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Stand Against the Word

Publication Date: 2004-10-20

This is an updated version of an earlier posting. It raises important issues about the very idea of readiness. Think about it: Why don't we ever talk about the school's readiness for the child? The author's website is http://homepage.mac.com/tdrummon/advocates

In my advocacy for young children and their families I prefer to advocate positively, for things rather than against things; there are too many people saying "no" too often. But in this case, I think against is warranted. We have to clear some rubbish lying about before we can build the future we want for our children.

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.

The January 2004 issue of Young Children, published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, has an article entitled, "School Readiness Assessment" by Kelly Maxwell and Richard Clifford, edited by Diane Horm.

These quotes from their article seem sensible:

"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

That is exactly the problem I want to address: if it is indeed the school's responsibility, why do we want to define the children as ready or not? Odd, isn't it? One would think that given the murkiness of clearly defining "education" in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-multi society, the present search for defining and assessing readiness for that education is, at best, useless, at worst, a diversion. The idea of "readiness" itself shifts the focus to 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 are you looking here?" "Because the light is better."

Yet, as the public dialog about "readiness" grows stronger every year, few are talking directly about its bias. "Readiness" is, as I see it, another form of institutional discrimination.

I invite you to travel into this perspective with me. If one were calmly thoughtful about the problem of young children becoming successful learners, the discussion would go this way.

1. We can agree that many parents are concerned about the future lives of their own children. Part of parent's concern is wanting one's children to be successful in school, whatever "success" means. Of course, we all know, all our children are different, with different talents and perspectives, so success is rather undefined in its positive sense. The best we can say is that the children are happy, doing well and having opportunities open for them. The negative sense is clearer: parent's concern is want their children to avoid one's 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? But the goal is not happening. We see that schools do not enable ALL children to live more fully developed lives. We share this concern, and we collectively recognize the essential reasons for this which are highlighted below. We have the following widely agreed-upon 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 (much brain research shows this) and use and hear complex language (Betty Hart & Todd Risley, Meaningful Differences, 1995) generally do just fine in school, in their own unique ways. They can play the traditional school game successfully. Their synapses are not "pruned" and they find it natural to use language to think with and to acquire new understandings with.The more they know the more they can learn.

5. The essential developmental task of young children prior to common school age is becoming themselves in a community of others. Most of the important development as a human being occurs in opportunities where a child gets to play with other children, converse, explore and inquire. They investigate life, and represent in paint, drama, blocks, and clay. Through play and daily life, they become socially adept and physically competent; they can lead and follow, make friends, lose friends, and restore friends. They come to know others and build the being of others. In natural ways they become able to take responsibility and care for themselves, the other, and the community. They come to love. This becoming is integrated into daily life, on the farm, in the desert, and in our best schools.

6. Therefore, if we want all children to "succeed," we provide good experiences for them, what John Dewey would call "educative" experiences, ones that lead to belonging, openness, expression, engagement, persistence, reflection, and happiness within a community.

7. To achieve this, we invest in quality early education in a wide variety of settings for our youngest children, just as parents with economic power do for their children -- staying home, or hiring educated nannies, or buying high quality school experiences. To provide for the education of children whose parents can't afford the $12,000 to $14,000 per year such experiences actually cost, we transfer resources from those with huge wealth to those who have less and whose enhancement betters the lives of us all.

8. Since the need for quality education continues after age 5, that investment for the common good continues. We all benefit when we contribute to smaller and fully-funded public elementary through high schools with well-paid teachers who have incentives to stay to make it a career. One of the great strengths of this country is its widespread commitment to public education. We know its value. It is our tradition. It is essential to democracy.

This reasonable flow of thought, 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 in our 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 human life.

