"Every time I get a new package of test booklets, I feel like burning them up," says Amy Gutowski, a third-grade teacher in Milwaukee.
Her students take a weeklong state exam in November, as well as four quarterly assessment tests. The testing itself doesn't bother Gutowski, who says, "Testing is fine, if it's done well." Instead, it's the way that it forces her to run her classroom that drives her crazy. Take this recent example: Gutowski's class was deep into Charlotte's Web, but they had to cut the lesson short. "The kids were dying to know what was going to happen, but we had to start prepping for an assessment and memorize lists of vocabulary words, such as 'crop rotation,' just because they were on the test," says Gutowski. "When we were reading Charlotte, their heads were in the book, they were talking about their feelings and the words they love. It was electric. As soon as we pulled out the test workbook, they shut down. The way we have to teach is anti-kid, anti-learning, and just plain boring."
As every parent knows, when kids are having fun, information sticks. Yet fun is precisely what's missing from many of today's classrooms. "Kids spend much less time learning through play and exploration, and a lot more time sitting still, listening to teachers lecture, or being tested. It's ineffective," says Ed Miller, cofounder of the Alliance for Childhood, in College Park, MD. In fact, on a typical day, many kindergartners spend four to six times as long being instructed and tested in literacy and math than they do in free play or choice time -- and some have no free play at all, according to surveys of 254 kindergarten classes done by the alliance. And that's a problem. A big one. Parenting talked to teachers and education experts nationwide to get a better handle on what else is sucking the joy out of school for our kids -- and, more important, to learn what can be done to bring it back.
Too much, too soon
Today's kids are taught to read, write, and do math at an earlier age than ever before. That may seem like a good thing -- but developmentally inappropriate teaching techniques can destroy a child's self-worth right along with his love of learning, says Susan Newman, an educational therapist in Evanston, IL. "I work with one boy who was forced to write in kindergarten despite his academic immaturity and poor fine motor skills," she says. "He developed extreme writing anxiety, which has continued. Now he is a bright child in fourth grade, but he still hates to write, he gets depressed about his school performance, and he's on medication."
It's stories like these that make you wonder if the people who set educational policy have ever even stepped inside a classroom, says Kelly Gallagher, a veteran reading teacher and author of Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It. "For the state to insist that a five-year-old should be able to read a certain number of words is ridiculous," says Gallagher. "Some kids can, and a lot of kids can't. Learning to read doesn't happen in artificial steps. For most kids, the light comes on all at once, but only when they're ready. In the meantime, the kids who can't do it on schedule can feel like failures." It would be one thing if experts could say, Well, the kids might struggle for a little bit, and sure, they might be a little bored, but they still come out ahead in the end. The thing is, they don't. Studies show that by fourth grade, the children who were rushed into reading and other academics are no further ahead than those who were allowed to play and ease into those skills. By high school, kids who learn to read this way have often abandoned books entirely, says Gallagher. "In chasing test scores, we are literally killing kids' love of reading."