Acceleration in Education
Are Stepped-Up Expectations Too Much of a Good Thing?
"My child cries night after night because she can't do her homework," says Beth Orton. "She's in kindergarten. I don't know whether to tell her it's OK, she doesn't have to do it, or to sit down with her."
Scott Luxenberg, an eighth-grader who usually makes B's or better in school, has been tutored in writing for more than a year because his parents think he can do better. And third-grader Marina Phillips is proud that she is doing fifth-grade math, but it means that she and her mother put in a minimum of 90 minutes every night, plowing through the extra work.
A National Trend
The trend toward acceleration in education is happening across the country. Martin Covington, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley who has written extensively on ways to motivate students, calls it "the intensification movement." The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) reports that it has received numerous complaints from parents that preschools are emphasizing academics too heavily and forcing their children to study what kindergartners and first-graders used to learn.
Deborah Stipek, the dean of education at StanfordUniversity, and co-author of Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning, has witnessed the same phenomenon. "I talk to parents all the time," she says, "and more and more I get questions about children getting frustrated over difficulty with homework, and parents not knowing what to do."
As a speaker who travels the country frequently, Paul Young, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, has spoken to numerous parents of grade-school children who express the same concerns.
According to many educators, President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which became law in January 2002, has heightened the acceleration trend. The bill requires annual reading and math tests in third through eighth grades and once in high school. It also mandates that all states come up with standards that are aligned both to the curriculum and to the tests. More significantly, schools will be held accountable. States can use test scores to reward those schools that do well and to sanction those that fail to make "adequate yearly progress."
As a result, testing seems to be driving education throughout the country, Young explains. "If there is a certain expectation in third grade, for example, then we're backing it up before that, to make sure that there's a sequence of instruction that's been covered. So now everything is bumping down now to first or second grade, even to kindergarten."
While experts are generally in favor of creating standards and holding schools accountable, they worry that because of the way this accountability is being implemented, it may have more negative consequences than positive ones. Etta Kralovec, co-author of The End of Homework, has worked with communities across the country and believes that as schools are being held to more rigid standards, they have panicked and adopted a "more is better" approach. Since most of the tests are multiple choice, schools develop checklists of things kids need to know, skill by skill, rather than focusing on understanding the concepts. And with financial rewards and sanctions in place, teachers are under a great deal of pressure to make their students succeed.
The result? They pass these checklists down to the grade level below, to make sure their students will do well.
A Positive Step
But not everyone agrees with this interpretation of the recent education bill. Ross Thompson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska and an expert on school readiness, doesn't agree that kids are being pushed to do things at younger ages.
"What's happening is that as our nation moves toward a greater articulation of standards and their assessment, the questions about what children need to know and do by the time they reach each grade level are becoming much more clearly stated," Thompson says.
In the case of preschool, the increasing national attention on school readiness has created clear definitions of the emotional, social and cognitive characteristics of what preschoolers need to be able to do before they are judged ready for kindergarten. For older students, school report cards now routinely list the standards a particular grade level is required to meet. As a result, the gap in achievement expectations from one school to another is narrowing, and Thompson sees this as a step in the right direction.
Another approach to the issue comes from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which asserts that rather than academics being emphasized too much, the problem is that, until now, some kids have not been getting enough. Sandra Feldman, president of AFT, explains that it is necessary to dramatically accelerate the pace of learning for poor children who are behind or they will never catch up.
Her solution? Extend the kindergarten year for disadvantaged children. "The federal government should help states and districts provide a kindergarten-plus program that would enable disadvantaged children to start during the summer before they would ordinarily enter kindergarten and then continue through the summer preceding first grade," says Feldman.
Pressure From Parents
But there is no denying that parents are part of the cause of the national push to emphasize academics. Stipek gets frequent calls from parents of 3-year-olds, saying their children are having academic difficulty and asking for advice on tutors. And parents anxious to get their 3-year-olds into the best private preschools are drilling them in number and letter recognition, in preparation for the required entrance exam.
This is not just a school phenomenon. Nationwide, commercial tutoring is a $3 billion concern, and it's no longer just the failing students who are the clients. The KumonMath & ReadingCenter, for example, runs after-school academic support classes nationwide and offers an Achieve by Five program that teaches algebra, normally a high school class, to fifth-graders.
Deborah Meier, author of several acclaimed books on school reform including In Schools We Trust, points out that, increasingly, school starts earlier and lasts longer. It is her sense that many parents think that since kids are spending more time in school, they should be learning more.
