"Indeed, the school proved not to be a school at all, but just one big playroom."
This is the money quote from a law suit filed by a parent against her child's $19,000 a year preschool, claiming that it damaged her 4-year-old's chances to get into an Ivy League university. This was brought to my attention by one of the parents at the $900 a year Woodland Park Cooperative preschool, where one of of our big "selling points" is our play-based curriculum.
These photos are of the grim little plastic grass and chain-link
fenced playground at a very expensive, for-profit preschool in
in downtown Seattle. Lots of "very well educated" parents send
their children here.
On the surface, it appears that the York Avenue Preschool is running a play-based school as well, complete with multi-aged classrooms, which makes the parent into the misguided jerk, until you read a little more deeply to learn that among the school's promises was the commitment to preparing its students for a standardized test used by New York's elite private schools for admission screening purposes. Serves them right. It serves all of them right, of course, except the poor little girl who is stuck in the middle, who loves her parents, and probably loved her school, and who is now likely going to be compelled into some high-priced test-prep program where someone will sit her down and pump her full of information in the hopes that they can undo the "damage" caused by all that playing with her friends.
Sheesh, what a mess. And I'm not just talking about this car accident of a news story.
We hardly know what education is any more. We hardly know what schools are for. It's gotten so bad that people are taking to the streets to "save childhood" by reclaiming play for their children.
I'm sure it's true that we could use some new research into the importance and primacy of play as the way humans learn. After all, much of the "science" of play still relies fairly heavily on the work of guys like Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget, who were in business a century ago. But do most of us really need new research to persuade us that standardized tests, where rote memorization is king, is a poor measure of educational success? I, for one, don't need more evidence than that provided by my own eyes: children are more engaged, more creative, and more joyful when engaged in play. Speaking as a parent, it's the joyful part that convinces me. That's the highest wish I have for my child and I will never buy the Calvinist notion that she must first suffer before she can be saved. Play is joy. Play is where we lose ourselves. Play is why we are here.
Sadly, however, it seems that many of us have lost touch with our instincts as parents -- indeed, as human beings. Too many of us have bought into the idea that life is about putting our noses to the grindstone in the hopes that one day it will lead to joy, but all that gets us at the end of the day is a flat, bloody stump of a nose, with joy always sitting out there in the future like the proverbial carrot on a stick we chase but never taste (and without a nose it would ultimately be flavorless even if we did finally catch it).
More research will not get us out of this. For years, I've been challenging people to present me with research that demonstrates that standardized testing leads to better education, but no one can do it because it simply doesn't exist. There is no research that shows that longer school days, that longer school years, that more memorization, that more standardization, that more sitting in desks, that more of any of the stuff the self-proclaimed "education reformers" are after leads to anything other than less self-control, shorter attention spans, and poorer memory skills, not to mention joy. It has nothing to do with research and everything to do with marketing.
Like these parents in New York, the for-profit educational industry has made us afraid and insecure and that trumps "evidence" any day. They tell us to distrust our instincts. They tell us that they have the test or the flash cards or the video program that will "fix" our children. When guys like Barack Obama and Bill Gates declare that we are in danger, that we are failing, that the rest of the world has passed us by, it has nothing to do with research and everything to do with fear.
Ultimately, it comes down to money. You can't make money on joy. A $19,000 a year preschool simply could not exist if we understood this. And every preschool would be "one big playroom."