Sunday, June 3, 2007

Children Left Behind and Otherwise Advantaged

For the last two years my father worked as a middle school science teacher in a predominantly poor and immigrant community outside of Los Angeles. Every stereotype you could concoct was present in his classroom. There were the kids destined for gang life, the 13 year-old pregnant girl, the children without parents at home, the children with parents who did not care. Yet he still got up everyday before dawn to teach these children for tests designed for the “average” California middle school student.

In an article in the New York Times Magazine this weekend Elizabeth Weil details the experience of children as they go into Kindergarten. She wrote of the history of the program, established in Germany in the 1840 by Friedrich Froebel, and that it has changed so drastically in the United States that we are seeing children being “red shirted” (starting Kindergarten a year later) in such numbers (48% in some wealthy neighborhoods, she writes) that we are seeing disparities in test scores all the way through the eight grade.

But why is this trend so pervasive in the US?
This is due, in part, to the accountability movement — the high-stakes testing now pervasive in the American educational system. In response to this testing, kindergartens across the country have become more demanding: if kids must be performing on standardized tests in third grade, then they must be prepping for those tests in second and first grades, and even at the end of kindergarten, or so the thinking goes. The testing also means that states, like students, now get report cards, and they want their children to do well, both because they want them to be educated and because they want them to stack up favorably against their peers.

My father was dealing with that phenomenon for the nearly two years he taught those kids. Clearly those who can “red shirt” their five and six year-old children will, but those who need to work insuring food is on the table for dinner rather than to make sure they can make the down payment on their vacation home, will not have the spare cash to send their kids to an expensive pre-school. Some so expensive, according to Weil’s article, on average costing more than a year of public college tuitions.

But that isn’t the only issue. Wealthy parents are afraid to let their kids fail and not be the best. I was brought up to understand that you aren’t supposed to be the best at everything and in reality you most likely won’t be the best at almost anything and that losing is part of life. (Which is a really negative way to look at things and no one ever told me that explicitly but it gave me drive to go further and be the best I can be. It is very important for kids to know they can lose and still go on with their lives. That could be good for some of these more affluent kids.)

Back when I was in elementary school, it was rare but a great honor to learn that some had skipped a grade. They were really smart and going somewhere. I remember Devon, who was in my class for all of my Orchard School days, and how well he did in math and spelling. There was always talk of moving him up a grade. I don’t know if he skipped fifth grade, in that I moved cross-country, but I wouldn’t be so surprised.

But that is a thing of the past according to Fred Morrison a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan. He is quoted in the piece saying, “We used to revere individual accomplishment. Now we revere self-esteem, and the reverence has snowballed in unconscious ways — into parents always wanting their children to feel good, wanting everything to be pleasant.”

In teaching seventh grade religious school this year at a very large and very wealthy congregation in the New York area, I got to see the age disparity issues front and center. The youngest kids did fine while the old (earlier Bar/Bat Mitzvah date) did even better. They generally were able to take more complex information and come up with more “correct” answers than the other kids. But supplemental religious education is a poor place to test these theories, not to mention this group of kids could easily be considered part of the richest one percent in the United States.

But to put it frankly the point is that education, supposedly the great equalizer is all about the money.
James Heckman’s [a labor economist at University of Chicago] graph looks like a skateboard quarter-pipe, sloping precipitously from a high point during the preschool years, when the return on investment in human capital is very high, down the ramp and into the flat line after a person is no longer in school, when the return on investment is minimal.
If you invest early you will have more later. It is just like retirement and the article I am sure my mother will send me later this week.

The East Village Mamele wrote in her Forward Column about changes to her daughter’s public school. Luckily our little Mamele was placed into a wonderful public school with a diverse and small crowd of people, both students and teachers. This smaller and better school will help the little Mamele throughout her years of life. But really is that what is at play here?

Judith Foster Principle of the Neighborhood School in Manhattan, EVM’s school, explains that smaller schools are better because there is a community aspect that fosters responsibility and hope for the future of all the kids that make up that community. Yet it would be shocking for me to learn that a freelancing writer, who took up her very precious column inches to talk about the benefits of her daughter’s school, would not be involved in her schooling regardless of the size of her school or the benefits of different learning environments.

EVM even admits that she is able to send her daughter to private school but wants her to have the experience of the public school experience. (I too want this for my kids and as of yet I don’t think I will have another option.)

What this comes down to is simple; different kids learn different ways. But like everything in this society money makes it – in this case learning – easier. If you have enough expendable income, you can send your kid to another year of private pre-school instead of as the literacy specialist Katie Eller put it, spend “another year watching TV in the basement with Grandma.”

The New York Times’ Magazine piece really is very well done and doesn’t infuse much politics into the presentation of the facts. But it is clear to me that more education, more early childhood education to be exact, is needed. But not attached to testing; it should be attached to socialization and story telling and playtime and pretending to create a store or house or anything. Kids need more time to be kids. They need this time separated from the world of affluence or poverty, they need an education that really is a great equalizer.


arozora said...

Good post. My daughters did most of their primary ed. in Asia, in a mod orth day school, where there was zilch pressure to hit gov't mandated levels. As a result, my elder maxed out of the school a year early; resulting in a scramble for proper math enrichment when we moved to the US last summer. The math teacher at the new school actually said "Oh, we don't push the gifted ones too much; then they'll be ahead of where they should be next year." GAAA. That time to play, to imagine, in early primary, that leads to character-building, too, and teaches kids how to deal in the world, something all too often overlooked. How many brilliant people are there who can't hold a job b'c they never learned to deal with morons?

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