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school early and often?

Some time ago I happened to notice an opinion piece in the New York Times that suggests parents should send their kids to school as early as they're allowed to. If there's some leeway in the cut-off age, that is, the little tykes should not be kept out of school until they're more mature, but should be thrown into the fray as soon as possible: educational and economic logic demands it. Or so says the authors, one of whom is an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience and so might be presumed to be able to sustain rational thought. Perhaps not, as it happens!

Never mind the argument that delaying your children's start in school will mean that "their lifetime earnings are reduced by one year", a statement that assumes a wide range of premises I don't even want to address. What really caught my attention was the following:

In a large-scale study at 26 Canadian elementary schools, first graders who were young for their year made considerably more progress in reading and math than kindergartners who were old for their year (but just two months younger). In another large study, the youngest fifth-graders scored a little lower than their classmates, but five points higher in verbal I.Q., on average, than fourth-graders of the same age. In other words, school makes children smarter.

Yes. I certainly hope that first graders are making more progress than kindergarteners because they're being taught more. When those poor slow kindergarteners move up to first grade they'll, statistically, make the same progress as every other first grader. Or maybe a little less: note that the young fifth-graders scored lower than their older classmates. Assuming that "verbal I.Q." is even a real measurable thing (isn't "I.Q.", by definition, supposed to be unchanging?) and the study devised a means to measure it accurately, this means that by starting your child early you're actually denying him chances to learn. Statistically, if he were in fifth grade a year later he'd be smarter and better! (He would also, most likely, be more popular with the ladies.)

Perhaps the authors dismiss this, in accordance with the high valuation they put on lifetime income—more bank is a worthwhile exchange for less knowledge. But it's strange to me that they didn't even mention the potential trade-off. Perhaps they couldn't get it in under the word limit the Times gave them? That's why they should be blogging instead! (Is anyone still reading?)

The crux of the piece comes in the second half, where the authors draw on their neuroscience background to explain that "brain development cannot be put on pause, so the critical question is how to provide the best possible context to support it." That is to say, research shows that the brain is changing fastest in the first six years of a child's life, and therefore the argument is that children should be in that "best possible context"—school, natch!—for as much of that time as possible. This does not follow.

First, what about the initial 5 to 5.9 years of the child's rapid development? If school is really necessary to getting the most from those crucial years of synapse building I think that most of humanity pretty much missed the bus. I don't think that the authors want to take newborns away from their parents and subject them to scientifically-designed state-sponsored education—but why not, given their premises?!

Second, I would not be so quick to assume that school in fact is the best possible context for anything, except perhaps storing children and limiting the trouble they can get into (or rather, can inflict on the wider community). And I say this as a teacher and someone who is committed to the public school system. Yes, in most cases school is a great place to learn school things—how to write essays, different ways to solve multiplication problems, why Columbus didn't discover America—but I would suggest that those are not the primary concerns of five-year-olds. I didn't learn to read until first grade, and I'm doing fine now (though I don't want to talk about my lifetime earning potential).

A complicating factor comes in the authors' appeal to helping the less-fortunate:

Disadvantaged children have the most to lose from delayed access to school. For low-income children, every month of additional schooling closes one-tenth of the gap between them and more advantaged students.

I'm not quite sure what that means—whether the low-income kids need to have school to themselves to catch up, or if just being in school together with other students eventually levels the playing field. The following lines, which claim that moving back cutoff birthdays hurts poor kids, suggest the latter, but that's completely ridiculous: no matter when you start school you're going to get the same number of months there before you're done. Unless of course he's assuming that the poor kids are all going to drop out as soon as they can.

It all strikes me as a little paternalistic, actually. I agree that young kids have rapidly developing brains: that's the only point that touches on the author's area of profession expertise, and it's also completely common sense. But those brains don't need to be developing reading or income potential—they might just as well be working on language processing and motor coordination and spacial reasoning. Kids can get all those playing in a field with other kids, no "education" required.

Of course, I readily acknowledge that in certain circumstances "disadvantaged children" don't have the same field-related opportunities as other youngsters. And in some subset of those cases, the best real-world solution would be to get children who are otherwise languishing into kindergarten, or pre-K, or Head Start. But that's already happening. And overall, it is not correct to baldly assert that more school early is better. Even if, as a parent, you're only worried about lifetime income potential. Maybe it would be better to use that vital fifth year for some early on-the-job training!

[As an aside, in researching for this post I discovered a Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence Test from Psychology Today, which, of course, I had to take. Needless to say I totally rocked it, scoring in the 99th percentile. 99.97% in fact, if you want to be exact. Together, my internet-validated intelligence and my MEd degree trump Sam Wang's neuroscience doctorate and Sandra Aamodt's... journalism school experience, and let me conclusively say that this article is bunk.]


here, here

hear here

my translation: "poor kids should be separated from their poor parents as early as possible," say the rich.

Paternalism is a too kind a label.

great post, on may levels.

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