Friday, May 27, 2011

Sit Down, Shut Up and Learn

It's been a rough couple of weeks for me. I've been struggling to keep up my spirits through the spring that feels more like a very wet California winter. I'm struggling to follow through on getting the word out for our summer program. I'm struggling to finish up the kids school year.

I'm also struggling to maintain a positive attitude in light of the course that public education seems to be taking. I've been struggling with this for a long time. I try to stay informed with what's going on in public education because I feel that of all the government programs, this is the most important. I go from being depressed about what I read to being horrified by it. I recently wrote a long post in opposition of making school days longer. While I stand by what I wrote I am willing to concede that longer school days may be advantageous to a small percentage of students. Just as I was coming to this conclusion, just as I was thinking that perhaps I'm viewing public school programs from my one-sided perspective, I received this gem in my inbox. I was livid! I decided not to write about this program right away. I decided to let in sink in, to view it from a different perspective. In the meantime I checked into the credentials of Health and Human Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. and her Deputy Assistant, Joan Lombardi, Ph.D. Ms. Sebelius holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Kansas and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Trinity Washington University.* Dr. Lombardi holds a Masters in Early Childhood Education from Boston College and a Ph.D. in Human Development Education from the University of Maryland. Dr. Lombardi is the author of Time to Care: Redesigning Child Care to Promote Education, Support and Build Communities, and co-editor of A Beacon of Hope: The Promise of Early Head Start for American’s Youngest Children.* These certainly are impressive credentials.

What is not at all impressive is this new government program. According to the HHS Secretary herself, this $500 million early learning initiative is designed to deal with children from birth onward to prevent such problems as 5-year olds who "can't sit still" in a kindergarten classroom. When did we start to consider this a problem? Five year olds are not supposed to sit still. It's reading about programs like these that want to make my head explode.

Five year olds are active curious children. Spending $500 million to teach them to sit still is like spending money to teach a river to flow upstream
. We may accomplish it, but at what cost and for what purpose? It seems that there is a huge disconnect between achievement and learning in our public schools. Our students can achieve any task we set ourselves to enforce, that does not mean that they are learning anything useful from it. I use the word "enforce" because I cannot forsee "teaching" a skill such as sitting still. This is not something that is taught, it is enforced. Enforcing rules is not a bad thing per se, if it sets the child on the path to success. Here we thrive on following daily rhythms with the sole purpose of instilling healthy habits in the youngest children. These routines or rules must always meet the child where he is developmentally. A five year old is just mastering his physical abilities. He thrives on "see what I can do." The child has an intrinsic need to be physically active, to be physically challenged.

The article goes on to equate "sitting still" with health:

“You really need to look at the range of issues, because if a 5-year-old can’t sit still, it is unlikely that they can do well in a kindergarten class, and it has to be the whole range of issues that go into healthy child development,” Sebelius said during a telephone news conference on Wednesday to announce the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge.

While I agree that there are a whole range of issues that go into child development, I don't see how spending millions to promote "sitting still" contributes to any of them. I want you to forget for a moment about these women's credentials and I want you to think about what you have just read. Does that sit well with you? Does it make sense to you? What does your gut tell you about this program?

There seems to be something sinister here, when our government can misspend this kind of money but 47 teachers in our Salem-Keizer school district are getting pink slips which will leave already overcrowded schools with even more overcrowding. It seems that these programs are missing the mark. Our goal should not be to prepare children for school, our goal should be to prepare children for the next stage in development and subsequently for life. We are so concerned whether or not children are prepared to enter school that we seem to forget that school is a place of learning as much as home is. What a child does not know, he can learn. He can learn it in kinder or in first or in second grade. There is no tragedy here, except for our expectations. My own children differ greatly in the progression of their physical and cognitive development. My son starting reading at 4 years of age with little help from me. He was 8 years old before he finally conquered the monkey bars at the park. My daughter is an artist and a bit of a daredevil (sometimes) but struggled to read. At age seven, she still reads slowly and needs help to sound out words. I still have to hold a space for her when she reads. These children are being raised by the same two people in one environment and yet they differ greatly. How can any agency expect to have a group of 5 year old children that are developmentally exact? Instead this money should be spent on training teachers to meet children where they are developmentally and to lead them to thrive. Now the goal should not be to level the playing field because that would mean that children that are developmentally advance would not be encouraged to continue to thrive until others caught up. Isn't that in a nutshell our public education system? No child left behind? Actually all children are getting left behind.

Frankly I'm getting a little fed up with agencies and many school districts blaming parents for all of their children's short-comings. It creates a toxic culture and it is that culture that our children are supposed to learn and thrive in. I agree that parents are their child's first teacher, but child develop differently all across the spectrum. Most children enter school at age 5 or 6 and to the dismay of the district they are already "behind." Some can't count to 100, some can't add, some can't sit still. Of course the parents are to blame, what have they been teaching their kids anyway? While in school our children are offered the lowest quality food imaginable (that is slow changing, thank goodness). Physical education classes are being cut as is recess because the kids are lagging "behind" academically, then when there is a rise in obesity or childhood diabetes, it is again the parents who are blamed. It's all those McDonald runs for dinner or video games the kids play. Seriously? The school districts play no part in our children's failures?

I believe they do play a huge role in our children's failure to learn, to thrive, to be healthy. I believe it is programs like these that send a message that at five years of age, a child who cannot sit still will FAIL! While I find it a ridiculous suggestion, it will be eaten up hook, line and sinker by most people who do not stop to think that perhaps all these agencies have everything on the line except our children's health and welfare. I give thanks everyday that we have made the sometimes difficult choice of keeping our children out of this system. I still struggle with the thought of some many people not having any choice at all. I struggle with that fact that these highly educated individuals running all these government agencies seem to have no concept of how a child develops or what is appropriate for them during their development.

The good news is I do see change in the horizon. That will be the subject of an upcoming post. I would love to hear your thoughts about this program. Leave a comment or send me an e-mail.