Is Public Education Hurting More Than Helping Our Kids?

462px-School-Days-1907I trudged the several blocks home from school, satchel in hand. It was a beautiful, golden afternoon, and I was ready for some adventure. I had a little homework, but that could wait until after supper. My parents knew that kids needed time to play and there was only so much daylight left. My best friend and I spent the afternoon exploring in the nearby woods and seeking out “evil” boys to annoy. We got home in time for supper and had plenty of time to finish our homework before bed. I don’t remember ever being stressed about tests and grades in elementary school. School was a relatively comfortable place, although it really did not compare with free time to play outside.”

My childhood experience sounds like the “hell” Matt Walsh wants to drag you into in his blog post, “Your 5 year old failed a standardized test. Therefore, he is stupid, insane, and doomed to a life of failure.Walsh writes:

…imagine a terrifying world where 4 and 5 year old children are allowed to play, explore, and dream. Imagine a dystopia where young kids roll in the grass and get mud on their pants. Imagine what would happen if small children weren’t constantly being measured or analyzed. Imagine an utter and complete absence of overarching “academic standards” for kids that are barely older than toddlers. Imagine the torment of a country that does not provide government facilities to which its citizens can send their tots for curriculum-based instruction. Imagine a netherworld where innocent little kids aren’t tested, or scored, or compared to the “performance” of other kids all over the globe. Imagine — just imagine — a purgatory where your 4 year old develops on his own time, and isn’t hurried along so that he might meet broad ‘milestones’ and ‘performance standards.’

Yes, it does sound like my early school experiences – and if you are old enough to have grown kids of your own, it probably sounds like yours. It also sounds like the childhood I tried to provide for my own kids, except that exploring and play was part of our homeschool.

Sadly, American education has lost its way. It has forgotten what any parent of more than one child knows, that every child is different. Each develops at his or her own pace and we cannot expect every child to hit milestones at exactly the same time, even if government standards demand it.

And the government demands it, as Walsh satirizes:

…President Obama gave his State of the Union Address last week and once again reiterated his call for “Universal Pre-K.”

Yes, Mr. President. We must get the children away from their parents as soon as possible. And it is not enough for pre-k to be universal — it must be mandatory. But why stop there? I call for mandatory universal pre-pre K, which will be the next step after pre-pre-pre K, which would come right after a baby graduates from mandatory universal nursery instruction. If our children are to compete with the Chinese (surely, “competing” with Asian kids thousands of miles away must be the innate desire of all young Americans) then we should stop wasting time. I say, let’s administer the first standardized test within 5 minutes of birth. That is, until the Russians give standardized tests to one-minute-olds.

While we are not quite there yet with our four-year-olds, look what we are doing to our third, fourth and fifth-graders:

My name is Jeanette Deutermann. I am the parent of a fifth grader and a second grader. I became involved in this movement… when the high-stakes testing and the test driven curriculum it creates, significantly changed my 10-year-old’s attitude towards school in profoundly negative ways. He went from a child who looked forward to school in the morning and would return home talking about the projects and interesting things that went on in the classroom, to a child who cried at night, had stomach aches, and begged to stay home in the morning.

This behavior began abruptly during the middle of his third-grade year, two months before his first state assessment. The behaviors continued until the day I told him he would not be participating in the 4th grade state assessments, a little over a year later. The relief on his face told me all I needed to know about what was causing his dramatic shift. But he is not out of the woods just yet. The months and months of inevitable test prepping and lack of adequate time for teachers to fit in any inspiring, passionate, and creative lessons in the months leading up to the exams, will still be a challenge to overcome. There are tens of thousands of stories just like mine, some much worse, from across Long Island and throughout New York State.

By insisting that all of our children fit the same mold at the same time, we are turning school into a nightmare for the children who are just not developmentally ready for intensive academics and testing. Students as young as third grade (and perhaps younger) are spending all day in school, being prepped and prodded, practicing standardized test questions day in and day out, with harried teachers who have little time left for creative lesson plans that actually encourage students to love learning. And when the school day is over, the students who are “behind” see tutors like me, who reteach skills they aren’t getting and do even more test preparation.

I experienced the variety in developmental patterns as I home schooled my four children. My oldest was reading chapter books by first grade. My next child was reading the encyclopedia, also in first grade. My third knew all his letters and sounds by the end of kindergarten, so I thought he would be reading soon after we started first grade work. He didn’t. And he didn’t read in second grade. By the end of third grade, he was reading adequately (barely), and by fifth grade, he was an excellent reader. By the time he was in high school, he had blossomed into a scholar, and if one of my seminary textbooks went missing, I knew where to find it. My fourth developed differently as well, reading sooner that her older brother, but later than the first two. She excelled in writing earlier than the others, and she was the only one who seriously pursued athletics as a high schooler. What if I had insisted that they all learn the same thing at the same time, and the more they struggled, the more I doubled down on the academics? Would they have learned faster? Or would they have come to see learning as something to avoid at all cost, something that sucked all the joy out of life? How do we help children become “life-long learners” when they experience learning as drudgery at such an early age?

I’ll tell you what we did with our son who was a classic late-bloomer. Unlike the schools, we backed off of academics. We did a little phonics instruction each day, read a lot of books, played, built things, spent lots of time outdoors and made sure he had plenty of action. We did hands on math activities and shopped together. We lived life and incorporated learning into our daily activities. As he matured, we gradually added in academic activities that were appropriate for his personality and developmental level.

If my four kids developed so differently, imagine the disparities among kids with much broader differences in genetics, home environment, natural inclinations, and early experiences! Yet, we expect to be able to send all of our children to the same place, government schools, to get their educational needs met. As more and more students fail to make the grade, the government insists that the schools double down on academics, with earlier testing, more testing, and less and less freedom in education. More of the same wrong-headed standards and techniques are not improving our children’s educational lives.

The question is, what are we going to do about it?

Katie Abercrombie

Florida PolitiChick Katie Abercrombie, native of North Carolina and a long-time resident in Florida, is a 20-year homeschooling veteran. Now that her four children are grown, she continues to indulge her love for teaching and learning by tutoring, substitute teaching, and teaching writing classes for homeschoolers. She earned her BS degree from Florida Southern College and her MA from Rollins College. BC, or Before Children, she served as the Director of Youth and Family Ministry at her church and has continued to be active in ministry and leadership in her current church. Homeschooling afforded her many opportunities to be politically active and she recently retired from a term on the Orange County Republican Executive Committee. Like Katie's Political Page on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @aberaussie.

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