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Big Expectations for Little Kids: The Crisis in Early Childhood Education



In this chapter, I will discuss and analyse the impact of consecutive government policies on early childhood education and care in Australia. The new National Early Years Learning Framework in Australia formally enshrines the early years as a time to play, to be, to belong and to become (EYLF, 2009). However, the national testing agenda and its push-down effect on curriculum serve to erode the precious time in life that children enjoy as free from the constraints and worries of the adult world. I will argue that ‘drowning’ early childhood play in a regime of testing and economic rationalism will have long-term negative impacts for the children involved and the world they construct and operate in as adults. An analysis of Scandinavian education will provide a contrast to the current regime in Australia since many Scandinavian countries adopt a very different approach to the early years, seeing childhood as a unique and sacred time of life in which formal learning has little relevance.
Published in Down, B. & Smyth, J. (2012). Critical Voices in Teacher Education: Teaching for
Social Justice in Conservative Times. Dordrecht: Springer.
Big Expectations for Little Kids: The Crisis in Early Childhood Education.
Libby Lee-Hammond
Associate Professor
Murdoch University
Introduction and background
Last week, my son brought his homework to the kitchen while I was preparing
dinner. It was a worksheet requiring him to classify nouns and verbs. Whilst
completing this task with some help from across the room from me, he
surreptitiously wrote in perfectly executed cursive writing ‘this sucks’ on his
homework and photographed it on my iPhone™, he quickly erased his comment
before I could see it and left his sophisticated evaluation of his homework on my
smartphone. What a telling sign of the times when homework has so many
possibilities to be engaging and even enjoyable, yet kids continue to be assigned
tasks that they quite openly tell us really do ‘suck’. My son’s facility with
technologies has no place in the homework regime. And why is the dry and
decontextualised learning of nouns and verbs a priority in schools? Because
children sit tests that rate them against all the other children their age in our entire
nation. This in turn places their teachers under the microscope, the results of the
school are published on a government hosted publicly accessible website entitled
My School (ACARA, 2011) and parents, as consumers of education, can and do
look up the site to make comparisons between schools in their area when deciding
where to send their children to be educated. Under the guise of school
improvement, the site offers parents and communities detailed information of all
the schools finances and testing results and Barry McGaw, as Chair of
theAustralian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), in his
welcome letter to the site, boldly declares that the site enables higher achieving
schools the opportunity to act as a valuable resource for lower achieving schools
by creating opportunities for them to share their successful policies and practices
(McGaw in ACARA, 2011). In this chapter I will critique the view that national
testing and the publication of results is a step towards educational improvement.
Indeed I will argue that the very foundations of education are undermined by such
practices and that the deprofessionalisation of teachers, the demise of childhood
and the absence of meaningful learning are the outcomes of such practices
(Alquist, Gorski & Montaro, 2011; Stobart, 2008).
As an early childhood teacher educator, I despair at the impact of national testing
and programs delivered under the guise of ‘early intervention’ on the ever-
shortening childhoods of Australian children. Even more, I despair that the really
engaging and worthwhile teaching and learning that I prepare my students to
undertake is quickly forgotten in the ‘reality’ of what is required of them in
schools. One dilemma I face is how best to prepare students to utilise play based
pedagogies in a testing and standards oriented school system. Despite play based
pedagogies being enshrined in the national framework for early years learning
(Commonwealth of Australia, 2010), it is proving extremely difficult for graduate
teachers to make a case for play when there are tests to prepare for and pressure
from the parents and the principal to prepare children for formal learning and the
national tests. Why is play vanishing in the institution of schooling? Why after 11
years of teaching in university and graduating thousands of students are they not
able to legitimately utilise play as a medium for learning? Why is Australia taking
the same disastrous path as the UK and the US when there are rich early childhood
education models available to us in various European countries that offer children
a chance to experience freedom and creativity in childhood and an excellent formal
I encourage my students to think critically and to take risks and, in turn, be in a
position to enable children to take risks and think critically (Thomas & Kincheloe,
2006). I encourage my students to be prepared to be spontaneous, to follow
children’s lead and to create learning environments where higher order thinking
skills (Bloom, 1956) and pedagogies for multiliteracies (Yelland, Lee, O’Rourke &
Harrison, 2008) are valued, encouraged and indeed part of the everyday activities
in the learning environment. Instead, what students repeatedly report back to me
after their practical experience in schools is that preparation for testing, formal
learning and the dominance of paper and pencil based literacy and numeracy
activities dominate the school day. I advocate for transformative teacher education
that “requires more than simply being programmed to teach particular things in
particular ways; there must be a sense of openness…not predetermined by a
tertiary institution, or government, and that the purpose of education is necessarily
one of forming an identity” (Gibbons, 2011). What identities can I assist
undergraduate early childhood teachers to form in a tightly controlled regime
where they are not free to create curriculum that is responsive to children’s socio-
cultural contexts, interests and identities?
