Back to School: From reading to algebra, everything in school is starting earlier
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Lake Fong, Post-GazetteEllen Graszl, 12, a seventh-grader at Pine-Richland Middle School, listens to her algebra teacher, Bob Aglietti, explain the equation during class Thursday. Pine-Richland started the new term last week.
From reading to algebra, everything in school is starting earlier
Math and reading
No Child Left Behind has altered the face of education
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Lines blur between nonprofit and for-profit schools
Back to school in the region:
West: New technology, teachers greet pupils
North: It's a brand new year
South: Pupils return to healthier food, online learning
Parents are taking 3-year-olds to academic tutoring programs, complete with flashcards and homework.
Kindergartners are working on letters and numbers at their desks in the way that first-graders used to do.
Middle schoolers are enrolling in algebra courses a year or two earlier than was once the accepted practice.
High school students are taking colleges courses, signing up for prep classes for the SAT college entrance exam as sophomores, and seeking early college admission more than ever.
Everything is starting earlier and earlier in education.
The trend is being driven by a combination of factors: parental anxiety that children will fall behind if not pushed almost from birth; frustration with schools that have failed to boost achievement for disadvantaged students or challenge the middle and top tiers sufficiently; cut-throat competition for college entrance; a growing reliance on high-stakes testing; a sense that America is losing ground in the global marketplace.
Is this a learning "speed-up" that is pressuring children to move ahead too quickly, or is it an overdue adjustment to a faster, more complex world? The answer, not surprisingly, depends.
"Acceleration is a widespread phenomenon with a lot of flavors," said Alan Lesgold, dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education. "Some are good and some are not so good.
"There are parents who think their little darling needs to get ahead of everyone else, starting in preschool and all the way through college. If kids are ready for that, fine. But if they're not, all it does is add more stress."
Lynn Spampinato, deputy superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, said schools were trying to adjust to the realities of the 21st century.
"We don't want education to be the way it was in 1920," she said. "There's more for children to learn today, more exposure to all kinds of information at younger ages. Education doesn't set the values and the pace of society, but it's our job is to prepare students for the world they're going to live in.
"I'm not sure I believe we're pushing children to the edge," she added. "I'd say in many cases we're not challenging them enough."
Sherry Cleary, assistant professor of education at Pitt and director of the University Child Development Center, said much depends on what the acceleration is intended to achieve. Encouraging students to challenge themselves and expand their horizons is always a good thing, she said.
"But if they're being pushed to get a head start on college credits mainly so that they can finish early and go to graduate school early and get a job early, one has to wonder, what's the rush?"
Still faster, faster, faster
The "rush" became a topic of national discussion in 1981, when psychologist David Elkind published his landmark book, "The Hurried Child." It is about to be reissued in an updated 25th anniversary edition.
Today, Dr. Elkind said, the phenomenon is even more prevalent than it was a quarter-century ago.
"It's gone in both directions, up to high school with more Advanced Placement courses and down to infants with computer lap-ware," he said.
"The high school end is probably a good thing, as long as it's not pushing down the curriculum in a way that causes kids to fail.
"But the early childhood end doesn't make sense from what we know about human development. We are biological beings who grow in stages, able to do some things at some ages and not at others. We don't have a memory system for the first five years because there are no space and time units to put the memory in."
Educators agree that offering college electives to high school teens is a largely positive step. Virtually all advocate for courses that allow students to advance their skills and pursue special interests. Some districts have even established "middle college high schools," where at-risk students who don't do well in traditional settings can earn their high school diploma and college credits at the same time.
But the younger the child, the more controversial it becomes to push down academic curricula.
Child development experts are in near complete agreement that young children learn best in rich play environments that stimulate the senses in age-appropriate ways, not from standardized drills or flashcards.
Yet Junior Kumon, an outgrowth of the Japanese-based Kumon Math and Reading Centers, offers academic tutoring for children as young as 2, while Sylvan Learning Centers and Stanley Kaplan now have materials for kindergartners.
This niche didn't exist in a slower, less competitive time, but now these companies are finding plenty of takers. Junior Kumon claims to have 28,000 children enrolled the United States, even though it entered the market only two years ago and doesn't advertise.
"Many of our parents appreciate the opportunity for their child to get a leg up on learning," said Caitlin McHugh, Kumon spokeswoman.
"A lot of the demand is driven by younger children who see their older siblings enrolling. Children want to do more faster, and parents are finding that they can. We're teaching them that learning can be fun."
As for the criticism that everyday life with an engaged adult at home or in a good preschool provides all the learning a young child needs, Ms. McHugh said, "If parents feel it's an equal fit, why not send them to both?"
Dr. Cleary, on the other hand, called the downward push of academics to younger ages "a great idea gone awry."
"The whole idea of offering pre-K programs funded by the state was to give these children a really rich range of experiences so that they would be better prepared for school and life. Instead, 4-year-old programs in many places have become miniature kindergartens."
But some say that a rich range of experiences and academic learning are not mutually exclusive.
"I don't know that there is an actual ready point for learning," said Dr. Spampinato. Even if there is, she said, "You don't wait around for it. How can you know they're ready for something unless you expose them to it?
