Sunday, June 10, 2007

Making 2nd Grade the Old Kindergarten

The New York Times article When Should a Kid Start Kindergarten? reported on the trend of affluent families holding their kids back from kindergarten called "red shirting" in order to give them a head start academically. The result is a classroom full of young poorer kids who tend not to do as well and much older well off kids who excel because of age and privilege.

Elliot's kindergarten, like all US public school kindergartens, is extremely academic, with no free play time except recess. Even one of the most brainy girls in Elliot's class said what she liked most about school was recess. Today's kindergarten is the old first grade. If we really want our children to succeed, stop making them do work they're not developmentally ready to do. Stop making them be little adults. Fund free preschool for all children. Start academic school at age 7, the age of reason. Make 2nd grade the old kindergarten. Then maybe we'll see the US at the top of the global educational system.

Bedard found that different education systems produce varying age effects. For instance, Finland, whose students recently came out on top in an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study of math, reading and science skills, experiences smaller age effects; Finnish children also start school later, at age 7, and even then the first few years are largely devoted to social development and play. Denmark, too, produces little difference between relatively older and younger kids; the Danish education system prohibits differentiating by ability until students are 16. Those two exceptions notwithstanding, Bedard notes that she found age effects everywhere, from "the Japanese system of automatic promotion, to the accomplishment-oriented French system, to the supposedly more flexible skill-based program models used in Canada and the United States." Friedrich Froebel, the romantic motherless son who started the first kindergarten in Germany in 1840, would be horrified by what's called kindergarten today. He conceived the early learning experience as a homage to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that "reading is the plague of childhood. . . . Books are good only for learning to babble about what one does not know." Letters and numbers were officially banned from Froebel's kindergartens; the teaching materials consisted of handmade blocks and games that he referred to as "gifts." By the late 1800s, kindergarten had jumped to the United States, with Boston transcendentalists like Elizabeth Peabody popularizing the concept. Fairly quickly, letters and numbers appeared on the wooden blocks, yet Peabody cautioned that a "genuine" kindergarten is "a company of children under 7 years old, who do not learn to read, write and cipher" and a "false" kindergarten is one that accommodates parents who want their children studying academics instead of just playing. States could also decide to learn from Finland — start children in school at age 7 and devote the first year to play — but that would require a major reversal, making second grade the old kindergarten, instead of kindergarten the new first grade. States could also emulate Denmark, forbidding ability groupings until late in high school, but unless very serious efforts are made to close the achievement gap before children arrive at kindergarten, that seems unlikely, too.

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