Thursday, September 07, 2006

First-Graders Face Intense Academic Pressure!

This week's cover story at Newsweek looks at "the new first grade," where more and more young kids are facing inceasingly competitive pressures for academic excellence. Things are so tough, the California family introduced in the article's opening vignette decided to relocate to Washington State, where school requirements were not as challenging:

In the last decade, the earliest years of schooling have become less like a trip to "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and more like SAT prep. Thirty years ago first grade was for learning how to read. Now, reading lessons start in kindergarten and kids who don't crack the code by the middle of the first grade get extra help. Instead of story time, finger painting, tracing letters and snack, first graders are spending hours doing math work sheets and sounding out words in reading groups. In some places, recess, music, art and even social studies are being replaced by writing exercises and spelling quizzes. Kids as young as 6 are tested, and tested again—some every 10 days or so—to ensure they're making sufficient progress. After school, there's homework, and for some, educational videos, more workbooks and tutoring, to help give them an edge.

Not every school, or every district, embraces this new work ethic, and in those that do, many kids are thriving. But some children are getting their first taste of failure before they learn to tie their shoes. Being held back a grade was once relatively rare: it makes kids feel singled out and, in some cases, humiliated. These days, the number of kids repeating a grade, especially in urban school districts, has jumped. In Buffalo, N.Y., the district sent a group of more than 600 low-performing first graders to mandatory summer school; even so, 42 percent of them have to repeat the grade. Among affluent families, the pressure to succeed at younger and younger ages is an inevitable byproduct of an increasingly competitive world. The same parents who played Mozart to their kids in utero are willing to spend big bucks to make sure their 5-year-olds don't stray off course.

Like many of his friends, Robert Cloud, a president of an engineering company in suburban Chicago, had the Ivy League in mind when he enrolled his sons, ages 5 and 8, in a weekly after-school tutoring program. "To get into a good school, you need to have good grades," he says. In Granville, Ohio, a city known for its overachieving high-school and middle-school students, an elementary-school principal has noticed a dramatic shift over the past 10 years. "Kindergarten, which was once very play-based," says William White, "has become the new first grade." This pendulum has been swinging for nearly a century: in some decades, educators have favored a rigid academic curriculum, in others, a more child-friendly classroom style. Lately, some experts have begun to question whether our current emphasis on early learning may be going too far. "There comes a time when prudent people begin to wonder just how high we can raise our expectations for our littlest schoolkids," says Walter Gilliam, a child-development expert at Yale University. Early education, he says, is not just about teaching letters but about turning curious kids into lifelong learners. It's critical that all kids know how to read, but that is only one aspect of a child's education. Are we pushing our children too far, too fast? Could all this pressure be bad for our kids?

Read the whole thing, especially if you have young children. As a parent of two elementary school-age boys who is also an educator, I have mixed feelings about this trend.

On the one hand, the father in me likes the strong emphasis on early learning but worries that heavy school workloads and grinding schedules wear down both the kids and parents with a regimented home-life during the workweek. On the other hand, the educator in me knows exactly how critical early childhood education is to later success in school -- especially in middle- and high-school, with the college-prep curriculum -- but also to life in general, which is frequently cut-throat in our competitive culture.

One thing noteworthy about the Newsweek article is that standardized testing is being pushed down to the earliest grades. I wonder how useful examination regimes like this will be. The country is having varied success with high-stakes testing programs nationally, and in California state test results routinely find the most affluent schools as the highest scoring.

The article also notes what families can do to help their children meet the rigors of the pushed-down curriculum, with the most important thing being reading to kids (and creating a rich, literate environment for preschoolers in general).

I blogged earlier about the lack of preparation among today's community college cohort, which is a national phenomenon, and a problem I worry about. In that entry I mentioned that I'd been doing a lot of reading on education and learning. One very important book I read was Annette Lareau's, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (2003). Lareau's thesis suggests that home environments that foster a culture of "concerted cultivation" -- an extremely rich and structured parenting-style and at-home experience -- are more likely to benefit kids by providing deep skill-sets and a sense of middle-class entitlment that allows them to easily manage life's institutional settings where performance and accomplishment matter.

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