Politicians seem to think that the solution to our failing school system is to put children into schools for even more hours. Whether it’s extending the school day, lowering the compulsory attendance age, or creating more early education programs, they mistakenly think that more school is a good thing for our children and our culture.
But when our education system is already failing, why should we turn our children over to public schools for even more of their childhood?
Mayor Bill De Blasio of New York announced Monday that the city will begin offering universal preschool to three-year-olds within the next four years. He estimates that the program will need $700 million in federal and state funds to be able to provide the preschool program for the estimated 62,000 qualified children.
These Programs Don’t Actually Help Children Learn
But the results of early education programs are quite dismal. Research has shown that any advantages Head Start, the nation’s largest government-funded preschool program, gives to a child are diminished by grade three. Children who were enrolled in the three-year-old program were found in one study to be less prepared for kindergarten math than children who had not attended Head Start.
Additionally, in the same study but with four-year-olds, the program “failed to raise the cognitive abilities of participants on 41 measures. Specifically, the language skills, literacy, math skills, and school performance of the participating children failed to improve.” Not very good results from a program that has cost taxpayers $180 billion since 1965.
Even if we forego early education, we’re not doing well by our children by having them in school by age five. Some countries have realized that preserving childhood is most beneficial to kids, but we’re choosing more academics in institutional settings in lieu of play. North Carolina is trying to pass a bill that lowers the compulsory school age from seven to six. Nevada has a similar bill attempting to move their compulsory age from seven to five.
Delaying Formal Education Fosters Healthy Development
Delaying formal education is actually more valuable to the academic success of children than an early start. A study done in New Zealand showed that by age 11, children who started learning to read at age five had no advantage in ability over children who started learning at age seven. The children who started earlier, though, had a less positive attitude towards reading and had poorer text comprehension than the children who started later.
The most popular success story for having a later compulsory age is Finland, where formal education does not start until age seven. Even with a delayed start to academics, Finland was rated as the top education system in the world in 2016 by the World Economic Forum.
Studies show that allowing young children to learn naturally through play, rather than in academic settings, is better for their academic growth long-term. In Finland you’ll find children spending “far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal.”
But our schools are asking five-year-olds to sit still for seat work and testing. Gone are the happy days of show and tell, recess, and storytime. Kindergarteners can’t even escape the grind at home: they have homework they have to get done.
This Is Better for Kids Psychologically, Too
Dr. Rebecca Marcon, a developmental psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of North Florida, found that by “the end of their sixth year in school, children whose preschool experiences had been academically directed earned significantly lower grades compared to children who had attended child-initiated preschool classes. Children’s later school success appears to have been enhanced by more active, child-initiated early learning experiences. Their progress may have been slowed by overly academic preschool experiences that introduced formalized learning experiences too early for most children’s developmental status.”
A later start in school isn’t just good for children academically, it is also good for them psychologically. A study from the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis even found that the delay of formal education a year “dramatically reduces inattention/hyperactivity.” This should seem like common sense to anyone who has been around children very long. They naturally grow in self-control and attentiveness with age.
Our system is failing from start to finish. Less than 30 percent of high school seniors are proficient in math, and less than 40 percent reach proficiency in reading. Only about a third of students are prepared for college courses when they graduate from high school. At least half a million students have to take remedial classes when they start college.
How Can We Fix Our Country’s Education Crisis?
We do have an education crisis in America and we need to fix it. But we need to rethink our educational goals. We cannot continue down our path of excessive testing, one that reduces our children peer comparisons. Our concerns with college and job readiness are not going to produce well-educated adults.
We don’t need more bills or programs that put our children into our public schools at earlier ages. We need to completely redefine what we are calling education: we have to shift from a utilitarian mindset about education and foster a life-long love of learning. Only then will students be motivated to seek after the knowledge that will serve them their whole life.
Parents rightly want every advantage for their children. But they’ve come to believe that their children need to be in academic settings from an early age in order to compete. If we teach parents about the benefits of play and natural learning, we would help our children tremendously more than by creating new requirements and programs for education. We are foolish if we continue to ignore all the research showing how much better off our children are with a delayed, gentle start to formal education.
This Doesn’t Have to Hurt Underprivileged Families
For the underprivileged families who benefit most from education programs, our money would be better spent developing meaningful mentoring programs that actually serve at-risk young men and women, by giving them a vision for a productive adulthood and healthy families. If we can help get families out of a cycle of impoverished living, both financially and educationally, maybe we could make an impact on future generations.
Studies show that mentored at-risk youth “are more likely to make healthier lifestyle choices, have an enhanced self-esteem, and self-confidence. The self-confidence a student derives from a supportive relationship ultimately results in an improved attitude towards school.”
Our education system is not just a concern for current educators, parents, and children. Everyone is affected by how future generations are taught. So long as our public schools continue to fail our children, we should all hope parents will pass on sending their children even earlier.