Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Case Against Delaying Kindergarten

In New York City, where I used to live, the cut-off to start kindergarten is to turn 5 in late December. I find it interesting to ponder whether my life would have been different if I grew up there; my birthday is December 5, and so I could have been a grade ahead of where I actually was in school. Here in Lower Merion, PA, where we recently moved, the cut-off is September 1. Thus my son, Sam (9/24) and soon-to-be-born baby daughter (around 10/5 or so) will always be among the oldest in their classes.

I really wish they'd be the youngest instead. It's become common for parents to "redshirt" their 5-year-olds, delaying kindergarten for another year, particularly for boys. Schools let parents get away with this, but for some reason, going the other direction (starting kindergarten early) is fraught with the same angst that grade-skipping in general evokes in some people. Sure, some kids aren't ready. But others are. If a kid can read and write, which many gifted 4-year-olds can, what purpose is served by keeping them in preschool another year?

So I was fascinated to see an op-ed in the New York Times this past week from Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt called "Delay Kindergarten At Your Child's Peril." The gist of the piece is that any advantage that children get by being delayed a year disappears rapidly, and that school, in general, is good for children. It helps their brains grow and develop. Some data has found that disadvantaged and advantaged children make similar gains during the school year, but disadvantaged children slide during the summer break, when they're not exposed to lessons. Enough summers can make a pretty big gap. It's not a huge stretch to believe the same would be true for starting kindergarten. The earlier disadvantaged children can get into full-time school, the better.

Gifted children likewise would benefit from more flexibility in when kids start kindergarten. While, again, I think the angst about grade-skipping is overblown, it can be harder to pull off to go from, say, 1st to 3rd grade in the same school. But when you start kindergarten early, it doesn't have to be a big deal.

I'm curious if anyone has successfully challenged a school district's cut-off date and been able to enroll a child in kindergarten early.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

15 Minutes Outside

I've been paging through Rebecca P. Cohen's new book, 15 Minutes Outside: 365 ways to get out of the house and connect with your kids. There is plenty of research finding that getting outdoors can boost one's mood, and kids who spend time outdoors are highly likely to get more physical activity than those who don't. So those are two big reasons to get out there.

Of course, the question for modern children, accustomed to video games and such, is what you do once you get outside. One can always hit the playground, and we do this fairly frequently. But this is often not terribly relaxed, partly because of the Intense Other Parent Factor (at a playground just outside Washington DC earlier today, I kept having parents apologize for their 2 and 3-year-olds taking our ball, as if children that age have much concept of other people's stuff anyway. Sometimes I want to hang a sign saying "Chill out! I'm not going to judge you!") Cohen's book lists hundreds of activities for kids to do outside during all types of weather. The idea is that once you get them started on something, they'll probably come up with something else, and eventually move to the unstructured free play that is the holy grail of child development.

Among my favorite ideas:

* Do homework outside. If you have to do a boring worksheet, it's still better while lying on a blanket on the grass.
* Find wonder in a small pail. Have kids collect whatever they like (blades of grass, acorns, etc). in a pail and then look at them under a magnifying glass.
* Give your kid a place to dig. Digging is just plain fun. So why not give kids a patch of dirt in the backyard where they can go to town?
* Play leaf tic-tac-toe with autumn leaves of the same color as Xs or Os. Or just use different species of trees at any point in the year.
* Track an animal. A lost human skill, if you think about it.
* Get the kids to weed and rake!

Of course, by the time you get to 365, some ideas seem not so fabulous. It also bothers me that Cohen buys, hook-line-and-sinker, into the idea that picky eaters will eat their vegetables if they plant them themselves. It's fine to keep a garden if you're into it, and kids often like plucking tomatoes and peppers and the like. But my own experience with this is the exact opposite of her claim that "One of the best things is to get your kids involved in growing and harvesting the vegetables. They are more willing to try new foods if they can proudly boast, 'I grew that!'" Maybe if you don't have a truly picky eater. But despite this as an overarching theme of essays in numerous parenting and women's magazines, I'm not convinced it's the case. My 2-year-old eats lots of things and eats the tomatoes we grow. My 4-year-old loves picking tomatoes, but will not eat them, or our acorn squash, no matter how many bushels he picks. Picky eating is not really about your parenting (or you wouldn't have kids in the same family behaving so differently). It's about some kids being more sensitive to tastes than others.

