Children Have to Grow Up Too Fast

Something is lost when little red wagons and mud pies make way for worksheets and tests.

Something is lost when little red wagons and mud pies make way for worksheets and tests.
Dispatches: Childhood
Credit: Indigo Flores

She waltzes into my room on winged feet -- all 3 feet and a bit of her, with a pixie cut and huge brown eyes. She is Katy (not her real name), and she is in the first grade. As everyone else settles down, Katy twirls in a dizzying display of excess energy. She is wearing her favorite outfit -- a rainbow poncho and a tiara with pink feathers. The rest of the class sits on the rug, crisscross applesauce. They stare up at me expectantly. Katy is trying to lie across my lap and peer up into my face. She slithers down, bounces up again, and moves to her desk to see what treasures might be in her backpack. Her bottom has never touched her chair. I invite her back to the group and sit her right next to me -- her favorite place in the room.

A little young, I tell myself on the first day. Not ready for first grade and the rigors of state standards. I'm new to the school so I do not know her history. Perhaps she's just young for her age. I can't help thinking someone dropped the ball here. She's a kindergartner dressed in first-grade clothing.

When I check her file in the office, I am dumbfounded by an inch-thick IEP folder. This is not good news. An Individualized Education Program usually signals some serious area of concern. The plan spells out goals for the student and how the teacher will monitor and assess the accomplishment of those goals. Benchmarks are set. Meetings are held. I've never had a first grader with an IEP. Most students come equipped with a slim folder holding their vaccination records and birth certificate. What could possibly be wrong with this girl that warrants this level of scrutiny?

The answer: nothing. She has an older brother with a learning disability and anxious parents who want to make sure Katy doesn't "fall through the cracks." I keep reading, looking for a diagnosis, some indication that there is something wrong with this sprite. But the only thing I see is that she "doesn't know her entire alphabet." She can't write all her numbers to thirty. She's "inattentive" during instruction.

There is nothing wrong with Katy except that she is a kindergartner deprived of kindergarten. Ten years ago she would have been in the dress-up corner in front of the mirror, draping feather boas across her thin shoulders. But on this particular day, she's a first grader with an IEP and goals that are unattainable for someone at her stage of development. She will go to special classes three times a week to make up for her "deficits." She will continue to smile boldly, but soon she will start to wonder what is wrong with her. She will leave our classroom three times a week and trudge, not dance, down to room 15. She will start to feel the weight of those goals. The benchmarks will pinch just a bit.

Katy is not my first kindergartner. In the past five years, as expectations have continued to expand at each grade level, teachers have scrambled to help students feel successful. A good proportion of my class is not at grade level. They are taking multiple-choice tests and filling in bubbles with the anxiety of their older siblings. We throw around terms like "algebra" and "response to literature" to six-year-olds who are barely decoding words. We push and cajole and yes, sometimes secretly curse the child with her head in the clouds. We are accountable. We are observed. Our jobs may depend on the ability of our students to understand the subtle distinction between strategies like "predict" and "infer."

There is no kindergarten. It has gone the way of the little red wagon and mud pies. The time when children learned how to go to school, how to use a tricycle, or wait their turn on the swing is gone. These were important skills -- vital to success in the grades to come. We do not have time to teach them now. We have worksheets that need completing. We have take-home books to copy and homework packets to staple. We have accountability.

I look down at Katy while she copies the words from the whiteboard. Every now and then, she holds up her paper for me to see, and smiles. I love how the light dances off the rhinestones on her tiara. And I wonder how long it will be before someone tells her that she can't wear hats in class and she can't dance in the hallways. I will miss the pink feathers and rainbow poncho. But while she is mine, I will dance around the rules just a little and find places for her to stand, not sit. I will teach her what I can to the best of my ability. I will hold off, as long as I can, the weight of the file that dogs her footsteps. And I'll look for a rainbow poncho of my own to remind me that the Katys of this world just might be on the brink of extinction.

Dispatches: Childhood
Credit: Indigo Flores
M. Jones is a pseudonym for an elementary school teacher in northern California.

This article originally published on 3/18/2008

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Anonymous (not verified)

special ed

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as proactive mom of terrific kid now 19, (qualified ADA, LD, acquired head injury & epilepsy, ovearall experiece in special classes, SDC horrible. Attitude of teachers is teaching for testing, 60% kids in CA drop out; juvenile hall admits to 50% incarcerated... close to 1005 recidivism.

