Why our kids don't go to kindergarten

Like many home-schooling families, we saw an educational system plagued by tests, drills, busywork and flawed ideas

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 15, 2010 11:01AM (EDT)

About a year ago, a friend of my wife's was touring the kindergarten classroom at her local school, in a middle-class, racially mixed New York neighborhood. She noticed the lack of blocks, craft supplies, sand or water tables, a puppet theater -- things she remembered from her own year in kindergarten, long ago. The teacher shook his head firmly. "They played with that stuff in pre-K," he said. "In kindergarten, they're here to work."

I have no doubt that the teacher thought that was the right answer, and for some parents it might have been. Our friend ended up deciding to home-school her son, which is how Leslie, my wife, met her in the first place. But that isn't the moral of the story. One isolated anecdote has no larger social relevance, and, believe it or not, I don't mean to use it as an evangelical tool.

As I began to document last fall, Leslie is currently home-schooling our twins -- Nini and Desmond, who are now almost 6 -- through kindergarten, and probably into first grade. Beyond that, it's anybody's guess. (You can follow their progress on Leslie's blog.) It seems clear from a variety of statistical and anecdotal evidence that home schooling has grown rapidly in recent years, and that includes what is often called secular home schooling, meaning home schooling not primarily motivated by religious or moral concerns.

But anyone who claims that home schooling is anything more than a tiny part of the solution to America's educational woes is kidding themselves. Home-schoolers are a self-selected, constitutionally nonconformist group that encompasses, at a generous estimate, 2 to 3 percent of the school-age population. (They are extremely diverse, I hasten to add, in terms of geography, economics, class and race.) But the forces that have propelled an increasing number of parents and children out of the public school system are ubiquitous, and affect virtually every family in America, no matter where their kids do or do not go to school.

I should make clear that for our family and most other home-schoolers we know -- Leslie's online support network includes parents all over the country, rich and poor, devout and atheistic -- the decision was profoundly personal and primarily positive in nature, not some wholesale ideological rejection of public education. Leslie's friend Alicia Bayer, a blogger and mother of four in Westbrook, Minn., says that her family has found home schooling "a joyful way of life," and that's more typical than not.

All that said, do the real and perceived failures of America's public schools play a role? Of course they do. Just as they do in the decisions made by millions of other American families about how and where they will live, families for whom home schooling never appears on the radar screen as a realistic or desirable possibility.

All over the country, children and parents are applying for schools outside their designated zones or districts, entering charter-school lotteries, cramming for target-school exams, applying for private-school vouchers. Parents are making multiple and ever more painful financial sacrifices: Downscaling their houses to move to upscale neighborhoods or suburban towns they can barely afford; taking on extra jobs, or second and third mortgages, to pay for private or parochial school. If you're reading this and you've got school-age children, the odds are close to 100 percent that you've done one or more of these things yourself, in search of an education for your kids that was somehow better than the most obvious free and local opportunity.

And in fact, as parents of elementary-school students know all too well, that story about my wife's friend and the kindergarten teacher is not some isolated or apocryphal aberration. As Susan Engel, a psychologist who heads the teaching program at Williams College, puts it, "There are great public schools, but there are way too few of them. They shouldn't be in the minority, and they are."

Speaking broadly, American public education, especially in the early grades, has become dominated by a bizarre orthodoxy that is almost completely unsupported by rigorous research, or for that matter by teachers, education professionals and child psychologists. It's the orthodoxy of political buzzwords like "standards" and "accountability," the orthodoxy of business-school methods like standardized testing (and the hours of test preparation that accompanies it), drill-based and scripted instruction and repetitious busywork. It's the orthodoxy that has created homework for 5-year-olds, along with the expectation that they should be able to sit at a desk for hours at a time (or risk losing their 20 minutes of "choice time," which you and I once knew as recess).

"Crisis in the Kindergarten," an academic study of 268 kindergarten classrooms in New York and Los Angeles, which was conducted by researchers from Long Island University, Sarah Lawrence College and UCLA, and published last year by the nonprofit advocacy group Alliance for Childhood, put it this way:

Children now spend far more time being taught and tested on literacy and math skills than they do learning through play and exploration, exercising their bodies, and using their imaginations. Many kindergartens use highly prescriptive curricula geared to new state standards and linked to standardized tests. In an increasing number of kindergartens, teachers must follow scripts from which they may not deviate. These practices, which are not well grounded in research, violate long-established principles of child development and good teaching. It is increasingly clear that they are compromising both children's health and their long-term prospects for success in school.

