My local newspaper editorialized recently that lowering the state's compulsory age of education to five, mandating all-day kindergarten, and raising the dropout age to 18 would all lead to a brighter economic future for kids and the state of Michigan both.
My reaction to this was summed up neatly by a response from Detroit Free Press reader Mindy Nathan:
Families in Michigan and everywhere else should have educational choices available to them based on their families' and their children's needs, values, hopes and dreams. When did education and learning become about marketability and a brighter economic future? Perhaps when it stopped being about children and their healthy intellectual, social and emotional development. Perhaps when schools became the sites of a corporate agenda that does not view children, especially 5-year-olds, as people with free will and free spirits.
While she was responding specifically to the call for mandatory all-day kindergarten, we can all recognize the appeal to marketiblity and economic success in every one of the proposed "reforms." Along with a "brighter economic future," promised benefits include a reduced dropout rate, fewer people ending up in prison, and fewer people relying on government services.
I call bullshit.
Let's just take a look at lowering the compulsory age of education to five years. First, not all five-year-olds are ready for half-day kindergarten, let alone all-day kindergarten. My daughter's friend reports helping out in her child's class and seeing one little girl crying the entire time she was there. She reported it to a room aide and was told glibly, "Oh, she does that every day. She misses her mom."
How can that be good for a child? How can it lead to an enthusiasm for school that will keep her in school until the state decides she can leave? If a child is ready for school, fine, but if not, it's difficult to argue that forcing a child to be miserable six hours or more a day is beneficial. Life does not begin with adulthood; childhood is not just a preparation for adulthood. Childhood should be a time of satisfaction and happiness just like any stage of life. It is life itself, not "getting ready" for life. This is often completely discounted, if not forgotten entirely.
Second, where is it written that school, and only school, provides learning experiences for children? Or, for that matter, that "learning experiences" are the only things that matter? Children need imaginative play, time for creativity, enough emotional security to venture out into broader experiences, and so on. It's way past time that the state and the entire educational apparatus looked beyond the narrow strip of utilitarian highway we call "a brighter economic future" and started looking at the entirety of a child's existence, including her present circumstances. Rationalizing every educational decision in terms of some possible future benefit is cynical and materialistic if it does not allow for individual differences in present circumstances, readiness, personality, needs, and the like.
All-day kindergarten is similarly something that many children are simply not ready for. That's a long time away from home every day. The idea, again, is to spend longer hours getting a jump on academics, a goal I find questionable. If a family is comfortable with it, then fine--go for it. But not all kids are.
As for raising the dropout age to 18, it's hard for me to see how this is going to be a real boon. Yes, dropouts have higher rates of unemployment, crime, etc. But if a kid is sitting in school until age 18 and resenting every moment of it, getting nothing out of it, how is that a good thing? If our educational system is already failing these kids so badly, how is forcing them to endure more of it going to be of benefit? If they've experienced only frustration, boredom, anger, and resentment at having to be in school, are two more years of those emotions really going to result in improvement and prevent all those evils statistics tells us dropouts are more likely to incur?
Particularly under the mind-numbing rigors of No Child Left Behind, with its rote learning and regurgitation of same on standardized tests, It's hard to see how an extra couple of years are going to make a difference. I foresee a lot of resistance and a problem with enforcement if this "reform" should pass.
There are reasons for kids leaving the school system before graduation. They're not just stupid people who can't see what's good for them. If we were honest, we'd acknowledge that school, for many kids, is a pointless, boring exercise, that it feels like a prison (and truly, schools are tending that way more and more), and that it's not going to lead to improvements in their lives.
Something I'm not reading about anywhere is a challenge to the notion that there are numerous high-tech jobs out there just waiting to be filled by educated people, if only we could produce enough of them.
Is that true? Isn't it true that we're seeing increasing unemployment, much of it due to outsourcing of technical jobs, as well as to companies' cost-cutting measures in hiring immigrants with work visas? Is every student capable or desirous of attending college? Isn't it true that for many, hands-on work is what will guarantee a job? It's pretty hard to outsource engine repair, for example.
I like the idea of Britisher Tony Howell, who thinks that kids should be able to leave school at age 14 in order to receive other kinds of training, particularly in apprenticeship-type settings. Naturally, his proposal netted the usual responses about how children who stay in school earn more money, are more successful (whatever that means), etc.
This is a knee-jerk reaction that comes from looking at statistics and drawing doubtful conclusions. Yes, the statistics show that those who stay in school do better in various ways, but it's simplistic to think that merely being a warm body in a classroom seat automatically leads to success. Those who don't drop out have some motivation for staying, whether it comes from their parents, from social pressure, or from a desire to succeed at school. Those who drop out have no such motivation, and forcing them to stay won't magically imbue them with such. What it will do is create a lot of angry, resentful, frustrated people who would rather be doing something else.
I haven't even mentioned the financial aspects of expanding schooling in the ways various proposals have suggested; how Michigan in its present economic state could possibly fund such reforms is beyond me. I'm more concerned with the effects on kids, and, to some extent, the effect on public education itself and our perceptions of what education is and what it can and can't do. Public education as it is currently constituted is not a panacea for what ails us. More likely, it's part of the problem--but that's a subject for a different post.