Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Does This Story Scare You?

The emphasis on teaching for the test in middle schools and high schools across the country is bad enough, but now the NY Times reports kindergarten students are being subjected to prepping for future tests and engaging in math, grammar, and voacabulary drills over playtime:

THE word “kindergarten” means “children’s garden,” and for years has conjured up an image of children playing with blocks, splashing at water tables, dressing up in costumes or playing house. Now, with an increased emphasis on academic achievement even in the earliest grades, playtime in kindergarten is giving way to worksheets, math drills and fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests.

Nowhere are the demands greater than at Achievement First East New York Charter School in Brooklyn, which holds classes through this month. On a recent Friday morning, 20 kindergartners in uniforms of yellow shirts and blue jumpers or shorts, many yawning and rubbing their eyes, filed into the classroom of Keisha Rattray and Luis Gonzalez. Some sat in plastic chairs lined up before the teachers for phonics and grammar drills, while others sat at computer screens, listening through headphones to similar exercises.

The classroom has no blocks, dress-up corners or play kitchens. There is no time for show and tell, naps or recess. There is homework every night. For much of the day, the children are asked to sit quietly with their hands folded as their teachers drill them in phonics, punctuation and arithmetic.

“At the beginning of the year, they’re dropping like flies, falling asleep by 12 o’clock,” said Mrs. Rattray, 27. “We say, ‘Wake up, you are in big school now.’ ”

Achievement First, part of a network of charter schools, is an extreme case, but across the nation, there is less time for play even for the youngest students. And while it may seem like a good thing to teach reading, writing and arithmetic as early as possible, most early childhood experts agree that play is crucial for both social and academic development.

Constructive play helps children develop social skills while laying an important foundation for reading and math, said Dominic F. Gullo, a professor of elementary and early childhood education at Queens College.

For example, he explained, children who set up a pretend post office or a restaurant in what is called a “dramatic play area” learn how to take turns, how to speak clearly to one another, and how to make up their own stories — stories that are the foundation for writing.

Playing with blocks teaches children the basics of math as they learn that two small blocks put together have the same length as one long block.

Children who never learn to play with one another — who rely on grown-ups to resolve disputes — never learn the self-regulation and teamwork for their adulthood.

Just what we need - a society with more people who don't know how to take turns, haven't developed any social skills, haven't learned self-regulation and teamwork for their future adult lives and can't resolve disputes without independent arbitration.

These people running the Achievement First Charter Schools ought to be arrested for child abuse and subjected to year round, 12 hour a day work on a roadgang. And everytime they complain about the harsh treatment a guard will say "Sorry, you're in grown-up prison now. Get back to working that blacktop. "

This is another example of people who know nothing about children or education trying to run a school system and seriously fucking some kids up in the process. Even the Achievement First teacher in the article, Mrs. Rattray, says at the end that if her own kid were in the Achievement First Charter School, she would want more time for play.

No kidding.

How much do you want to make a bet that Achievement First Charter Schools graduates some seriously disturbed people in the very near future?

There used to be very well defined steps in the learning process. I recall kindergarten as being a stage of introducing the discipline of schooling and engaging natural curiosity.
I recall (in Australia) being soundly rebuked when both of my kids started kinder with reading ability equal to grade 4. The teacher’s job, I was told, was undermined when kids were advanced beyond the program.
From my own recollection, primary school (grades 3 to 6) was about learning how to learn, about engaging with information sources and sorting the valid from the trash.
High school began at grade 7, was like being in kinder for big kids, because after that a student was expected to put the ‘how to’ to practical application.
I recall when it dawned on me, early in grade 7, that all before had been preparation for a totally new experience. I’d learned how to learn; now I was expected to do it.
Of course all that was preparation for an academic path which most of my contemporaries were denied unless we went back as adults to pursue part time study. The base, however, was excellent for some of us.
For many it was just theory and learning how to learn, how to think, never really happened. Regardless of those who will always fall to the wayside, how do we lose a system which actually works?
Man I could write a book on this one. Forgive me if I do.

First of all, it is never to early to start learning, but there has to be a balance. Learning needs to be fun. There will be plenty of time for nose-in-the-book but that comes with having a personal reason for learning.

If you think about it, for most, academics is just something that we have to do up until we are about 18 and we start to realize that it might benefit us. I say most, because of course there are the kids that at age 15 (or age 5) want to become a doctor or a lawyer (or anything else that involves huge amounts of studying) and are chomping at the bit to learn and achieve so they can get ahead. But those are the 2%ers and they got beat up and generally hazed in the small town where I grew up.

The rest of us saw academics as something we had to do. The more displeasure we associated with it (i.e. bad teacher or personally frustrating subject) the harder it was.

Two anecdotes:

I met a girl in college that was on the fast track to medical school. She had been taught about things such as photons from age three. But she lacked any understanding of life. The college experience was a complete shock as to what "real life" was all about. Boy was she in for a surprise after graduation I suppose.