At first glance, and to many people, that might not exactly sound like a crime against humanity. Kids are studying literacy and math in kindergarten -- how horrible! I mean, it's too bad about playtime and all, but times are tough, and the United States (as we are often told) may be losing its "competitive edge" against China, Japan and Europe. Maybe it's high time for the little ones to close down the puppet theater and hit the books.

That might be a valid argument if there were any solid evidence that the increasingly "academic," test-oriented environment of early-grade elementary school actually produced abler or smarter or better-prepared adolescents and adults. In fact, most research points in the opposite direction. While middle-school, high-school and university education in Asia is famously competitive and demanding, most Chinese and Japanese schools (according to the Alliance for Childhood report) remain play-based until about second grade. Germany ditched its "early-learning" kindergarten curriculum after a study suggested that kids who had attended play-school kindergartens outperformed those who had not. Finnish children often don't even start school until age 7, and consistently score among the highest in the world on an international exam given to 15-year-olds.

There isn't much controversy about this among academic psychologists and education scholars, which makes it all the more remarkable that this new orthodoxy -- grounded, in equal measures, in politics, private-sector ideology and parental anxiety -- has become so firmly established. "What's dumbfounding to me, because I'm a developmental psychologist," says Susan Engel, "is how little our insights have influenced the way the country thinks about education.

"We know that play is essential to good cognitive development. It's not just nice, or a relief, or child-friendly, or 'They need a break,' or anything like that. When we study what goes on when kids play, we see that that's the situation and the activity in which they learn things that we consider to be essential to higher-order thinking. When kindergarten becomes too skill-oriented, kids are actually prevented from doing the things that we as psychologists know they need to do to develop sophisticated ways of thinking, including asking questions and trying to find answers to those questions."

Engel's recent research on childhood curiosity led her to study five kindergarten and five fifth-grade classrooms in Berkshire County, Mass., a rural area that's demographically and physically very different from the big-city schools studied in the Alliance for Childhood report. "The schools in Berkshire County are really nice," she says. "They're safe, with friendly teachers, a gym, a nice cafeteria, fun read-aloud time. But they're still not doing a great job of educating children."

Engel found the teaching and learning process in these rural school districts just as dominated by "unbelievably strangulating standardized test scores" as any urban school. She was hoping to document what she calls an ethnography of curiosity: "Where were kids exploring? At the table, or more in the open areas? In which parts of the day were they asking questions? Was it some kids who were doing this, or was it some classrooms? It turned out that I couldn't answer those questions, because there was so little curiosity being expressed, at either level. That was stunning to me, and anybody who tells you that's because kids naturally get less curious hasn't looked at the research."

Given that many educators and psychologists believe that the regime of standardized testing and drill-based instruction is counterproductive, if not actively destructive, how on earth did it become so widely accepted? It's always tempting to blame the excesses of the Bush administration -- and the No Child Left Behind law certainly enshrined these standards and practices as federal policy -- but the problem really goes much deeper than that, and seems to have bloomed out of a toxic stew of right-wing political philosophy, reform-minded good intentions and the arguably misguided needs and desires of a new generation of parents.

Politicians of all stripes have profited in recent decades from bashing the public schools. Republicans accused them of lacking three-R's-style rigor and classroom discipline, and Democrats bemoaned the way they failed inner-city children. In practice, the two critiques have melted into each other and seemed to demand similarly sweeping solutions.

"To understand the origins of these changes, you need to talk to the business community," says Edward Miller, research director at the Alliance for Childhood and a co-author of "Crisis in the Kindergarten." "If you look at the arguments and comments that come up when the Wall Street Journal covers these issues, you see certain common themes: Teachers are lazy, the schools are a giant failure because the teachers' unions are too powerful. There is a lack of standards and a lack of rigor, and the whole touchy-feely experiment of progressive education has been a disaster."

The solutions such observers favor, Miller says, are drawn from the "command and control" models familiar to the military and the business world, which of course appeals to the private-sector bias that has (at least until very recently) run strong in American public life. That also dovetails with the "long-standing American trait of competitiveness," Miller says. "People want their kids to come in first, which translates into doing things earlier and earlier, pushing down the curriculum into the early grades. There's this widespread assumption that kids will do better if they learn algebra when they're little. There's no science to that. It's just superstition."

