Nancy Bailey: Acceleration: The Meaning Behind the Buzzword
Nancy Bailey co-wrote the book on education jargon, so she’s the perfect blogger to provide some insight into the history and educational use of the word that is having a policy moment right now–acceleration. Reposted from her blog with permission .
Acceleration is the new pandemic buzzword brought to you by pro-privatization school reformers. Students may have missed some in-person schooling, even though most learned remotely or in person. Still, the frenzy surrounding learning loss is mounting.
The pandemic has given rise to a new way to reframe the old learning gap talk, with new terminology, acceleration. If students have missed out on schoolwork, they’re told they need to accelerate and catch up if they’ve fallen behind.
The fear is that the pandemic will be used as an excuse to push students harder. Poor students will bear the brunt of this, a doubling down on strictness.
But all students are affected when advanced learning disregards a child’s development.
This message has festered for years, starting with No Child Left Behind. Failure was not an option, we were told, as they continually raised the ante. If students did well, the test wasn’t hard enough. If they did poorly, teachers were blamed.
Then came Race to the Top. If racing isn’t accelerating, what is? Here we got Common Core, repeatedly shown to be lacking, most recently by Tom Loveless at the Brookings Institute.
But it doesn’t seem to matter that Common Core fails. It’s hard to find any curriculum program that doesn’t have the word core in it.
How have these policies hurt students? They’ve raised expectations to unnatural levels.
In 2015, long before the pandemic, Erika Christakis described it well in The Atlantic.
Step into an American preschool classroom today, and you are likely to be bombarded with what we educators call a print-rich environment, every surface festooned with alphabet charts, bar graphs, word walls, instructional posters, classroom rules, calendars, schedules, and motivational platitudes—few of which a 4-year-old can “decode,” the contemporary word for what used to be known as reading.
Pedagogy and curricula have changed, too, most recently in response to the Common Core State Standards Initiative’s kindergarten guidelines. Much greater portions of the day are now spent on what’s called “seat work” (a term that probably doesn’t need any exposition) and a form of tightly scripted teaching known as direct instruction, formerly used mainly in the older grades, in which a teacher carefully controls the content and pacing of what a child is supposed to learn.
In 2016, Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham, and Anna Rorem asked, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?”
Recent accounts suggest that accountability pressures have trickled down into the early elementary grades and that kindergarten today is characterized by a heightened focus on academic skills and a reduction in opportunities for play.
They [teachers] devoted more time to advanced literacy and math content, teacher-directed instruction, and assessment and substantially less time to art, music, science, and child-selected activities.
Don’t forget the original definition of kindergarten. It means the children’s garden.
In 2002, educator Susan Ohanian’s book What Happened to Recess and Why are our Children Struggling in Kindergarten? said everything in the title. The book is a painful but necessary read.
If there’s doubt about the importance of recess, or the trouble with making young children sit for long periods, or the consequences of denying children frequent breaks, also read Recess: Its Role in Education and Development by Anthony D. Pellegrini, or Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown, M.D.
Today, children are lucky if they get one 20-minute break! Often even this is micromanaged by adults telling children what they should play.
How could anyone think it’s fine to deny young learners intermittent breaks during the day to recharge while wondering why children don’t get high test scores?
The age where students bumble their way into puberty is not for the faint of heart. Children must think about a career, not in a curious manner, but with a serious career assessment that determines what track they’re on and the information collected online.
Teacher Phyllis L. Fagell wrote in The Washington Post in 2015:
The stress level among my 13 and 14-year-old students approximates what I saw several years ago when I counseled high school seniors. There is a sense that they need to follow a prescribed path, to perform well in every discipline. Parents and students fear that even middle school choices might have an impact on college admissions.
Some school districts promote high school coursework in middle school because high school doesn’t come soon enough in a child’s life.
There was talk in the past by those who want to privatize schools to let students end high school early. (See The New York Times High Schools to Offer Plan to Graduate 2 Years Early by Sam Dillon, 2010), but it didn’t seem to become popular.
Now the current idea is to make the high school into a community college.
For years high school students have been pushed to take AP courses.
This past year has been difficult for students, and some may not have learned as much as possible due to the pandemic. They may need help to pick themselves up, and if that’s what the school means by acceleration, fine. But ask if classes will include realistic age-appropriate expectations.
It’s also not to say that advanced classwork doesn’t have its place. No child should be kept back from learning what they need at the speed at which they require it. It involves good teaching, discussion, and observation to determine how to make learning challenging but not overwhelming.
But putting all children on the fast track is dangerous. Many will shut down if they can’t do the work and see themselves as failures.
No brain science says a kindergartener should be doing first-grade work, or a middle schooler needs high school courses. Making it seem like that’s a normal thing to do is what’s dangerous. It will leave many children, capable of learning well, behind.
Some children can navigate their way through the accelerated pressure. Others won’t. Acceleration. When you see that word, ask who’s saying it and why.