Below is a copy of my most recent letter to the editor of our hometown paper. I am sharing it with you because I know that as parents, and as citizens, you have a vested interest in education reform. My original letter was shortened slightly when it appeared in the paper in order to meet their length requirements, and I have also added some additional comments.
Dear Editor, Thank you for addressing education reform in your recent editorial. I agree that our country needs to take a hard look at our current system of education, which is failing many children; however, I am very disappointed in the direction that the conversation around education reform has taken. I believe that a number of important elements have been overlooked.
Over and over again we are told that children in other countries are achieving at higher levels than our students, so therefore we should emulate those countries. To do that, we are told, our children must have a longer school year made up of longer days. Yet Finland, whose students are at the very top in various measures of academic knowledge, is nearer the bottom for time spent in school. Students in several high performing countries actually begin academic instruction a year or more later than ours. How do they do it?
In Finland, children do not begin formal schooling until they are 7 years old; however all six year olds are offered the opportunity to participate in a preparatory year that emphasizes social and emotional learning (getting along with others, taking responsibility, learning to be a part of a group, developing self-control, being a good citizen) so that when they do begin academic studies they are prepared to learn very quickly. There are far too many adults, many of them in positions of power, who have never learned those self-regulatory skills, and we are suffering as a society because of that lack in many ways, from the high number of grandparents who find themselves raising their grandchildren because those children’s parents are not socially responsible, to the lack of civility apparent in many political discussions.
Robert Fulghum was right; everything we really need to know could be learned in kindergarten. We have evidence from long-term studies following children from preschool age into adulthood which show that children who have the kinds of nurturing pre-school and early school experiences that emphasize social and emotional skills as well as developmentally appropriate academic preparation are more likely to be employed, are less likely to be involved in crime or use drugs, in essence are BETTER, MORE PRODUCTIVE CITIZENS, and isn’t that our true goal?
Americans are not a patient people. We want immediate results, preferably within an election cycle. The results of what we do for our youngest children today will not be apparent for 15 to 20 years, but they will eventually be seen, and our society will have to live with those results. For that reason we need to take a long term approach to reform, based on what we know about how children learn best, rather than trying a new “quick fix” every few years, particularly those that are more about test scores than about providing true learning experiences.
More time in school may be beneficial in some instances, but the answer to making ours a great country with a great system of education is not more hours and days of doing the same things that aren’t working now.
At the Alamance Citizens for Education Summit last year the Chairman of the NC State Board of Education, Dr. William Harrison, noted that most kindergarteners come to school excited and eager to learn, but ” the longer children are in school, the less they like us.” As a preschool director I see that excitement and eagerness every day, and it breaks my heart to think that it may one day be squelched. For their sake and ours I sincerely hope that through the discussion surrounding education reform we will arrive at ways to help children experience the joy of lifelong learning.