In Patti Hartigan's excellent feature article on the kindergarten wars, published last August in the Boston Globe Magazine, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor of education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., remarks that parents of the early-2000s "Baby Einstein" generation were seduced by cutting-edge neurobiological research into believing in a whole set of technological shortcuts to education. Such parents, she says, have been "misled by a marketing culture and a school culture that tells them achievement in early childhood is children sitting at tables doing work sheets."

It's entirely true that Leslie and I wanted our kids to spend more of their day playing than they would have in a typical New York all-day kindergarten, and we certainly didn't want them sitting at tables for hours doing worksheets on the letter G. But we also wanted them to learn more -- and be more excited about learning -- than we thought they would in that environment.

In early February, Engel wrote a much-blogged-about and much-forwarded Op-Ed article for the New York Times on the changes she'd like to see the Obama administration make to educational policy. (While Obama campaigned on a promise to dismantle No Child Left Behind, he now seems more likely to tinker with it around the edges and leave the basic ideological parameters in place. Why does that sound familiar?) She imagined a hypothetical school day in which children would spend two hours reading and listening to books, an hour or so writing stories or letters or comics, a brief but focused session on computational arithmetic, numerous extended conversations with teachers and plenty of time for play.

In place of "a curriculum that is currently strangling children and teachers alike," Engel imagines a modest set of simultaneously broad and specific goals for elementary education. By age 12, she writes, children "should be able to read a chapter book, write a story and a compelling essay; know how to add, subtract, divide and multiply numbers; detect patterns in complex phenomena; use evidence to support an opinion; be part of a group of people who are not their family; and engage in an exchange of ideas in conversation. If all elementary school students mastered these abilities, they would be prepared to learn almost anything in high school and college."

For a great many home-schoolers -- and plenty of other people too, I am sure -- this was a Eureka moment. Both Engel's proposed goals and methods come pretty close to describing what Leslie and other home-schoolers I know are actually doing, and what they hope to accomplish. "I heard from a lot of people who said, 'We're already doing this,'" Engel says, "whether they were home-schoolers, Montessori people, Rudolf Steiner people or whatever. Of course, my thing is that I want to see this in public school."

I can't speak for the majority of home-schoolers, who are a highly heterogeneous group, but the ones I know personally would enthusiastically agree. It's unlikely, for many reasons, that Leslie and I will home-school Nini and Desmond all the way through 12th grade, and we'd be delighted if there were public options that resembled Engel's model and incorporated some of the alternative educational philosophies that have inspired home-schooling. Far more important, those options would benefit all children, including the overwhelming majority for whom home schooling isn't remotely an option.

While the fiery debates sparked by my first two articles in this series were irresistible, in a sort of car-accident way, there was a lot more heat than light in those discussions. Obviously we believe home schooling is a viable and valuable part of the educational puzzle, or we wouldn't be doing it. As a product of public schools myself, I can understand why some people see home schooling as a violation of the social contract, or as a reactionary, overprotective rejection of the public sphere. Ultimately, though, home schooling may be more important as a venue for some unconventional ideas about education than as a widespread social phenomenon or a panacea.

"You do have a lot of advantages as a home-schooler," Engel told me. "We all know it's easier when you're teaching kids you love and care about, and when they love you and care about you. You're working with a small group of kids, which leads to the third advantage: There's a lot more opportunity for informal learning, which is the most powerful kind of learning. It's very hard to duplicate informal learning in a room with 30 kids and a bell going off all the time. Some of that we could change, if we were willing to. The answer is not to see only what's different, but also to look at what we could borrow from home-schoolers.

"Sometimes people want to set it up like: Are you for home schooling? Are you against it? I'm neither. For people like you, I totally understand it. In the end, do I wish people like you were in the public schools? Yes. I wish you were. I wish your kids were. I want more of that good stuff in public schools. It might be one more reason why the schools might get better."

Miller, of the Alliance for Childhood, says that in some ways he finds the rise of home schooling regrettable. "On a policy-making level, on a societal level, it's just terrible that people have to choose that. But when it comes to your own kids, all bets are off. I would never blame anybody for refusing to send their kid to a school that was going to kill their joy in learning. It's child abuse."

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Education Home Schooling