As I read the harrowing tales of inequality and injustice that run rampant in our education system from February through May, I realized how crucial acknowledging and addressing stereotypes, expectations, and an understanding of student life outside of the classroom should be when developing a school. Listening to African American mothers in my hometown talk about the fear they have for their sons in a “lily white” district, reading about schools whose teachers see themselves as glorified babysitters who can’t force delinquent children to learn, and watching second grade students I tutored begin to lose passion for reading before my eyes, it became clear that something structural needs to change. In a step toward creating this change, my ideal school begins with a carefully planned pre-kindergarten program–a tier in the education hierarchy that is often underestimated and overlooked.
In my ideal school, children are enrolled at ages as young as 18 months. Inspired by the general consensus in much of my semester’s research that early childcare is key to equal opportunity in education, I dream of a day care program seamlessly integrated into my ideal institution. I imagine toddlers placed in the hands of trusted teachers at 8am, fed 2 nutritious meals throughout the day, constantly interacting with children in older grades and with one another, and always learning about the wider world that surrounds them. In a country that ranks poorly when it comes to altruism, (found in the Anthropology and Child Development: A Cross-Cultural ReaderEdited by Robert A. LeVine and Rebecca S. New) we need to invest in teaching empathy at early ages. Across the globe, children as young as 4 and 5 are given the responsibility of caring for their younger siblings. They provide meals, play, and priceless example. Trusted from childhood, the stage is set for a life of care giving and respect—to younger members of the community, elders, and peers alike. If we give 8-10 year old American students the responsibility of caring for younger children as a part of our curriculum, we might learn from the effective practices of other cultures. In classes based on care giving, children gain a valuable skill set that leads to a more connected group of citizens. We teach these students to feel a sense of duty for the generation below them—a capacity that has the potential to change American politics and policy for the better.
Beyond teaching altruism to older students, a strong pre-K program offers children in low-income communities the chance at a head start in education they may not receive at home. In the first years of life, children absorb the world. By the time students reach kindergarten, they potentially already differ in skill level. Affected by variables like exposure to vocabulary, involvement of parents, and even diet, it is possible for students to be “behind” before they have stepped foot inside of an elementary school. This is a realization many parents have come across.
In New York, more an more parents cart their kids to carefully designed “progressive” (code for competitive) preschools than ever before. In a May 13th article titled “Fast-Tracking to Kindergarten?” found in the New York Times, the popular institution “Kumon Junior Preschool” is extensively described. It is a space where 6-year olds complete 90 multiplication problems in six minutes and parents are sent home with recommended reading lists and the responsibility of “grading” 20 minutes of homework in each subject every night. This is a sort of schooling that is motivated by fear. In one particularly telling quote, Alison Gotnik, a psychology professor at the University of California Berkeley stated: “Part of them are saying, ‘This isn’t right, 3-year-olds should be playing in the sandbox and putting together mixing bowls,’ but then they’re thinking that maybe if the kid next door is doing it, it’ll be time to go to Harvard and my child won’t have the same advantage…We are in a culture where education is the path to success, and it’s hard for people to recognize how deep and profound learning is when children are just playing” (NY Times 5/13).
The pre-kindergarten experience I imagine for my ideal school is not of the cut-throat, do anything to get ahead, make sure you’re at the top of the pyramid, Komon Junior Preschool variety. It is not an institution with a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality, but an attempt to close the opportunity and achievement gaps before they are visible. It assures that all students enter kindergarten with comparable preparation and skill sets–regardless of family income.
This preemptive strategy extends to the length of the school day. Running from 8am – 4pm, children benefit from at least 2 meals a day and a two-hour period of individualized homework help. Extra curricular activities are strongly encouraged, and most of the student body participates. Creating a longer school day provides students with a more equal opportunity for extra help and time devoted to schoolwork. Every student’s life outside of school is unique, and extraneous circumstances may get in the way of time devoted to homework or studies. If more time is devoted to academic growth inside of the school building, students will be on a more level playing field outside of the classroom. Consequently, achievement and opportunity will also be closer to even when graduation day finally arrives. Based on the successful model that KIPP schools provide, this extended school day requires a strong investment by teachers and a set of high expectations held for all students.
In another attempt to further equality, all grades of the student body will have access to ample resources. Reminded of the stories featuring supply closet bribery and students sharing outdated textbooks in groups of 3 told by Teach for America alumni Sarah Sentilles in her memoir Taught by America, my imagined school includes new supplies for every student. One large storage room, stocked with a variety of supplies, will be open to faculty and students at all times. This will be a “free room” of sorts—a room where items will be left when they are needed and gathered when they are deemed useful. A play on the old adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” the room will instill trust, promote collaboration and creativity, and provide an equal opportunity to resources for all.
The same equal opportunity holds true with technology. There will be one computer for every student. Beginning in first and second grade, students start to incorporate technology into everyday activities—careful not to lose more traditional skills in the hyper speed of the digital world.
For example, after reading a recent article in the New York Times, I learned about the decline of cursive writing in schools. As cursive becomes less necessary in a culture of smart phones and computer screens, it surfaces only in the messy scrawls placed at the bottom of receipts. Because cursive is not a major component of standardized tests in the U.S., teaching cursive has become counterproductive and obsolete. In a system where “teaching to the test” is necessary to succeed, and time spent deviating from formulaic material is a “waste,” the art of cursive writing is lost. In fact, more and more students are unable to even read cursive—finding it cryptic. The Constitution of the United States of America begins to look like a foreign code. What else have we lost? I think of the ability to add, subtract and spell—all pushed aside as duties of computers and calculators. In my imagined school, technology will be utilized and enjoyed, but it will not be an end-all-be-all. It will not be the solution to every problem.
Our children need to retain the ability to think critically. They must be aware that there are multiple ways to solve every equation, and many larger world issues. We need to teach them with holistic methods and multiple perspectives—scaffolding their progress along the way and pushing toward a goal of higher thinking. With goals like these in mind, the implementation of a lengthened school day, quality pre-K programs, and abundant resource availability creates an idyllic formula for equal opportunity toward success.
Of course, the opportunity gap (defined by overt and hidden social stigma in the classroom, vast fluctuations in income, and the diverse experiences that make up every student portrait) is not the only devastating gap of the education system. As John Merrow points out in his book The Influence of Teachers, “what we have is more complex: It’s an opportunity gap, an expectations gap, an outcomes gap, and a leadership gap” (147). As this series continues, my idyllic Utopian school example will seek to acknowledge and conquer these gaps and their ramifications–examining teacher recruitment and retention, testing, expectations, and community.