In this chapter I want to explore the broader dilemmas of preparing student
teachers to enact internationally recognised pedagogical approaches in early
childhood education in an environment where the economy drives our education
and social policies, national testing looms large and children, teachers, principals
and parents are under scrutiny. This scrutiny is based on what Thompson describes
as a “mechanism of control” (2007, p.10) exercised over schools and teachers and
based on the performance of children in a single national test. The National
Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is undertaken at
intervals in year three, five, seven and nine. More recently another on-entry test is
used to measure children’s literacy and numeracy performance in the first year of
school. Thompson (2007) notes that not only is testing in this manner problematic
from the point of view of being fair and accurate but also detrimental to students
and educators. He (2007) explains that “there is increasing anecdotal evidence that
despite the ‘commonsense’ explanation of NAPLAN as a fair and accurate
measure of student abilities, it seems to be deployed and experienced more as a
mechanism of control than an innovative revolutionary initiative. It is a modulatory
machine that produces fearful staff and student dispositions.” (p.10). And fearful
they are, the same child mentioned above who told me his homework sucks, at the
tender age of eight, was in tears the night before his year three NAPLAN test,
telling me he was worried that everyone would “find out I’m dumb”. We have a
crisis in Australian education.
Reforms in early childhood education and care in Australia
Two major reforms in Early Childhood education have taken place in recent years.
The first is the introduction of a national framework for early years learning and
the second is the introduction of a national curriculum. In this section I will
examine each of these documents and explain how, despite their purported
intentions, they each undermine the stated goal of our political leaders to promote
excellence in Australian schooling (Ministerial Council on Education,
Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, 2008, hereafter referred to as
MCEETYA, 2008).
The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia
The Australian Early Years Learning Framework, known as the EYLF
(Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR),
2009) acknowledges the significance of early childhood education in shaping
children’s identities and understandings of their world, creating opportunities for
them as individuals to realise their potential. The EYLF is framed around three
noble motifs:
Belonging: emphasising first a child’s identity as a member of a family, a
cultural group and a community,
Being: “the significance of the here and now…engaging in life’s joys and
complexities” (DEEWR, p.7) and,
Becoming: the process of change that occurs as children learn and grow.
The EYLF states that “the early childhood years are not solely about preparation
for the future but also about the present” (ibid, p.7). The notion of being ‘in the
moment’ in childhood is a refreshing one and one that values childhood as a time
to explore and engage with the world.
Five learning outcomes are identified in the EYLF for children participating in
early years learning programs from birth to five years, these outcomes are intended
to reflect the Melbourne Declaration on Education Goals for Young Australians
(MCEETYA, 2008) that “all young Australians become successful learners,
confident and creative individuals and active and informed citizens” (MCEETYA,
2008, p.8, Commonwealth of Australia, 2009, p. 5) Drawing on examples from
current policy and practice in early childhood education in Australia I want to
argue that the emphasis on testing and accountability is counterproductive to
advancing the stated goals of official policy pronouncement. Hursh (2008) explains
“preparing students to pass the tests, rather than to obtain a complex and
sophisticated understanding of the world.” (p. 3) leads to a diminished view of
young children’s education.
The Early Years Learning Framework emphasises that early childhood education is
ultimately an investment in human capital formation. An argument repeated in
many forums is that for every dollar spent in early childhood, society saves up to
sixteen dollars in later life (Calman & Whelan, 2005, Fitzgerald, 2010). I find this
formula particularly distasteful as it unashamedly takes a position that the economy
is the main beneficiary of quality early childhood education. Calman and Whelan
(2005) note in their report titled The Economic Impacts of Childcare and Early
Education: Financing Solutions for the Future that “investments in quality child
care and early childhood education do more than pay significant returns to
childrenour future citizens. They also benefit taxpayers and enhance economic
vitality” (p. 1).
More recently, Fitzgerald (2010) writes of the social and economic
benefits of early childhood education:
Children provided early childhood education are more likely to
proceed through school at grade level, have skilled jobs, attend college
and earn more money. These children are less likely to spend time on
welfare and in the legal system, use marijuana, and be regular smokers.
Early childhood education is a financial boon for the entire state
(Minnesota). It can realize a return on investment of as much as $16
for every dollar spent. Annual benefits of universal early childhood
education would pay for themselves within 17 years (p. 3).
