This story appeared in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of our magazine. Subscribe to read the full issue online.
Nancy Carlsson-Paige is a leading advocate for early childhood education. An emeritus professor at Lesley University, where she taught teachers for thirty years, she is the author of several books, including Taking Back Childhood: A Proven Roadmap for Raising Confident, Creative, Compassionate Kids. She is also the co-founder of the Defending the Early Years site. And she just happens to be the mother of the Academy Award-winner and activist Matt Damon. She has agreed to appear regularly on a syndicated radio podcast I host called BustED Pencils in a segment entitled “What Would Matt Damon’s Mom Say?” I spoke with her by phone on Halloween.
Q. When people talk to you about education issues, does it bother you to be referred to as Matt Damon’s mom, as opposed to Nancy Carlsson-Paige, the noted author and professor who is a distinguished education advocate?
Nancy Carlsson-Paige: If I didn’t have a secure career and identity and sense of self around my work in the world, maybe I’d feel different about it. But that’s not the case. And I recognize that people perk up when they hear the names of celebrities, so this might make people listen up who might not otherwise be listening. I care mostly about getting these ideas out to a broader audience.
Q: You got Matt to speak at an education conference a few years back, and that created the impression that Matt is an education activist. I know he’s a supporter of public education, but he isn’t doing as much public education advocacy as some people want him to do. Why not?
Carlsson-Paige: The first thing he’s doing is raising four kids. He has a stepdaughter now who is a teenager, and he has three little girls. He’s very steeped in his own creative work in the film industry in a lot of different ways. His days are very full with those two components. He also started this nonprofit, water.org, which he’s really committed to. He’s been to Africa many times. He’s been to Haiti many times. He’s connected to people working on the global water crisis. He’s very involved in that work, and he’s passionate about it.
The thing about seeing our kids grow up is getting at who they are. They’re not us. He’s created his own path, and it’s a beautiful path, and he carries with him a lot of the values and insights he’s grown up with. Now he’s doing his own life his own way.
He is a very informed citizen about public education issues, and he’s passionate about the core issues around public education: that it’s the cornerstone for our democracy; that every child has the right to a great education; that our public education system is eroding in this climate of market-based reforms.
But I wouldn’t call Matt an education activist, and there are two reasons why: I really don’t think he could fit it into his life, number one, and number two, I know he doesn’t want to be the guy who does everything. That’s a little bit of a problem when you’re a celebrity if you start getting involved in every single issue: People start tuning you out. So he has to be really careful about how much people have to put up with seeing him again on another issue.
Q: Let’s talk about you: How did you start out as a teacher?
Carlsson-Paige: When I went to graduate school around 1969–70, it was such an amazing time to go into education. Everyone was talking about equal education opportunity, decreasing segregation, the need to address poverty; there were many federal programs to equalize economic inequality. It was a really thrilling time.
I went into the field, like so many other young people at the time, thinking that I could really make a difference in the world. The climate at that time was fostering this idealism.
I don’t see that for young people today. I feel very sad about that for this generation, because it’s a lot harder to find your way if you don’t see the purpose. The kind of language we have now of accountability, and data, and management, and evaluation, it’s so uninspiring, even scary: Who wants to go into a field where you get evaluated by your kids’ scores or mandated standardized tests? A field where you work so hard and get such little respect?
Q: At what point did you decide to get a Ph.D. and become an early childhood specialist?
Carlsson-Paige: Every step that I took toward more involvement in being a committed educator led me there. I loved it, and it fit for me. And the feedback I got from the people I was teaching was really positive. So it felt right, and I kept going. Actually, I wanted to get a doctorate earlier than I did, but I was a single mom and couldn’t fit it in. But as soon as Matt left for his freshman year at Harvard (which never did turn into a senior year at Harvard), I had enough space in my life to do it.
Q: You’re a big proponent of early childhood education. Defending the Early Years is your website. Tell me about that.
