Child Labor in the Children’s Garden

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It was not until 1938 that minimum ages of employment and hours of work for children were regulated by federal law. Mandatory school attendance laws passed and progressives believed that they had ended an era of child exploitation.

Well, there is a new war on childhood to combat and this one begins in kindergartens that were intended, ironically, to remove children from the onerous world of adult work. Thanks to the current obsession with high stakes testing, the “children’s garden” looks more and more like a factory where children are subjected to worksheets and robotic drills.

The misguided “educators” who believe that the current era of education reform-by-testing will close the achievement gap, are finding that they must begin earlier and earlier to impose a rigid instructional orthodoxy in hopes of displacing the seemingly intractable effects of poverty, the chief reason there is an achievement gap to begin with. Here is how the New York Times describes a kindergarten class in a New York charter school:

Nowhere are the demands greater than at Achievement First East New York Charter School in Brooklyn, which holds classes through this month. On a recent Friday morning, 20 kindergartners in uniforms of yellow shirts and blue jumpers or shorts, many yawning and rubbing their eyes, filed into the classroom of Keisha Rattray and Luis Gonzalez. Some sat in plastic chairs lined up before the teachers for phonics and grammar drills, while others sat at computer screens, listening through headphones to similar exercises.

The classroom has no blocks, dress-up corners or play kitchens. There is no time for show and tell, naps or recess. There is homework every night. For much of the day, the children are asked to sit quietly with their hands folded as their teachers drill them in phonics, punctuation and arithmetic.

The demands of testing that comes down from Federal “No Child Left Behind” legislation have even caused schools to eliminate kindergarten “nap time.” According to the Charlotte Observer,

For decades, boys and girls have arrived at kindergarten with a must-have from the supply list: A comfy mat for nap time.Today, they can leave their tiny mats at home.Across the nation, academic pressures in public schools are getting pushed down to kindergarten.Not even 5-year-olds have time for naps anymore.The national move away from naptime and to making kindergarten a more studious environment can come at a price, some educators say. Young children can be hurried into academics too soon, they worry.

Nowadays, “You really don’t have time for naps,” said Linda Morris, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ assistant superintendent for elementary curriculum. “Kindergarten has become much more academic than even 10 years ago.”Schools now have to meet stricter achievement standards set by the states and by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Students in the Carolinas don’t start taking achievement tests until third grade, but teachers start assessing them in kindergarten and first and second grades.

There’s just not enough time in the day, said Wally Zahler, elementary education director for the Catawba County Schools.His system evaluates kindergartners three times a year in math, reading and writing. Teachers have 61/2 hours a day to bring students up to grade level.

But kindergarten shouldn’t be first grade “pushed down to kindergarten,” said Sarah Lynn Hayes, director of curriculum support in the Rock Hill school district.”They can decide that learning is not fun, that learning is just something the teacher wants me to do, and to make Mom and Dad happy,” she said.

All of this is contrary to everything we know about healthy human development.

Constructive play helps children develop social skills while laying an important foundation for reading and math, said Dominic F. Gullo, a professor of elementary and early childhood education at Queens College.

For example, he explained, children who set up a pretend post office or a restaurant in what is called a “dramatic play area” learn how to take turns, how to speak clearly to one another, and how to make up their own stories — stories that are the foundation for writing.Playing with blocks teaches children the basics of math as they learn that two small blocks put together have the same length as one long block. Children who never learn to play with one another — who rely on grown-ups to resolve disputes — never learn the self-regulation and teamwork for their adulthood.

Although this trend toward a more “academic” kindergarten can be found everywhere, it has made the deepest inroads among schools that educate the poor. It becomes part of a “hidden curriculum” leading to schools that reproduce the inequalities that plague American society. After all, poor, working class children need to be trained to work at mind-numbing jobs where they follow orders and spend the work day engaged in repetitive tasks. The earlier that training begins, the better. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy—fit for the dull job that is planned for him in a dull world he will never be asked or enabled to understand.

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