Where does education begin? Many would say that it begins at home—with manners and moral values, with counting fingers and toes and recognizing colors and shapes. Undoubtedly any child benefits from that kind of nurturing at home, the interest of parents and siblings and grandparents in shaping a love for learning and providing a foundation.
Nevertheless, given today’s social problems—absentee parents, substance abuse, domestic violence—not every child receives that nurturing at home. Increasingly, more children begin their education with little information and fewer skills. There are Pre-K students who come to class unable to tell their names—or even to sit still for five minutes to listen to instruction. Manners, moral values, the most basic learning games are alien concepts to them.
So where does education start?
If a child goes to pre-school, there. But not all children go to pre-school; in fact, many school systems make little or no provision for three and four year olds, blaming a lack of funding, and focusing instead on insuring that older students pass various state-mandated standardized tests. Some children are only given pre-school if they do not speak English, although not all children from English-speaking homes are endowed with loving parents who provide basic skills. Other systems provide kinder education for all students, although class size sometime precludes that all students are actually served.
So in some cases, education starts in first grade.
Except when students are kept out of school by parents who never stay in one place, have no respect for education, and are never made to face consequences by the systems that suffer from student failure and become the whipping posts of politicians and the public.
That never happens? An eight year old student who never had been in first grade entered a class on April the 23rd. The student could not read or write, and the teacher had the impossible task of teaching the child in 3 weeks what the child might not have learned in a year, because he had attended kinder irregularly due to absenteeism. The child obviously could not be promoted, and will turn 9 in first grade—if he attends. He likely won’t, and likely his mother will continue playing the next system and winning.
But when the system works—the strides children achieve, even children such as the one mentioned above—can be amazing. Pre-K students who don’t know anything but nicknames suddenly understand that they have identities and abilities. Some begin to read, and in K—more and more, students must read. The hours put in by early elementary teachers, from pre-K to 2nd are amazing. All teachers do far more than the public ever realizes, and upper grade teachers certainly have stressful, intense obligations to meet with their students. But those teachers receive children who know what it means to sit down and listen to a story, to read a work, to solve problems—all skills those students learn from their primary teachers.
Increasingly, though—and do largely to the “accountability” farce of standardized tests above all—early elementary teachers are relegated to the status of “support staff” in many systems and to the detriment of all systems. Colleges and universities push upper elementary and secondary training, “performance” bonuses go only to those educators who test students—when children fail at the standardized tests, the primary teachers dropped the ball. But when students succeed—education began in third grade and ends with the last state-mandated test.
How sad that “global education” that everyone from the president down espouses as a worthwhile goal has become the kick ball for politicians and companies that profit from tests, scoring tests, and selling test products.
Where is that “teachable moment” from sixteen years ago? The “big idea” which makes such perfect sense? If you want global, critical thinkers—show the connections in every thing. Don’t expect test strategies to replace what really matters—a depth of information, and a wider exposure to all that makes up the world.
Testing, accountability—those are necessary. Just as there are firemen, policemen, shopkeepers, and politicians who can’t perform, so, too, are there teachers who can’t or don’t. But it’s important to understand that students are not all one-size, one learning ability units that can perform at the same ability, regardless of the quality of teaching. And to define education as the result of a student on one assessment is to dismiss the value of education completely. Perhaps the “failure” of education is not that students do poorly on tests, but that much of a child’s time in school now from pre-K on is devoted to test taking skills, not real life learning.
In this day of Twitter and Facebook—not to mention the good old grapevine—it’s impossible, but nothing would prove children’s abilities as well as an unannounced test, like the CAT used to be. Walk in one day, take a test—and if the teaching and learning were there, the results would astound. No millions in testing materials, beat-the-test materials, benchmarking, data analysis—just results. Not the hours of testing and tutoring and retesting and re-teaching for test results—just the hours spent in real academic pursuits.
Maybe the walkthroughs so many administrators all over the country do should be given some weight. Maybe teachers, especially primary teachers, should see their contributions be valued and appreciated, not degraded by media, politicians, parents looking for excuses for their own lack of participation in education—maybe we should quit saying the old ways don’t work. Maybe they do—with the incorporation of technology and an emphasis on responsibility and a demand for appropriate behavior in the classroom—because we all used to know where education began.
Now it’s anybody’s guess.