Carlsson-Paige: We started an organization—myself and a couple of colleagues, Diane Levin and Geralyn McLaughlin—to get a unified voice for the early childhood community and to mobilize people to respond to the corporate education reforms, which are adversely affecting younger and younger children. It’s very discouraging and upsetting to see it up close, to see what’s happening in classes for younger kids around the country.
Ours is really an activist organization, and we’ve done many, many things. If you go on our website, you’ll see we have resources for people, we have publications, we write op-eds, and then we have organizing tools like, how to hold an informational meeting for parents of kids from kindergarten to third grade. We have a tool kit for organizers. We have a PowerPoint that is terrific. It explains how kids learn, what they need, why testing isn’t good for young kids. All these things are downloadable and free.
We’re seeing much more organizing around the country about the impact of the Common Core and the ed reform mandates. The whole idea of standards and needing to learn certain skills at certain ages is wrong for young children.
We’re a voice explaining how testing young kids has never been something that has been used in the field of early childhood. We’re explaining how forcing little kids to sit and memorize facts they are not ready to learn is damaging for them. And we explain how kids learn, and what they need to learn well, and how they can develop the thinking and inventive ideas and problem-solving skills and citizenship skills that little kids can start learning even in preschool. All of this is meant to help parents push back against what is getting mandated in classrooms for young children.
Q: So what would Matt Damon’s mom say to people who asked them if testing, or the Common Core, is good for their five-year-old?
Carlsson-Paige: First of all the Common Core state standards were mandated very quickly and they were designed top down; it wasn’t a democratic process. There wasn’t a single early childhood educator involved in the development of those standards. That’s probably the most important thing to me.
The standards started out looking at what high school seniors needed to be college ready and career ready, and then they were backwards mapped all the way down to kindergarten. It’s actually silly because they just kept simplifying these ideas, but they never took into account how young kids think and learn. They ended up with standards that are completely out of touch with how they learn at five or six or seven. And so you’ll have a kindergartner who is supposed to know how to count to 100 by ones and tens. But that has almost nothing to do with understanding numbers, which in the early years comes from building concepts over time.
Now the trend is very clearly to align pre-K standards with the Common Core, which are off the wall in the first place.
Q: What is a pre-K standard?
Carlsson-Paige: A pre-K standard would probably be: Count to twenty. [Laughs.]
Q: There are vast differences between three- year-olds and four-year-olds and five-year-olds, and vast differences within those groups, so the idea that you’re going to standardize what they know is silly, isn’t it?
Carlsson-Paige: There’s a longtime consensus in the early childhood field that testing is not reliable for young children, that you wouldn’t even think about it until third grade. And then another discussion ensues about what a good assessment would look like. But with younger children, you make an assessment primarily by observation. That’s one reason teachers need to be so highly trained; they need to know what they’re looking at and understand the developmental progressions.
But the ranges are huge for all learning. I have one grandchild who walked at nine months, and I have another grandchild who walked at sixteen months. They’re both great walkers now. For young kids, the range is really big with all skills and concepts. The issue for young kids isn’t to have a right or wrong answer but to build ideas over time. All of this is much more complex and not quantifiable.
Q: Do you have any last thoughts for us on the current state of education?
Carlsson-Paige: One of the most worrisome things to me about what’s happening in education today is what’s happening inside the classroom: Children are getting the fundamental message that there is some information “out there” that is right or wrong. The message is: “I’m supposed to know it. And some person out there is handing it to me and is evaluating whether I understand it.”
That isn’t what education is all about. Education is about becoming a thinker, a citizen, a problem-solver, someone who has original ideas and imagination.
Creative thinking in children is diminishing now as opposed to several decades ago, and what’s happening in education is a lot of why that is. Today education is run as a business model. It’s competitive, mechanistic, ruled by carrots and sticks. The most important aspects in education—learning to think deeply, critically, and creatively, helping young people become active, caring, involved citizens—aren’t what’s valued or fostered. These qualities of a good education can’t be reduced down to the kinds of terms that the Bill Gateses of the world want to see.