Some recent news out of the bizarro world of public education caused me to have a John McEnroe moment (for those of you who didn't follow his illustrious and animated tennis career, the statement, "You cannot be serious!" is one of his most famous tirades against the injustice of an allegedly bad line call). And I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't heard the news first hand and two different families I know personally hadn't experienced this truly absurd development in the never-ending saga known as public education in America.
I hopefully have your curiosity piqued and your attention gained now. What is the news that I found so shocking? Well, two families we know have 5-year-old daughters in two different public school kindergartens in Marin County north of San Francisco (please no Marin jokes!) The parents of each girl were notified recently by the school that their daughters were falling behind and steps needed to be taken to remedy the "problem." In both cases, there was the unspoken message that these little girls might fail kindergarten and not be allowed to progress to first grade next year.
Excuse me, did I hear this right? After being in kindergarten for only four months, how is it possible for children to be falling behind? I know that standards for kindergarten have gotten tougher in recent years. In fact, what used to be the first-grade curriculum is now being taught in kindergarten (for all the good that has done for educating America's youth!). Children these days are expected to be reading and writing before they get to kindergarten!
But, I'm sorry, the words kindergartener and failure simply don't belong in the same sentence. Sure, there are going to be some children with serious learning or behavioral challenges who will have difficulties overcoming the rigors of kindergarten (note ironic tone when I use rigors and kindergarten in the same sentence). But I know both of these little girls well and they are as normal as the next kid.
I know administrators and teachers feel pressure to prepare their students for standardized testing, but this seems a bit ridiculous. From what I understand, the first standardized tests begin in second grade, which is light years away from kindergarten developmentally. And I should point out that Norway, considered to have one of the best public education systems in the world, doesn't begin to teach their students to read until they are seven years old and does no testing till fourth grade.
I don't mean to place the blame for this absurdity on the teachers; they're just following the rules set out by their local school boards and the education mandates established by the state and federal governments. I do blame the "edutocracy" that maintains a profound disconnect between education policy and what is developmentally appropriate and healthy for children. At a deeper level, I hold our increasingly demented culture responsible for promulgating values and beliefs that are so out of sync with what is in the best interests of children and for sowing the seeds of fear that drives everyone along the educational food chain to make just plain bad decisions.
Lastly, I feel sympathy for the anxiety-ridden and traumatized parents who only want what's best for their children and so are compelled to get on board the insane train of public education and hang on for dear life lest their children get left behind on the tracks. Mostly though, I feel worst for those two girls, and the many children who find themselves in a similar situation, who don't deserve to be labeled as being behind as they just begin their educational journey and are treated more as products in a factory line and aren't allowed to be what they are, just 5-year-old kids.
To listen to a fascinating discussion of education in America, go to this TED lecture by Ken Robinson.