Wednesday, October 28, 2009

An Education Emergency

Late night television recently aired a tape of a child who calls 911 for help while doing his math homework. Here is an excerpt of it:

Operator: 911 emergencies.
Boy: Yeah I need some help.
Operator: What’s the matter?
Boy: With my math.
Operator: What kind of math do you have that you need help with?
Boy: I have take aways. 16 take away 8 is what?
Operator: You tell me. How much do you think it is?
Boy: I don’t know, 1?
Operator: No. How old are you?
Boy: I’m only 4.
Operator: 4!
Boy: Yeah.
Operator: What’s another problem, that was a tough one.
Boy: Um, oh here’s one. 5 take away 5.
Operator: 5 take away 5 and how much do you think that is?
Boy: 5.
Woman: Johnny what do you think you’re doing?!
Boy: The policeman is helping me with my math.
Woman: What did I tell you about going on the phone?
Boy: You said if I need help to call somebody.
Woman: I didn’t mean the police!

While this is funny, it is also pretty alarming to me. Even the Operator and the boy seem to realize that being "only 4" is really young for independently doing subtraction problems! You can see from his answers that this child is clearly not understanding such an abstract concept, yet he was expected to work on his own to do it.

In my neighborhood the first of the year's parent-teacher conferences are starting, and I have seen several requests for Kindergarten reading tutors through the neighborhood list serve. What is wrong with this picture? It is no coincidence that there are many Kindergartners who are having trouble reading - they are not typically developmentally ready for it! Back when a Kindergartner's day was determined by educators, it was about playing, socialization, art, singing, napping, and the introduction of letters, numbers, shapes and colors. Now Kindergartner's fate is set by politicians with no training necessary in child development, the "fun stuff" has been discarded so that there is more time to rush them to literacy and quadratic equations. There is something truly scary to me about a 4 or 5 year old getting that much pressure to be so serious. It doesn't seem all that different than putting them on a factory job at a young age. We, in this country, find that scenario appalling but too many seem to have no trouble robbing children of their brief time to be playful, joyful, and young.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that all parents who get tutors for their children are bad people. On the contrary! I think the problem lies with what we have allowed our schools to become. The ubiquity of Kindergarten literacy expectations, standardized testing, excessive homework battles,calls for longer and more days in school, etc. have caused parents (who want the best for their children) to conform to the pressure. We have been there. My older son had a tutor in first grade so that he could attempt to keep up with the rest of his class, where ability varied dramatically. We eventually stopped the madness. No more homework, no more tutoring, no more expectations above his abilities. Once we did that, Ronan regained his childhood, his confidence, his curiosity - himself. I truly regret that year, but we certainly all learned a lot (just not what was intended).

A friend recently shared a quote by Robert Kiyosaki. He said, "Our school system is based on the fear of failure not the love of learning, if that changes, when that changes, then we will have a more peaceful world cause we will develop more peaceful people." I completely agree, and when this does change, our children will have their childhood back and we will no longer be in a state of educational emergency. And, who knows, with the world at peace, maybe 911 operators would have no more calls about domestic violence, crime, or math problems, and could focus on health and accident-related calls!


  1. Powerful post, Tracy. We really have dug ourselves into such a deep hole.

  2. Thank you for your post. It's no joke though. I'm an Occupational Therapist providing professional development to public schools in New York City. The early childhood curriculum is out of control and totally out of touch with the developmental needs of children. The expectations and task demands are simply beyond what many 4,5 and 6 year olds should be expected do. This creates a genetically biased education system where those children lucky enough to develop faster than their peers will succed and those children who are just as intelligent but just not ready for academics won't. They will simply fall further behind with no opportunity to catch up. If we look at the PISA scores (International Testing Scores in Math, Science and Language Arts)the majority of the top 20 have later academic start dates. By the way, the US is not in the top 20... not even close! There is a host of evidence and evidence based studies supporting later start dates for academics. Where is the longitudinal evidence from our policy makers that support our current, self-defeating curriculum?

  3. Yes, exactly! I question the same thing! Thank you for the comments. It makes alternative education look more and more sane every day.

  4. Well considered, Balmeras. And Tracy, you have the most interesting conversations! We promote creative education, and to us the acquisition of "skills" such as the 3 Rs doesn't compare in importance to how a person is developing as a human being. It's become almost trite to speak about the need to develop compassion these days ... which makes me jump to Tracy's statement that this is not the industrial era with child labor, because we need to ask ... isn't today's education preparing our children to be "good Do-bees" for someone elses' dream?
    Finally, I'm reminded of something I heard recently about a president who, when pressed to bring about needed reforms (that he agreed with) said "yes, I will, but only if you make me ... you have to make me." If we look at history, we'll see that when the American public is vocally up in arms about something Congress listens and falls in line. Are we ready?

  5. Loved your post. We tend to get roped into doing favors for friends/family that are education majors in college. One local University includes a project where the students have to do a developmental assessment on a child. When my sister was in the program she asked to do it on my son and now today a friend of my husband's and a lady from our church asked if they could do it with our son. We're often mildly amused with the whole thing - J seems mildly entertained by the attention and they're just students.

    Then today, after they were finished the friend/former co-worker of my husband was telling our son that they had to go finish up the "scoring" so that they could write their report for class and mentioned that she would need to add things up. Then asked my not quite five year old if he knew how to add! I had *just* read your post and answered for him with something like "Um, he's four it's a bit early for him to be concerned about something like that."

    I forget that we're one of the few out there who thinks teaching something like addition, subtraction, writing, reading, etc, etc to our four year old is a bit absurd.