Economic arguments for early childhood education such as the two examples
above, are at the heart of my dilemma as an early childhood teacher educator. My
passionate belief is that if we continue to measure, standardise and shift control of
our pedagogical work away from students, families and teachers to legislators, we
risk sacrificing the complexity, breadth and intellectual rigour of teaching and
learning. Testing requirements undermine student academic success, and more
particularly, despite the rhetoric, they only contribute to a widening of gap between
middle class students and those from racial and ethnic minorities and students
living in poverty (Hursh 2008; Lareau, 2000; Stobart, 2008).
A National Curriculum
The Australian Curriculum is the first national document to set out detailed content
descriptions for use in schools from preschool (Foundation) to year 12. In line
with my earlier discussion regarding the neoliberal construction of early childhood
education as an economic exercise, Ditchburn (2011) recognises “the introduction
of an Australian curriculum is intentionally positioned and designed from the ‘top
down’ to meet the needs of global markets and the economy, rather than
necessarily the needs of students or teachers” (p. 2). Because this chapter focuses
on early childhood education, and for the sake of discussion, I use elements of the
English curriculum to demonstrate the absurdity of prescribed curriculum for
preschool children. I also argue, along with other scholars (Reid, 2009) that the
stated goals of the curriculum are actually undermined by the curriculum itself.
A major criticism of the National Curriculum is that it is heavily prescribed and
does not afford educators an opportunity to respond to students in a range of socio-
economic contexts. Ditchburn (2011) further notes that the curriculum is
“disconnected from local realities … and adopted a one-size-fits-all approach” (p.
3). My own research (Lee, 2006) with early childhood programs in remote
Australian Aboriginal communities provides one such context as an example of
how the current reforms further marginalise an already marginalised group, a
discussion I will elaborate upon later in this chapter.
The rhetoric of ACARA (2011) is that “it is intended that jurisdictions, systems
and schools will be able to implement the Australian Curriculum
in ways that value teachers’ professional knowledge, reflect the local contexts and
take into account the individual’s family, culture and community background.”
(p.1). Such a notion is laudible and would provide student teachers with ample
opportunity to create curriculum that is innovative, contextually relevant and
tailored to the competencies of particular cohorts of children. However, the
following statement of content provides a clear indication of the level of
prescription regarding content and a view of literacy that is particularly narrow.
Students write one or more simple sentences to retell events and
experiences for a known audience. Their writing is connected
appropriately to illustrations and images produced as part of the
text. They link two or more ideas or events in written and spoken
texts. They use and understand familiar vocabulary, predictable
text structures and common visual patterns. The short texts they
produce show understanding of concepts about print including
letters, words and sentences. They use left to right directionality,
return sweep and spaces between words (ACARA, 2011, original
The level of linguistic sophistication required of children in the Foundation year is
quite extraordinary compared to curriculum offered to children in this age group a
decade ago and is the topic of much discussion among early childhood
professionals. For example, I subscribe to an online discussion forum for
Australian early childhood educators (P-3 discussion) who are frequently debating
the issues around the requirement for preschool children to construct a sentence in
writing, a requirement that was previously reserved for the more formal learning
that takes place in Year One. The concern, which I share, expressed by numerous
teachers in this forum is about prematurely introducing written sentence structure
to children who may not have had adequate exposure to pre-literacy experiences.
Such an approach may well have long-term detrimental consequences for a child
who is continually required to produce evidence of literacy skills that they are
simply not ready to achieve. Children who have had insufficient opportunity to
develop preliteracy skills in oral language are at particular risk (Roskos, Tabors &
Lenhart, 2009).
Social pedagogical approaches
There are numerous examples from Germany, Finland, Norway and Hungary to
attest that there is no long term benefit to starting formal reading and writing
earlier. Children in Scandinavian countries routinely commence school at least two
years later than Australian children, yet their performance on international tests in
secondary school show they are among the most literate populations in the world
(OECD, 2011). The pedagogical approach generally adopted in Scandinavian and
some European countries may be described as a social pedagogy tradition whereas
Australia, the UK and the US have taken a teacher directed, sequential approach.
A major point of divergence exists in approaches to curriculum and the view of the
child as a protagonist in their learning (Malaguzzi xxxx) and is explained by the
OECD thus: “In curricular design terms, the difference in approach may be
characterised as the adoption of a sequential learning approach in pre-primary
classes, while the social pedagogy tradition favours more holistic learning”
(OECD, 2006, p. 137).
