, will force out play-based instruction for long, didactic instruction, which the Alliance for Childhood believes is inappropriate for young children. Secondly, the Alliance believes that the standards will lead to inappropriate standardized testing. Third, the Alliance believes that the combination of testing and didactic instruction will push out other important learning which children, at this age, need in order to be successful. Finally, the Alliance believes that there is not strong enough evidence from top-performing countries to establish nationwide standards in this area.

The objections of Ricciotti, Sullivan, the Alliance for Childhood, and, presumably, Ravitch related to the developmental appropriateness of CCSS largely turn on cultural arguments. It is most likely true that many American children would not be prepared to meet the standards today. This is because U.S. society has not previously believed that it was developmentally appropriate for young children to undertake such endeavors. However, various societies, whether they are actually formally educating children or not, do have various expectations for children and later as adolescents that differ from society to society (for example, see Berger & Lueckmann, 1966, Lesko, 2001, Rosemund, 2014).  Our understanding of developmental appropriateness, therefore, is mostly culturally based. Even when compared to other countries, the assumption made by the Alliance for Children is somewhat muted because they more or less assume that early learning can only happen in school or school-like settings. There may be alternative explanations such as learning happening from family sources or other informal means of education.

Not only is “developmentally appropriate” a cultural issue, but it is also sometimes central to arguments concerning children with disabilities. For example, who should determine the developmental appropriateness of an intellectually impaired or autistic child? Should professional determination that an education program is inappropriate be the sole determiner of the child’s readiness to pursue education? The field of disability studies has troubled the notion of professional judgment in making assumptions about people with disabilities (e.g. Barnes, Mercer, & Shakespeare, 1999; Campbell & Oliver, 1996; Charlton, 1988). Professionalization has often poised troublesome burdens on people with disabilities especially when it comes to their competency. Professional judgment that insists a certain disabled child is unready for academic concerns can hinder such things as literate and mathematical development. The assumption that the child cannot reach a goal automatically disqualifies the student from reaching the goal. The same issues seem to be in play in the objections raised above.

That being said, it is also important to be cautious about the goals students can reach and to allow those ideas to happen or par with developmentally appropriate milestones as marked by scientific study (developmental psychology, for example). Students must be supported in an environment conducive to how they might learn best and be exposed to a variety of means in order to learn.

Although Universal Design for Learning is incorporated into CCSS as a way to allow students with disabilities to meet the standards (CCSS, 2010), it is appropriate to question whether Universal Design for Learning might be better utilized among a larger audience as intended (National Center on Universal Design for Learning, 2011). UDL can be of use, therefore, in helping a wide variety of students meet goal-based standards, not just students with disabilities. In order to be more fully incorporated, however, a key element of flexibility needs to be incorporated. It is upon this point that opponents of CCSS may have their strongest argument for restricting the ways in which students can learn would hinder the ability of educators to be flexible.

Educators might be better off utilizing the flexibility argument and utilizing any evidence-based research (beyond arguments rooted more in culture) that shows how certain ideas in the CCSS are unworkable from an instructional point of view. However, it is also important that these educators are not dismissing the possibilities or importance of the standards merely because it is new or different. While the CCSS may not be the most flexible document, subsequent reform efforts may find it useful to incorporate flexibility while maintaining and, if applicable, raising standards.

Andrew Bennett


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