Starting school at kindergarten. One teacher for an age-graded classroom. Teacher-led learning: “Repeat after me.”
For nearly 100 years, these have been the traditions, routines, and expectations of American primary schools. Over that time, much has changed in children’s lives—there is now greater demographic diversity, to say nothing of the relentlessly changing technology, globalization, and growing recognition that education requires much more than rote learning – yet little has changed in how most children experience their crucial first years of schooling.
This status quo would be fine if children were thriving in these traditionally organized schools. But they are not, and in fact, the opposite is true: a mere third of all American children are reading at proficient levels by the end of the third grade. Many students, especially those from low-income families, enter kindergarten with huge gaps in knowledge and experiences. From day one, many teachers I know struggle to individualize their instruction to tackle such a wide range of needs. They often feel they have no choice but to resort to mind-numbing routines that keep children under control. And so, nearly 100 years later, it is time for us to admit that we have constructed this American primary education system, and we can change it.
The difference between the system we have and the system we should have is not for lack of recognition of the problem. Principals in primary or elementary schools are not blind to changes in children’s lives and in the world around them. In fact, at the July annual meeting of the National Association of Elementary School Principals where I spoke about these issues, many expressed their frustration and dismay about the learning experiences they were offering to students. Yet they feel trapped. Aside from small tweaks—a Kindergarten-prep program here, a new reading program there—they feel they have no leeway to make the necessary changes to in the way schools work during the crucial early grades, Pre-K to Grade 5. And so many principals return to activities and routines that leave little time for young students to question and explore, capacities that brain research shows they possess from birth. Instead of cultivating their innate zest for learning, our youngest students learn what it feels like to be bored.
This is a problem that requires more than just tweaks to the system. It calls for a complete national rethink of how children learn in our schools today. Nothing short of a complete mindshift in what children’s experiences during the primary grades from Pre-K to Grade 5 should look like is required. We need to build another smarter system.
A smarter system must be more in tune with our times. It would start with Pre-K for all three- and four-year-olds whose parents want them to participate. It would redesign learning in Pre-K-5 classrooms to provide vibrant challenging experiences for all children. It would provide students with a coherent, research-informed set of sequenced instruction from Pre-K through high school. It would recognize assets of bilingualism and diversity of language skills children bring from their homes, and aim to foster dual-language learning for all children.
A smarter system would usher in new ways of working with families that would not only recognize that parents and guardians are partners in their children’s education, but would also foster parental work skills and literacy to reduce family economic inequalities so strongly linked to children’s achievement gaps. The new primary school would be, and should be a community of committed learners composed not only of just students, but also their teachers and families. Joint learning is at the heart of the school culture.
Creating this new, smarter school system is not impossible. Earl Boyles Elementary School, outside Portland, Oregon, in partnership with the Children’s Institute and district leadership, is designed to start with Pre-K in a community hub attached to the school. It integrates new approaches to learning throughout the school’s grade levels. A family-based organization called Padres Unidos was involved in designing new wings of the school for Pre-K. The parents are now studying to become paid instructional assistants by gaining formal training in early childhood. The school’s physical design—including its entryway with a library of books—spurs spirited exchanges among parents, teachers, and their young students essential for high levels of literacy.
What’s worse, instead of helping, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act last December may hinder these kinds of innovations. It certainly does almost nothing to reduce persistent inequalities. Aside from a few new references to early learning, it is essentially designed to reinforce existing gaps between states. Some states provide more resources and opportunities than others, and the children in poor states have little to no opportunities. The role of the federal government in protecting vulnerable children has been effectively eviscerated for now. Meanwhile, the conflicts raging around teacher unions as obstacles to change, and school choice and vouchers as alternatives to the status quo have not resulted in the significantly better outcomes for many more students that adherents of the law have promised.
But just because creating a smarter school system is difficult does not mean that it cannot be done, and certainly does not mean that it should not be attempted. Recreating primary education is the civil rights issue of our times. Such change is an essential part of, and contributes to reducing American social and economic inequalities that are the widest among leading global economies.
As millions of children start the new school year, we should ask ourselves: is the longstanding K-12 organization of American education actually succeeding in creating future generations of innovators, independent thinkers, and humane individuals? Or is that outcome only available to the children of affluent families who can afford to shop for schools that provide rich learning experiences starting at three and classrooms buzzing with excitement throughout the primary-school grades?The schools we have today are a product of the last century. It is time to put our own generation to the test by designing a system that will help all of our youngest learners realize their educational potential. Talent is universally distributed; opportunities to develop that talent are not. The new American primary school takes that challenge head on - right from the start.