Van Kuyk (in OECD, 2006), writing about the holistic approach offered in the
Netherlands critiques the sequential approach:
The sequential approach is primarily teacher directed and
offers limited opportunities for children to develop self-
regulation. Activities often fail to tap into children's
intrinsic motivation, because they do not authentically
meet the needs and interests of children. When this
intrinsic motivation is missing, the teacher will have to
work harder to engage the children in learning…learning
becomes artificial and uninteresting. In the holistic
approach, all developmental areas are addressed through
play and broad project work that encourage active learning
and multiple experiences in the major developmental
domains. With the help of experienced teachers (and
parents and older children), young children can choose
their activities and organise the projects, an excellent
experience in self-regulation and agency, and one that is
highly motivating (p. 137).
European nations adopting social pedagogy have amply demonstrated the
effectiveness of this approach in terms of long term student outcomes.
Unfortunately this model seems to have been overlooked by our Australian policy
makers thus making the work of preparing students to teach in the current context
in Australian schools frustrating to say the least. The influence of politicians of
various persuasions on the development of education policy has clearly had a
detrimental impact. A recent example of this occurred when I was aksed to give
evidence at a Parliamentary Inquiry into Literacy and Numeracy Education in
Western Australia. A State Government Minister, who was chairing the Inquiry,
reported by way of analogy to ‘fixing’ literacy problems, that when she takes her
Audi motor vehicle to the mechanic for a service, the technician refers to a manual
to fix the problem. She asked me in all sincerity why teachers can’t do that for
children and why I was not preparing them better to be able to do that. I replied
that children are not cars and teachers are not technicians. Her perspective on the
issue of what constitutes learning and teaching was made more alarming because
of her power to influence and shape legislation, policy and provision of Australian
As discussed above, the Australian National Curriculum, in my view, offers a
narrow interpretation of what it means to be literate, since for over a decade
leading researchers in literacy education have been investigating a broader focus of
literacy in schools to reflect the multimodal and digital texts so integral to life in
the 21st Century. The literacies required in the digital age have been described in
the literature as multiliteracies (Cope & Kalantzis 2000; Yelland, Lee, O'Rourke &
Harrison, 2008). The multiliteracies framework (New London Group 1996) defines
print literacy and a variety of multimodal communication as different kinds of
literacies. Multiliteracies is a term used to encompass interrelations between
linguistically and culturally diverse print, visual and audio texts, and the term
includes the communicative skills of speaking, writing and reading. However it
appears that the new curriculum ignores the multiple modalities afforded children
in the 21st Century (Yelland et al, 2008; Harrison, Lee, O’Rourke & Yelland,
So what does a critically reflective teacher do? Early childhood teacher educators
spend a significant amount of time exploring with students the ways that they can
come to know the children they teach in terms of their competencies and strengths.
Through play based pedagogies they are able to enrich and extend children’s
learning in complex and engaging ways. Students explore a range of devices for
observing and documenting children’s learning in inclusive, relationship-based
environments and play contexts. This deep knowledge of children’s ways of
knowing seems to be irrelevant in the current climate of performance based
education. How then, do I prepare my students to function in a professional
environment that requires them to ignore their own professional judgements about
children’s ‘readiness’ and the international evidence of the benefits of learning
through play, to simply teach the curriculum as prescribed by legislators? I can’t
and I won’t and that’s what concerns me. For me, it is an ethical issue and a
dilemma. I am simply not prepared to teach students in this way but then again, if I
don’t they will drown in the system. So my best hope in this crisis in education is
to assist students to think critically, to be political and to advocate for authentic
learning and teaching. The best tool I can give them is to help them cultivate an
identity as a critical professional educator rather than a de-skilled worker who
delivers programs and performance outcomes for a government wedded to neo-
liberal policies.
On-entry testing in Australian schools
In 2006 the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed that an ‘on-entry’
assessment program be introduced across all states and territories. In Western
Australia, children entering pre-primary (the first full time year of school) will
undertake an ‘online interview’ between weeks four and eight of the first term of
school. According to the Department of Education WA, “The main objective of the
program in Western Australia is to provide information to assist teachers in
developing informed and intentional teaching for PLAY BASED [sic] programs,
reflective of each child’s needs - those that may require or benefit from early
intervention, consolidation or extension (DOE 2011). The capitalisation of the
words PLAY BASED on the Department website suggests that there are
individuals within the bureaucracy who see great potential for the online interview
to lead to a formal academic program that jeopardises play based learning and
although bureaucrats are obliged to enforce the will of the Government of the day,
they have some influence on how information is provided to the public and can and
do make clear their concerns.
It is the content of the online interview that is most concerning, since it organises
and compartmentalises learning into subject areas at the earliest point in children’s
schooling. On entry to school children are asked to respond to a series of questions
and tasks to measure their knowledge and skills. In the literacy interview they are
asked to respond to tasks in speaking, rhyming words, concepts of print, words,
sounds and letters, listening and recalling and ‘having a go’ at writing. While the
numeracy interview focuses on the number sequence, counting, partitioning
(seeing numbers in parts),!comparing and ordering length and shapes and
positional!language (DETWA, 2011).