But the present power holders do not want to divert any money into education or teachers or, for that matter, any public agency other than the military. We have in power an authoritarian populist administration that cares little about the common good and cares lots about greed. The present power holders apparently want to avoid creating educated people, for educated people become immune to propaganda and advertising, and worse still, might become a political constituency united against them. So the power holders unite with corporate media to prohibit a political discussion of the 8 numbered ideas above. The public's common resources, largely raised by taxing the lower and middle classes, are, in their mind, allocated, not for the common good, but for weaponry to "defend" property interests and wealth extraction abroad, for vital assistance to insider friends to promote corporate profits, and, in turn, for ensuring their own re-election. Authoritarian populist power acts directly for continued power, the opposite what most people agree is the common good.

Our politicians, of both parties, twist the issue in education. Instead of looking at schools as the source of the problem, they say the problem lies within the children. Politicians force upon us a false question: "Are the children ready or are they not ready?" They distract us from investing in schools into blaming the children. Thinking this way rationalizes an effort to focus meager resources upon an effort to test them, to find those that fail. In the end we provide nothing for them beyond direct instruction and obedience, in the name of accountability. Instead of considering ways to construct more ideal provisions for early education for children and families, which would be expensive (and create a constituency that would vote for more funding), we are on a quest to find the deficient child.

I invite you to look at the word "readiness". "Readiness" is about the future, not the present. "Readiness" means that someone is to make a judgment about another human being, in some predictive way, about something that might or might not happen in some unforseen context in the future. Consider "readiness" for marriage, for example, or "readiness" to have a baby. Even if "readiness" could be defined, which it can't, who can decide such things?

The idea of "readiness" for school is founded on observations of older children failing in middle school and high school. Short of making a resource investment in smaller schools, inquiry-based learning, and professional teachers, nothing can be done about those older ones. Instead we make school attendance compulsive, take roll every period to catch the truant, remove the doors from the toilet stalls, silence the school newspapers, and operate school like jail. Since many of these failing children are from minority cultures and lower socio-economic classes, we carry our prejudices downward to birth-to-5's and their parents, too. "Readiness" comes with baggage.

The "readiness' viewpoint sees the very young from certain communities as future failures instead of young ones full of possibility and potential. They are viewed as potential failures, even though they haven't failed anything yet and love to play, learn, think, and laugh. These are little children we are talking about: infants, toddlers, three-year-olds, four-year-olds! This one -- this little four-year-old -- coming into the larger world from the experience of birth, thriving, and home -- stands in front of the tester: "Is she or he ready for school?"

The words "readiness" and "readiness assessment," when applied to children rather than to schools, are pejorative. "Readiness" is a negative idea, like "learning disability." It is not 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. This twisted version of caring becomes focused on identifying the rotten apples, as if somebody will (might) do something to correct that condition. Of course, it goes without saying, the "ready" ones are fine. The end result is a way of thinking that creates a negative attribution for a varied group of young human beings -- the "not-readys."

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 actually help "become ready" because there is no "it." Nobody knows what "it" is. The unspoken fundamental reality is that there is no money for the fixing even if fixing were possible. That fact was established in the ground rules of the school "readiness" movement and No Child Left Behind. Both begin with the expressed intention of cutting back money for schools and teachers, cutting back block grants to states and Head Start, and putting all state governments in financial crisis. New money for children, especially for early education provisions, is off limits.

These politicians have created a huge federal deficit to ensure the "bleeding hearts" cannot ever provide the funding that will actually enable the provisions of services to children and families. I know those in this authoritarian populist movement who openly proclaim, "We will nibble at the public sector until it is so small it blows away." Meanwhile we can all look around our communities and see new gymnasiums and facilities expansion of private schools for children, funded by parents who have received tax breaks on their very high incomes.

What is most distressing to me is how many in the education establishment quietly accept this tyranny. For example look at this quote 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


Federal money drives the educational establishment to frame the problem as a problem of the children:

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.

