September-October 2009 Selected Content
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
No Thanks to Federal Zero to Five Programs
For a number of reasons, including an attempt to make sure the US is competitive in the global economy, the federal government and many states are promoting programs supposedly designed to increase children's academic success as measured by scores on standardized tests. Proposals include visits by nurses to homes with infants and young children; Early Head Start; screenings; 3- and 4-year-old preschool; and increases in the number of hours, days, and years children are required to attend school.
Expanding government education, with a strong emphasis on young children, beginning at birth, would intrude on family life and undermine the essential role played by parents and families in children's education and upbringing. Young children do not benefit from extended time away from their parents and families. In fact, studies show it is detrimental to a child's development. It is important to be aware and informed so that we can protect our children, our rights as parents, and our time together as families. Except in extreme cases, parents know their own children and their family situation better than so-called experts do and therefore are in a better position to make decisions concerning them.
This column briefly outlines a few current proposals for increased government intervention in the lives of young children and their families, presents information that can be used to oppose such proposals, and suggests ways to minimize the damage.
Current Proposals for Increased Gov't Intervention Beginning at Birth
In considering these current proposals, remember that the standards, testing, and other aspects of these programs have been promoted by administrations from both political parties since before the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983. This bipartisan support makes it more difficult to oppose them and more important that people who do oppose them speak up and take action.
• Zero to Five Plan: The comprehensive "Zero to Five" plan is supposedly designed to provide critical support for young children and their parents. Unlike previous early childhood education plans, this plan emphasizes early care and education for infants, claiming this is essential to prepare children for kindergarten. The Obama plan includes creating Early Learning Challenge Grants to promote state "zero-to-five" efforts and help states move toward voluntary, universal preschool at taxpayers' expense.
• Expand Early Head Start and Head Start: The administration wants to quadruple Early Head Start, increase Head Start funding, and improve the quality of both.
• Affordable, high-quality child care: The administration wants to also provide affordable and high-quality child care to ease the burden on working families.
For more information, go to http://www.barackobama.com/issues/education/
A key goal of both state and federal educational initiatives is to ensure that test scores show that US children are competitive with children from other countries. Proposals rely on professionals and institutions, instead of parents and homes. They would expand the present system, which clearly is not working, at great expense to children, their families, and taxpayers.
Reasons to Oppose Increased Early Childhood Education
• Much research shows that the most important factor in determining the success of children's educations is their family background, including the relationships they develop with their parents. (For example, see "The Economics of Schooling: Production and Efficiency in Public Schools" by Eric Hanushek, Journal of Economic Literature, Vol. 24, Issue 3 [Sept. 1986], pp. 1141-1177. http://www.caldercenter.org/about/HanushekPubs.cfm) Young children need time at home with their families to develop these relationships and to benefit from the multitude of learning opportunities everyday life offers.
In addition, when young children spend time with their families, families are strengthened. Family bonds are forged. Parents understand their children better and are in a better position to make good decisions. They take responsibility for their children, reducing the need for social service agencies. Because the family is the basic unit of all known societies, strong families play a vital role in our nation's present and future. When children are institutionalized at young ages instead of spending most of their time with their families, the results are harmful to both children and families. (Research supporting this statement includes Michael Baker, Jonathan Gruber, and Kevin Milligan. "Universal childcare, maternal labor supply, and family well-being" NBER Working Paper No. 11832, 2005. http://www.nber.org/papers/w11832) The conclusion of this study of a universal childcare program includes this statement: "Finally, we uncover striking evidence that children are worse off in a variety of behavioral and health dimensions, ranging from aggression to motor-social skills to illness. Our analysis also suggests that the new childcare program led to more hostile, less consistent parenting, worse parental health, and lower-quality parental relationships.")
But some people argue that we need early childhood education for the benefit of children who don't have strong homes and families, who are victims of poverty and other social ills. To be sure, these serious and tragic problems should be addressed. But if that is really our goal, let's address those problems directly. Let's not try to solve them by requiring all children attend school at earlier ages.
• The experience of being institutionalized has negative effects on children. Institutionalization is by its very nature challenging for people, whether they are in a large workplace, a hospital, a prison, or a school. People simply function better in small groups where they have more freedom and more control. Given young children's inevitable lack of maturity, institutionalization is especially hard on them. Adjusting to being away from home and family, among a large group of strangers who are all the same age (except for the teacher), in an unfamiliar setting, poses difficulties for them and leaves them less energy to focus on learning. When children can spend more time at home with their families, they have a chance to grow and mature in their own ways, according to their own timetables. They are better prepared to learn academic subjects when they are older, and they have a much easier time adjusting. Evidence to support such statements comes from countries such as Finland and Denmark. There children don't begin formal schooling until about age seven, when they are mature enough to learn quickly and soon score well on tests.
• Increased early childhood education will undoubtedly increase the number of children who are given labels such as "learning disabled" and drugged.
