So what are we paying teachers for?

Watching kids’ programming, the airwaves are filled with ads for the website ABC Mouse.com. It looks like a neat concept, though my kids have never tried it. In various ads, there are different testimonials, mainly from parents, about how the website has made it fun for their kids to learn and how it has gotten them ready for kindergarten, etc. That’s all fine and good. The ads that bother me, though, are those with testimonials from experienced kindergarten teachers who say that by introducing the program into their classrooms, that the kids test scores have all risen dramatically. This may be the cynic in me, but the thought that comes to mind is, “Well, if it just takes a website to improve these kids’ education so much, why in the world are the kids going to school in the first place? What were you, as a teacher, failing to do, that a website could improve their education so much?”

I’ve been holding on to this study for awhile, wanting to comment on it, but as always, it seems like there is very little time to do this in. It comes from the Johns Hopkins School of Education, and is one of the very few studies focusing on public school students above grade level. Noting that there have been very few studies that look at this, one of the things the researchers endeavored to do first of all was to estimate how many public school students are at least one grade level ahead in math and reading.

Their estimate is shocking. Very roundly, they estimate that somewhere around 30% of kids in public schools are at least one grade level ahead. And while many school districts have “gifted” and “accelerated” programs, they also conclude that a lot of these kids are “invisible”, meaning that they really aren’t getting an education to fit their needs.

Really good teachers can teach kids at multiple levels in the same classroom. However, most do not, and as their performances are based on how many kids are at least *at* grade level (when there are performance-based systems), there is absolutely no incentive for the typical teacher to do anything with these kids. And, as Americans, we are stuck with the “social promotion” grade level scheme, there isn’t a whole lot of incentive for kids who are ahead to work very hard, because they won’t be rewarded for it.

Circling back to the first point in this post, I think it is amazing when parents take the initiative to teach their children all kinds of things before they start school, whether it be through a website or not. Little brains are capable of learning so much in these first years. However, I don’t see the point of getting a kid “ready for school” if the intention, in some way, is to get them far enough ahead that the teachers can be complacent about actually teaching them anything when they do get to school.

The early stages of learning at home

Tabitha, being 5 in September, would normally be in kindergarten. Her brother Asher would be in “K-4”, if he were in school (and mind you, these days, there is plenty of pressure to send them off early.) However, Tabitha is reading, doing addition and subtraction, and has known thing like letters, shapes, colors, numbers for ages. She’s also learning about geography and fundamentals of science.

One thing, though, that I have noticed is that she’s a fairly lazy student. I don’t say this in a bad way, because bright kids are often lazy, and one of the reasons that they seem “smart” is that they are always trying to figure out how to make things easy. Tabitha picks up an awful lot, but often when pushed a little, she rebels with the “I don’t want to!” which certainly is always a challenge to parents who are homeschooling.

So how does a somewhat lazy student get to a point where she’d probably be at least a year ahead of her “normal” public school class? We started early.

In saying that we started early, I’m definitely not saying that we started her on the “Baby Mozart” and “Your Baby Can Read” or even “ABC Mouse”. We did none of these things. However, from the time she (and now her brothers) were little, my husband and I talked to them, we read to them, we counted with them, we asked them questions. And once they started comprehending things, we’d change things up a little bit and ask them “silly” stuff, maybe pointing to a dog and asking them “Is that a zebra?” The first few times, it was kind of confusing, but once explained, questions like that usually get them giggling, along with them thinking. (And as they get older, adding in details like “but it has four legs and a tail” and watching them try to explain differences between dogs and zebras is certainly amusing!)

Several years ago, I won a book called Testing for Kindergarten: Simple Strategies to Help Your Child Ace the Tests for: Public School Placement, Private School Admissions, Gifted Program Qualification* by Karen Quinn. Now for most of us, the premise sounds somewhat absurd, because most of us don’t think that we ought to prepare kids for testing that young. In her case, she lived in New York City, and early testing like that is pretty routine in order to get kids spots in highly competitive “gifted” programs in the city’s public and private schools. In her case, the impetus was that her son, having had ear infections for much of his early life, tested so low that he probably would have started school in special ed classes. Knowing that there was nothing wrong with his brain, she was determined to work with him strategically to be able, within the course of about a year’s time, get him testing better than that. She was successful – very successful – in this, and this book, besides having a lot of tips specific to testing for schools, has an awful lot of resources and strategies for parents who just want their kids to be learning things early on. After all, their education begins at home! 🙂

*Amazon affiliate link