Discriminate in favor of children


The children are not all doing well. Even here in Iowa where we think of ourselves as immune to some of the nation’s larger troubles, too many of the children are not doing well. We know this from the new report of the state education department. Both fourth-graders and eighth-graders in our schools did worse in reading and math tests this year than two years ago.
Even more discouraging, our kids continue to fall further behind in the nation and around the world.
Worst of all, poor and minority children aren’t making any gains to close the gap in achievement between them and the middle-class white majority. This bad news isn’t the fault of schools. But school people have some responsibility to push harder on the rest of society to make some needed difficult changes.
First, we can’t expect our kids to do as well as those from Japan and Finland and South Korea, for example, when their kids are studying and learning for an extra six weeks or more every year. We have a school year of 180 days; their school year is 220 to 240 days — and most of them are learning a “foreign” language.
We can argue that our kids are allowed to be more free and creative. They are free only in the negative sense of being less constrained. They are not becoming free to read and understand more, though, or free to use math with any creativity or speak in another person’s language.
The short school day and long summer vacation that marks American schooling didn’t start out as a way to give our kids freedom. It was considered a necessity in a mostly rural and developing country where children were needed for home and farm chores. No one was idling away a summer 100 years ago or spending it on youth sports. There were animals to feed, gardens to tend, bread and cakes to bake, weeds to pull.
Here in Iowa up to the middle of the last century schools had a one- or two-week corn-picking vacation in early fall and another for planting in the spring. We don’t do that any more, but we continue with a school calendar otherwise designed for those days of labor-intensive life. And our children come out of school hundreds of study hours behind their peers in other countries.
We ought to stop tinkering around the edges of school improvement and tackle the elephant in the room: time. Our children are cheated of opportunity to learn because we don’t require them to do what we know they should: spend more time with instruction and study.
That brings up the gap between minority and poor children and the rest. Here again, time is relevant, but in terms of quality rather than quantity. Children who start school behind and tend to remain behind are likely to come from a minority or single-parent home, often where that parent, almost always the mother, struggles to keep going both personally and financially. The child receives less attention, less encouragement, and there are fewer resources for enrichment.
Summer is spent playing ball or hanging out or playing with electronic gadgets while the child of middle-class parents is going on trips to stimulating places and is signed up for library and museum programs. When they return to school together in August or September, the child in poverty has fallen even further behind.
We know all of this. In knowing it we ought to attack the stimulation deficit head-on. Schools can’t exactly substitute for what the home lacks, but they can discriminate in time and attention for the more needy child better than they do now. Simple justice pushes us in that direction, and Catholic social teaching reinforces that push.
We discriminate openly in favor of talent in sports; why can’t we discriminate just as openly in favor of need at the elementary level in education?
Frank Wessling

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