Increased government programs for children from birth will undoubtedly include more screenings. Screenings often label children as having problems when they simply need more time to mature. In addition, many children who are fully capable of doing well on screenings actually perform poorly and end up being inaccurately labeled. Some of these children are overwhelmed by strangers and the unfamiliar setting and are appropriately apprehensive, especially if they are separated from their parents. Others realize that they are being questioned and challenged and respond by refusing to do simple tasks like stacking blocks that they do all the time at home. Sometimes the tests are flawed. (One boy who was labeled as being behind in math because he looked at three, then five, then seven blocks and correctly told the tester how many blocks there were without pointing to each with his finger and counting. Obviously, he was ahead, not behind. But because of the evaluation's design, he was labeled as having a learning problem.)
In addition, the earlier children are sent to school, the greater the number who are not yet physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially mature enough to engage in behaviors that school requires, such as sitting quietly and obediently following instruction. We need to provide schools that meet children's needs, not try to force children into behaviors that meet the needs of schools. Current attempts to get kids to do things they are not yet physically, mentally, or socially mature enough to do results in increased labeling and destruction of young children.
Boys are far more likely to be labeled than girls. Of course, there are individual variations, and stereotyping based on gender or sex is risky. But schools are designed to require and reward compliant children who sit quietly, do as they are told, and learn well through reading and writing. Often this behavior is more typical of girls than boys, especially at young ages. A much larger proportion of boys than girls are labeled, placed in special education, and drugged. By definition, one cannot claim that a large proportion of boys is abnormal. Isn't it obvious that there is something wrong with our current definition of normal, especially as it applies to boys? (See, for example, Kelly Bedard and Elizabeth Dhuey. "The Persistence of Early Childhood Maturity: International Evidence of Long-Run Age Effects." Quarterly Journal of Economics 121(4), February 2006. http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~edhuey/maturity_feb06.pdf and Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys.)
Because public schools are given extra tax dollars to cover the increased costs of so-called "special education," increased labeling of children leads to increased costs for taxpayers. This increased funding also gives "experts" in learning disabilities and school officials incentive to label more children to increase their budgets, prestige, and job security. In essence, parts of the educational establishment are profiting at the expense of children and families.
Screening, diagnosis, and treatment of so-called learning disabilities are far from an exact science. In fact, books, article, and websites document the many problems associated with current diagnosis and treatment. (For more information, see books such as Thomas Armstrong's In Their Own Way: Discovering and Encouraging Your Child's Multiple Intelligences and Gerald Coles' The Learning Mystique: A Critical Look at "Learning Disabilities.")
Drugging often accompanies labeling. Despite strong evidence of the dangers of drugs like Ritalin, their use is increasing. Drug use often results more from clever propaganda and lobbying by the drug companies than from children's needs. (See Marcia Angell, "Drug Companies and Doctors: A Story of Corruption." The New York Review of Books, Volume 56, Number 1, January 15, 2009 and Benedict Carey and Gardiner Harris, "Psychiatric Group Faces Scrutiny Over Drug Industry Ties." NYTimes.com, July 12, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/12/washington/12psych.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2)
Our greatest concern about labeling is the cost in human terms to children who are incorrectly labeled and stigmatized and to their families. Many of these incorrect diagnoses become self-fulfilling prophecies from which children and their families do not recover. The loss of confidence alone makes learning more difficult for children who have been labeled. Drugging these children with Ritalin and other substances compounds these problems.
• If, instead of spending money on early childhood education programs, the US spent it on increased tax deductions and tax credits for dependent children, more parents would be able to be home with their young children rather than being forced to work and send their children to daycare or school.
What We Can Do
• We can make thoughtful, sensible decisions for our own families. Such decisions may include remembering that our role as a parent is extremely important and resisting the pressure to put our children into preschool programs (even if they are free) so we can go to work for pay, even though it is often difficult to give up the extra income. By making such decisions, we not only give our own children better support and opportunities and keep our own families strong. We also set examples for other families, including some who may be considering similar actions but need more evidence, encouragement, and support. We also increase the evidence and number of examples of the benefits of families taking responsibility for their own children. Our personal experience as homeschoolers is very critical to the current debate over increased early childhood education.
• We can educate ourselves about the importance of families and the risks involved in turning our young children over to professionals and institutions by reading information and studies such as those cited in this column. We can also criticize and/or ignore flawed studies designed to support government programs to institutionalize young children.
• We can share this information as widely as possible, especially with parents and grandparents, through informal conversations, support group meetings, presentations in our communities, letters and emails to state and federal representatives, letters to the editor, call-in radio programs, etc.
There are important reasons to oppose the push for increased early childhood education. Given our experience and our commitment to children, learning, and families, we homeschoolers are in a good position to speak out.
© 2009, Larry and Susan Kaseman