President Obama’s new program for school reform has been announced and it is being called, “Race to the Top.” It provides billions of dollars to prospective schools that are willing to jump through the hoops that the federal government is establishing. It is touted as a way to reform schools that “can transform our schools for decades to come.”
This started me thinking, what are we racing to the top of? Is the top that is sought really something that will benefit our nation’s children? And, if so, why are we in such a hurry to get there?
As a teacher with a background in early childhood development I have had many years of studying how kids learn best. No matter what expert you listen to, or the age of the child you are studying it boils down to one thing, kids learn best by doing. And, kids are most likely to learn the most, and retain the most, when they are taught things appropriate for their developmental stage. No one in their right mind would try to teach a 3 month old to walk, a 9 month old to write their name or a 2 year old calculus. But, in some ways that is exactly what some of our school systems are trying to do.
Recently my daughter with a degree in early childhood education had a job interview for a position teaching preschool in a public school. To the typical question, “How do preschoolers learn best,” she answered with the classic answer, “They learn through play.” Play is the work of a preschool aged child. They learn about their world through experimenting and manipulating materials, songs, games, stories and imaginative play. “Well,” replied my daughter’s interviewer, “I used to think that. Now we teach them to read and write.” Huh? Are preschoolers different now than when the interviewer began her career? Does a preschooler really need to learn to read and write? Am I a bad parent if I don’t teach my 18 month old to read? Will my child be terribly behind if he cannot add at age 4? Well for all you anxious parents out there, and for this misguided preschool professional, I would like to tell you that if your child is a normally developing child it makes no difference if they learn to read at 18 months, 4 or 7.
Traditionally in this country we have taught children to read at about 6 years of age. When I was teacing kindergarten there was a big push for kindergarten aged children to learn to read. It seemed that kindergartens, and in turn preschools, had become more academic in response to a push for children to have traditional academics at an early age. I was intrigued with this trend, and went to a seminar that reported the results on a new study that had been done to find the best age for children to learn to read. I was stunned by the results. The study found that although a child could often be taught to read at a very early age, it really made no difference when this teaching began as long as it happened in early childhood for typically developing children, generally by age 7. In addition, it was found that in third grade (when most children are 8 years) it was impossible to tell which children learned to read at 18 months, 4 or 6 years. By third grade the child who did not learn to read or write until age 6 or 7 caught up with the others. So when was this landmark study done? This study was done in the late seventies and early eighties. Yes, you are correct, this information was discovered over 30 years ago. And many more studies have backed up this research in the ensuing years.
This misguided push is not only seen in the early grades, it is also seen in later years. In the State of California there is a push for every 8th grader in the state to take algebra. Algebra is an important subject that helps establish higher order thinking skills, however a push for every 13 year old to learn this skill is misguided and ridiculous. Research has shown that the section of the brain that is responsible for abstract thinking is not fully developed until early in the 20’s. Performance of algebraic skills requires high development of abstract thinking skills. Some teens develop advanced skills at an early age and are able to understand the concepts necessary for algebra at an early age, however most have great difficulty with this. When students are required to master concepts that are beyond their developmental level it leads to frustration and feelings of failure. This is especially true for young teens who often suffer from feelings of inadequacy.
So, why then, are we once again pushing to teach very young children to read and write? I think there are three major reasons. First, there is research that backs up early learning for children with disabilities. I think that some overzealous educators and parents have decided that if this approach is successful for children with disabilities, it must also be successful for the average developing child. Which brings us to the second reason for this early push; what parent does not want their child to be the best and the brightest? If my baby can be the next Einstein by teaching him early, why not try? Don’t I want my kid to be the first to master algebra? Parents often push their children because they feel it will lead to their child being the best. The third reason that I see for this push in early learning is due to politics. Who hasn’t heard the news that the US is far behind other countries educationally? Or that larger percentages of students do not graduate from high school? But, did the news point out that our educational system is so vastly different than that in other countries that there really is no comparison? Did it point out that in most other countries not every child is guaranteed an education? And that often the students that our students are compared to are the best and brightest in the country who have passed tests to be allowed to continue on with their education, not every child in the country? Or did the news tell you that the statistics used to determine what percentage of students graduate from high school is vastly flawed? Did they report that the numbers they use to determine how many graduated only count those that graduate on the exact date of most students in that class? And that the statistics do not take into account students who move, graduate even one day late or even those who graduate early? Of course not.
So, this brings us back to Race to the Top. Politicians often use catchy names and cash awards to prove that they take education seriously. But catchy names mean nothing, and the cash awards are often so small when distributed over a large number of schools that it is meaningless. And have we really determined that what is at the top is really worth racing toward?
What I call for does not have a wonderfully catchy name, and it won’t get me elected to anything. I call for a return to developmentally appropriate standards for children. What children need is an educationally rich environment and plenty of time to develop at their own pace. I have very intelligent children, but their intelligences are extremely varied. I had one that taught himself to read at 4, and one that would not read a book to himself until he got to high school. I had children who naturally understood high mathematics at a very young age, and I had children who did not really grasp algebraic concepts until college age. I had children who had no difficulty earning high grades in school, and children who severely struggled to earn passing grades. I had children who took 4 years of full time enrollment in a junior college to get through, and I had children who commented that college was really easy. But guess what, none of that really mattered. My children grew up in a home with a significant amount of daily stimulation to develop their talents, and an emphasis on continuing education. There was no race to top, just a gradual climb to their personal best. Now, my three oldest children hold degrees or are well established in careers of their choice and my younger ones are on the path toward their goals. None of them was ever the top in their class, the first in their age group to master a concept or received a scholarship to a prestigious university. But they are happy, well adjusted young adults working toward building their own family units. Shouldn’t that be the goal, instead a race to an indeterminate top? Slow down people, and give our children an environment in which they can develop naturally, and at the appropriate pace.