Wednesday, July 7, 2010

More civics and universal preschool: be careful what you wish for!

Two recent segments on NPR remind me of how important it is to qualify carefully what you're calling for--especially when your advice is directed at the education establishment, where phrases--whether it's "conceptual understanding," "higher-level thinking," or "project-based learning"-- are routinely distorted to serve pre-existing agendas.

Two days ago, we hear Sandra Day O'Connor on NPR (on a show whose link I cannot find) lamenting about how little your typical American-born citizen knows about American government. Only one in three Americans, she notes, "can name the three branches."  Inspired by this, she has helped create an interactive website to teach students such things as how a bill becomes a law. She's also calling on schools to spend more time teaching civics.

The problem is that unqualified calls for more civics instruction will further justify the kind of civics that schools currently offer: low-content classes that, having replaced the fact-intensive civics lessons that used to teach students about government, are largely responsible for the kind of ignorance O'Connor is talking about. Exemplified by such top-ranking civics instruction sites as thisthis, and this, today's emphasis is on following the rules, picking up trash, recycling recyclables, being a good neighbor, and doing "community service."

In other words, unqualified calls for more civics instruction will make it less likely, not more likely, that students will be able to name the three branches of government.


Then, yesterday morning, a segment on NPR's Morning Edition reported on Obama's call for universal preschool, citing the French écoles maternelles as an example of how effective universal preschool can be. We hear about French 3-year-olds learning French rhymes and folk songs, eating hot meals, napping in actual beds, and learning to write their names. And then we hear reporter Eleanor Beardsley say "Experts say the focus on cognitive and emotional development at the same time is what makes a good preschool."

But many American preschool programs--in particular, programs like Head Start that are most likely to serve as models for Obama's universal preschools--think they're already doing precisely this. Head Start's mission statement, for example, is:
The early education learning environment, whether in the home or in a school, should provide a rich variety of activities that will foster physical, mental, emotional, and social development.
But there's a distinct difference in both the ingredients and the efficacy of America's Head Start vs. France's écoles maternelles. As E.D. Hirsch explains in The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them (p. 46):
Head Start has not been primarily an academic program. Though momentary academic benefits have sometimes been measured, they are not securely fixed and they quickly fade.

Preschool programs elsewhere in the world do achieve long-term academic benefits for disadvantaged students. In France, early schooling permanently boosts educational achievements of low-paid workers and immigrants from North Africa. What, then, makes the academic benefits of early education endure in some countries but fade in our own? A few contrasts: Head Start lasts three hours, is staffed by nonprofessionls, and is nonacademic. The école maternelle (attended by over 90 percent of French three and four-year-olds) lasts all day and goes twelve months a year, is staffed by professionals, and has well-defined academic goals. Children then enter a grade-school system that also has a well-defined academic and cognitive core.
And this core includes, among other things, content-based civics instruction.

Thus, when influential individuals call for more civics and universal preschool, they need to take a close look at what's already out there, imagine how their words may be misinterpreted by those with the power to enact them, and be much more specific about what they have in mind. 


farmwifetwo said...

Ontario is spending a billion dollars for full time JK and SK, starts this year in some school's. Full classrooms, over 20 kids, all day, extended days you can pay for, Teacher and early dev teacher... Watch then they'll claim they don't need EA's for the special ed kids....

Inotherwords... paid for full time daycare... I'm glad we're past this point - we didn't start until SK and went every other, I didn't send them to JK.

It's not worth the money.

1crosbycat said...

Besides the fact that our country cannot afford to pay for universal preschool, I do not think its prudent to give our kids over to the government schools at an even earlier age (hey the gap between US and other countries starts in later grades, I recall seeing somewhere and am too lazy now to look up, so why not focus on the time when the achievement gap begins, if that is really the goal of intensified early childhood education).

As for civics, its the difference in the old meaning - how our own government works - and the apparent new meaning - how to be a good compliant green eco-friendly citizen. Schoolhouse Rock does a better job than any class I took of explaining how a bill becomes a law.

GPC said...


If you look at international assessment, American students tend to do worse the longer they are in school. 4th graders tend to do fairly well against international peers. 8th grade students don't do well but the gap grows more by 12th grade.

It's hard to say when the problem really starts though. Considering that 4th graders are typically doing very basic reading, writing and math, it may be that they are weaker in these subjects but for some reason that doesn't get picked up on international tests.

One reason could be the focus on "skills" over content in our schools. Content knowledge may play less of a role in 4th grade level exams, so our 4th graders may seem to be on par when they may have much less overall knowledge. Basic arithmetic is generally easier to understand and this is largely the focus in early schooling and early exams.

I find it hard to believe that our schools do a great job until 4th or 5th or 6th grade and then start to suck. I think the problem most likely begins as early as Kindergarten.

It is hard to say if universal preschool would help. If it is largely focused on social skills with little or no academic focus it probably wouldn't. But if we had good preschools with professional educators that put a lot of focus on developing prereading skills, premath skills and vocabulary skills along with a strong focus on building early knowledge it may make financial sense.

The problem is you wouldn't really know until you tried it and waited a couple of decades to see the results. You can't really look at another country and say they have universal preschool and look how well their students do on international assessments because preschool may have nothing to do with their success. It could simply be that they have much better primary and secondary education than we have.

FedUpMom said...

I don't want my kids to start academics at a young age because I think it would just turn them off to school and learning.

This is already happening with NCLB and the constant pushing curriculum to younger and younger ages. Kindergarten is the new first grade, which means younger kids are being told to sit still at a desk all day, and they're expected to learn the reading skills that used to be taught in 1st grade.

I like Finland's approach, where they don't start formal schooling until the kids are 7.

As for American kids doing worse the older they get, it could be because the younger ones are being taught by their parents. Parents cover up a lot of the school's deficiencies, in my experience.

Katharine Beals said...

Academics doesn't equal desk work. One can have an academic curriculum that, like the écoles maternelles in France, doesn't involve kids sitting at desks all day (let alone giving them homework). In preschool in particular, a hands-on, manipulative based academic curriculum is quite appropriate, and can involve lots of movement and fun activities.

NCLB has indeed inspired early reading and writing-- too early for many ids. But, looking ahead to the later grades, it hasn't inspired analytical writing instruction or instruction in the finer points of style, as college humanities professors will readily attest.

People who talk about NCLB's push for academics tend to ignore what happens in post-K math. Yes, more time is spent on "math" instruction. But, from 1st grade on, NCLB has contributed to a dramatic *watering down* of the actual math curriculum content.

Anonymous said...


You can introduce kids to academic subjects at a very young age in a fun, pressure-free way. I am currently teaching my 2.5 year old to read. It involves taping a new letter or word in various locations around the house every week and choosing 30 seconds to a minute 3 to 4 times a day to go over each letter and word. She actually enjoys doing this. If she doesn't want to go over the letters and words, I don't make her and try again later.

It is wrong to assume that academics must involve sitting still. It is too much to ask small children to sit for long periods of time. But it is also wasting their potential to not introduce them to academic material that they are easily capable of learning.

Children can learn things like foreign languages much more easily during the baby and toddler years. It actually may also be the case that reading may be learned much more easily by very young children. There is actually some concern that 6 may be a bit too late to teach reading because children are already past a point where they enjoy repetition and the toddler brain is primed to learn language. Even if you don't teach a preschooler to actually read, it is a good idea to introduce phonics at an early age in preparation for later reading instruction.

If I'm not mistaken, most kids in Finland start a 4 year kindergarten program at the age of 3. Primary schooling starts at 7.