Traditionally, early childhood education has been viewed as emphasising a process
orientation over finished products and providing correct answers to closed tasks
and questions (Krieg, 2011), however in the neo-liberal era, a shift has taken place
to measure children’s content knowledge in literacy and numeracy in order to
provide intervention for those who do not reach certain standards on entry to
school. Krieg (ibid) problematises the place of the newly emerging emphasis on
subject knowledge in early childhood education and rightly notes that content
knowledge is contestable and unfinished and that the EYLF foregrounds particular
subject areas such as mathematics and maintains the “privileged position of some
ideas over others” (2011, p. 50).
Earlier work by, Moll, Amanti, Neff, and Gonzalez (2001) poses a very different
model to the commencement of schooling whereby teachers are encouraged to
familiarise themselves not with content knowledge but with children’s ‘funds of
knowledge’. This refers “to the historically accumulated and culturally developed
bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning
and well-being” (p. 133). The funds of knowledge approach affords teachers an
opportunity to become teacher researchers and to tap into the rich resources that
children bring from their home and community. These resources can be utilised by
teachers to provide a curriculum that is responsive and relevant to students. Such
an approach has great merit in developing relationships with children in which they
feel valued as contributors to the classroom endeavour (Bingham & Sidorkin,
2004). The commitment to children’s funds of knowledge and the relationship of
children’s learning to their family, home and community are now famously
demonstrated by the educational project in the Reggio Emilia schools in Italy.
Relationship based pedagogy and the notion of education as a continual research
process are the hallmarks of the Reggio Emilia schools (Malaguzzi, 1993; Gandini,
1993) and they provide a refreshing contrast to what I see as the demise of
authentic early childhood education in Australia.
Voices from the field
So what do practitioners make of this shift? To encourage exchange of professional
dialogue among students and the profession I recently set up a Facebook®
Community Page titled Early Years Learning (Lee-Hammond, 2011). I posted a
link to a story about an American mother suing a preschool for putting her child’s
Ivy League chances at risk by not teaching sufficient formal academic skills
(Martinez, 2011). Following this post a discussion took place between practicing
teachers and some of my students who voluntarily subscribe to the page. The
discussion between them highlights the very things I discuss in this chapter, the
dilemmas that practicing teachers face in a changing educational landscape and the
frustration of students who know there is a different and preferable approach but
have few opportunities to see or implement in practice. Some excerpts from that
conversation to support the arguments advanced in this chapter:
Teacher 1: In my district there is very little play in Prep, there
is mostly skill-based rotations. After studying my Masters, I
find it very disappointing to see early years education going
down a road of mostly behaviourist approaches to meet
District expectations. I believe we are headed in this direction
for a number of reasons including NAPLAN focus and
comparison of States and schools and pushes from people
above who do not necessarily have an understanding of current
research in early years education. Another concern for me is
that because there are benchmarks being introduced (such as
how many sight words need to be recognised, reading levels
etc), many pre-literacy experiences are not being offered to
children (e.g. simply singing nursery rhymes to develop an
understanding of rhythm and rhyme) due to pressure. Many
children in my District do not have access to these early
experiences prior to school and do not have the phonological
skills that can be helpful in literacy learning later.
Overcrowded curriculum, huge expectations and a move
toward results rather than learning to love learning are many
contributing factors in my opinion.
Teacher 2: I agree, I am in the Kimberley and have seen this
push on Indigenous kids, who are ESL/D learners.
Student:!My concern was exactly what you have been
discussing here... that the push to improve literacy and
numeracy outcomes has resulted in a declining incidence of
play-based opportunities for learning. Surely it is possible to
address these outcomes within a play-based curriculum????
Teacher 3: I'm a year 1 teacher who is back part time after
having children. I am finding the formal instruction in early
years alarming!!!
Teacher 4: Me too I feel stressed and I know the kids are too!
This conversation is happening in classrooms and schools around the nation and
the accountability machine is sucking the life out of our best and brightest teachers.
I recently visited a school where I had worked on an action learning project with a
group of early childhood teachers a couple of years ago, when I inquired about a
particular teacher who was one of the most outstanding early childhood educators I
have ever encountered, her dismayed colleagues informed me that she had suffered
a breakdown. Her colleagues believed this was a direct result of the strain of
working in a system that did not allow her to teach in the ways she knew were the
most successful, rich and meaningful for young children. She has since left the
Another teacher working in the pre-primary at the same school confided that she
was having fortnightly ‘accountability’ meetings with her principal to present her
program in order demonstrate that what she was doing was going to improve the
summative test scores of her class of five year olds.