I also remember learning things from a very early age. I used to love to do basic arithmatic when I was like 3 and 4. I never remember learning how to read. My parents exposed me to these things very early and sent me to pre-schools that actually taught. But what I remember most about that pre-school is that they let us play like mad, but we had to clean up after ourselves. We were allowed to get water all over the sink and counter and play rough. But when the tears started flowing we had to apologize, make nice, and then clean up the mess we made.

I hated it! But it tought me a lot.

My point is that there is a balance, as in all things. There is no single answer to the question of childhood education.

But in answer to your question. No, it doesn't scare me, it saddens me. I saw something on televison about one of these places and to me it was just another example of American "Do It Better" sydrome coming to call.

I feel sorry for those kids who don't get to have a great time playing in the sink when they are three years old.

Yea, you might get a few deranged people out of it, but we tend to anyway.

The crap we all endure at home is much more profound for most, I think.

Sorry for writing a book. Hope you liked it.

I didn't get to read your's first because we were commenting simultaneously and you beat me to the final click.

I guess that explains your fantastically organized mind. Sounds like a great education.

My experience in public education was not nearly as productive. We had a single track system that was laughably easy until I hit 10th grade. I wasn't motivated until after I left high school. The California Community College system was the best thing in education perhaps ever. I got in on the last $50 semester. All P.H.D. professors in classes between 20 and 80 students. What a deal!

But I'm afraid even Community College will soon be elitist, and only available to the rich, or those who wish to go into severe debt.
My daughter had to take a 5-day standardized test in kindergarten. She got excellent reading scores, which I found curious since she most certainly did not know how to read, but apparently, had no language skills whatsoever.

The teacher explained to me that this pattern was the same with most of the class. They took the "reading" test the first day,and the "language" test the last, by which time their 5-year-old attention spans had pretty much had it.
I'm not sure if the education system taught me or the aforementioned children. From an early age they were sticklers for precision of expression.
In fact, they still refer to my 'mind like a mechanical magpies' nest'.
All i can really say is that I was taught what to aim for, how often I reach the target is another matter.
Wow - it's great to see such passionate responses to this post!

cartledge - it sounds like you received a great education. I wonder how many of your contemporaries became interested in pursuing a lifetime of learning after school, the way you have, and how many just disappeared into conformity?

praguetwin, that pre-school you attended sounded like it was doing exactly what a pre-school ought to do - letting kids play, socialize, learn, try, and see that other people exist around them. Was this a kindergarten or a pre-k? Also, I completely agree w/ you about needing a balance in education, as in life. It seems almost self-evident that too much of something, even a good something, is bad for humans. But many of the charter school proponents don't see it this way, at least not when it comes to standardized testing. It's a shame.

I had a similar experience to yours in high school, praguetwin. I attended a Jesuit military academy and while I enjoyed high school very much and liked most of my classes, I really didn't start to WANT to learn until I got to Brooklyn College. I only spent a semster there, but i really enjoyed my classes and learned a lot about both myself and the world around me there. It sounds like the Community College system in California was a wonderful experience for you. It's a shame that experience no longer exists for students. Thanks for writing your "book" - I did like it.

nyc, a 5 day standardized test in kindergarten? Holy shit - you know what I got to do in Miss Peretsky's kindergarten class in 1972? Play, socialize, paint, cut, paste, sing, dance, learn my ABC's, eat cookies and drink milk, take a nap, and learn to enjoy school very much. I don't think I would want to trade that experience for the Achievement First Charter School experience.
The community college is still there, but more and more expensive and less offered. Eventually it will be pointless.

The pre-school was pre-K. I went to three total, a new one each year. I barely remember when I was 2, but I still know the lady who ran the school. Her daughter is my age and we still see each other once in a while when I'm in town.

But the one I'm talking about was when I was 4. My parents had to drive me to the bigger town nearby. It was great. On my fifth birthday, all the kids from the school (or most) came to my house for a year-end birthday party.

Kindergarten was great as well. It wasn't until 3rd grade until I had a bad teacher. What a wake up call. Hippie child meets diciplinarian.

Teachers. They make all the difference, aside from parents of course.
Parents and teachers do make all the difference. It seems Margaret Spellings believes standardized tests make all the difference.
That's one of the saddest articles I've ever read. I'm a first grade teacher, and if I saw the K teachers at my school working the kids like that I'd be horrified.

Shame on them.
I'm glad to hear your school does something different, rain. That gives me some heart. Maybe the entire country isn't crazy to add standardized testing to pre-K and K.
Not all children are granted the same set of privileged circumstances. 90% of the students that Achievement First serves are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and they often have minimal academic exposure before hitting Kindergarten. Many of us were fortunate enough to get a lot of help from home.

Achievement First has recess, centers and even time for dramatic play. The only difference is that the school day and the school year are longer. However, the results speak for themselves.

In a society where so many urban schools are failing, one would think it would be acceptable to set higher expectations for our students. I have seen too many middle and high school students already jaded by the educational process. Achievement First students are dedicated and work hard for the sake of learning.

I say, shame on the RAIN for being so critical without researching the model.
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