Lately I’ve been feeling very belligerent about the expectations that society seems to be slapping on elementary school these days. The belligerence is probably due in part to while we’re great at many things, there’s no way Mushroom or BalletBoy would even begin to measure up to a lot of the things that I see are required. By that, I mean the sheer volume of math problems, the mountains of homework, the pressure of test prep, the essays, the constant writing assignments, the research expectations, the projects on the side that we all know parents are often really the ones stuck doing.
And it’s not just the “official” requirements in schools. Everywhere I look it seems like people are asking their kids to read books that are far ahead in both grade level and emotional content. So many people use materials for school that are meant for grades ahead because they believe their kids need the challenge. And I’m sure some kids do need that challenge or want to read those books, but other times it seems like it’s part of a desperate race to get ahead. But for my kids, there’s just no way. No way they could do that without cracking somewhat and no way could I do it to them.
So with that comes a lot of emotional defensiveness. It feels like making excuses. We do a lot more content and in a much more orderly way than public schools. We have so many more chances to work on leadership, social skills, and compassion than public school kids. The kids are very much on level or ahead for math, but they’re just slower workers. I’m trying to foster a love of writing and a writing voice, not monkey train them to turn out formulaic essays. It’s better to learn to love learning and foster curiosity than to push for more if it will lead to higher anxiety and greater resistance to work.
The thing is, that’s all true. It shouldn’t feel like excuses.
And it’s not about “lowering expectations.” It’s about having different expectations, ones that are higher for attitude and independence and confidence. Expectations that we learn about something instead of merely pushing skill learning constantly. Expectations that mastery is more important than speed. Expectations that it’s not a race or a single path, but a long, individual process. Expectations that continue to rise with age and development, that challenge kids to not stagnate, but to continue to grow.
Thanks to the increasing push for higher skills in elementary school and even before, there has been a lot of research about younger children and academic expectations (this link mentions just a few sample bits), much of it negative toward the current trends. We know that, for example, there is no difference in the end result for children who begin formal reading instruction at age 5 or age 7, except that children who begin younger have a greater dislike for reading on the whole (I would guess that for homeschooled students who show readiness early, such an effect wouldn’t apply, highlighting one of the many benefits of homeschooling). I’ve seen almost no research about the upper elementary grades, but I feel it only stands to reason that the push for thesis essays and cited research papers by upper elementary in many schools probably has similar effects. We’re building a house of cards for skills with many kids. It looks glorious and tall, but when they get to college, more and more students need remedial classes and more and more professors complain that students are unprepared to keep up.
Society has created a strange dichotomy of expectations, one we’re currently sitting in the crux of during fourth grade. On the one hand, upper elementary schoolers Mushroom and Ballet Boy’s age are expected to be able to solve more difficult problems and write to a much higher standard than ever before in order to be considered good enough. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to be producing students with better skills down the line, making the gap between the successful and failing students more disparate than ever. So I say we need to step away from that and ignore it.
Here at the rowhouse, I’m continually retraining myself to ignore everyone else’s expectations, which I do a good job of bluffing everyone about, but which is not always easy. I have to keep repeating to myself that schooling happy kids who love to learn is paramount and all the skills and content have to fall into place after that. That’s my expectation.