"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Holding Politicians Accountable for Kindergarten Child Abuse

I knew a brilliant guy when I was in school who did not learn to read until he was 8 years old. You probably know someone, too, who was a late bloomer. If the oligarchs now making the calls in our corporate testing schools have their way, a child learning to read at 8 years old will have already failed kindergarten and first grade at least once. And even though the scientific understanding of child development is clear as to the criminal wrongheadedness of failing kindergartners, all the while replacing social play with an academic grind, the federal money now going into early childhood will be used to create schools for our babies that are unethical and abusive unless concerned citizens demand something else. Period.

The Boston Globe has published a close look at this kindergarten abuse in a Magazine piece by Patti Hartigan. Tragically, it paints a picture of principals and teachers caught in a moral vacuum that they are unwilling to break through, the same moral vacuum that low-level perpetrators of the Holocaust were caught in as they did guard duty without a word of protest to the fascist overlords. It wasn't until Nuremberg that the guards of the camps found out that "just following orders" did not relieve them of their criminal culpability and moral depravity. In today's kindergartens, there is no one holding a gun on these principals and teachers who sigh about the criminal acts they are committing against the innocent. Am I suggesting that they quit their jobs? No, I am suggesting that they organize for humane schooling and to act in the most subversive manner possible to preserve the integrity of childhood from the corporationists. If they cannot do that much, then they should, indeed, quit. Otherwise, they should be held responsible by parents and the criminal justice system, just as the cowardly politicians should be for allowing this criminal breach against children to fester.

Here is the last section of Hartigan's story, which captures the moral irresponsibility associated with "just following orders."

Leadership comes from the top down in schools, but even the most enlightened principals and other administrators are bound by state and federal requirements. “In my mind, the expectations for our kindergartners should be a little higher, but that doesn’t mean the practice should be more rigid,” says Valerie Gumes, principal of the Haynes Early Education Center in Roxbury. After 21 years in the field, she says, she is weary of the demands to assess, assess, assess. “I’m not opposed to standards, but the amount of time we spend doing these assessments

. . .” A pause. “It’s really criminal.” A sigh. “But I’m not in charge.”

Anthony Colannino, principal of the MacArthur School in Waltham, objected this spring when the state began requiring schools to administer a standardized test to kindergartners whose first language isn’t English. “If you gave this test to the general population, people would be beating down doors,” he says. “There would be an outcry. If they gave it to my kid, I would say, ‘Tell me what day you are giving it, and he will be absent.’ ”

In fact, Colannino has a 5-year-old son who is about to enter kindergarten in Woburn. He says that his son, like many 5-year-old boys, is spontaneous and active. And since children are now expected to sit quietly for at least part of the day in many kindergarten classes, Colannino is more than a little worried. “He is curious and asks a lot of questions, and my wife and I are concerned,” he says.

What does it say when an elementary school principal fears that his own child won’t thrive in kindergarten? And what is the new emphasis on academics doing to the children? The Alliance for Childhood report contains chilling statistics. In Texas, the rate at which kindergartners were held back rose by two and a half times from 1994 to 2004. And in 2007, a 6-year-old girl in Florida was arrested for having a temper tantrum in school.

And what of Christine Gerzon’s former student, the girl who failed the official proficiency tests but who showed so much potential? “She’s still struggling,” Gerzon says sadly. (The teacher has kept in touch with the girl’s family.) Students get labeled young, at a time when their ability to perform can vary widely from day to day, and it’s hard to shake those labels later on. Children’s impressions of school, too, are formed early, and when they feel like failures at 5, it’s hard to turn that around later. The city of Boston recognized this last year when it formed a public-private partnership with United Way called Thrive in 5, an umbrella agency that is conducting a citywide effort -- starting support and play groups, distributing flyers about health and other kinds of resources, and more -- to help parents prepare their young children for school.

But these grass-roots efforts can only go so far. Early childhood experts have been publishing books, releasing reports, and testifying before Congress, with little change in public policy. Why isn’t anyone listening? “It’s not the educators, it’s the politicians,” says Russell of the Boston schools. “The schools don’t make the decisions. The politicians are making the decisions to meet political needs.” There is also an element of fear among educators, especially in a troubled economy. “You have to be willing to get your wrist slapped a little bit,” says Russell. “If the folks who know what’s right don’t talk about it, we’re never going to get anywhere.”

And now is the time. The Obama administration has pledged billions, but some experts remain wary that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is proposing policy that sounds like No Child Left Behind. “I think he has bought into the standards and testing model,” says Miller. “What we need is a whole reassessment and change of direction.”

Meanwhile, more and more children are “failing” kindergarten, according to the Alliance for Childhood report -- and missing out on the kind of early schooling that does help develop 5-year-old minds. Winifred Hagan is a former kindergarten teacher and a vice president at the Cayl Institute in Cambridge, a nonprofit that sponsors conferences for principals and fellowships for the study of early childhood education. She worries that vulnerable kids are being sent down a path to failure inside a system that was created to meet purely political goals. “Kids are spending hours of their day sitting with pencils and tracing dotted lines,” she says. “And we call that education? We are kidding ourselves.”

Patti Hartigan, a former Globe reporter, blogs about education at http://TrueSlant.com. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.


  1. Anonymous3:42 PM

    Thank you for that. Being "responsible" is not simply about following the rules or the games of the newest policy. Too often, that makes us irresponsible. Lazy. Dull. Free to NOT act because we can say we "aren't in charge."

    If that seems confusing to anyone, urge your friends in and around education to go back and review the theories of moral development...and perhaps look up something related to critical pedagogy.

  2. Some of my kindergarten colleagues have been discussing this in relation to the push for early-start kindergarten, pushing (or "allowing") four year olds into full day kindergarten programs because they "need more practice being at school..." you guessed it, for those assessments. Thankfully I can blog to vent, and blog to advocate, because unfortunately, many parents I've encountered believe the push is beneficial, making our conference time and relationship building opportunities shaky grounds for honest and beneficial communication about what truly is best practice and develomentally appropriate for not only their children, but mine.

  3. However, the fact of the matter is that by pushing down the EARLY READING FIRST National Standards curriculum, which is, afterall, what this discussion is really about, to instruction of 4 year old children still learning in their first language, and now being made to learn to read in a second language, because of some "STANDARD" is the final nail to the coffin of the last child left under NCLB.