I’ve been trying to write this memoir for a long time: Schools of Thought: My __ years in education. The number in the blank keeps growing. Today it’s 70. For one thing, too many of my school memories are painful. Which means it would be helpful for me to write about them, yet also difficult.
Sometimes I summarize my story as “All Schools Suck,” which is true, but what do you say after that? Each school sucks in its own way. Can I squeeze 250 pages out of this monumental yet trivial conclusion? Talking about how each school sucked in my experience and in general might not be the most uplifting story.
What if I just talked about how schools should be? You might be able to infer the bad parts, but I wouldn’t be rubbing your face in them.
Let’s start with the children. I taught preschool for 30 years, so I know children. Preschool is the exception that proves the rule, or more accurately, the type of school that sucks the least.
Age four is the peak of human intelligence. This is because children that age haven’t started real school yet where they will be told on a daily if not hourly basis how stupid they are. That’s what tests do. That’s what grades do. That’s what top down instruction does.
The reason preschools suck so much less is a result of the civil rights movement. In 1965, as part of the Great Society program, the government engaged a commission to study how children actually learn. They developed a model specifically designed to help Black and Latinx children catch up to their white counterparts. They called it Headstart.
Headstart, which still flourishes today, has been one of the most successful – least sucky – government programs ever. The data overwhelmingly shows that children who go through Headstart or preschool do better in life than those who don’t.
Of course, contrary to the wishes of parsimonious politicians, the program doesn’t abolish poverty. Abolishing poverty would take providing poor people access to the same resources as rich people. Given this context, preschool is a small factor in the war on poverty, but, no question, it not only helps people master the system, it’s also a lot of fun.
So what did the founding mothers and fathers of the modern preschool conclude from their studies?
- Children need a lot of attention (duh). In particular in a school setting, they need an adult child ratio of one to eight at age four, one to five for toddlers, one to two for infants.
- Children (and everyone else for that matter) learn through play. That’s what play is, the learning process. Constructivism is another word for it. Children learn by doing, using hands-on materials, with loving attention from an adult. They need warmth and safety.
- There needs to be a friendly, colaborative relationship between teachers and parents, all working together to meet each child’s needs.
- Children need nutritious meals and the experience of enjoying food family style with their peers. It’s here they learn the social skills that are so much more important than the overly stressed academic skills.
- Families need social services provided by or facilitated by the school or center – referrals for medical, psychological, nutritional, parenting and peer to peer parental support, employment needs.
When puzzling over reforming the K-12 system, we need go no further than this: take the Headstart model and implement it system wide, in all grades, nationally. This is the only way forward that makes sense if we are serious about educating our children.