This teacher openly discussed her program with me explaining that teaching to the
test is the only way that she can guarantee the level of improvement in test scores
required by her principal. She expressed concern at having to introduce number
sentences in addition (i.e. 4+2=) to children who were not ready. She believed they
should be experiencing a range of rich numeracy tasks in concrete addition
situations before the addition symbol was introduced (most commonly this is not
introduced until Year One). However, despite her training and knowledge of
appropriate practice in early numeracy, she is under fortnightly pressure from her
principal to teach this particular equation in order to improve class and school
Like other Catholic schools, this school is required by the Catholic Education
Office to adopt the PIPS (Performance Indicators for Primary Schools) test as an
on entry test for children entering preprimary (typically 5 year olds) and the
teachers are expected to demonstrate an improvement in student learning via a
‘post test’ at the end of the year. The data is centrally recorded and principals have
their own performance indicators directly aligned with student performance on
these tests. The name of the test itself is terminology more usually found in the
business world where performance indicators are routinely used to measure
productivity, these are not not usually terms associated with young children’s
learning in early education. Performance indicators that predict student trajectories
contradict the vast literature spanning many decades in psychology and education
research regarding the impact of teacher expectations on self fulfilling prophecies
and student performance (Jussim & Eccles, 1992; Rist, 2009).
Student Feedback
Like most academic staff in a University I routinely undertake student evaluations
of my teaching and have done so for over 12 years. This year for the first time I
received a comment from an undergraduate early childhood teacher that stated
“while I agree with the play based and children’s interest approach, I’m worried it
won’t meet government demands” and this is further evidence that decades of
research in early childhood education are under serious threat due to the global
impact of neoliberalism as it penetrates the Australian education system in the
wake of the No Child Left Behind Act (Carr & Porfilio, 2011; United States
Government, 2001) . As Hursh (2008) notes, the reforms in school curriculum and
pedagogy are now firmly focussed on teaching students skills and knowledge for a
productive workforce and a globally competitive economy. According to Hursh
(ibid) this is the most blatant attempt in history to support and “visibly promote
neoliberal theories and policies, which promote economic profit and growth over
all other social goals” (p.4).
Equity for Australian Aboriginal Learners in Early Childhood
In the above extract from the Facebook page one teacher introduces a dimension to
this debate that I wish to explore briefly this chapter. Equity and disadvantage are
not only perpetuated but reinforced in the neo-liberal regime where test scores
count and ‘funds of knowledge’ (Moll, 2001) are irrelevant (Hursh, 2008). An
example from my research in Aboriginal early childhood education (Lee-
Hammond, 2010) highlights how in everyday practices teachers in the early years,
under pressure to teach formal literacy and numeracy skills are missing the mark
with students and perpetuating the ‘gap’ in educational outcomes between
Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children.
In 2009 I interviewed a 7 year old Aboriginal boy who I will call Harry, he lives in
a remote Western Australian Aboriginal community, I asked him to tell me what
happens during a typical day at school, while hearing stories about playing soccer,
swinging on the monkey bars, taking the lunch orders to the canteen and being
‘Star of the Day’ he told me “the teacher says ‘we’re gonna (sic) do hard things
now’ and that’s when she hands out all the papers”. This comment resonated with
and saddened me as I had observed Harry in class and noticed his demeanor
change instantly when formal paper and pencil work was brought into the program.
During my visit, he was being taught the letter ‘V’ in isolation. The teacher was
using resources from the dominant non-Aboriginal culture including photocopied
pictures of violins and violets that had little or indeed no relevance or connection
to his Aboriginal culture, family and community. His very sound funds of
knowledge were ignored. A teacher under pressure has little time to think of ways
to enable children like Harry to access their home and community knowledge to
make sense of phonology, phonics, semantic knowledge and syntax essential in the
orchestration of reading and writing (Hudson, Pullen, Lane & Torgesen, 2009).
Similarly, children from low socio-economic or disadvantaged backgrounds,
refugee or migrant children with English as a second language and children with
English as a second dialect are at a significant disadvantage in the testing regime.
Their command of the basics is prioritised by the system at the cost of meaning,
relevance and contextualisation.
The disadvantage afforded to minority children is highlighted by Hursh (2008)
who notes that in the US some low performing students have been encouraged to
skip a day at school when the tests are being taken or to drop out, thereby serving
the schools need to score well on the tests. Similar stories are reported in the
Australian media at the time of our national testing each year. By pushing the
neoliberal agenda and assigning economic benefit to test scores, our system is
failing the very students it is designed to serve. It is a brutal system that rewards
the middle class as well as children with learning difficulties and punishes those
groups in our community who are disadvantaged on a whole range of measures. It
is a system in which I find myself constantly in conflict as a teacher educator.
