Thursday, May 7, 2009

Tutoring for Success?

Emma sits at a desk and stares at the work in front of her. Across the table sits her tutor, with whom Emma meets twice a week after school. Emma's parents are concerned that, without tutoring, she won't be ready for the next school year. They see a line of dominos falling, with Emma ultimately not being able to get a into a prestigious college and have a successful career.

Her parents have heard great things about this tutoring facility ... that in just six months they can improve a student's abilities a full year's worth. That, they believe, will give Emma just the boost she needs to succeed. After all, she'll have lots of competition in the exclusive private school that her parents have given a hefty check to in the hopes that she'll be accepted.

Emma stares blankly, twirling her dark hair, clearly not interested in the work put before her. She doesn't see the point of all this. College and career? They're way too distant in the future. She doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. 

Emma's mind wanders and she picks her nose. She'd rather be riding her tricycle.

You see, Emma is 3. 

She's in one of the fastest-growing demographics for tutoring. Her parents have bought into the hype that their kids have to be smarter, start earlier, and know more than everyone else in order to succeed. How sad for those kids ... those preschoolers.

Research has shown time and time again that play-based learning at an early age is all that kids need. Indeed, cramming reading and math down the throats of toddlers can cause a host of problems: stress, decreased creativity, lower self-esteem, and a thin wallet. (Some tutoring sessions can be as high as $45 per half hour.) Recent brain-imaging data have revealed that most children's brains aren't developmentally ready to read until around age 5. So why the rush?

And speaking of rushing our kids, what's the deal with kindergarten? What happened to kindergarten as a time for play, with sandboxes, songs, and corny dances? Too often our kindergarteners are taking assessments and doing homework. When I was 5 (and yes, I'm all too aware of just how long ago that was - my kids seriously asked me if television had been invented when I was their age), we played outside and banged around on percussion instruments. Heck, most of us didn't even attend kindergarten - we dug in the dirt and ran around outside and went with our mothers to the grocery store and took naps (something I think should be instituted for all adults over 45).

If early reading and math proficiency is supposed to pave the way to success for our children, and if more and more parents are forcing this down the throats of their babies, why oh why isn't the United States at the top of the list educationally compared to other countries? Year after year, the United States lags behind other developed countries in math and science. But if our early-push efforts and our stress on early learning aren't paying off in the long term, why do we subject our children to this?

It doesn't stop at kindergarten. When my oldest was in 2nd grade, many of his peers were in the accelerated math class at the local elementary school. The idea was that in 2nd grade, the information in 2nd and 3rd would be "compacted" so that they kids would be ahead one full year in math, thus finishing algebra before high school so that they could finish calculus before graduation. I talked with some moms during this year (2nd grade), and they were all so proud that their kids had tested into the program. (They tested at the end of the 1st grade.)

I was curious about the flip side ... what did the kids think about it? Well, the moms said, they had tons of homework that they weren't always crazy about. And of course, with all the extracurricular things that kids do today (soccer, ballet, etc.), they had to drop something. You want to know what each and every one of the kids had to drop to take the compacted math? Playdates. Yup, at age 7, kids were having to focus on math so much that they had to cut back on - or cut out - their play time.

I see so much wrong with this approach. I know, I know ... the intent is honest and even honorable. They want their kids to achieve, to remain interested, to learn along with like-minded peers, and to have every opportunity. But they're sacrificing their children's childhood in the process.

Are administrators wising up to the fact that this could be hurting instead of helping our kids? Maybe. I was heartened to find this article when I went to do a little research on compacted math. It turns out that our school district has rethought this practice and will be changing it for the 2010-11 school year. They'll be testing kids in 6th grade, when new material comprises only 30% of the math curriculum, instead of 1st, when it's 60%. As they say in the article, it also catches kids that might have been missed in 1st grade and gives them advanced material when they're developmentally ready. One elementary teacher said that "the sense of failure resulting from the situation can turn capable students off math and away from advanced learning" (quoted from the article that quotes her).

But what's the biggest benefit to not pushing our kids? That little nugget is missing in the article. It's this: the kids get to be kids again.

"But wait!" you shout with alarm. (I can hear you from here.) "My kid is ahead of the curve and bored in class!" The school district plans to handle that with Gifted classes, they say. (Personally, I'm a bit skeptical.)

Unfortunately, there's no one solution that meets everyone's needs. By the very nature of classrooms, there will always be some kids struggling to keep up and others bored waiting for the rest to catch up. People have been trying for ages to figure out how to make our current schooling strategy work for every child, and there's simply no way. (Besides, my opinions of what's wrong and right with our schools is far too long for this post.)

But one thing is clear. Pushing kids academically before they're ready is no solution. Taking away their play time is no way to make them happy learners. The years of imagination are so short; let's not hurry them into adulthood.

And what about Emma? Is she doomed to a life of worksheets and tutors instead of dolls and bugs? Fortunately, she and her parents exist only in my mind and are simply composites of people I found described in internet articles. But there are plenty of real-life versions just like her. Sigh.


  1. I think about this a lot while tutoring my Korean kiddos. I'm against what I'm doing! But, it's what their parents want. Different values, for sure. They'd probably be appalled at how much "goofing around" my kids do!

  2. Funny how times change. I went to school to learn to read. Nowadays it seems the kids have to know how to read before they get there.

    Here is a post in which I was taking a "light" look at the current educational climate

    Just curious, do you home school?

  3. Yes, we homeschool, but I don't advertise it on my blog (although I'm very vocal locally). I've found that many people have preconceived notions about what homeschoolers are like, and I didn't want people to read my posts with "she's just a homeschooling nut" running through the back of their minds.
    I guess it's pretty obvious, huh? LOL