This week’s article summary is Why Forcing Kids to Do Things 'Sooner and Faster' Doesn't Get Them Further in School.
As an elementary school educators, we typically ask our students at Thanksgiving what they are thankful for.
It may seem cliché but we adults should also reflect about what we’re grateful for.
Over the Thanksgiving Break I always try to find some quiet, private time to think about not only what I’m personally thankful for but also what I’m professionally thankful for.
As I read the article below about a ‘no excuses school’ where learning is intense, pressure packed, devoid of fun, and filled with strict rules and extrinsic incentives, I was exceedingly grateful for Trinity’s child-focused pedagogy and program.
During my career, I have been very fortunate to teach in some great schools—in New York, Oklahoma, Indiana, and now in Georgia.
All of them shared in varying degrees the following:
Learning was fun and meaningful for the kids (of any age) who were engaged in and excited about learning and school.
Kids had ample opportunities and latitude to find their passion and cultivate their talents—be it in academics, sports, visual or performing arts, etc.
Student success was not narrowly confined to standardized test scores.
Open inquiry and independent--even divergent--thought were encouraged and much learning and growth came from discussion, dialogue, and reflection.
Whether as a teacher, administrator, or head of school, I was trusted and empowered to do the right thing and when I erred, my mistakes were opportunities to learn and grow, not reasons for punitive consequences.
There was deep camaraderie among colleagues—we sincerely enjoyed working and being together.
While there were always a couple of difficult parents, the vast majority were very supportive.
There were high expectations and a commitment to continual learning for everyone yet the overall school atmosphere was somehow relaxed and informal and eternally optimistic.
If you’re like me, there are times in any school year when you get frustrated with the tensions and demands inherent in education. For example, what many parents think is best for kids (like more homework) and what research and teachers know is best for kids (like more time to play and to be a kid).
There are many hard days and downtimes in schools: issues with kids, with parents, with colleagues--even with copier machines.
Yet after a really bad day, once I calm down at home (maybe the aid of a three-mile run, a glass of wine, or both), I always come back to how lucky I was (and am) to have been invited to be a part of this extraordinary community and a school that possesses all of the qualities above.
I feel so fortunate I found a career that has been so fulfilling for me and so many schools that embodied my educational philosophy!
I hope all of you have a wonderful, fun-filled holiday break and that if you reflect about what you’re thankful for, Trinity makes your list.
The very youngest children at the no-excuses charter school at which I taught all start their nine-hour school day in the same way: by reciting the school ‘creed.’
“I am a … scholar!” the children all chant in unison. One child lets out a giggle. He is immediately sent to the Silent Area.
I notice that one of my second-grade students is wearing one neon green sock, in stark defiance of the dress code. I am contractually obligated to order him to take it off or to send him to the dean. I smile and look away.
I turn my attention to the table of kindergartners next to me. They’re my favorite to watch, these tiny children who haven’t yet learned to be predictable.
Most mouth the words obediently: “Today is a step on my path toward success!” On cue, their little fists shoot into the air. But I am giggling. The kindergartner next to me didn’t say “path to success.” He said “path to recess.”
This school is obsessed with success. Its students chant about it daily; its walls are plastered with banner-sized recipes in bold fonts and bright colors. And its proponents claim that, because it has the highest test scores in the state, it has achieved it.
These test scores don’t tell the whole story, of course, but they are also not meaningless. The school’s youngest students— children of color from predominantly low-income families— can do a lot. These 5-, 6-, and 7-year-olds who start each day by pumping their fists into the air while chanting about success are articulate in person and on the page; they are perspicacious readers and creative, rational mathematicians. The nine hours a day they spend in classrooms enable them to attain academic milestones earlier than their peers in more traditional school environments, where children spend six-hour school days engaged in less intense direct instruction and more play-based exploration.
If the early attainment of academic skills—coupled with constant, explicit messaging about the necessity of pursuing long-term goals—were a primary determinant of long-term success, it stands to reason that the young children at this “no-excuses” school would continue, unobstructed and ahead of the curve, on their “path to success.” But they don’t.
Once children at this school reach adolescence, many struggle. Their high school entrance exam percentiles are far lower than those of their state standardized tests, and they are not admitted in large numbers to the most selective high schools. At the high schools they do attend, they struggle: in their first semester, 81% of last year’s ninth graders earned below a 3.0 grade point average. These students— who have spent their entire educational careers, from kindergarten onward striving toward big long-term goals like “excellence” and “success” — aren’t graduating from college in large numbers. They aren’t excelling, and the extent to which they are even succeeding is debatable.
So why is this? Why do some children who learn to read earlier than their peers do so poorly in ways that matter later on? Why do children for whom every aspect of their education, from kindergarten onward, is tailored toward graduating from college often struggle to graduate from college?
Reflecting on my experiences teaching both at this school and at more traditional public schools, I find myself wondering if the methodology that enables young children to achieve so much so early actually hinders their long-term prospects. What if the struggles of graduates of “no excuses” schools reveal deficits that are not academic, but rather socio-emotional? What would happen if, instead of spending nine hours a day engaged in academic tasks determined by a teacher, children were to spend a large portion of their day developing “soft skills” that would enable them to overcome the hurdles they will encounter when they’re older? What if, like their suburban counterparts, they spent large portions of their day in rigorous, developmentally appropriate activities: learning to make friends, make art, and make believe, exploring and creating their interests and their identities?
That is, what if a necessary component of improving the long-term prospects of small children from disadvantaged backgrounds is not accelerating through childhood, but purposefully lingering in it?
To some, this approach might seem counter-intuitive: the earlier you board the train, say, the further you’ll go, and sooner. This type of “sooner, faster, further” thinking goes astray when applied to education, however, because child development is both non-linear and marked by largely immutable landmarks.
Pushing children to attain academic skills they will attain regardless— while depriving them of other, more developmentally appropriate activities that would enable them to succeed independently when they are older— is short-sighted at best.
Implementing a more developmentally appropriate curriculum for young children might result in lower test scores in the short term, but I suspect that its long-term effects— both in terms of test scores and more relevant measures of success— would compensate. (This solution, however, is admittedly incomplete; I suspect that in order to set children living in poverty on a true “path to success,” communities require resources and support that no school on its own is capable of providing.)
Maybe, though, letting small children linger in childhood would endow them with more of the real skills necessary to STAY FOCUSED ON ACHIEVING EXCELLENCE. Maybe, in the long run, it would better enable them to MAKE SMART CHOICES.