America’s ignominy is our abject failure in public school education—for the poor. Affluent American children go to the best schools on the planet—both public and private—and for many their education begins at home after birth. Most privileged kids arrive in kindergarten already reading. But this year, an army of poor American kindergarten kids will march through our kindergarten doors ill-equipped for the battle ahead: a battle for an education to lift them out of poverty.
Jobs, jobs, jobs? They will not be ready in thirteen years. One third of them will drop out of school. Taxpayers will be supporting many of them in prisons. We’ll teach the class of 2025 the Pledge of Allegiance and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” this year, but no one has noticed they already have vocabulary deficiencies which impair their ability to comprehend. These kids haven’t held a pencil. They are not like America’s privileged kindergartners. These kids do not know what a “country” is or why they put their hand over their heart for a pledge. Unlike kindergarteners of means, these marching K’s in low socioeconomic neighborhoods can neither write their names nor tell about a favorite book. Many live in states where kindergarten isn’t mandatory and preschool isn’t available to them. Poor American kindergarten-age children are an army of undereducated disenfranchised citizens.
Sweet Land of Liberty
It’s ironic that our army of poor and marginalized American citizens enter the halls of failing schools just as two presidential campaigns are gearing up for the race to White House. In the era of No Child Left Behind perpetuated by both Republicans and Democrats, these Americans have already been left behind. And no one in the presidential campaigns seems to care. Are these disenfranchised Americans mentioned in the party platforms? Beneath the much needed roar about rights for veterans, gays, people of color, immigrants, the elderly and the ninety-nine percent, no one is sticking up for these kids whose brains are being diminished because no one held them close while talking and reading a book. They enter kindergarten with thinking that is clouded and fuzzy. Learning to read in school will be hard for them, even if the child is lucky enough to get a kindergarten teacher who is well-trained to teach reading, and most are not. These kids can’t clap out the syllables in their names or shout out the rhyming word in a nursery rhyme. They don’t even know what “rhyming word” means.
Our army of poor kindergarteners will compete in an American era of high stakes testing. Even before entering kindergarten the richer kids with whom they compete already have a 30-million-word advantage in terms of data being processed in their brains. The early education of these kids, America’s army of poor 5 and 6 year olds, has already been aborted.
Should we leave public education to the states? I’m not so sure. The state that has $22 billion stashed away in a Permanent School Fund—perhaps the richest education state in America—doesn’t have mandatory kindergarten. Children are allowed to enter public school still ill-equipped for academic success a whole year later. This state outsourced just under $5 billion in a 5-year contract to a New York company called Pearson for an assessment of academic readiness. But based on my frequent visits to this state, kindergarten and first grade teachers don’t have much training for monitoring a child’s day to day developmental progress in the classroom—or for targeting instruction—and according to teachers, the $5 billion test that’s scored in New York is not helping. The education industrial complex and technology companies are thriving in this state and legislators are bragging, but teachers tell me children are failing. I suspect we should hold these teachers accountable.
Our mystery state’s legislature recently raided the so-called “children’s fund”—namely the $22 billion mentioned above—and absconded with text book monies which they threw out to ravenous dogs for technology and other uses. The state education budget had been cut and hungry wolves fought over the scraps. Yet this is the state where a $60 million dollar high school football stadium was opened this year with 42 concession stands and a $1.3 million dollar scoreboard. “Go Eagles.”
Preambles and Party Platforms—“Opportunity Society” or Not
At one of the 2012 national conventions a party platform promises “a positive, optimistic view of an opportunity society where any American who works hard, dreams big and follows the rules can achieve anything he or she wants.” I hear the voice of one dark-eyed kindergartner straining to be heard: “Opportunity society, hear my voice. I can achieve these goals if you teach me English when it’s easiest for me to learn. I can achieve these goals if you help my parents, or parent, become partners in my early education. I can achieve these goals if you give me pencils and books and a nurturing experience that stimulates my brain. Just read to me and talk to me in positive ways. Give me art and music and time to play. I can achieve these goals if you hold me in your arms and interact with me as we explore new technologies for early reading. I will work hard, dream big, and follow the rules—if you empower me as a learner.”
An echo from the convention hall: “God bless the United States of America, and may God bless our children.”