Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Child Labor, Child Abuse, and the New Schooling for the Poor

Posted to Schools Matter, 07.26.06

During the 1930s, child labor laws were finally taken seriously only after the jobs that children were doing in factories became essential to keep adult men from starving during the Depression. Mandatory school attendance laws were beefed up, and liberals could pat themselves on the backs that they had ended an era of child exploitation.

Well, there is a new war on childhood to combat for any remaining liberals who care to notice, and this one begins in poor neighborhood kindergartens (see Times story) that were intended, ironically, to remove children from the onerous world of adult work. Yes, test preparation has bled through to the children’s garden like an unstoppable dark stain that threatens to blot out our understanding of the healthy development of human children. Those deluded “educators” who still believe that the current era of education reform-by-testing is intended to close the achievement gap, are finding that they must begin earlier and earlier to impose a rigid instructional orthodoxy in hopes of displacing the implacable effects of poverty, the chief reason there is an achievement gap to begin with.

So work begins for poor children at an earlier age, replacing the essential play required for healthy psychological and social development, which is now reserved for zip codes where economic privilege allows for very different kindergarten curriculums. In the meantime, Poverty, the unseen elephant, continues to trumpet and the tear around the classroom where preoccupied teachers work to keep up the schedule of phonics drills, arithmetic drills, and bubble coloring that they are required to choke down their children with ever-increasing difficulty.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy—fit for the dull job that is planned for him in a dull world he will never be asked or enabled to understand.

Would you allow this for your child in her kindergarten? Or would you call it child abuse?


Anonymous said...

As my students have recognized over the years, the downward push of academics into pre-K programs is a continuation of a century-long pattern. Kindergartens used to be alternatives to early grades until absorbed by public schools, and then the curriculum became more regimented, with the justification "to prepare the children for first grade" (or the equivalent—see Larry Cuban's 1992 article "Why some reforms last: The case of the kindergarten," American Journal of Education 100: 166-94). I still joke with my 14-year-old daughter about the telescoping explanation of assignments as "to prepare you for grade x+1," where x is her current grade. Her kindergarten teacher used to tell the class that the work in first grade was much tougher: "If you do/don't do that in first grade, you'll be in big time trouble," was what my daughter reported. Imagine saying that to grad students: "If you don't read the literature, you'll be in big time trouble on comprehensives!"

Years ago, when I interviewed an experienced child psychologist very knowledgeable about the more famous pre-k programs of the 60s (from Martin Deutsch to Susan Gray, the Abecedarian project in NC, and the Kalamazoo, MI, program), he noted that they had a widely varying degree of structure. I don't think it's necessary to say which program essentially let the kids run all over the place and which had a very carefully thought out program. But they all improved outcomes in the long-term. His experienced judgment (something I have not-so-scientifically confirmed with the children I know) is that a mix of structure and lack of structure seems to work best. There's nothing wrong and much good with short activities geared towards literacy, but the pressure seems to be to do too much time-wise, and it doesn't make sense given the attention spam of most four-year-olds.

Two cases in point: rhyming games and taste-test graphs. From what I understand of the literature on literacy, one measure of phonemic awareness is simple awareness of how syllables can be put together. Rhyming games are a fun and effective way to do that, and I can't think of any early-childhood teacher who wouldn't use them or encourage them with kids who play skip-rope games on the playground. How to stop kids from rhyming? Sit them down and say, "Now, kids, we're going to spend the next 75 minutes rhyming."

Or, if you want to pick math, my son's preschool teacher had an ingenious way to introduce the kids to graphing: she set out samples of a bunch of food and velcro-backed picture identifiers of each. If you liked the food you tasted, you put a picture of it in the column with a picture of the same food at the top. The result was a simple bar graph of the number of kids the class who liked each food. That type of activity was integrated into a day with plenty of play.

We're facing an interesting situation with pre-K here in Florida. The state is trying to assess pre-k students with two measures in kindergarten, and given the underfunding and poor standards of our pre-k program, it will be interesting to see what drives behavior.

Jim Horn said...


Reminds me of a favorite Bateson quote: Imagination without rigor insanity; rigor without imagination is paralytic death.

btw, I think you inadvertantly just came up with the perfect colloquialism for "phonemic awareness": attention spam.

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