Monday, March 28, 2005

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The GoBigEd blog is accessible in the upper right-hand corner of the homepage. Click on the red Nebraska logo.




Go Big Ed will be making a case this week for private kindergarten or homeschooling for young children, pleading with parents to avoid public-school kindergarten because of the need for children to learn how to read correctly, from the starting blocks.

That sounds a little crazy. What? The Cornhusker State has lousy kindergartens?

Believe me, it’s not that the public-school teachers aren’t capable and willing. It’s that the methods and approaches have been distorted so that regular education is more like special education in expectations and philosophies. The push is less toward literacy and academics, and more toward social engineering.

Lay this one at the feet of the outcome-based education movement of the 1980s and ‘90s. The dumbed-down standards have dumbed down each grade level to the lowest common denominator. That’s what standardizing education does. It has happened all over the country in public schools, unfortunately.

The goal of kindergarten used to be to set up children to become good readers and writers, in a low-pressure setting based on play. Up until recently, there was an unwritten rule that, by the end of the kindergarten year, most kids should be doing pretty well at the foundational academic skills, reading and writing.

But nowadays, it’s rare to find a kindergarten teacher with expectations like that. The developmental academics are gone. Instead, because of the increasing diversity in the kids, teachers are happy if most of the kids can sit still and listen for more than five minutes, and maybe name a few alphabet letters and the colors. Control and discipline is the centerpiece, not reading. Kindergarten has become a lot more like day-care than a solid introduction to school.

Everything has been slowed down to the point where I estimate the academic content and methodology of kindergarten is about what we used to deliver to 3-year-olds in preschools a generation ago. Literacy is not the goal at all, any more.

Maybe that’s the down side of being an older mother, as I am, with four children ages 21, 20, 17 . . . and our “whoopsie daisy,” who’s 5. My impressions really are based on experience, though. Now, some would say I know too much, and need one of those black boxes from “Men in Black” to zap my memory. But as a parental observer of public education, I have watched the quality truly erode in the primary grades over these last 16 years or so, and it makes me sad.

I’m sorry to say that I believe it is time for parents who can possibly afford it to put their children in a private school, or homeschool them, until about third grade, to make sure that they can read, write, think and figure correctly. Even then, if you can afford it, I’m recommending that you stay out of public schools ‘til high school.

Here’s why: for those children who are coming to kindergarten from literate homes who are already reading simple words or exhibit lots of phonemic awareness, the threshold skill for reading, attending one of today’s non-literate public-school kindergartens is like putting too much weight on a racehorse. It slows them down unnecessarily and unfairly.

And I believe it adds to misbehavior and chaos in the early grades, as above-average kids are frustrated, relegated to pointless busy work, and waiting for their less-ready classmates to catch up.

Just about the only enrichment that busy kindergarten teachers have time to make for kids who are already reading is to let them go to the school library and check out books that are closer to their reading level, instead of the ABC and wordless picture books in the kindergarten classroom that were appropriate and interesting for them when they were 3.

They can’t even practice their penmanship, another threshold skill for reading that’s fallen by the wayside in kindergarten. Why? Because there are no desks and chairs for solitary junior scholarship; everything has moved to “centers” or to the floor, on beanbags or sprawled on the carpet, in non-literate group activities. Nowadays a young child who wants to quietly read or write can only do it at home, and parents who want their child to hold a pencil correctly and form the letters well has to teach him or her themselves.

So you do everything schools ask you to do to get your child ready for kindergarten . . . and once there, your child has to go on “idle” for a couple of years until the other kids catch up. That’s because of outcome-based education – “no child left behind” – where everything is targeted toward the below-average student.

Dumbed-down kindergarten is all wrong for kids who’ve been read to by their parents, know the alphabet, are making up rhymes, use a pretty big vocabulary in everyday speech, can count to 20, know a few foreign words, respect adult authority, keep their hands to themselves, have good manners, and have been kept from TV addictions and so forth.

Those are the traits I see in my 5-year-old daughter and her preschool classmates. Yet they’re all going to go into another year or two of preschool-level methodology if they all go into public kindergartens, even in our so-called west Omaha suburban utopia. And it’s all because of the realities of a minority of their classmates, who are less well prepared, and the stubborn refusal of public schools to ability-group the kids until high school.

Now, this is all such a waste. We have everything that’s needed for a “best in the nation” public education system. Nebraska parents have provided mostly stable, intact, Mom-and-Dad homes; parental educational attainment is among the best in the nation; there are pockets of real poverty but they are scattered, and the overall conservative approach to “the good life” here favors common-sense educational philosophies and the old 3 R’s.

But things are changing, and changing fast.

Call me a canary – you know, like they have down in the mines. When the canary drops dead, they know there are gas fumes down there, and the humans scramble out. I ain’t dead yet – but I’m singin’ my head off.

And here’s my warning: there are reasons that two-thirds of Nebraska students test at mediocre or below on nationally standardized tests.

There are reasons so many Nebraska public-school students from Grades 7-12 don’t read and write at grade level.

There are reasons so many of our brightest students can pull down a 30 on the math portion of the ACT, but can’t even get into double digits on the reading side.

There are reasons above-average students sometimes feel like they’re twiddling their thumbs from K-8, until at long last, in high school, students are finally grouped by academic ability and not just by chronological age.

It’s because the special education mentality has taken over our schools, through standards-based educational regulations. Instead of gearing schooling toward the brightest, most able students, we’ve geared it toward those who need the most help.

You can tell by school budgets: tried-and-true, traditional content-based education is relatively cheap. The teacher’s salary and benefits are by far the biggest expense item, because about 80 percent of the kids should be able to practically teach themselves, once they can read.

Instead, the costs associated with the delivery of a traditional academic education now have dropped below 50 percent of the overall bill. Instead, we have waves and waves of staffers and programs and equipment and facilities geared toward delivering something else besides traditional academic content.

That’s where the money and the jobs are, which is what the unions like. So that’s what we have.

Of course, I’m for helping sweet, vulnerable children who need help. Of course, I’m for meeting legitimate special education needs.

But I hate how we’ve dropped the ball in the process of strengthening the weak to the point where now we are weakening the strong.

And it all starts in kindergarten. But smart parents can stop it before it starts.


TUESDAY: Private kindergartens

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