Before my son started kindergarten in a public school in Boulder, Colo., in August, his teacher asked me to bring him in for an assessment. I expected this to be similar to what my daughter experienced when she started kindergarten three years ago — he’d meet his teacher, see his classroom, and then his teacher would ask him a few questions. She’d ask if anybody read to him at home, and see if he knew how to turn the pages of a book and hold it right side up.
On the day we were assigned to come to school, when the teachers separated the kids from the parents, handed us a stack of paperwork to fill out, and ushered the kids into a separate room, I thought that’s what was going on. But about 20 minutes later, the teacher came out and asked me, “Has Theo ever used a computer before?” She explained that the kids were in the computer lab, completing an assessment on the machines.
I told her Theo hadn’t used a mouse much, except for a few times at the library. In fact he hasn’t used any kind of computer much except for limited sessions playing games on the iPad. He’d certainly never sat for a full hour at a computer, as he would during this assessment. “You should know,” I said, “Theo is left-handed.”
When I said this, two other mothers looked up from the papers they were filling out, alarmed, and said that their kids were left-handed too.
“Oh, well that explains it!” the teacher said, and went back into the computer lab to switch the kids’ mice to the left-hand side.
The American Society of Pediatrics’ most recent guidelines for media use among children note that lots of kids are spending seven hours or more a day looking at a screen. They advise the creation of screen-free zones at home, media curfews at meals and before bedtime, and no screen time for kids under 2 years old (an admonition I dutifully followed — it was a happy day when I finally turned on “Sesame Street” for my kids). Kids over age 2 should have no more than one to two hours of screen time a day.
Meanwhile, public schools are facing pressure to prepare kids for nationwide tests of the Common Core standards, which begin in the 2014-2015 school year. Most tests for fourth graders and up will be computer-based and require facility with a computer mouse, and the literacy tests will include essays that the kids must type directly into the computer.
Schools are understandably nervous, as in some districts these test scores will determine whether a teacher gets a raise, keeps a job, or if a school is closed. So in my kids’ school and others, they’re ramping up computer lab time and encouraging kids to use literacy and math programs at home, despite the fact that some lack Internet access. According to a 2013 U.S. Census report, 25.6 percent of Americans don’t have home Internet access.
What is a mom to do when the test-focused technology policies of her child’s school conflict with health guidelines and with her own instincts and beliefs about the right way to raise her children?
The Wrong-Handed-Mouse Report
A few weeks after Theo’s wrong-handed-mouse kindergarten assessment, I met with his teacher for our first parent-teacher conference. Thankfully, she’d done old-fashioned one-on-one evaluations of the kids because this was the first year for the computer assessments and she wasn’t sure how accurate they would be. Still, she presented me with a 17-page printout of the results by a company called i-Ready. The printout includes four pages of advertisements for “Recommended Products from Curriculum Associates” — computer applications parents can buy to drill their kids on these tests, called Ready Common Core Reading Instruction. (The teacher apologized for the ads and suggested I ignore them.)
The wrong-handed-mouse assessment included all kinds of software-generated tips about how to improve skills my son knows perfectly well how to do — when interacting with a person rather than a screen. One of the i-Ready instructions: “Model how to blend onset and rime [sic] of spoken one-syllable words and finish by saying the whole word.”
If a human had assessed my child rather than a machine, I would have gleefully pointed out that they’d misspelled the word rhyme several times in this report. (I can’t resist being a pedant when it’s so much fun.) Or maybe they actually wanted to encourage me to engage my kindergartner in a discussion of hoarfrost? Or perhaps their archaic spelling is in homage to Coleridge? If the creators of this software can’t spell the word rhyme, how can I trust that their academic assessments are valid?
Maybe I should have begun to drill my son on these skills, hoarfrost identification aside, but instead I let the wrong-handed-mouse report drift under other papers, and continued to read to him before bed as I always have, rather than prop him before a computer to practice literacy and mouse-handling skills.
Briggs Gamblin, the director of Communications for Boulder Valley School District (BVSD), noted that this i-Ready assessment for kindergartners is recommended by the Colorado Department of Education. “For some students,” Gamblin wrote in an email, “the computer-based assessment was a new experience. Staff recognize this could impact individual scores.”
A Little of This, A Little of That
Most of what my son does at school seems like joyful, hands-on kindergarten as usual, but at home we are encouraged to have kids log in to a program called Raz-Kids, through which they listen to books and record themselves reading the stories. Every once in awhile we do this for a few days in a row, then the recording mechanism on the program malfunctions, and we forget about it for months.