The current authoritarian populist federal policy directly mandates the system to reward direct instruction in academic tasks of four- and five-year-olds, rationalized with biased research and lining up punishments 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 we look at the truth behind our apparent "incompetence," it is the box squeezing so tightly around us: low wages for parents who have to work two or three jobs, poverty wages for providers who care for children while they are working, no health care for children, and no education for the educators and care-givers in how to enhance the lives of young children and their families. It is all parents and care-givers can do to barely get by, living on the edge in their love for children. Today we find our communities without support in a twisted national policy that stands in judgment of them and prescribes to educators a narrowed focus. 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 things differently. We cannot be mesmerized by corporate, tax-deductible funding of fancy brochures and TV programs that strum our heartstrings, like the ads for the goodness of the General Electric Corporation. These are intended to ease us into acquiescence, to assuage the tyranny, and to deny a problem's existence. According to the polls, if we had a popular vote today on whether to fully fund provisions for young children, it would easily find majority approval.

One way we can fight for proper provisions for children is to deny the power mongers one wool they place in our eyes -- the wool of "children being ready for school" -- because 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 not 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.

We used to describe the reasons for school failure as being in the nature of the "low class," 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 those words, too. As in the AFT quote above, we still call children "disadvantaged." Will we ever stop that? Today the buzzword across the country 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 band together to stop this or 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 and Indians on TV as a child; they were still savages as names for sports teams until only recently. The "savage problem," framed with that negative attribution, justified the tyranny of the invaders. As savages we could "cure" them, for their benefit, with our religion or death, and remain comfortable as we extracted their land and resources for our private profit.

People in power wish to maintain the comfort of superiority. Through the words they use they justify their ease, blame the powerless, and congratulate each other that they are doing something for those less fortunate, without, of course, personal sacrifice. We constantly have to examine the way words maintain 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 the early childhood professional code: First Do No Harm. The language of "readiness" is a clear and present danger.

I invite all of us 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.

I call upon all those in the early childhood education community, institutions and individuals, and everyone who proclaims to be against all forms of bias, to please avoid using or condoning the word "readiness." Let's bury this word.

Tom Drummond
Early Childhood Education
North Seattle Community College

Some interesting sources:


You can see outcomes listed in Quebec for young children prior to kindergarten entry, which is what we are talking about. They describe what they want for children without ever inferring that there is such a thing as academic readiness or any deficits in children. It can be done.


Raver and Zeigler approach the same issue in another way.

Here are some quotes from Robert J. Sternberg, a major researcher on intelligence, published on the web from an interview with Skeptic.com:

Imagine that we had decided that in order for someone to succeed in college they had to be over six feet tall and so you only accepted people who were over six feet tall. Well, within a generation or two, you would find that most of the people who were in the high paying jobs were over six feet tall. And you would note a correlation between success and being over six feet tall. But why did you get that correlation? Because you created a system to make that come true.

When I was very young, I did poorly on IQ tests because I was test anxious. The result was that teachers had low expectations for me and I wanted to please my teachers. So I met their low expectations. They were happy and I was happy that they were happy. I've been there and I've seen it happen to lots of people I know. I got over my test anxiety and then did extremely well on tests. All of a sudden the expectations were high. To a large extent it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, either way. So when you tell me that IQ predicts later success, sure it does. You get low scores on your tests, everything starts to change in your life and you're on a downhill slide. It's not a controlled experiment, because the very score itself is having an effect on where you're going to be allowed to go.


Sternberg, R. J. (1997). What does it mean to be smart? Educational Leadership 5, 20-24.

And to show that the extreme right-wing nature of the Bush Adminstration, we can compare current education policy in the United States to the most recent developments in Britain.


The Labour government in Britain has made a strong commitment to supporting families in their child rearing responsibilities. It has increased public spending on financial support to children by 64%, to $41 billion, since it came to power in 1997. Recently, it announced an extra $1.7 billion for child care, advice for parents, and cash benefits.

The program introduced to channel these investments is called Sure Start. This program has several strands. One, aimed at 400,000 children in the poorest fifth of the country, provides free spaces in high-quality nurseries and creches, coupled with considerable parenting support. A second strand aims at providing free "nursery education" for 2 1/2 hours a day first for all four-year-olds and this year for three-year-olds as well. The third strand is aimed at ending poverty by 2020 by increasing family benefits and tax credits for the poorest 20% of families.

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