"It's not an either/or situation of play vs. academics. It's how you deliver. Learning can be a lot of fun, and children feel really good when they break the code and learn to read."
Too early or too late?
Earliness is also a growing factor in middle school math, where algebra is becoming more commonplace at younger ages.
At Pine-Richland Middle School, for example, pupils who qualify with high grade-point averages and test scores are enrolled in what the district calls "pre-algebra" in sixth grade. That leads into algebra in seventh and honors geometry in eighth.
"This is for students who are mathematically advanced," Assistant Principal John Pietrusinski said. He said 50 students were taking sixth-grade pre-algebra this year, but the number who stay in accelerated math drops as the grades advance.
The real challenge, though, lies in teaching math earlier to all students, not just those who are considered gifted, said Nancy Bunt, program director of the Math and Science Collaborative at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.
"The trend is toward introducing concepts of math and science in middle school, where it used to be considered an acceleration. Now the expectation in the state standards is that all students are to be learning it," she said.
A big reason for the change is the Trends in International Math and Science Studies survey of 1995. The results showed American students were ahead in fourth-grade math but dropped to the bottom in 12th.
"That was a wake-up call," Dr. Bunt said. "The rest of the world was teaching geometry and algebra by eighth grade. We were cramming all the higher-level math into the four years of high school, for those we let learn it at all. You only got it if you were going to college."
Now, she said, educators believe all students can and should learn higher-level math if it's properly presented.
That does not mean teaching algebra to younger students in the same way it's always been taught to older ones, she stressed; it means changing the methods and curriculum, and laying the foundation for understanding the concepts much earlier than has been the practice.
Many believe the change can't happen too soon, as algebra remains a stubborn roadblock for large numbers of American teenagers.
One example: the Los Angeles Unified School District recently made passing algebra a graduation requirement. Some 48,000 ninth-graders took the course in 2004, and 44 percent of them failed. Many went on to repeat the course several times and kept on failing until they gave up and dropped out.
Connected Math, the middle school curriculum used by the Pittsburgh Public Schools among districts, was designed to introduce mathematical concepts in a way that students could apply to real life, but that program has become something of a lightning rod for debate, Dr. Spampinato said.
"Connected Math is a national issue," she said. "We had the reading wars, and now there's the math wars."
The city schools are about to introduce a new algebra curriculum this fall, she said, with the same degree of rigor regardless of whether students take the course in seventh, eighth or ninth grade.
Students who take the course for the first time in ninth grade will have to score at or above grade level. Those who don't will have to take an additional tutorial class each day.
"As of this year, there will be no watered-down supplemental math courses," she said.
College courses for all
At one time, only students at the top of the class were encouraged to take college-level courses in high school. That's no longer the case. Districts increasingly are viewing college courses as way of expanding their offerings and holding students' interest.
"We don't do a great job with high school in this country," Dr. Cleary said. "We bore students half to death and can't understand why they don't want to be there. So when they can register for college electives like psychology or biology, we see them becoming more motivated. They feel the course work is more relevant."
Recognizing this, and the fact that college admissions officers increasingly want to see AP and college courses on their applicants' transcripts, the state Department of Education now provides grants to school districts offering college courses to high school students.
In the Pittsburgh Public Schools, juniors and seniors may earn up to 12 college credits a year; the state covers tuition, books and bus passes. Those with a grade point average of 2.5 may take courses at Community College of Allegheny County; those with a 3.0 average may attend Chatham College, La Roche College or Penn State University's McKeesport campus.
"Some students will be able to take more challenging courses than they would have in high school," Dr. Spampinato said. "For others it's exposure they might not otherwise get."
Those who take courses and pass the Advanced Placement exams are able to enter college with credits already under their belts. That saves their families the cost of those courses at the university level, and allows them to jump right in to upper-level course work.
"They're not always graduating faster," said Jennifer Topiel, spokeswoman for The College Board. "Many are delving deeper into areas of interest."
Colleges welcome the trend in part because it helps make up for some of the deficiencies that dog incoming freshmen classes.
"A lot of students need remediation when they get to college," she said. "Advanced courses can reduce the number."
But most of all, she said, AP courses are key to getting into the nation's top schools.
"The No. 1 thing admissions officers look for in their applicants is rigor," she said. "They want students to be taking the most rigorous course work available to them."
The flip side of AP courses is that the competition can be too much for some students to handle.
"As a strategy for getting into college, it often works," Dr. Lesgold said. "But it's also a source of huge pressure for kids. Parents want their kid to have the advantage so they push them early on to take SAT prep courses, see a college counselor and do 16 activities.
"The level of pressure doesn't always make sense, and there's some evidence it doesn't entirely work from an educational standpoint."
He cited high school calculus as an example.
"We see kids who got a decent score in the AP test, but when they enroll in the university and take a placement test, they have to take algebra over again. They're learning the superficial minimum to score well on a test, but it's gone the next morning. Four months later, they can't remember any of it because they never understood it in the first place. The acceleration didn't really work."
First Published August 27, 2006 12:00 am