Why even lessons from kindergarteners can and should inform public education policy

Why even lessons from kindergarteners can and should inform public education policy

- in Progressive Voices

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Back in the 1980’s, author Robert Fulghum gave rise to a pop culture catchphrase when he authored a book entitled “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” The phrase has become a way to express the notion that things can be really simple if we just take the time to use logic that even a kindergartener would understand.

Oh, that we could apply Fulghum’s approach to public education in North Carolina where we continually make things unnecessarily and destructively complicated.

For example, one of the first things we know about making public schools better is learned in pre-kindergarten. Study after study shows that students that attend early childhood and pre-kindergarten programs are likely to show up to the door of kindergarten ready to learn.

A study by Duke researchers showed that students that lived in jurisdictions that provided the Smart Start and/or More at Four (now NC Pre-K) programs saw their third grade test scores rise significantly above those in the locations that did not provide either program. Notably, this benefit even spilled over to the children who did not participate in the programs buy merely resided in the same community!

While it is not ideal to think of the education of our children in terms of cost savings or investments (more on that later), Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman says that for every dollar we put into early childhood programs, we receive a 7%-10% return on that dollar. This should make it obvious that North Carolina must invest more in early childhood programs.

It should also be apparent that once we get that child to kindergarten, we need to provide a nurturing environment in which they can learn. Unfortunately, what North Carolina has created is a pressure-filled system of preparing even our youngest children for high-stakes, standardized tests in their later elementary years.

In 3rd grade, if these children do not pass standardized tests, they will be retained as a result of a new state law enacted a few years ago. Another thing we know from research is that being held back frequently destroys a child’s self-esteem and makes it more likely for that student to drop out of school in later years.

Even if we did not place all that pressure on students to pass a standardized test, we need programs for students who are at-risk of failing. Children with disabilities are entitled an Individualized Education Plan (or “IEP”) under federal law. For those without IEPs, North Carolina has long required Personal Education Plans (or “PEPs”) that provide (or are supposed to provide) interventions for a student who is at-risk of failure.

With PEPs, the idea is to catch a student’s danger of failing as early as possible and to put a plan in place in which the child, teacher and parents work together. Unfortunately, PEP’s and the special services required to implement them have never been adequately funded. Now, however, rather than providing that essential funding, the General Assembly is advancing a bill to eliminate PEPs altogether on the grounds that they are “just paperwork.” We need a tool that will provide students with a structured, well thought out plan specifically created for them that assist them in the learning process. Anything worth doing is worth doing right. We tell that to children all the time. It may be complicated but it would not be childish oversimplification to say that such a tool is necessary for academic success.

Another phrase some may have learned in kindergarten is that “you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” For some reason, however, the obvious wisdom of this maxim escapes us when it comes to school safety where we regularly over-police our schools with the vinegar of under-trained School Resource Officers (SROs). SROs are law enforcement personnel who are trained to keep order. Most, however, are not trained to understand how the juvenile mind works.

Compelling evidence shows that there is success in ensuring student safety and ending disruption through Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS). Simply put, this is catching a student doing something right rather than waiting for them to do something wrong. It makes sense that people, even young people, respond better to positive reinforcement and tend to be defensive and resistant when punished. We need well-trained SROs who understand that students need compassion as well as order and we need more and concerted efforts to implement PBIS is all North Carolina Schools.

Last but far from least, we need to adhere to another basic kindergarten lesson about the importance of honesty and keeping one’s promises. North Carolina’s constitution promises that “the people have the right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right.” It also states that the “General Assembly shall provide by taxation and otherwise for a general and uniform system of free public schools.”

Sadly, we are clearly not doing any of the above. The most recent report from the National Education Association shows that the state ranks near the bottom in teacher pay (42nd) and per-pupil spending (46th). State studies show what investments in public schools have been failing to keep up with inflation and enrollment growth for several years.

In such a situation, even a kindergartener would understand the need to find the money in order to keep our constitutional promise. Unfortunately, rather than adhering to this simple idea, the General Assembly continues to slash public revenues while funneling millions of dollars – money that is supposed to be used exclusively for public education – to private schools via an unaccountable voucher program.

The bottom line: Fixing what ails our public schools will be tough, but it isn’t rocket science. We know what works; we just have to have the will to do it.

Anyone who has spoken to a kindergartner knows that when the answer to a question does not make sense, the child will frequently ask “why?” When our politicians are confronted with the evidence of what is successful in public schools and deny the obvious or tell us that it is impossible, North Carolina adults who care for these children would do well to repeatedly and insistently ask the same question.

Christopher Hill is the Director of the Education and Law Project at the North Carolina Justice Center.