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The Role Of Family Choice In Early Childhood Education


While flipping through an early childhood textbook in the Social Studies curriculum, I noticed these titles:

Unit 2 (Family), Lesson 4: I Am Important

Unit 2 (Family), Lesson 5: I Am Unique

Call me picky, but last time I checked the word “social” in the title Social Studies indicated the interaction between people. These lessons might merit a pass if they were filled with deep introspection, but even my kindergartener understood they were fluff and nonsense.

“I know I’m special,” she said. “They don’t need to tell me that.”

Hmm. Maybe a series of lessons on humility instead?

Most of the kindergarten curriculum teaches about community helpers and national holidays, none of which was new to my daughter. Advocates for universal pre-k (UPK), the movement to provide preschool education as part of the public school system, and for public kindergarten understandably want civic duty, citizenship, and national identity as part of the curriculum because the enterprise is funded with public money. The federal government’s goals for early childhood contain a good amount of economic language: return on investments, future workforce. Taxpayers want to know how the money will be replenished.

I would think that a discussion of world geography, especially current events in Ukraine or Nigeria, might instill thankfulness for the freedoms we enjoy much more than lessons on oneself.

Lessons on self-worth and affirmation do not produce these goals. Children need to be taught gratitude and loyalty because they arrive in this world self-centered. Even as an adult, my appreciation for my citizenship within the United States of America renews in contrast to world events. I would think that a discussion of world geography, especially current events in Ukraine or Nigeria, might instill thankfulness for the freedoms we enjoy much more than lessons on oneself.

Companies and educators have developed early childhood curriculum based on the fact that one-third of children arrive in kindergarten ill prepared for beginning reading and math. From there, though, logic follows the path of a bad riddle: What does a bureaucrat do when he finds 30 children needing education? Answer: Asks for funding for 100 children. The curriculum assumes that all children need the same basic knowledge, trying to get them all on the same page. Statistics demonstrate that this redundancy is unnecessary for nearly two-thirds of all children.

Early childhood pedagogy also feeds the limited scope of preschool education because it says to begin with topics familiar to children and build their knowledge from there. I accept the fundamental soundness of using background, prior knowledge, and personal experiences as aids to language comprehension. As an example, if a child has only heard the word “trunk” used in relationship to a vehicle, she will need some help the first time she hears that an elephant has a trunk. So, yes, vocabulary development requires some foundation in a child’s experience. This principle does not mean, however, that all children need the same background knowledge. In fact, it means that the curriculum should expose children to new experiences and knowledge to build their comprehension, but that does not happen for many children until first grade.

Mothers have commented to me that kindergarten is just a year to “get used to school,” meaning their children did not really learn much. One of my neighbors, a retired school teacher, spends the morning teaching her granddaughter before she puts her on the bus for kindergarten so that she’ll learn to read. If that’s the case in kindergarten, UPK would most likely suffer the same deficiencies.

Is it any surprise, then, that parents might wish an alternative to the accepted UPK and kindergarten curriculum? Wanted: purposeful, insightful education for young children.

Last summer, my mother surprised me when she declared, “All good parents home school their children.” In case you have the urge to applaud or vilify her for that comment, please know that she taught physical education in a public school for over a decade before sending all seven of her children to the local central school—she has no particular affinity for formal home schooling per se. She only meant to underscore her firm belief that parents should not rely upon schools to provide the full gamut of character development or replace parent’s responsibility for their children. No matter where children spend their day in formal education, whether it be public, private, or home school, parents should teach their children the way to process and think about the information they receive.

In my desire to give the reins of education back to parents, though, I recognize a difficult truth: Some parents do not know what their children need to be prepared for formal education. At best, they have a vague impression of what quality preschool education would be. Many families place their children in a child care setting because that is what they believe is expected for them to do. The accepted pattern is child care, preschool, kindergarten. Many mothers, even those who are increasingly staying at home with young children for reasons other than unemployment, cannot comfortably articulate what their children should be able to do by kindergarten.

I spoke to a mother recently whose son has been in a very good day care since he was five months old. When her son turned four, she wondered if she should take him out of day care and put him into a preschool to prepare him for kindergarten. I encouraged her to speak to the day care about preschool expectations, and when she did, she discovered that the teachers at the day care had been evaluating her son’s alphabetical and phonological awareness, his counting and number recognition. This mother, as involved as she was, had no idea what educational standards were promoted at her son’s day care even though he had been there for years.

The fact that families may not be aware of the educational needs of their children, however, is not enough to wholesale hand over the education of children to any institution. Latino and Asian-American families tend to prefer home and less institutionalized settings for child care, and while most of the Asian-American preschoolers enter kindergarten well-prepared to read and develop math skills, Latino children tend to lag behind (See Standardized Childhood by Bruce Fuller for a lengthy discussion). If these families will not choose UPK or other formal educational settings, how can these children receive better early literacy skills?

If we are serious about family choice, we need to provide families with the resources to make sound decisions for their young children.

Some groups are trying to think creatively and find ways to give preschool education back to families who choose child care settings other than UPK by providing necessary training.  The Reach Out and Read program, for example, collects donated books, gives the books to pediatricians who then give the books to low-income patients during visits. Doctors and nurses show parents how to read to their children and instruct parents in the importance of reading to their children. Likewise, community centers and churches, especially those that offer English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes, play a role in supporting families and sharing important information about early childhood education. ESOL for parents could include even more information about language development in young children, how to support that development, and where their children might be able to receive quality schooling locally. If we are serious about family choice, we need to provide families with the resources to make sound decisions for their young children.

Our family has decided that we do not need one more generic lesson on mail carriers, teachers, or police officers. If community helpers show up, they need to arrive with some novel information about the history of the occupation or their training. The girls will learn their special giftedness through hard work and accomplishments, not by repeating to themselves, “I am unique.” They will learn that they are important when adults converse with them like the intelligent people they are. Leave the public pre-kindergarten option for other people to choose, but I think I’ll walk my children down a different path.

Allison, a seasoned teacher and reading specialist, resides outside Philadelphia with her husband and four daughters.