But I digress. In general, coming up with ideas of stuff to do with kids is tough. It's always easier to turn on the TV, but watching television for hours isn't terribly fulfilling, and probably won't create the kind of memories that splashing in mud puddles will. So it's good to read a book reminding us that the latter is an option.

(Cross-posted at My168hours.com)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Content vs. Skills

E. D. Hirsch Jr. waded into the story of declining SAT scores this week with an op-ed in the New York Times on "How to Stop the Drop in Verbal Scores." Hirsch claims that the drop stems from a move away from content-rich elementary school reading curricula and toward an emphasis on reading and writing skills, divorced from anything larger.

This is the whole anti-worksheet sentiment that rears its head fairly frequently in education circles. I can, of course, sympathize. Especially since I write content! There are amazing writing and vocabulary lessons to be gained from reading interesting books. Reading books also allows you to absorb a lot of core knowledge about history, civics, science, etc.

However, just like the widespread progressive educator idea that children will simply discover the rules of mathematics by looking at different problems and talking them over, I know from personal experience that this doesn't always happen. I read everything under the sun as a kid. What actually allowed me to make a living as a writer, and make writing feel easy, was learning rules of grammar and why they exist. I'd look at incorrect sentences and correct ones and see why certain things worked better. I memorized these rules. And while I break them all the time (I just started this sentence with an "and"!) I know I am choosing to do so and generally do so for effect.

The reality is that as people learn, they need both content and skills. This doesn't have to be a battle over every individual class. I was thinking of this while pondering Princeton's relatively recent writing requirement. The problem was that even young people who were capable of getting into Princeton arrived unable to construct an academic paper. So the freshmen writing seminars would give them the skills necessary to do this. The problem that such a program always struggles with is that the professors who teach these courses want to teach specific content areas -- their areas of expertise. So is the emphasis on the subject matter or the writing skills?

Ideally, people should get both. The Hirsch argument is that many disadvantaged children never get the core knowledge that their more advantaged peers show up with. Skills are useless apart from that. But content without skills isn't that helpful either -- as anyone who's struggled to write a paper that actually expresses what she means to say knows.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

SAT scores fall to new lows

Every year, more than 1.5 million high school students take the SAT -- the test used by most selective colleges to assist in enrollment decisions. According to headlines this week, the scores for the class of 2011 were the lowest ever recorded.

There are a few ways to spin this. A positive one is that the number of people taking the test has been increasing, and this larger pool of young people has far more diverse backgrounds in the past. The proportion of test-takers who are minorities has risen, as has the proportion who speak English as a second language, and the proportion who qualified to have the test fee waived. American young people seem to be absorbing the message that going to college matters, and in order to have the option of going to college, you often need to take either the SAT or ACT. This is roughly the same statistical phenomenon which would have shown falling wages when women entered the workforce in droves. You could focus on the falling wages, or you could say hey, look at all these people without a work history who are getting a foothold in the economy and are diversifying the job market.

However, there's a limit to this positive spin. Because it would be even better if scores were rising and the test-takers were becoming more diverse. To some degree, falling test scores mean what they show. Among the American young people who consider themselves college material, most are not in fact prepared for college. The College Board says students need to score a 1550 out of 2400 to have a 65% chance of getting at least a B-minus average during their first year of college. Only 43% of test-takers met that threshold.

The question of why they don't meet it is obviously the one that has been bedeviling the public for years. America spends quite a bit of money per pupil -- more than many countries that do better -- and doesn't seem to be getting the right return on investment. There's a profound anti-intellectual culture many places, where "high school" conjures up images of football and prom rather than college readiness. Fingers can be pointed many places. Parents don't care. Kids watch too much TV. School is too short. We need more excellent teachers. Bright students need to be challenged; failing kids need to be put back on track.

