from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Are we losing sight of childhood? 

crossposted at dailykos, myleftwing, and teacherken.blogspot.com

I remember a childhood where I got to play, to imagine, to learn how to get along with others. That included the happy year I spent at the Colonial Nursery School on Weaver Street, and my 1/2 day kindergarten at Murray Avenue Elementary School, both in Larchmont, NY, a largely middle-class suburb (the wealthier parts of our Mamaroneck School district went to either Chatsworth or Central elementary schools - these included the people down near the Yacht and Shore Clubs in Larchmont and on Orienta Point in Mamaroneck).

As I read about early childhood, whether in general press or in educational publications, I see a tendency to make these early years more and more academic. I think this trend is wrong, and is ultimately destructive to learning. And I think some of the problems I encounter with some of my high school students are the direct result of this trend.

In this week’s email from the Public Education Network, there were several stories that caught my attention. I do not know the accessibility of these articles without signing on, as I have no trouble getting into them. But I will describe and quote from several before concluding with remarks of my own.

The first, form the San Diego Union Tribune, is entitled Tutored at 2 - too much, too soon? and describes parents getting tutors for children as young as 2 years old to accelerate their learning. It will certainly not surprise readers at any site at which I post this that there are companies benefitting financially from emphasizing such services. The article begins as follows
Ryan Uyeji is learning to hold a pencil, though he mostly traces and scribbles. The 2-year-old isn't enrolled in preschool yet, but attends weekly math and reading tutoring sessions and tackles homework packets nearly seven days a week.

and one quickly sees the costs involved, as well as the corporate involvement
Ryan Uyeji, 2, worked with Beverly Hanson, an assistant at Kumon in La Jolla. Kumon is a tutoring chain that originated in Japan. Ryan is learning short sentences and math, and has homework to do most days. Ryan's parents hope their educational investment of $215 a month in Kumon, a tutoring chain that originated in Japan, during their son's most formative years will give him a head start.

The article goes on to say that costs for such programs can reach in excess of $1,000/month.

The second piece is an op-ed from the LA Times entitled My kid, a burnout at five and is subtitled “When did kindergarten become a full-time job for children?”

The first sentence may tell you all you need to know:
MY SON ALREADY hates school, and he's just halfway through kindergarten.

The parent writing is a college professor, the mother is a writer, so the child is not coming from a household alien to learning and literacy. Perhaps one more snip will give you a real sense of the problem:
It took three days before the bad reports started coming in.
"You need to teach your son how to write his name," the teacher said.
"What are you talking about?" I asked, sure she had my son confused with some other child. "He knows how to write his name."
"Yes, but he's writing it in capital letters. He needs to write it in upper and lower case."
That was when I first noticed that things had changed since I was 5.
The extent of the changes didn't sink in until after Halloween, when our son brought home an enchanting book he'd made, full of paintings of pumpkins. Yet instead of viewing it with pleasure, it left us feeling depressed. My husband pointed out that school had been in session for more than two months and these were the first pieces of art he'd brought home. Until that point, everything else had been worksheets filled with letters and numbers.

The author notes that teachers at the preschool urge holding children out of kindergarten until they are 6, because among other things what happens now in (all-day) kindergartens is what used to be the curriculum in 1st grade.

I will offer only one more quote (fair use, and all that) but it cuts to the heart of the issue:
The reason schools have pushed down the curriculum to younger students? Higher test scores mean more cash, because the state pegs teacher bonuses to academic performance index improvements. So now children are being prodded to work at a level above what may be developmentally appropriate — especially for those children with "late birthdays" who actually start kindergarten at 4 — so the schools can earn bonuses for improving performance. But at what cost to the kids?

I have in a number of fora commented that children come to school eager to learn, but by middle school, with the increasing emphasis on structured curricula geared towards mandated external tests, much of the joy has gone out of learning and educational motivation becomes increasingly more chary. One begins regularly to hear students ask “will it be on the test?” as they make what may be appropriate economic decisions about distribution of time -- if it is not going to be tested, why pay any attention.

I have to acknowledge two points before I continue. First, having taught only Middle and High School, I am not as aware of the issues of elementary and early childhood education - I do not have that much of a current experiential base, although the 3 sons of one sister-in-law and the daughter of another provide me some information about current trends, at least in the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia. Second, the issue of constantly pushing things lower and lower is certainly not new, nor is it limited to elementary and preschool. I can remember in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s reading about parents trying to register unborn children for the most competitive pre-schools to get them on the fast-track to success. Getting on that academic treadmill often required small children to take a variety of tests and have high stakes interviews (them and their parents) to get into the right lower schools to get to the right prep schools, etc. And I must also acknowledge that I am now part of the problem, as I am teaching AP American Government to 3 classes that are largely 10th graders. We justify what I am doing by telling ourselves that these are some of our brightest kids at a very good high school, and it is a way of challenging them, although in reality the reason many enroll is either for the weighted GPA and/or having another AP credit on their transcript when they apply to the more selective colleges, such as my own alma mater, Haverford.