"I have parents who have their child in preschool at age 4, and who come to my kindergarten at 5," she says. "And they feel that since the child has already been in school a year, we should be teaching them what they used to learn in first grade."
Meier says that people no longer treasure the learning that comes with leisure and play, and with one-on-one relations with adults. As a nation, this country is preoccupied with work and with getting ahead, and Americans bring the same set of attitudes to school, she observes.
The Effect on Children
Wherever the pressure to learn more is coming from, it is clearly having an effect on our children. Around the country, educators agree that with an emphasis on academics, in the push to learn more at ever-earlier ages, kids are having to just sit still and listen for long periods of time. As Young says, this goes against what educators know to be effective. "What about the inquiry-based approach?" he asks. "And the play-based model for young children? Even as adults we can't sit and listen and take in information for a long period of time."
Stipek has also found that the pressure to push down the curriculum to earlier grades produces direct results in students. "Kids are less persistent in dealing with problems, and there tend to be more discipline problems in the classroom," she says. In part, this is because being badly behaved is defined as not wanting to stay seated, and most 4-year-olds don't enjoy – and, in fact, are not ready for – long periods of sitting.
Viviana Cruz, a teacher and mother of a 10-year-old son, agrees that children are being asked to do too much these days, but adds, "What I've seen happen if kids can't keep up is that they are given the "learning disabled" label. Kids need time to grow up, but instead they get hurried into a special program, where they are liable to be stuck."
Another aspect of the increased pressure is that family structure is disrupted: Researchers at Teachers' College in New York discovered that when kids were asked to absorb more and more, students were bringing home all the work they couldn't finish at school. This led to parents having to take on an often stress-filled new role as tutor during routine homework sessions.
What Can Parents Do?
Talk to the child's teacher. If you see that your child is unhappy with the pace of schoolwork required of him or her, sit down with the teacher and talk about what you are observing. Your child's teacher may not know that your child is struggling and distressed.
Give your kids a break. Talk to your child and try to take the pressure off. Be careful not to inadvertently make things worse for your child by getting overly anxious about his or her doing well.
Seek support. Looking at the bigger picture, Kralovec recommends that parents work together in a group to identify sets of issues that they can formally take to the school. She suggests that it's a good idea if this happens in cross-age groupings, so that it's not about one particular teacher, but about school policy in general.
Get involved. Get involved in the school through the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) to raise awareness that this situation exists and to let the school officials explain what they are doing. Parents have the right to call for a public hearing on this subject, as indeed various groups of parents around the country are doing.
What solutions are likely to emerge? Young believes that there's nothing wrong with having high expectations, but that those expectations have to be developmentally appropriate and meaningful to children.
Think about what you truly value in education. Alarmed by the current push for more and more academics, Meier reminds parents that the primary purpose of school should not be to prepare their youngsters to enter a race.
"Parents need to think of what makes their children productive and happy, and not try to put them in conflict with other kids," Meier says. "Rather than sorting them in rank order, parents should think about the kinds of people they want their kids to be, and revel in the ways their kids are. Helping kids become intellectually curious and competent may best be achieved by lowering the pressure to perform well early on narrowly defined academic measures."
Nowadays, Meier points out, it seems that everything in school is building toward college but then, instead of being a wonderful four-year experience, college too becomes a ladder to something else.
"What a terrible image for children to see of life, that everything is for something else, and it's never valued for itself," Meier says. She advises parents to slow down and think about what's really important for their children.
The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children and Limits Learning, by Ella Kralovec and John Buell, Beacon Press, 2000. Explores why extra work is not promoting good learning habits.
In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization, by Deborah Meier, Beacon Press, 2003. The author presents her vision of trustworthy public schools and their role in our society.
Making the Grade: A Self-Worth Perspective on Motivation and School Reform, by Martin Covington, CambridgeUniversity Press, 1992. Connecting self-worth theory to education success or failure, the author provides strategies for teachers and parents to reform their approaches to education.
Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning, by Deborah Stipek, Ph.D., and Kathy Seal, Owl Books, 2014. A practical guide to ensuring a child's success in school through fostering self-motivation and a lifelong love of learning.
Parent Teachers Association Founded in 1897, the PTA promotes the belief that parents should be completely involved and full partners with teachers in their children's education.
Parents for Public Schools This organization was founded in 1989 to mobilize parents to be active in their children's school.
Judy Molland is the education editor for United Parenting Publications.