Morris: Are Yours Ready for Childhood Boot Camp?
by Leo Morris
On reading that Indiana lawmakers are considering lowering the compulsory school age from 7 to 5 years old, I immediately went into full fuddy-duddy mode.
“I didn’t need to go to any silly kindergarten classes, so I don’t understand why children today need to. I started out in first grade and turned out just fine. Whatever is this world coming to?”
But the mistake made by Old Fogies is that we believe the world never changes. Our insistence that things were better “back then” depends on the embedded assumption that, except for the one thing we wish to preserve, all other things are equal.
Of course they are not.
I didn’t need to go to kindergarten because hardly anybody else did. When I started school, kindergarten wasn’t even available in more than half the country, and in my neck of the woods not at all. We all started out in the first grade on a level playing field, or at least as level as a playing field ever gets.
But a child today needs to attend kindergarten because most other children do. Even here in backward Indiana where it isn’t mandatory, the vast majority of students attend kindergarten. A student who doesn’t get on the education treadmill until first grade will be hopelessly behind. Our children must deal with the school system we have, not the school system we wish we had.
This is not our grandparents’ kindergarten we’re talking about, full of songs and play and plenty of milk and cookies between nap times. Kindergarten today is the full education experience, with tough academic standards, high expectations and the full battery of standardized tests. It is, in fact, as more than one pedagogical expert has noted, the “new first grade.”
And if kindergarten is the new first grade, that means of course that we now need a new kindergarten, which is why there is so much emphasis these days on “early childhood education,” or “pre-K” as they say in the education biz. Indiana ranks a pathetic 40th in the nation for preschool enrollment, with 60 percent of Hoosier parents saying their three- and four-year-olds are not in any formal education program.
Now that I’m in the spirit of this progressive education parade, I realize the problem is that we haven’t gone far enough yet. If kindergarten is the new first grade, and pre-K programs are the new kindergarten, clearly we need a new definition of “early” childhood education. Educators have tried and failed for millennia to get students on an equal footing and extirpate those pesky achievement gaps. Just squeezing the fun and sense of play out of our students for a few more years of childhood won’t do it. If we don’t get them until the age of three, we likely will have lost them forever.
Obviously what we need is some sort of Baby Boot Camp, in which a toddler’s first inklings of intellectual awareness can be taken advantage of.
Imagine that a child’s first steps aren’t wasted but rather are used to introduce the concept of numbers and direction. “One, two, three, four, class, now turn left. No, your other left. Hup, two, three, four – no, that one doesn’t count. There’s no falling down here.”
And we dare not leave baby’s first words to chance, carelessly blurting out “Ma” or “Da-da” or “mrrff.”
“Now point up. What is that? Correct, that is the sky. And what color is it? Yes, blue. Say it again – blue! I can’t HEAR you!”
Alas, our plucky drill instructor is likely to face the same obstacle as educators throughout history: Students have different learning abilities. So they do as they enter Baby Boot Camp, and so they will as they graduate to pre-school, no matter what the D.I. does, and on through kindergarten, 12 years of public schooling and indeed the rest of their lives.
Whether we use the long-accepted but now out-of-favor bell curve, normal-distribution model (a few excellent performers, a few poor ones, most of us clustered around the middle), the lately-popular power-distribution model (a few more superstars than we would have supposed, most of us unfortunately below average) or some more exotic statistical formulation, the fact is that some students learn very easily, some struggle mightily, and most fall in between those two extremes. The great educational challenge always has been and always will be how to most effectively instruct the majority without boring the exceptional students or discounting the challenged ones.
It seems to me we cannot meet that challenge by endlessly obsessing over why students come into the classroom with differences and concocting ever-more exotic ways of trying to erase the differences instead of just dealing with them.
Of course, I could be wrong. I skipped kindergarten, after all.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.