As an exercise whilst writing this chapter, I located my own Kindergarten report
from 1973 when I attended school in NSW, it consisted of a one page document
with hand drawn figures of children learning to share, to take care of their
belongings and doing up buttons and zips, the stated intention of this document
was to introduce children to school as “a happy learning place”. I was rated on this
report as either developing at a satisfactory rate, requiring further help or
performing with ease. In light of the massive changes that have occurred in early
childhood education in my lifetime, I decided to contact my former school and ask
for a copy of their current Kindergarten report. I was not surprised that in 2011 I
was sent a seven-page document with detailed information in each of the key
learning areas and within each there were strands with detailed descriptors of
achievement. Students in 2011 are rated as achieving at a standard that is
Outstanding, Satisfactory or Basic. Times have certainly changed but it’s not a
flash in the pan, we are in danger of losing the very essence of what it means to
teach and learn because we are entrenched in a political system wedded to neo-
liberalism as if there is no other choice. I would like to argue there is a choice and
it involves the profession taking a unified position to boycott national testing and
to lobby at the local and federal level to expose the inadequacies of a system that
purports that testing and standards are the only way to improve learning. Such
claims are a nonsense. As Hursh argues “we must become politically engaged in
changing education policies. It is not enough to work in our own classrooms and
schools; we must educate the public about the purposes of democratic schooling
and the harm that the recent reforms have caused to those goals” (2008, p. 11).
I liken the situation in early childhood education in Australia to the nursery rhyme
about the Incy Wincy Spider, young children in our nation strive to climb up the
water spout of our schools, but there is a struggle to reach the top with formalised
curriculum and standards that must be achieved and if the children don’t succeed in
tests that rain washes them back down to the bottom of the spout. We can only
hope that with resistance from critically reflective practitioners that some sunshine
will come to dry up that rain.
Alquist, R., Gorski, P., and Montaño, T. (2011). Assault on kids: How hyper-
accountability, corporatization, deificit ideologies, and Ruby Payne are destroying
our schools. New York: Peter Lang.
Au, W. W. (2008). Unequal by design: High stakes testing and the standardization
of inequality. London: Taylor and Francis.
Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) My
School. Accessed April 26th, 2011.
Bingham, C.W., Sidorkin, A. M. (Ed.), Kincheloe, J. L. (Ed.), (2004). No
education without!"#$%&'()*!New!York:!Peter!Lang.!
Current trends in Australian education highlight the importance of a positive start to school. These trends are informed by national and international research which positions a positive start to school as an element of future social, educational, and economic success (Alexander & Entwisle, 1998; Dunlop & Fabian, 2007; Kagan & Tarrant, 2010; Pianta, Cox, & Snow, 2007; Sayers et al., 2012; Smart, Sanson, Baxter, Edwards, & Hayes, 2008). While the emphasis on a positive start to school holds for all children, it has been advocated as particularly important for children described as “marginalized” or “disadvantaged” (McTurk, Lea, Nutton, & Carpetis, 2011).
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In The phenomenon of Obama and the agenda for education: Can hope audaciously trump neoliberalism?, Paul R. Carr and Brad J. Porfilio bring together some of the most well-respected transformative scholars and practitioners in order to provide a critical examination of the Obama administration’s educational agenda. The volume aims to go beyond the rhetoric generated by the mass media, political pundits, and large-scale corporations that suggests that neoliberal educational policies will ameliorate schools, a failing economy, and the social ills plaguing US society. The contributors to this book diagnose how the proposed and actual educational policies seek to bolster corporations in their quest to profit off youths’ bodies and minds as well as, importantly, producing, in many instances, compliant teachers and students who lack the fortitude and engagement to question the inequitable power relations that cause untold human suffering, misery and environmental degradation at today’s historical juncture. Some of the chapters examine how specific neoliberal educational policies embraced by the Obama administration, such as charter schools, standardized examinations, merit pay, and accountability schemes, are having an deleterious impact on minoritized students and communities across the US. Finally, several contributors design narratives of resistance for educators, caregivers, scholars, and other concerned citizens. Their visions and ideals give us hope that it is, indeed, possible to eradicate the commercial forces responsible for the proliferation of joblessness, homelessness, poverty, and militarized, underfunded, and commercialized educational spaces, as well as the school-to-prison pipeline within the US, which frames the intense suffering, misery, and oppression infiltrating most social contexts across the globe. As for the question contained in the title of the book--Can hope audaciously trump neoliberalism?