Developmentally Appropriate/Inappropriate, Dept.


Much of the criticism levied at the Common Core standards is directed to Kindergarten and first grades. The complaint is that some of the standards are difficult for some children to achieve, because they are “developmentally inappropriate”.

People like Dan Willingham and Ben Riley (of Deans for Impact) while not directly refuting such criticism, make a case that there are no set stages for when children develop. Children develop at different rates. Their reason for such statements may be a refutation of theories that developed from Piaget–notably from his disciple Constance Kamii who claims that teaching children standard algorithms prior to grade 4 does them harm because they are not yet “ready”. Doing so earlier eclipses the understanding, and results in a rote “math by doing” rather than “math by knowing”.

Point taken from Willingham and Riley. Nevertheless, there are some things we shouldn’t expect from all children at certain ages. So it is nice to see an article that articulates the “developmentally inappropriate” argument using the same framework that Willingham and Riley use.

“The average age that a child learns to be an independent reader is about six and a half. Some learn to read at four, and others at seven, and both extremes are developmentally normal. In fourth grade, kids who learned to read at four are typically not any better at reading than those who started at seven. Countries like Finland and Sweden, which outpace the United States in international testing, do not even start formal academic schooling until age seven.

“We need to respect children’s individual developmental timelines. The idea that “earlier is better” for reading instruction is simply not supported by research evidence. Children’s long-term achievement and self-identities as readers and students can be damaged when they are introduced to reading and literacy too early.”


One thought on “Developmentally Appropriate/Inappropriate, Dept.

  1. I don’t see a trend towards any sort of higher academic goals in Kindergarten due to CCSS in our town. They started full-day Kindergarten 15 years ago with the goal of trying to get all kids on the same page when they got to first grade. The same page did not mean academically, but process-wise and social-wise. Our lower schools use full inclusion, and they know that CCSS targets are far above kids in some areas and far below in others. You just have to watch out for schools that don’t distinguish between subjects or other areas. My nephew struggled (and was labelled) in K-6. My sister worked with him on his social skills, but also had to fill in the missing academics in math, because the school didn’t expect much there either.

    Problems arise because any sort of differentiated instruction fails completely. At best, the teachers give the most help to those below the CCSS standards. However, as kids move from grade to grade, the spread of willingness and abilities expands (also due to skill help at home) and makes it even more difficult for teachers to define different learning groups by level and subject. They attempt to use a process, like Everyday Math’s spiraling, to assume that all students will achieve at their own speed and level. Our schools like to call it differentiated learning. It’s amazing how that changes the onus from the teacher to the student. It doesn’t work and hides tracking at home. In my son’s fifth grade class, many bright students still didn’t know the times table and some had to add 7+8 using their fingers. It wasn’t a matter of developmental readiness. It was a bad math curriculum and the assumption that students would achieve their appropriate level naturally. EM tells teachers to keep going and to “trust the spiral.”

    Some might think that standards have been raised and that the material is more difficult, but there could be a different reason. As with EM’s spiraling (circling) process, they purposely introduce new material above what the average student might find comfortable. They know that some will figure it out, but the rest will get the same material the next year. I call it repeated partial learning, not scaffolding. They know that teachers can’t possibly analyze individual needs and then differentiate. The EM solution is to dig a little deeper each loop of the spiral in the hope that kids will achieve at their own levels naturally. It doesn’t work. Our schools like to point to my son at the success poster boy of EM, but they didn’t bother to ask me what I had to do at home. I made sure that he practiced and mastered the new material each time through the loop. Trusting the spiral does not work, and spiraling is not scaffolding. Since it’s supposed to work naturally, educators are apt to blame other things, including basic IQ, if any problems arise. They have to justify full inclusion and age tracking because that’s a philosophical choice, not a process that was determined to be successful by basic research.

    There are lots of reasons why kids do or don’t learn and schools have to separate the variables. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening when silly ideas of rote skills and mere facts get in the way of any sort of decent individual student developmental analysis. Besides, that can’t happen with full inclusion and every student on their own page for who knows what reason.

    This is the big difference in K-6 from when I was young. The full inclusion choice has created all sorts of concocted new ideas (like “trust the spiral”) of how kids learn solely as a means of justification. The problem comes when they try to justify it all with age-tracked classrooms and mixed ability hands-on group learning techniques. Wider full inclusion and differentiation in the same classroom? I’ve heard too many silly and unbelievable examples of how this can work. One excuse is to claim that smart kids are really not smart. My son’s first grade teacher had the audacity to tell my wife and I that he had a lot of “superficial knowledge.” We had many of these unprovoked “attacks.”

    Unfortunately, I think the only solution is to offer more school choice and allow parents to differentiate. They have a better chance of getting it right for their kids. I have no hope for the fundamental conflict between full inclusion, age tracking, and differentiated learning.


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