Sunday, July 30, 2006

Safety in numbers

“If it were my own child,” she said, “I would want more time for play.” -- Keisha Rattray, Kindergarten teacher.

In other education news, the New York Times reports that children in Kindergarten are no longer allowed to play.
Now, with an increased emphasis on academic achievement even in the earliest grades, playtime in kindergarten is giving way to worksheets, math drills and fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests...

The classroom has no blocks, dress-up corners or play kitchens. There is no time for show and tell, naps or recess. There is homework every night. For much of the day, the children are asked to sit quietly with their hands folded as their teachers drill them in phonics, punctuation and arithmetic.

The quote I led with from Ms. Rattray is telling. She is an education professional and that is not how she would want her children taught. Note as well that that is not how the elite private schools teach the children either. The best schools, the ones that feed the Ivy League, have plenty of time for play in the early grades and typically do not give any homework until second grade. Meanwhile the public schools are saddling children in Kindergarten with an hour of homework per night.

But I have a lot of personal experience with this issue and it is not as simple as it sounds. My son went to Kindergarten in a very challenging New York City public school and to First Grade in one of the better independent schools. In his Kindergarten class there was little, if any, time for play and he literally had one hour of homework per night. He suffered through endless phonics drills and spent a good part of his day writing, which is very difficult, and often counterproductive, for a kid that age. In First Grade at the independent school, there was no homework and a good portion of the day was spent in play. A lot of it was superbly directed play, but quite a bit was simply play.

Still, when we had to choose between the insanely rigorous curriculum in a challenging public school and a typical public school that would provide little, if any, intellectual challenge, we chose the insane curriculum. So I do not blame the parents in East New York (three words for hellhole) who opt to send their children to the rigorous academic program.
The pressure to make kindergarten more academic can be especially intense in poorer neighborhoods. Schools there, struggling to meet the demands of the federal law known as No Child Left Behind, are ratcheting up academic expectations.

“Our real mission is closing the achievement gap,” said Diahann Billings-Burford, director of external relations for Achievement First in New York.

Yes, this gap needs to be closed. The problems go much, much deeper than how the kids are taught in the public schools, but a rigorous academic program is one part of a solution that can definitely help. The elite schools have quite a bit more leeway because their kids get a lot of education at home. The kids at the poor schools more likely do not get much good education at home and often get a lot of bad education around the house. A very challenging education starting as early as possible gives them the best realistic opportunity for success. Still, by not allowing time for play, the children miss out on educational opportunities.
And while it may seem like a good thing to teach reading, writing and arithmetic as early as possible, most early childhood experts agree that play is crucial for both social and academic development.

Constructive play helps children develop social skills while laying an important foundation for reading and math, said Dominic F. Gullo, a professor of elementary and early childhood education at Queens College.

For example, he explained, children who set up a pretend post office or a restaurant in what is called a “dramatic play area” learn how to take turns, how to speak clearly to one another, and how to make up their own stories — stories that are the foundation for writing.

I do not doubt a word of that, but for it to happen in the real world, there has to be an element of order. A typical public school classroom has 27 students and one teacher. My son’s first grade classroom had 17 kids and two teachers. Maintaining a loose and productive learning environment for 8 or nine kids is doable. Maintaining it for 27 is impossible, especially when those 27 kids come from impoverished backgrounds.

Right now, today, given the educational resources available, parents and educators have to choose and I simply cannot blame those who come from impoverished neighborhoods for choosing the path of rigorous academics even at the expense of playtime.

I can, however, blame our society for not providing that necessary eight or nine to one student-to-teacher ratio in the lower grades that would allow all children to achieve the best education. As a society, we are too poor only by choice. If we cut half of the insane waste, useless weapons systems and pork barrel patronage in the military budget and put it towards smaller class sizes, we could easily achieve a much better education for many millions of children. I have no doubt, not a single one, that providing much better educations for millions of children would make us much safer as well.