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Stand Against "Readiness"

Publication Date: 2004-02-17

The author asks an important question: Why do we want to define children as ready or not? He calls on concerned educators to bury the term.

In the spirit of political advocacy for young children and their families, I would like to open the topic of AGAINST things. Usually I prefer to advocate FOR things, but sometimes against is warranted. I think we have to clear away some of the rubbish that lies about before we can build the future we want.

I would like to discuss the word "readiness."

Ready for kindergarten?
Good programs get children ready for school.
School readiness is a goal.
Assessment of school readiness is important.
We have to make sure all children are ready for school.

January 2004 issue of Young Children has an article entitled, "School Readiness Assessment" by Kelly Maxwell and Richard Clifford, edited by Diane Horm.

Some quotes from their article seem to me to be both sensible and agreeable:

"Children are not innately ready or not ready for school." p. 42

"It is the school's responsibility to educate all children who are old enough to legally attend school, regardless of their skills." p. 43

"Most school readiness assessments focus on one part of the puzzle--the child." p. 43

"Even with the National Education Goals Panel's work and many years of research and discussion, a common definition of school readiness remains elusive." p. 45

And here is the problem I want to address: if it is indeed the school's responsibility, why do we want to define children as ready or not? Odd, isn't it? One would think that given the murkiness of defining "education" in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-multi society, the search for defining and assessing readiness is, at best, useless, at worst, a diversion. It shifts the focus to exactly the wrong place: the child. It is like the old joke about the drunk searching for his keys under the streetlamp across the street from where he dropped it. Why? "Because the light is better over here."

Yet the search and press for "readiness" seems to grow stronger every year. Few are talking directly about its bias. I see it as another form of institutionalizing discrimination.

I invite you to travel into this with me. If one were rational about the problem, it seems to me, the logic would go this way.

1. In the common sense view, many parents are concerned about the future lives of their own children. Part of that picture is that they want their children to be successful in school, whatever success means. All our children are different, with different talents and perspectives, so success is rather undefined in its positive sense, other than the reality that those who do very well in school make a lot more money in their lives. Also, parents may picture avoiding their own remembered feelings of failure, self-doubt, and despair. We all know how schools have destroyed parts of us.

2. Schools ought to be enabling all children to be successful. Isn't that truly the goal we share? We see that schools do not enable all children to live more fully developed lives, and we think we are collectively recognizing the reasons for this. We do have a few documented facts.

3. The differences among children in various skills, knowledge and dispositions at age 6 are amplified by the time they reach high school. A little difference when young is a huge difference when older. School spreads people apart. (Benjamin Bloom, Human Characteristics and School Learning, 1976)

4. Children who have quality early experiences prior to 18 months (brain research) and use and hear complex language (Hart & Risley, Meaningful Differences, 1995) generally do just fine in school, in their own unique ways. They can play the game. Their synapses are not "pruned" and they find it natural to use language to think with.

5. Most of the important development in human beings occurs in opportunities where children play with other children, the more diverse the better. Through play and daily life, they become socially adept; they can lead and follow, make friends, lose friends, and restore friends. They come to know others and build the being of others (fascinating thought when you consider it). They become able in natural ways to initiate actions for their own betterment, the betterment of others, and the betterment of the community. They inquire, investigate, and represent in diverse ways. They come to love. It seems all integrated into daily life, on the farm, in the desert, and in schools.

6. Therefore, it seems logical that if we want all children to "succeed," we need good experiences for them, what Dewey would call "educative" experiences, ones that lead to openness, renewal, and engagement, and lead on into the next learning.

7. To achieve this, we invest in quality early education in a wide variety of settings for our youngest children, just as parents with power do for their children staying home, or hiring nannies, or buying quality school experiences. It is essential that resources be transferred from the wealthy for the education of all children. Of course, the need for resources continues. It means, as well, that we invest in smaller and fully funded public elementary through high schools and teachers. It naturally continues on into higher education after that.

