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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 4, January/February 2005

Who took my Primary Program?

by Lori Robinson

As a primary teacher in this province for almost 20 years, I was always proud that B.C. led the way in developmentally appropriate teaching approaches, especially our Primary Program: A Framework For Teaching (2000) and its predecessor, The Primary Program (1990). However, over the past year, classroom primary teachers in B.C. have had to deal with a growing number of issues. With Federation and PSA Council support, the B.C. Primary Teachers’ Association (BCPTA) is working with teachers to provide support, research, and strategies for dealing with some serious challenges.

Data-collection frenzy
Some districts have implemented a Kindergarten screener or assessment-data-collection tool that has required K teachers to collect information through individualized assessment of four- and five-year-olds. Some districts intend to use the information to provide "baseline data" for school growth and district accountability plans. Information being collected includes reading level, phonemic awareness, letter recognition, letter-sound knowledge, spelling ability, and writing skills—all in Kindergarten. The Ministry of Education’s curriculum resources currently support Kindergarten as a developmental year; the earliest outcomes are established for late Grade 1. Districts are creating their own lists of expected outcomes, and in some cases, they are setting outcomes that are more difficult for students to attain than the Primary Learning Outcomes established by the Ministry of Education. There are no performance standards for Kindergarten in reading, writing, or numeracy.

One local primary chapter reports that K teachers are being asked to administer the assessment tool three times during the K year. Teachers in that local estimate that up to six weeks of teaching/observing/conferencing time is lost in class for that testing.

Ready, Set, Learn
In September 2004, the minister of education announced Ready, Set, Learn (RSL), to bring three-year-olds into the school for two visits. The program gives schools and districts the opportunity to bring together parents and resource staff from within the district and community to give parents information on support and contacts available to support child development. Each school participating will receive $2,500. This is a positive step to bridging home, school, and community and create an interministerial welcome wagon for families to the public school system.

Districts, however, are approaching RSL in a variety of ways. In some cases, teachers are being directed to organize and implement the project on their own time. One Fraser Valley primary chapter president reports that all K teachers were told they had to be at their schools at 6:30 p.m. to host the event with no compensation or time in lieu.

Loss of play
More teachers are reporting that the play centres and time for learning through play have been reduced over recent years, because of outside influences. Part of this has come from district directions for programs. Time spent at learning centres is, in some classes, being replaced with guided reading, worksheets, and writing practice. Play, advocated by the Primary Program as an essential component in all primary classrooms, is being lost.

The Canadian Association for Young Children is quoted in the Primary Program:

For over 100 years, researchers have studied play and have found that play:

  • enhances a child’s language development.
  • encourages creativity and problem solving.
  • provides a context through which the child develops representational thought, an essential foundation for reading, mathematics and science.
  • develops higher motivation to learn and develops higher self-esteem (page 33).

Primary teachers are concerned that if we become so intent on teaching product-based learning, learning the processes and being an active participant in the learning process will be lost.

The Primary Program: A Framework for Teaching, may be downloaded for viewing and printing at www.bced.gov.bc.ca/ primary_program/welcome.htm.

Childhood stress
I was encouraged to read in a recent Macleans article, "Stressed Out," by Sue Ferguson, November 22, 2004, that parents are starting to strike back at the pressures being placed on children at home and in the school. "Called into action by evidence of mounting stress levels among kids, the [parents] are dedicated to bringing child’s play back to childhood." Ferguson cites educational and medical experts who attribute "anxiety as the most common cause of childhood psychological distress, affecting up to 20% of North American youngsters."

The author also homes in on "the term school readiness, "once denoting a child’s ability to separate from her/his parents for a few hours without too much fuss and go to the bathroom by herself/himself, now refers to her/his mastery of early numeracy and literacy skills."

The article is available at www.macleans.ca; search for "Stressed Out."

Early literacy programs and professional autonomy
Increasingly, districts are targeting literacy as a goal in the accountability plans. To do this, some districts are targeting intervention programs for their youngest learners. Instead of looking at young children as "at promise," they are labeling students as being "at risk" for not meeting an arbitrary standard at an early age. There is a definitive loss of autonomy in primary classrooms as districts mandate programs.

In a joint position statement from the International Reading Association and the National Association for the Education of Young Children, researchers present many powerful tenets about early literacy programs, including:

"Until children reach a certain stage of maturity all exposure to reading and writing, except perhaps being read stories, is a waste of time or even potentially harmful."

"Recognizing the early beginnings of literacy acquisition too often has resulted in use of inappropriate teaching practices, suited to older children or adults perhaps, but ineffective with children in preschool, Kindergarten, and the early grades."

These powerful statements, part of a joint position statement by the IRA and the NAEYC, titled "Learning to Read and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children," originally published in Young Children, July 1998, 53 (4): 30–46, are available at www.naeyc.org/ece/critical.asp.

Primary teachers are dismayed at the challenges being imposed from outside influences and driven by the quest for accountability. The excellence in our system has always been in the quality of the teaching and learning opportunities in our classrooms. Together, let’s ensure that the Primary Program, the hallmark of our educational excellence, supported by research and practice, is easily found on our desks, in our staffrooms, and in our programs.

The B.C. Primary Teachers’ Association works with its members to support developmentally appropriate primary education in this province. More information and updates on current issues may be found on our website: www.bctf.ca/bcpta/.

Lori Robinson teaches at Nicola-Canford Elementary School, Lower Nicola, and is the president of the B.C. Primary Teachers’ Association.

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