Meanwhile, in third grade, as the Common Core standards test looms, my daughter has been drilling on typing and test-taking skills. The kids spend time in the computer lab or on computers in the library every day, working on programs such as one called Typing Pal that’s supposed to teach them to touch type fluently (as far as I can tell, painstaking hunting and pecking is still the norm, even after years with this program) and an online reading program called Reading Plus. Teachers can monitor how often students are logging in at home and how many lessons they’re completing.
I think the reading selections in Reading Plus are generally engaging and high-quality. I also think the Common Core test the kids will be taking, called PARCC, is fair and will do a good job of measuring critical thinking skills, judging from the samples I’ve reviewed. But what I don’t feel comfortable with is all the multiple-choice-question drilling the kids are doing to prepare for it.
Briggs Gamblin said, “BVSD does not have a policy restricting or requiring the amount of time children use computers and other electronic devices. However, BVSD practice is that computers and other electronic devices should be a natural part of instruction and used intentionally to enhance and aid instructional practices.”
My daughter does well in school, but at every parent teacher conference I’ve attended so far, the teacher gently suggests that she use the online resources the school makes available more often. I do, for a few weeks after the conference. Then I forget about it, or can’t make the time.
Never once have my kids asked if they can please, please sit at the computer and use Reading Plus or Raz-Kids. Instead, they ask me to please, please read them a book or play with them or take them to the park. Besides, with all the screen time they have at school, when they get home they’ve just about exhausted the American Society of Pediatrics’ recommended media limits for the day.
Looking for the Quick Fix: Job Skills for Kindergartners
I started learning to type in a summer class during middle school, but the lessons didn’t really take until high school, when I took a school typing course in which all of the students sat at typewriters, the instructor up front calling out, “A space. J space,” as we clattered along, pressing the corresponding keys. Typing fast and accurately is a skill I used in college and at every job I’ve held since then. But do we really need to make 6-year-olds focus on future job skills?
Some experts see no developmental problem with kids typing young, comparing it to piano playing, while others say kids’ hands are too small to span the keys, or worry about repetitive stress injuries. As of yet, there’s no scientific consensus on the right age to begin to learn to type.
Dr. Brian Volck, assistant professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Hospital Medicine at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, said, “There’s insufficient data to make a definite recommendation. Some children may be ready at an earlier age than others, depending on such factors attention and manual dexterity.”
When I mentioned some of the uses of computers at my kids’ school, including the wrong-handed-mouse test, to Nicholas Carr, technology reporter and author of the Pulitzer Prize-finalist The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and the new The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, about the misguided rise of automation in education and other sectors, he responded in an email, “This is an entirely wrong-headed approach and runs counter to pretty much everything we know about child development. But technology promises a quick fix, and at the moment, in education and elsewhere, that seems to be what we want.”
I’m all for teaching kids about technology, which will be a part of their personal and work lives forever. But shouldn’t they learn how to write software programs rather than how to scan a text and answer multiple-choice questions on a screen? Shouldn’t they learn about how to assemble computer hardware, build an object with a 3-D printer, or shoot and edit digital video footage rather than passively watch as a computer reads them a book? Many studies suggest that when people read on a screen rather than paper, they read less attentively and retain less. So why aren’t schools using computers for what these machines are actually good at instead?
My daughter tells me that when she and her friends finish their required computer lab activities, they explore. One kid figures out a new trick and teaches the others — how to modify the background of their desktop or play music while they work on Typing Pal, for example. My daughter enjoys learning from her friends and teaching them how to program cartoon cat videos in Scratch. This is the kind of learning about computers I feel is more valuable than screen-reading and quizzes — and the kids are teaching themselves.
When I asked Briggs Gamblin why the Boulder Valley School District doesn’t emphasize programming more, he said, “BVSD staff are in the early study of enhancing computer science instruction and activities in elementary and middle school curricular offerings. BVSD staff recognize there is student interest in programming and developing computer/technology skills as part of 21st Century learning.”
At home, parents get the final say on screen time
When my kids get home from school, they have about five hours before bedtime. Once they eat, do offline homework, practice sports, piano, or Lego building, eat again, and take a bath, that leaves us with about one precious hour. On most nights I choose to spend that hour reading stories to my kids and talking with them and having them read to me, rather than setting them up on the computer to practice literacy skills.
I don’t blame the teachers for having the kids practice test taking and typing — teachers are under a lot of pressure with the Common Core tests, and they are trying to make sure every kid is comfortable with computers. But at home, I can choose to unplug my kids.
I expect for as long as my kids are in school, teachers will continue to urge me to have them spend more time on the computer, and maybe my kids won’t do as well on the computer tests as their offline intelligence would suggest they should. But somehow, I think the kids will be all right.
Jenny Shank‘s stories, essays, reviews and satire have appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Washington Post and McSweeney’s. Her novel, “The Ringer,” won the High Plains Book Award.