This view, of course, assumes it is valuable and beneficial for ALL OF US to invest in the common good, even if we don't have children, because the returns multiply as bread upon the waters. It benefits all of us economically (bright, inventive, hard working, and capable producers), benefits all of us socially (caring and bonded to each other communities), and benefits all of us physically (humans invested in responsibility for life, in all its forms, unending, on the planet). It seems not only logical, but also essential, to me.

But the present power holders do not want to divert any money into education or teachers or, for that matter, any public agency. The power holders apparently want to avoid creating educated people immune to propaganda or who might become a united political constituency. So the power holders unite to prohibit a political discussion of the Seven Steps of Reason above. Our common resources, largely raised by taxing the lower and middle classes, are, in their mind, for the military to "defend" property interests and wealth extraction abroad and for vital assistance to insider friends to promote corporate profits, and, in turn, ensure their own re-election. Power acts directly opposite what most people would call the common good.

Instead of looking at schools as the source of the problem, the powerful twist the issue. They frame it as a problem that lies within the children. They turn us away from examining what we can do together for schools to blame the children. Now we ask, "Are the children ready or are they not ready?" To help, we have to judge children. Assess them. Hold public employees accountable. The aim is diverted from considering ways to construct more ideal early education to the child's "school readiness."

The word "readiness" means someone is making a judgment about another human being, in some magical, predictive way, about something that might or might not happen in some context in the future. It is based on the facts that we see older children failing in middle school or high school. (Of course, nothing can be done about those older ones other than make school compulsive, take attendance every period, provide open toilets, and make schools more like jail.) This view looks at the very young as future failures instead of little ones who haven't failed anything yet and love to play. These are very young human beings standing before the assessor: this one --- this little four-year-old --- coming into the larger world from the experience of birth, thriving, and home. Look at him or her right now. "Is she or he ready for school?"

The ideas of "readiness" and "readiness assessment," when applied to children rather than to schools, are pejorative. "Readiness" is a negative idea, like "learning disability." It isn't defined by what one can do, but by what one cannot do. And it blames the "not-doer." It implies the "not-doer" and his or her parents are deficient. So the child needs fixing or therapy or some kind of correction.

"Readiness" promotes the idea that some young human beings are IN and some are OUT. The twisted version of caring for children becomes focused on identifying the bad ones. If we can find the OUT's, somebody will (might) do something to correct that condition in him or her. Of course, it goes without saying, the "ready" ones are fine. The end result is a way of thinking that creates a stigma for a varied group of young human beings, the "not-readys."

I can hear the rationale: "Yes, it's unfortunate that we have to do this, but we do it to help them." The unspoken reality is nobody will do anything about "it" because there is no "it." Nobody knows what "it" is and nothing really can be done anyway. The unspoken reality is that there is no money for the doing. That fact was in the ground rules: we started with the idea of cutting back money for schools and teachers. Money for children is off limits. I know those who openly proclaim, "We will nibble at the public sector until it is so small it blows away."

What is most distressing is the way many in the education establishment buy in to this movement toward authoritarian populism. The evidence for their defection lies in saying things like this. This is from a document funded by the American Federation of Teachers:

"Nonetheless, the lack of quality early childhood education programs in the United States is evident in the significant percentage of children starting kindergarten without the necessary skills to do well in school. Too many of these children lack critical preliminary skills such as knowledge of letters and numbers, how to hold a book, or how to interact positively with their peers or teachers. When unaddressed early on, these deficiencies contribute to the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students--a gap that has narrowed over time, but that still remains too wide."
"At the Starting Line" by Darion Griffin and Giselle Lundy-Ponce

And money drives the educational establishment buy-in, like this:

Early Childhood Educator Professional Development Program applications for New Awards for Fiscal Year (FY) 2004 are available. You can find the application information in the Federal Register: February 5, 2004 (Volume 69, Number 24) 5523-5526 or at

The Early Childhood Educator Professional Development (ECEPD) program, which is authorized under No Child Left Behind, provides partnership grants at the local level to enhance the school readiness of young children, particularly disadvantaged young children, and to prevent them from encountering difficulties once they enter school. The US Department of Education has particular interest in receiving applications that focus on providing professional development for early childhood educators who work with young children (including infants or toddlers, as applicable) with: limited English proficiency; disabilities, as identified under Parts B or C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; or other special needs.