But regardless of the blame, the issue is a fairly tragic one, because we are increasingly living in a bifurcated economy. There is both a talent shortage and widespread unemployment. Wages for medium- and low-skilled workers are stalling (with household incomes now stuck at 1996 levels) and yet companies that require very specific specialized skills (say, Google) are throwing money and perks at their hires. The best solution to the jobs crisis would be to have more young people falling into the latter category. Judging by the new SAT results, it just doesn't seem to be happening.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Montgomery County, Acceleration and "Rigor"

For whatever reason, a number of people really do not like acceleration. The idea of a child who is, by age, supposed to be in one grade, going to a classroom associated with a different grade either on a permanent basis or just for a class or two, is just something to be avoided if at all possible.

At least that's the message I'm taking from a fascinating story in Bethesda magazine called "No more math acceleration?" According to the article, the principal of Wyngate Elementary School sent home a note informing parents that because the district's new math standards were so rigorous, "the previous practice of grade skipping acceleration in mathematics will not be necessary for most students. Almost all of our students will be working at the challenging grade level standards this year and not in the next grade level up."

The article goes on to mention the dreaded "gaps" problem -- the idea that acceleration somehow leads to holes in one's knowledge, as if all education isn't choosing some things to study and some things not to study. In this case, it's a haunting problem: "Parents and teachers have long complained that accelerating math students by skipping grade levels has led to gaps in basic skills and mastery of concepts that haunt them when they reach higher level math."

Perhaps there will be exceptions; as the article says, "Don’t worry – this doesn’t mean that children who are truly gifted in math won’t be challenged. The curriculum includes enrichment and accelerated material that goes beyond the new requirements. That means that “students who consistently demonstrate proficiency of a mathematics concept will be able to enrich their understanding of a grade-level topic or accelerate to a higher-level topic,” [the principal] wrote."

Just not in a different grade level class. Because that would be a disaster.

The whole thing is kind of funny, in one respect. I'm not sure why people are so allergic to the idea of skipping a grade in a subject or overall. The whole concept of grades is pretty arbitrary anyway. My oldest son, Jasper, just started a new preschool where they do mixed-age classes. Kids who are ages 3-5 can be in one class together, and I suspect that 3-year-olds and 5-year-olds are much farther apart on development spectrums than, say, a high-achieving fourth grader and a sixth grader.

As it is, rigorous content standards are a great idea. Covering fewer topics in depth to mastery is also a good idea. But there's no real reason to take acceleration off the table, even if one does have very rigorous standards. Sometimes kids really are ready to move on.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Too Young for College and Graduate School?

Over at the Huffington Post, Kelsey Caetano-Anolles has a fascinating essay about being a young college student -- and would-be graduate student. She enrolled at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign at the age of 14 after working with a legislator to get the minimum college age repealed. Having graduated with a degree in psychology, she's now trying to apply to the graduate program. But according to her, when she applied, she was told she was too young, and she really should take some time off to go backpacking through Europe.

I don't know Kelsey or her academic credentials, but I find this line of reasoning from UIUC fascinating. "Grown-ups" have a tendency to romanticize what young people should be doing: spending time finding themselves, traveling, etc. We like to wax eloquent about having plenty of time to advance in our careers later. Why hurry now? (the whole "Hurried Child" book was called that for a reason -- it appeals to a certain mindset). Of course, there are good arguments for "hurrying" too. Whole books have been written about the time crunch experienced by people trying to pursue graduate degrees and the early pre-tenure years of academia while having and raising small children. One way to space these windows out is to finish with school earlier. One way to finish school earlier? Start earlier.

Age is not a classification like race for which the law recognizes almost no reasons for discrimination. We don't let children work in most paying jobs before age 13 and have limits on hours and types of work up until age 18. Most people support some age restrictions on driving, drinking, etc. Nonetheless, age is a pretty blunt instrument for determining what people are capable of. We got rid of most mandatory retirement age policies, and these days, senior citizens are showing that people can contribute massively to organizations after age 65, 70, or what have you. And so, likewise, we need to be careful about claiming that people should or shouldn't do something else with their time because they happen to be 17. I hope Kelsey finds a graduate program that is interested in treating people as individuals -- and recognizing that human psychology allows for many different ways of finding happiness as a young person.