Ran ADD/LD non-profit till founder's death - outreach calls gut wrenching. Do not allow your children to be ostracized needlessly in special ed class - if special instruction needed, do through school with hime study.

Son ended up in juvenile hall for following 'buddy's' instructions to steal booze. Buddy left, son took hit for friend - in system 15 months - completely broken.

these kids are more than special, they are creative, innovative and brillian - just learn differently. Oldest son with ADD wrote original Napster backen at 19. middle daughter with ADD graduated UC at 19.

Don't ignore what gifts your child possesses, ensure school's capability to educate effectively. IEP's mean little - read between the 'adjusted scores' in high school warehoused as if worthless. Not so!!!

Anonymous (not verified)

Starting Later

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It is interesting that by a recent study Finland's teenagers were ranked highest in the world academically and these students don't begin a formal education until the age of 7.

From the Wall Street Journal
http://online.wsj.com/public/article/SB120425355065601997-7Bp8YFw7Yy1n9b...

Anonymous (not verified)

A different approach seems to work

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The country that scored highest in the international PISA tests was Finland. Finland placed first in both Science and Math and second in Reading. In Science knowledge Finland was 24 points ahead of second place Canada. In Mathematics knowledge Finland was one point ahead of Korea but 17 points ahead of third-place Netherlands. Finland was second in Reading knowledge, nine points behind Korea but 20 points ahead of Canada in third.

In a May 24, 2005, Washington Post article, reporter Robert Kaiser wrote about Finland’s schools and their approach to education. He described the lack of pressure for students to read in Kindergarten, quoting one teacher "Social skills and learning to play are more important than reading."

Anonymous (not verified)

So True

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I teach high school, and most of the IEP's I have seen were written for the sake of the parents, not the kids. Offended yet? By the time they reach us, they know how to play the system and the social promotion that is expected by administrators, parents, and counselors is a heavy load to bear as a high school teacher. We have no time to teach self responsibility, ethics, time management, and preparing teens for all the things required of us in our adult lives. We are too busy giving retests for something the student would have passed had they any clue of consequences for their actions; extra time for something that the student put off, not something they couldn't do, or needed help with. (Bet you are offended now). I understand the purpose of an IEP. It is just abused so, that the real need gets lost in the process. I agree with M. Jones. Let the kids be kids just a little while.

WD (not verified)

Performance, growth, and/or

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Performance, growth, and/or knowledge measurement is not intrinsicly good or bad. But it is easier and faster to do a poor job than to do it well. "Sharing", "tolerence" and affective growth are indeed measurable -- and one can construct outcomes relevant to those and similar goals. But is much easier and faster to measure whether the kid "knows how to count to 30." The place where most of the accountability issues fall down is in the attempt to "mass produce" test results and then to use them to measure teacher performance. Large amounts of research data show that this is a less-than-optimal endeavour, but it is nevertheless seductively easy and so it is too often the methodology of choice.

Anonymous (not verified)

Accountability and growing up too fast

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"Teacher, leave those kids alone" - Pink Floyd

Accountablity is all fine but look at the fruits of our current system. The sad thing is that parents, teachers, and administrators have all bought into this heinous system that further steals childhood from our children. It is not bad enough that the social conditions surrounding the schools have deteriorated and have increased stress on children by one standard deviation in the past 20 years, but we have to intensify the stress with high stakes testing and high stakes teaching. What will these 18 year olds look like... and we wonder why we have Columbine and Virginia Tech?

We are all complicit allowing the business interests and politicians (who want nothing more than to use education to obtain cheaper training bills and get re-elceted)to colonize our elementary schools and turn them into factories and test mills.

Parents have absorbed the competitive culture of the U.S. economy and we pressure our kids to compete, we over schedule them. As George Carlin says, make your kids day dream for a few hours a day.

Principals and teachers play the game and take away recess time to ensure test preparation time is not touched and look the other way as art, PE, science, and othe non-tested subjects go by the wayside, as social studies becomes just more time for reading and writing practice and science becaomes just more time for math drill and kill. These administratrors have become collaborators with the politicians.

