The Danger of Universal pre-K??

Is play being banished from the lives of 3 year-olds?

Reading Diane Ravitch’s blog early today I came across the following article about a proposal by New York City’s mayor to extend free public access to pre-K education.  (Aside – As you may have heard, New York recently initiated a program to provide tuition-free access to public higher education, though this proposal is not without controversy.)

The author of the pre-K article is clearly concerned about academic pressures extending down into the pre-K years and the effect that the elimination of play will have on young children.

In a 2016 study, Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham, and Ana Rorem, researchers at the University of Virginia, compared kindergarten classrooms between 1998 and 2010, a period of heightened accountability in which No Child Left Behind was enacted, more money was invested in early education, and the Common Core state standards were designed.  Academics, they confirmed, had trickled down to early childhood.  Kindergarten had become the new first—or even second—grade.

The use of textbooks and worksheets had substantially increased, as had standardized testing.  Child-initiated inquiry, how kids learn best, was pretty much gone, replaced by teacher-led instruction.  Curriculum focused on math and literacy skills had pushed out art, music, and science, depriving these young students of a broad, rich experience.

It has been about 25 years since my children attended pre-school and kindergarten here, so I am curious to hear readers’ comments about local trends.  Is this happening here too?  Comments can be entered in the form following this article.

Last year I mentioned a book by Amanda Ripley entitled “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way.”  Ripley followed several American foreign exchange students as they experienced other countries’ education systems as well as the experiences of students from other countries here in the U.S.  The book is the most interesting read on education that I have found in the last several years – highly recommended!!

Finland gets very favorable mention, but there are dire warnings about South Korea which is one of the most test-driven countries in the world.  I quote the most ghastly, but consequently memorable story from the book.  If you are squeamish, please skip the following block quote:

One Sunday morning during that school year, a teenager named Ji stabbed his mother in the neck in their home in Seoul. He did it to stop her from going to a parent-teacher conference. He was terrified that she’d find out that he’d lied about his latest test scores.

Afterwards, Ji kept his secret for eight months. Each day, he came and went to school and back again as if nothing had changed. He told neighbors his mother had left town. To contain the odor of her decomposing body, he sealed the door to her room with glue and tape. He invited friends over for ramen. Finally, his estranged father discovered the corpse, and Ji was arrested for murder.

This ghastly story captivated the country, as might be expected, but for specific and revealing reasons. Ji’s crime was not, in the minds of many Koreans, an isolated tragedy; it was a reflection of a study-crazed culture that was driving children mad.

According to his test scores, Ji ranked in the top 1 percent of all high school students in the country, but, in absolute terms, he still placed four thousandth nationwide. His mother had insisted he must be number one at all costs, Ji said. When his scores had disappointed her in the past, he said, she’d beaten him and withheld food.

In response to the story, many Koreans sympathized more with the living son than the dead mother. Commentators projected their own sour memories of high school onto Ji’s crime. Some went so far as to accuse the mother of inviting her own murder. A Korea Times editorial described the victim as “one of the pushy ‘tiger’ mothers who are never satisfied with their children’s school records no matter how high their scores.

As for Ji, he confessed to police immediately, weeping as he described how his mother had haunted his dreams after he’d killed her. At the trial, the prosecutor asked for a fifteen-year prison sentence. The judge, citing mitigating circumstances, sentenced the boy to three and a half years.

Meanwhile, Korean politicians vowed anew to treat the country’s education fever, as it was called…

Unfortunately, what happened as a result of the politicians’ efforts is sickening, but I will leave that part for you to read in the book.

This surreal story is an extreme example of what a trend, once started, can eventually lead to. According to Ripley, South Korea is having a tough time changing the public mindset that led to extremes like this. Fortunately we are no where near this point… though U.S. schools have had their share of shocking incidents.

To return to the main topic of this article, testing kids as early as pre-K, is a slippery slope that we do not want to head down. I think that play is very important for kids as I wrote in my article “How to Interest Kids in Science, Engineering, and Math.”

I realize that many in the community may not share this view, very possibly including tech workers who grew up in countries where high-stakes testing was the only path to success (though based on past comments, some of these tech workers can also be the most vocal critics of such tests…).

So, if you aren’t still in shock, how are our local schools doing currently in pre-K and kindergarten??

Author: David Kristofferson

Retired scientist, teacher, bioinformatician, IT director, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist (7690 miles and 724,300 feet of climbing in 2015), backpacker, you name it! Current avocation is tutoring high school students near San Mateo, CA in mathematics, physics and chemistry. Please see the Bio link in the right sidebar for my detailed background information.

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