The September 11 issue of Newsweek contains an excellent article about “The New First Grade”. It’s well worth reading even if you don’t have any children in school. I think it’s important for everyone to understand the new reality of elementary education and how it impacts our society. Maybe then we will ask some serious questions about “no child left behind” and all of the testing we are imposing on these little ones. What most children are “leaving behind” is childhood.
The first change you’ll notice in elementary schools these days is the testing. Children are tested and retested to make sure they are progressing as expected. And I’m not talking about math quizzes and spelling bees. I’m talking about testing literacy skills and phonemic awareness and reading comprehension and writing ability and then producing graphs and analyses of each and every answer. I’m talking about kindergartners filling in little “bubble” answer forms and taking timed quizzes. It’s happening all over the country, in every state. I’ve been in districts that emphasize math and reading, and “teach to the test” to the point that art and music and even science are pushed aside. No time, no teachers for such luxuries. I so lucky to be in a district that still believes in a “well-rounded” education!
And play time suffers when we are so concerned about academics and accountability. There are mandatory time allotments and guidelines for recess. Some districts don’t even have recess above the first grade level. Imagine being inside, working and studying, ALL DAY LONG. One of the principals quoted in the Newsweek article says “Kindergarten, which was once very play-based has become the new first grade.” My colleagues and I have been saying that for years. And before you blame that on teachers, remember that most of what we do is mandated by the state and federal governments. As the article points out, we have learned, through research, how children learn and now we have used that knowledge against them. High-stakes testing has become “the sole metric by which a school is measured.”
I consider myself a well-educated, intelligent person. I’m terrible at taking tests!! I panic. I get headaches. I go blank. I forget my own address. I certainly don’t want my worth measured by how well I “test”. I don’t want all my former teachers to feel guilty because they didn’t teach me how to love testing. Why should I think that the students in my class are any different?
The concern of the article, and my concern, is that we will produce a nation of learners who CAN read, but HATE to do it. I remember enjoying reading so much that I would literally read under the covers with a flashlight. When I wasn’t reading I was thinking about the latest story I had read. My favorite place in the world was the library! That’s the kind of education our children need- one that instills in them a LOVE of learning and exploring and reading. I was poor, poor, poor, just like these kids we are so concerned about “fixing” with all of our testing. I was also just a regular kid: I climbed trees and played hopscotch and dug in the dirt and got in trouble for talking too much. But I grew up in an era when children were allowed to have a childhood. I grew up in a time when children had a chance to complete their homework because they weren’t involved in fifteen extracurricular activities designed to improve their chances of getting into a good college.
Too much, too fast? Yes, I think so. I think we need to step back and take another look at accountability. What seemed like a good idea- making sure teachers and others in education were really doing their job- has become a catalyst for the notion that we can somehow produce a blueprint for the perfect student, and that once we have it we can just turn them out at will. Instead of “no child left behind” I think we should adopt the mantra “every child is unique” and treat them accordingly.
This is a great article and I hope you will read it.