Friday, August 5, 2011

Educating a Broken America: Closing the Achievement Gap

I imagine it would be difficult to find someone who has succeeded in America and who would argue against the importance of education. It is no secret that the skills we learn in school allow us to make a better life for ourselves. And for the most part we have seen a constant improvement in the quality of our lives. That is, our generation is better off than the previous generation, who in turn, is better off than the generation before them. This means, as a population, we have been experiencing the American Dream. However, 80 million Americans still live in “Broken America” where the American Dream is not obtainable. Alex Blumberg on NPR’s Planet Money asks the obvious question ‘how do we get these Americans out of “Broken America” and into “American Dream America?”’ The answer is not to simply say education.

We can all agree that education is the catalyst for social change. But what type of education is the most effective? The hosts of Planet Money argue that teaching technical skills is not enough to enable the population of Broken America to acquire jobs. They often lack the more intangible skills such as making eye contact, controlling your anger and the ability to focus. These skills are more fundamental and more essential to functioning in the American Dream America. “Soft skills” are not learned in the formal classroom setting. They are discovered through play and social cooperation in Preschool. In fact, trying to learn these skills later in life is almost impossible. Several studies have concluded that it is too late to learn these skills even as early as elementary school. If then we only have a small window to learn these skills, how can we optimize this development?

Playtime in Preschool can be categorized into Organized Play such as games which have rules and boundaries. It can be expected that conflict resolution and using words to get what you want are useful for this type of play. The other group is Unorganized Play which makes use of the child’s imagination. This variety of play is open-ended such that a child might wonder “where does this stream of water go?” Both are essential to the healthy development of the child. Richard Louv, however, argues in “Last Child in the Woods” that Unorganized Play is often neglected; especially playing outside in nature in what he calls “Natural Play.” The disappearance of Natural Play is a result of development of natural areas into urban and suburban neighborhoods and an over protective concern for the safety of the child and the environment. The result is children spend more time getting their imagination from the TV. Indoor Play is limited in originality and is more broken up, that is it’s played in short segments. The more open-endedness of Natural Play allows for children to invent through trial and error without interruption, thus nurturing creativity.

The completion of The Perry Preschool Study in 2005 examined the importance of Preschool education and its effect on an individual later in life. The researchers took children from poor families and randomly sent half of them to Preschool for two hours each day while the other half acted as the control and received no Preschooling. From Kindergarten through high school and beyond there was no intervention thus the only variable between the two groups was whether or not they had a Preschool education. The study followed up with the subjects forty years later and discovered that the Preschool group went to prison less often, earned a higher salary, and had higher all-round achievements. This study illustrates that it is in the public good to send every child to Preschool. They will become better citizens, innovators and workers and will have a real opportunity to pursue the American Dream.

1 comment:

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