School Boards and Central Offices kow-tow to their states and often times take the state accountability systems that are based on annual testing and turn them into bi-monthly testing regimes. Teachers have to input these standardized test scores into a centralized data bank so the efficiency managers (central office and principals)can berate the factory floor workers (teachers).

So who is to blame for stealing childhood from out children? We all are as we sit by idly and do nothing...kind of like the U.S. citizenry and Iraq. Nothing will change until parents put pressure on and then work with educators to take back their schools from corporate interests and self-interested politicians. They are your children, your schools.

We have all sat by idly as the accountability mavens have slowly turned up the heat under the kettle. Well it is boiling now and it is not a frog in the kettle, it is our wonderful, creative, loving children in that kettle.

There are no children here and its not just in Cabrini Green. It is in New York City, Palo Alto, California, Charlottesville Virginia, Mayfield, Kansas, etc. Do something now. Get up and begin a parent coalition to make schools child friendly. Write emails, talk to friends and neighbors. Write to your local newspaper. You are not a bad person if you are critical of such a system or if you speak out (it is America for heaven's sake). Education does not even get a mention in the campaigns of today. Let your teachers, principals, central office, school board know that you want a curriculum that is engaging to students. Insist that they do regular surveys of students about their level of engagement in school, their interest in the curriculum. Tell them, while accountability is good, the current system based on high stakes, bubble in tests, does not work.

We keep reading these sad stories about the negative effects of NCLB, state testing systems, high stakes tests. What is going to take to stop this?

Erin LaBelle (not verified)

I agree with the teacher in

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I agree with the teacher in this article that it is tragic how much the schools expect from young children. It seems that folks have forgotten or never discovered how natural and enjoyable learning actually can be.
The endless worksheet craze is teaching the children to produce huge amounts of meaningless material.
Repetitive and empty.
At least it can be recycled I guess.
We homeschool but I really appreciate the Waldorf method of having the children produce beautiful books that they actually love to keep from year to year. These books are something the children can be proud of.
As far as the lack of values being developed in the schools I highly recommend Rafe Esquith's book called Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire.
This teacher has really figured out how to awaken the soul of these children.
There is so much emphasis on testing , producing and measuring there is little time for feeding the child's soul.
Also reading anything by John Taylor Gatto has inspired me and given the perspective of a teacher turned reformer.
These people show me that there is hope, but there are just too few of them.
One last comment is that I bet a lot of children with IEPs should be tested for allergies and sensitivities.
Check out Doris Rapp's book about allergies, mental health and behavior.
It is more than enlightening.

Anonymous (not verified)

IEPs are important

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I believe the push for accountibility is appropriate, it is usually the "how" it is measured problematic for teachers and students. I take no exception to the premise that learning need not be proven by plethora of worksheets or high stakes test. Learning is fluid, but it can be measured; and yes, learning should be fun!

However, I take exception to the teacher's statement about the IEP. Her posit of "What could possibly be wrong with this girl that warrants this level of scrutiny?" is most offensive. Clearly, this teacher does not understand why an IEP exists. Did she read the IEP? Did she understand the content? An IEP is a collaborative document by a team, including the parents, and it is created to meet the Individual Educational needs of the child. Does she really believe her peers (and the anxious parents) would spend the time, energy and resources to craft a proper IEP if it was not needed? Does she believe the parents have amazing influencial superpower? I do not.

I do know the best case scenario. The IEP is a written record of skills and challenges unique to the child and how teachers and others, will foster learning to meet grade level expectations with special instructional services, support and accommodations. There is nothing WRONG with the child. The IEP is a tool to allow the teacher(s) to know more about how the child learns. Absolute best case, provides and details how the child will meet end of year expectations.

I do not live in a best case world, but I will advocate to get my reality a bit closer to it. Cheers to educators in the trenches and doing their best every day -- students and parents included.

Kathryn Newton (not verified)

Accountability forces children to grow up too fast

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I have my first child in kindergarten in Australia this year and I agree wholeheartedly with this story. There are so many activities the children have to do in one day, that the values that are being learned are speed and "near enough is good enough". I stopped counting after 100, the number of worksheets that have come home from school and it is only week 11. Not one of them is finished!! Yet the values of right and wrong, etiquette, sharing, tolerance are left alone! What is going on?

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