Let's examine what this way of thinking does to programs. The failure of older children at academic tasks of elementary and middle school becomes the rationale for pressing academic behaviors upon younger and younger groups of children. We pushed down 1st Grade into Kindergarten, despite the widespread protests of parents and teachers. Now we push down standards for "literacy" for four-year-olds without any logic or sensitivity to human development, as well.

The current authoritarian populist federal policy manipulates the system to reward direct instruction in academic tasks of four- and five-year-olds, rationalized with biased research, with punishments lined up for those who do not comply. Behind this approach is a fundamental assumption that we --- all of us, parents, teachers, and all those involved in early education in our country --- are incompetent. We are the reason the children are deficient. If there is valid reason for our apparent "incompetence," it is the box squeezing so tightly around us: low wages for parents and providers, no health care for children, and no education support for teachers. It is all we can do to get by living on the edge in our love for children. Today we find ourselves without financial support in a twisted national policy that stands in judgment of us and prescribes to us what we have to do to. The box squeezes tighter.

We cannot, ethically, remain silent when the powerful pass laws and regulations that treat the early childhood community in inhuman ways and preclude providing resources to do anything differently. To help us acquiesce and remain silent, we cannot be mesmerized by corporate, tax deductible (of course) funding of fancy brochures and TV programs to strum our heartstrings and make the tyranny appealing or deny its existence.

One way we can fight back is to deny the power people the wool they place in our eyes, the wool of children being ready for school. The heart of this idea of "readiness" is agreement that some children are deficient. These children, these little ones, the ones you and I know and love, are flawed. The "readiness" idea is class-ist, racist, and surely English-ist. It is biased against those without wealth who are non-white, and not native speakers of English.

The language of "readiness" is a clear and present danger. I invite you all to stand against the use of that word about children. It is reasonable to think of readiness of schools, on the other hand, just as we think of getting our homes ready for guests. It is not our guests who are ready or not ready for their visit.

We used to describe the reasons for school failure as being in the nature of the "lower classes," or in the nature of "Negroes," and we gradually stopped that. Then we said the problems were in the "at-risk" population, and we gradually stopped that. We seem to still call children "disadvantaged;" will we ever stop that? Now the buzzword is "readiness." In conceiving some children as "ready" we create children who are "not ready." It is the same tyranny in new clothes.

Will we stop this? Will we simply live on testing and drilling little children? I imagine those of us alive in 2034 looking back at 2004 on the History Channel marveling how ignorant we used to be. The Native Peoples of North America used to be called "savages," you know. They were savages when I watched cowboys on TV as a child; they were still savages as names for sports teams until only recently. The "cure," for the "the savage problem," when framed with that negative attribution justified the tyranny of power. As savages we could give them, for their benefit, our religion or death, and remain comfortable while extracting our profit.

There is always reason for people in power to maintain the comfort of superiority. Through the words they use they can justify their ease, blame the powerless, and congratulate each other that they are doing something for the less fortunate, without, of course, personal sacrifice.

We constantly have to examine the way words justify privilege, power, and difference. I believe we confront our own integrity, or lack thereof, when we use the "ready" word to refer to children. It violates the most fundamental ethic of our profession: First Do No Harm.

I call upon all those in the early childhood education community, institutions and individuals, who proclaim to be anti-bias, to please avoid using and condoning the word "readiness." Let's bury this word.

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