There is something inherently wrong in what we are doing. I have problems in general with the structure of our schools, because we seem to assume that all children are at the same point developmentally in all domains merely because of chronological age. We know that is not true, just as we know that slow early development is not necessarily a reason to panic. Here I think of great men whose early - and even adolescent - development might well have meant in an increasingly highstakes environment that extends down to the earliest years, the world would not have had the benefit of their greatness. Certainly Sir Winston Churchill falls in that category, and arguably so does Albert Einstein.

I have no trouble with challenging students, provided they are ready and willing to be challenged. But sometimes we misinterpret the question of readiness. While I realize how little weight should be given to personal anecdotes, I cannot but use my own experience as part of this exploration. I taught myself to read words and music by the time I was about 3 or a few months older. My first piano teacher (at age 5) wanted to turn me into a child prodigy. Our school system, which did not believe in skipping, nevertheless kept asking my parents to consider skipping me. My parents were firmly against my acceleration, largely because of my mom’s experience, graduating from Hunter College HS at age 14, Cornell at 18, and Columbia Law (in 1937 as a Jewish woman) 2nd in her class at age 21. She knew had difficult that had been for her, that while she was intellectually capable of handling MOST (not all) of the academic work, she was not prepared for the social interactions. It permanently damaged her, s she well knew.

After I was bored out of my mind in 5th grade, going until February before i got other than a perfect score in either arithmetic or spelling, I spent only 4 weeks in 6th grade before skipping into 7th. That skipping was both good and bad, good in that I could no longer simply blow away my academic competition, but bad because it made me something a freak (even after 4 weeks, many of the social networks had already begun), and I was not as physically developed as I was mentally, and for an adolescent male that would eventually become a major issue.

I will turn 60 in just under 80 days. Partially because of my own experience as a somewhat (even very gifted) child who did not begin to truly develop his intellectual gifts until fairly late in life, I have tended to pay attention to differences in people, both in the students I teach, but also in other individuals I have observed, in their younger days and the results that are visible when they are older (or with my contemporaries, perhaps approaching our decrepitude?). If we truly want a vibrant America, economically as well as intellectually, morally as well as politically, we have to stop insisting that we can shoehorn everyone into a common mold. Far too much of our educational and economic institutions seem organized around such an approach, I think very much to the detriment of the individuals so subjected as well as to the productive output of such organizations. This tendency to push more and more organized schooling to lower and lower age groups scares the living daylights out of me.

Our children no longer know how to play, except in structured environments established by adults. Part of early childhood, and even preadolescence as a whole used to involve children making up their own games with their own rules, learning how to cooperate, why they needed rules, and all of that. I think that many of the behavior problems I encounter in our high school is because the teens are now trying to make up for having missed that experience earlier.

I also see something equally as destructive - an unwillingness to think beyond the limits that adults establish. Far too many students are unwilling to take academic risks. And I cannot blame them -- if they “go too far” in a writing they might be disciplined as a threat to the other students. They have not had the experience of playing with imagination and working out fears that used to be part of childhood -- have we forgotten the role of fantasy and fairy tales among young children? Yes, to a degree this was already starting in the 1950’s (even earlier) with things like Disney versions of children’s stories -- it imposed images rather than allowing children to use their imaginations.

I would hope that those who aspire to political leadership will take a step back and give some real consideration to what we are doing to our children. The en tire approach of the past few decades, supposedly offering more “rigor” has not proven efficacious. Each time another set of reforms fails to deliver the promised elixir of Lake Woebegon results (all children above average is not,after all, that far from 100% proficient by 2014 as required by NCLB) the inclination of our political elites has been to demand even more “rigor” and “accountability.” Doing the same stupidity with even more fervor in no way lessens the stupidity.

I probably should not have taken the time to write this. Since I will not be posting until midday on a Sunday, I fully expect that it will quickly disappear from visibility at dailykos and myleftwing, except for those few misguided individuals who either subscribe or simply read everything I write, at least if it is on education. But this issue has been gnawing at me for a quite a while. Thus I offer this for whatever benefit or challenge that it may provide to others.


Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.
Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?