--, Carr and Porfilio develop a framework that problematizes how the Obama administration has presented an extremely constrained, conservative notion of change in and through education. The rhetoric has not been matched by meaningful, tangible, transformative proposals, policies and programs aimed at transformative change. There are many reasons for this, and, according to the contributors to this book, it is clear that neoliberalism is a major obstacle to stimulating the hope that so many have been hoping for. Addressing systemic inequities embedded within neoliberalism, Carr and Porfilio argue, is key to achieving the hope so brilliantly presented by Obama during the campaign that brought him to the presidency. From the back-cover: The times call for audacious and courageous responses to an education reform agenda that, sadly even under President Obama, embodies standardization, privatization, and competition at the expense of equity and a democratic vision of education. The authors of The Phenomenon of Obama offer such a response and bring us back to the true purpose of education: to nurture teaching and learning, collaboration, community, and social justice. Sonia Nieto, Professor Emerita, University of Massachusetts, Amherst Paul Carr and Brad Porfilio's book is thus a desperately necessary shot of critical democratic sobriety on the confusing politics of U.S. public education. More than ever before we need this type of serious institutional analysis, not myth-making media points, if we are to dare a new social order (either with the schools or without them). Richard Kahn, Education Department, Antioch University Los Angeles The perspectives offered by a wonderfully diverse collection of contributors provide a glimpse into the complex, multilayered factors that shape, and are shaped by, institutions of schooling today. The analyses presented in this text are critical as globalization and neoliberalism exert increasing levels of control over the public institutions meant to support the common good. Readers of this book will be well prepared to participate in the dialogue that will influence the future of public education in this nation – a dialogue that must seek the kind of change that represents hope for all students. Julie A. Gorlewski, Faculty of Education, SUNY New Paltz The Phenomenon of Obama and the Agenda for Education provides a justified critical analysis of the anti-democratic education reform initiatives being launched by powerful elites in the U.S. In times of increasing social, economic, and educational inequality, the sharp critique offered by this volume is one part lament, one part righteous indignation, and totally necessary. Wayne Au, Editor, Rethinking Schools, & Faculty of Education, University of Washington – Bothell Campus This urgently needed collection exposes the neoliberal architecture of the Obama administration’s initiatives within and beyond education. These careful essays describe the economic, political, and philosophical formations underlying this administration’s market-driven approaches to teaching and learning, as well as revealing the ideological strategies through which elites sell their one-sided policies to the public. Carr and Porfilio have compiled an engaging and indispensable resource for researchers, educators, and activists interested in understanding and confronting the contemporary corporatization and instrumentalization of education. Noah De Lissovoy, Faculty of Education, University of Texas at Austin.
Full-text available
Early childhood education and care have assumed importance in many government policy agendas. This attention is often accompanied by calls for greater accountability regarding the anticipated learning outcomes for young children. In Australia, the expected learning outcomes for children aged birth to five years are outlined in the recently published Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF). In this article, the author examines the relationship between the EYLF's outcomes and subject area or content knowledge. The article draws from post-structural and social constructionist understandings of knowledge as unfinished, contestable and contextual. The author concludes that it is not content knowledge itself that is problematic, but it is the way the child and teacher are often positioned in relation to that knowledge that constrains the potential for effective teaching and learning in the early years. The author suggests that revisiting traditional assumptions about content knowledge extends and develops many of the ideas about teaching and learning that are identified in the EYLF, and opens up new identity positions for both children and early childhood educators.
This paper e xamines curriculum debates, particularly those that influence an understanding of the nature and purpose of curriculum, in providing teacher education and in influencing teaching practice. The work of Martin Heidegger provides a framework for questioning the early childhood teacher education curriculum. Central to this analysis are tensions between coherence and diversity; and training and education. For instance, a tension exists between perceiving the practice of educating early childhood teachers as a practice of downloading the 'right' knowledge about children, childhood, and pedagogy; alternatively, early childhood teacher education is perceived as a practice of providing a space in which a teacher may develop a 'teaching self'.
Assessment dominates our lives but its good intentions often produce negative consequences. An example that is central to this book is how current forms of assessment encourage shallow 'for-the-test' learning. It is true to say that as the volume of assessment increases, confidence in what it represents is diminishing. This book seeks to reclaim assessment as a constructive activity which can encourage deeper learning. To do this the purpose, and fitness-for-purpose, of assessments have to be clear. Gordon Stobart critically examines five issues that currently have high-profile status: intelligence testing; learning skills; accountability; the 'diploma disease'; formative assessment. Stobart explains that these form the basis for the argument that we must generate assessments which, in turn, encourage deep and lifelong learning. This book raises controversial questions about current uses of assessment and provides a framework for understanding them. It will be of great interest to teaching professionals involved in further study, and to academics and researchers in the field.