Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Protecting A Child's Right To Childhood

What would you think if you saw a mother hovering over her two month old infant drilling her on vowel sounds? Or how about a father coaching that same baby on the finer points to walking? I expect you would think they were at best wasting their time: two month olds can't talk and five month olds can't walk, let alone be taught. Talking and walking are things children just learn. Now imagine that when these babies failed to acquire these capabilities that are clearly beyond their developmental grasp, these parents began to fret that their child was "falling behind." You would think they were crazy. If a doctor told these parents their child was "falling behind" we would think he was either incompetent or cruel.

Sadly, there are actually people out there doing things like this. I've written before about hucksters who assert that babies can be taught to read and there are devices on the market that purport to help babies learn to walk. The good news is that while there are some naive parents who fall for such gimmickry in the misguided attempt to somehow one-up nature's long, successful history of "teaching" talking and walking according to well-established developmental timelines, most of us know better than to worry about these things that virtually every child stressless-ly learns without any special interventions.

My own daughter spoke her first word at three months old, consistently saying "Papa" when I played and cared for her: she was putting together full sentences before six months. This same "advanced" child didn't crawl until her first birthday and wasn't walking until close to 20 months, a full lifetime "behind" some of her peers. Today, as you might expect, she talks and walks like the rest of the teenagers: if she was ever behind she caught up, and if she was ever ahead, the others caught up with her.

This unsavory practice of taking advantage of new parent insecurities in the name of profit is one that deserves to be called out wherever it rears its nasty head, and it's borderline criminal when they play the "falling behind" card, which is why I'm writing today.

I've had the opportunity these past few years to travel around the world to talk to teachers and parents from Australia to Greece, from China to Iceland. Every place I go I find myself discussing this bizarre notion of "school readiness." Often translated in the US as "kindergarten readiness," it is essentially code for reading. It seems that the powers that be in our respective nations have decided to sell parents on the snake oil that if your child isn't starting to read by five-years-old she is "falling behind." They are doing this despite the fact that every single legitimate study ever done on the subject recommends that formal literacy education (if we ever even need it) not begin until a child is seven or eight years old. They are telling parents and teachers that children are "falling behind" despite the fact that every single legitimate study ever done finds that there are no long term advantages to being an early reader, just as there are no long term advantages to being early talkers or walkers or mathematicians or belly dancers. In fact, many studies have found that when formal literacy instruction begins too early, like at five, children grow up to be less motivated readers and less capable of comprehending what they've read. That's right, if anything, this "school readiness" fear-mongering is damaging our children's future prospects.

This is fear-mongering and snake-oil salesmanship is no accident. Corporate education "reformers" are intentionally playing upon our fears, going so far as to create the false narrative that our schools are failing and that our children are falling behind. They point to international standardized tests of 15-year-olds as their evidence, a dubious measuring stick, but even if we stipulate to it, any honest evaluation of those test results finds that where we are really falling behind is childhood poverty. When adjusted for that, our 15-year-olds match up with their 15-year-olds. I'm not saying our public schools are perfect, indeed, a lot can be done to improve them, but doubling down on the drill-and-kill education that the money-grubbers are selling is not among them. Indeed, it is going backwards.

One of the ways the corporate "reform" movement is winning is by employing the principles of what Naomi Klein labeled "disaster capitalism" in her book The Shock Doctrine, the basic idea being that great change can only take place through crisis. Or as the godfather of free-market radicalism, Milton Friedman put it, "Only a crisis, real or perceived, produces real change." If you're unfamiliar with this idea, here is a brief video in which Ms. Klein explains it. She's talking here about different issues, but it's not difficult to see the connection to what is going on in education:

It is not an accident that the pell-mell push for neoliberal school reform is being lead by these very free-market radicals who have been working for the past couple decades, at least, to figure out how they can tap into the billions we spend each year on public education. The way they've done this, successfully so far, is to manufacture a crisis ("Our schools are failing!") and sell a solution, which is this test-driven corporate curriculum which is not designed to educate kids, but rather to help corporations like Pearson Education and Microsoft turn a profit. And part of this crisis is to claim it is so bad, so pressing, so tragic that we don't have time to be thoughtful, we don't have time to look at research, and we certainly can't be hindered by consulting with actual education professionals. No, we must shock the system in order to save it! Now! Ignore that man behind the curtain!

If you've been reading here for any length of time, you already know all of this. I and others have been writing about the tragic course we've been tricked into for the better part of the last decade even though it's been happening for longer than that. We've pulled out the data, statistics, and research that clearly show that we are hurting children, that we are robbing them of their childhood. Children spend less time at play, at self-directed learning, than ever before and they are suffering for it psychologically, emotionally, and physically. Their school days are longer, their recesses have dwindled to almost nothing, their evenings and weekends are consumed with make-work homework, none of which has done a damn thing to improve those precious test scores, but they have done wonders for the pocketbooks of these education dilettantes and charlatans. We've brought our rational argument to an emotional fight, they are kicking our butts, and the losers are our children who are laboring in their test score coal mines. The corporate "reformers" have the ears of our policy-makers and deep, deep pockets and they are using that to beat us.

I'm sick of it.

Children have a right to their childhood. I wrote a post last week in which I suggested that we must learn to fight fire with fire, to craft emotional messages of our own because that's the only way to fight back against their fear-mongering. What they are doing to our kids is the moral equivalent of child abuse, they are stealing childhood from children, they are sending them into the coal mines to earn a greasy buck on their small bent backs. We must learn to fight back with our own emotional messages, backed, of course, by real data rather than the guess-work behind what the corporate guys are offering.

More importantly, it seems to me, is to come together as concerned educators and parents around specific education policy demands, ones that are supported by the research about how children actually learn, demands that teachers, parents, and other concerned citizens around the globe can support. Specific demands that we can take to our policy makers, be they governmental officials, school boards, or individual educators, and force them to consider them against the failed and soul crushing policies of the fear-mongers. We must create a movement, one committed to returning childhood to the children from whom it has been stolen.

I and a team of others from Australia, the UK, Europe, and the US have begun work on a first-first draft of these demands. Perhaps this is just another effort doomed to failure, but we must try. Our plan is to come up with a list of specific policies designed to root the corporate education "reformers" from out children's lives, to expose the fear-mongering for what it is, and to return childhood to children. We will be demanding, among other things, a roll-back of formalized education until at least seven-years-old, the banning of homework, and a childhood right to a healthy amount of unstructured outdoor play.

When we have a document with which we are satisfied, we will publish it and invite your input. We will then re-write it and publish it again, once more inviting input, widening our circle until we have a document that we can all support. The dream is a world-wide alliance of educators and parents committed to returning an authentic childhood to our children, because, no matter how deep their pockets, no one can stand before teachers and parents united. And our children will be the winners.

We don't know exactly how this will play out, we're taking it one step at a time, but we must try. I invited you to join us. In the meantime, watch this space. We don't know how long it will take, but once we have our first-first draft ready, we will be asking for your input, and and then your active support. Thank you!

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