Some parents of elementary students in my community have been lobbying our board of education for a tutorial or extra help program for their children. We’ve been hearing this call for some time, its advent paralleling the era of high stakes tests and the narrowing the curriculum to the tested subjects of math and English. Last year, labor and management agreed to the piloting of a before school program staffed by volunteer teachers to attempt to address the perceived need. Much of the demand for these services seems to come from parents’ perception of the frustration of their children with the changes to mathematics instruction brought about by the introduction of the Common Core State Standards.
The question that too few raise is not why we don’t have an across the grades tutorial program. The real question is what is it about our program that makes parents and students feel the need for instruction beyond the regular school day? The easiest part of an answer is that some of what the Common Core asks of young children is developmentally inappropriate. The more complicated answers centers around what happens when we allow the results of high stakes tests to drive instruction.
The testing era has brought with it the pacing chart. The rhythm of elementary instruction is no longer dictated by the judgment of the classroom teacher as to when a class is ready to move forward to the next topic but by a timetable designed to ensure that all the tested topics will be covered by the time of the state examination. Again and again, teachers have told me that they knowingly feel obliged to move ahead even though they know for certain that numbers of the children in the class are not ready for the move. So while our teachers are constantly and skillfully informally assessing student responses to instruction, they too often feel compelled to subordinate their professional judgment because to “not finish” the curriculum is to risk the perception that one’s teaching skills are lacking.
The testing era and the “rigor movement” associated with it have brought a very significant increase in the amount of homework young children are doing. We ought to be concerned about this trend, recognizing that six or seven hours of sitting and receiving instruction is a hard day’s work for a young child. We need to be constantly reminded of their need for recreation and play as vital activities in their development. We should also try to appreciate that the homework students receive should be able to be completed by them and not require parents to try to decipher and explain it to their children. The interaction of parents and their children should not be extensions of the teacher/student relationship. Ideally, the home should support the school, not be an extension of it.
Finally, we are encouraging young children to have an unhealthy concern for school grades. We seem to have forgotten how easy it is for little kids to come to associate their self-worth with their grades at school. One of the best parts of the opt-out movement is their slogan that kids are more than a score. I recall talking to a friend’s child who had become hyper-focused on his grades and who when pressed by me to say why he felt his grades so important said, “Without my grades I’m nobody.” That child’s school surely failed him.
Our focus as adults should not be on finding ways for little kids to accommodate inappropriate demands on the time and stage of development. By and large, it’s not tutoring they need, but an education aligned with their stage of development, not some arbitrary standard of what they should know.