The American educational system is always awash with proposals for “change” or “reform.” There are plenty of opportunities. Every time the legacy of John Dewey fails, the educationists rework Deweyism and call it “change” and “reform.” Only the ideas of Karl Marx have failed more often than those of John Dewey. Common Core is only the most recent iteration.
The right has attacked the Common Core ever since it stuck its ugly head into America’s public, parochial, and private classrooms. It is, therefore, delightful to find a convincing attack against Common Core that comes from the left.
The new book, Let the Children Play: How More Play Will Save Our Schools and Help Children Thrive by Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle, makes a compelling case. Mr. Sahlberg’s resume includes a stint as Director General at Finland’s Ministry of Education and professor of education policy at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Mr. Doyle is an American who was a Fulbright Scholar and TV producer. The two met when Mr. Doyle served as an advisor to Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture.
The authors claim that the stressful climate inside modern schools is holding students down. They find that the “supreme irony of the dark age of childhood over-testing, overpressure, stress and play deprivation in our public schools is that there is no evidence that it works, even when measured by the narrow metrics promoted by its own proponents – standardized test scores.”
Common Core came through two initiatives of the federal government, “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top.” Both programs required schools to prove that they met educational goals through a burdensome testing regime.
That obsession for testing was such that many classes spent massive amounts of time preparing for them. Schools de-emphasized and even dropped courses not related to tested areas. The testing itself often consumed weeks two or three times a year.
Within this test-happy context, states rated schools as successful, marginal, or unsuccessful. The schools used the scores to assess, punish or reward teachers. Teachers responded accordingly by regulating every minute of the day to focus on improving test results. Schools eliminated “time-wasting” activities like recess and nap time.
Mr. Sahlberg and Mr. Doyle denounce the “Global Education Reform Movement” or GERM. They find GERM “pitting schools against each other” as an incentive to raise scores. It institutes “one-size fits all teaching” and introduces “universal standardized testing.” Other common practices include “punishing schools and teachers,” eliminating “the arts and physical activity,” and “the crowding out and elimination of play.”
The effects of this regimen are serious. The authors quote psychologist Peter Gray of Boston College who says that “Over the past half century…anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism have increased sharply in children, adolescents, and young people.” Mr. Sahlberg and Mr. Doyle admit that “correlation is no guarantee of causation.” However, the tone of the book ascribes these harms to the high-stress nature of schools centered around testing.
The authors frequently compare this repressive atmosphere without play with that of Finnish schools, which have a recess after each forty-five-minute class. Physical activity and play give students a sharpened focus for the next class. The schools of Finland regularly rank high in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) evaluations.
The book also makes a solid case for another effect of GERM, the over-diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It does not break new ground here. However, abundant evidence proves that children who have no outlet for physical energy will tend to misbehave in class. This practice is especially harmful to boys. The authors point out that twenty percent of school-age boys are diagnosed with ADHD. They assert that the vast majority of these are erroneous.
This book does have its flaws. It is endlessly repetitive. The first four chapters spell out and substantiate the book’s case nicely, but the rest introduces little that is new.
The book is clearly a product of the left since it shares the common flaws found in leftist educational thought. A prime example is the class struggle narrative that appears in its criticism of American education. Thus, they state that “the problem in the United States, simply stated, is that decades of neglect, racial and economic segregation, poverty, and political mismanagement have devastated many schools, especially those in inner-city and poor areas.”
References to race and class oppression also pop up. For example, the authors quote the principal of the “Cornerstone Academy for Social Action” as saying that testing is “a form of modern-day slavery…designed to continue the proliferation of inequality in our society.”
On the contrary, they present Finland as a haven of equitable funding noted for its “gender equity.”
Despite its flaws, conservatives can profit much from reading Let the Children Play. It provides resources to oppose standardized testing. The book contradicts school officials who see unstructured activity as a waste of time, rather than part of the growing process. The book’s liberal slant gives it credibility with educrats who routinely dismiss criticism from the right.
The book would be much more refreshing if it drew the lines that link Deweyism to the Common Core. Likewise, one could wish that the connection between the Common Core to over-testing was more defined. Perhaps that is too much to ask. Nonetheless, parents who are trying to bring some sanity to their children’s schools will find much of value here. And children might be allowed to be children once again.