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Published: Friday, 9/15/2006

Schools' cookie-cutter approach fails children

LIKE other parents of young kids just beginning their formal education, I tried to make the introduction of mine to grade school as positive as possible. The kids listened to my spiel about how much fun they would have learning about new things and meeting new friends. Fortunately, kindergarten turned out to be everything mom promised and more.

After the usual separation-anxiety subsided - for both parent and 5-year-old - most of the kids looked forward to school because it was, well, fun. To be sure, the half-pints were challenged to achieve far more academically than their parents ever were in kindergarten.

But they played through the reading, writing, and fundamental arithmetic. It made exploring new ideas an adventure, not a chore to be completed in tested intervals. Unfortunately, that healthy blend of learning and fun doesn't always follow kindergartners as they graduate to what one writer called the "literacy boot camp" of first grade.

The academic expectations for unsuspecting first graders, monitored with a stiff testing schedule, overwhelms many who, lest we forget, are all of 6 years old.

A recent Newsweek cover story delved into the downside of pushing kids too hard too fast to make the grade and achieve progress levels mandated by state and federal education requirements.

The report itself should be required reading by all teachers, administrators, and thoroughly perplexed parents.

For the last two school years I have watched my own children make the transition from kindergarten to first grade. With one, the move mirrored many of the harsh school adjustments explored in Newsweek. With the other, only starting elementary boot camp this year, it's too soon to tell. But by now, I've seen and heard enough about the absurdly early initiation to classroom stress to be profoundly troubled by the unceasing pressure to meet performance standards in schools - or else.

If kids were all programmed like little automatons dutifully digesting prescribed material and regurgitating it without fail, a system built on serial testing might work. If only.

But the problem with a cookie-cutter approach to education is that it doesn't allow for difference. It doesn't allow for widely varying rates of emotional and social development in young children.

It offers no leeway for 6-year-olds who just aren't ready to handle high-stakes testing. Beginner students who don't hit district benchmarks for academic achievement may be extraordinarily creative and bright. They may just be square pegs in a roundly rigid academic curriculum.

Maybe in a perfect world with low teacher-student ratios and small, manageable classes, square pegs could receive the direction and attention they need to succeed and thrive. But in states like Ohio, where schools are forced to cut staff to pay for fewer teachers with diminished resources and added responsibilities, addressing the variable needs of individual students is a hit-and-miss proposition at best.

When everything from funding to future employment hinges on a number, a percentage, a ranking, and a grade, quantitative - not qualitative - measurements provide the only snapshot analysis of a district's academic achievement.

The intangibles like creativity, diligence, and potential don't count because they can't be measured.

Truth is, the all-consuming pursuit to level the academic playing field and leave no child behind could be leaving plenty of potential stars stunted at age 6.

It is no exaggeration that the stress of winning points and top grades has traumatized many a first grader. Talk to their moms.

The hysteria over passing tests critical to academic ratings, accountability, and financial support, has sadly filtered down to kids who still need help tying their shoes. It's wrong, and so damaging.

Newsweek quoted educators discussing the "burn out" of highly pressured elementary school learners by as young as third grade. Andrew Hargreaves, a Boston College professor and expert on international education reform, says parents in some countries mobilized to stop the madness after concluding that "too much testing too early was sucking the soul and spirit out of their children's early school experience."

Make no mistake, we all want our kids to achieve academic success, but not at the expense of themselves, their childhoods, their natural curiosities, their budding sense of discovery.

When students are just beginning their formal education in kindergarten and first grade, a lifelong passion for learning should be vigorously cultivated, not virtually crushed under the weight of unrelenting classroom pressure.

That's simply peril masquerading as academic progress.



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