Some trends in education are just plain dumb

Even though I retired from the classroom several years ago, I am still a teacher at heart. With a double major in Early Childhood Education and Elementary Education, I began my teaching career in 1980. My initial desire was to teach kindergarten, but as fate would have it, the only positions available at that time were for middle school. Tugged into the upper elementary scene, I gravitated toward teaching middle school language arts and cherished that role for many years. 

Along the way, I witnessed several trends in education that were stuck in more of a collective action mindset than a mindset that serves students. Trends such as the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act which began the shift from play-centered kindergarten to an emphasis on academic achievement. And later, the Common Core State Standards in 2010 which eliminated cursive writing instruction. Currently, there is a push toward reducing the school week to four days.

“Pa. passes 4-day weeks for schools.” This recent headline on a USA Today piece that appeared in the South Bend Tribune grabbed my attention.

In short, a 4-day school week means the remaining school days for students in grades K-12 would be extended by nearly two hours. And 2,100 schools in 900 school districts in 26 states are okay with that. In fact, they have already inked the idea into legislation. 


The reasons to support this change, according to this article, are as follows: “It gives school officials flexibility to cope with things like boiler failures, water line breaks, and fires. The shorter week could also save the districts money on transportation and food services.” Additionally, the four-day week is more attractive for those contemplating a teaching position. As it stands, fewer people are wanting to enter this profession.

State Rep. Jesse Topper, a Republican and primary sponsor of the legislation in Pennsylvania, laments that it offers the districts more flexibility in scheduling instruction. Flexibility in scheduling instruction?! Whatdoes that mean?

Something is missing from this “discussion.”

Where is the part about what’s in the best interest of children? Where does that enter the equation?

For most elementary students, the traditional academic day is long enough. A typical school day in the United States is 6.64 hours, 180 days a year.  When you consider adding two more academic hours to a child’s day, there needs to be a conversation about cognitive overload. There is a point of diminishing returns.

Longer days have no direct correlation to higher achievement. So why the push?

There are other child-centered issues to consider when talking about longer days and shorter weeks. In 2022, it was determined that over 60 percent of all public school students received a free or reduced-price lunch through the National School Lunch Program. Missing a school day means missing a meal for these students. Not to mention the financial burden of child-care for parents already struggling.

Many sports and extracurricular activities are conducted before and after academic school hours. Extended hours would make participation in these activities more difficult if not impossible. There are, after all, only so many hours in a day.

And when, with an extended day, is there time for homework? 

Another troubling trend came along in 2001. It was a period when kindergarten teachers were told to fold up child-sized kitchens and replace them with worksheets and written assessments. To bring this point into focus, imagine a diverse group of 25 children – or more — who enter a classroom for the first time. Some students have special needs that are not diagnosed yet, some have no social skills and don’t have the first clue as to how to get a long with anyone, and some kids are ready to soar.

 Despite their differences most kids at this age are hungry. Hungry to learn. But some kids don’t have the tools needed for success right out of the gate. When pressed to meet lofty academic standards, standards that they are ill-quipped to meet, the expectations do nothing more than crush their spirits. It leaves in its wake: anxiety, stress, and defeat.

If children were robots, this line of thinking would be perfectly logical. They aren’t. And it’s not. Children need play like flowers need water. 

With this move, policy makers clearly demonstrated their lack of knowledge regarding child development. The collateral damage is immense and quite possibly related to the mental health crisis that sweeps our nation.

Thirty-four-year veteran teacher, Meg Csenar, now retired, spent 18 of those years as a kindergarten teacher. She told me recently, “The rigorous standards were not developmentally appropriate for all students, yet all students were held to the same standard. One of those standards was writing an opinion piece. And I had kids that had never held a pencil before. The stress was tangible in students and parents.”

Meg said that she would like to see future kindergarten assessments based on growth. And she would like teachers to have a seat (alongside policy makers) at the table when curriculum/standards are written. Her love for kids and her dedication is transparent as she speaks, “All kids can learn. They just open their packages at different times.”

Playtime in kindergarten may be making a resurgence according to an article in The Hechinger Report dated March 8, 2020, “Now several states, including Washington, are rethinking the kindergarten curriculum and encouraging districts to revive time for block-building, coloring, and imaginative invisible force fields.”

Let’s hope this comeback spreads – and sticks.

Who sets Common Core Standards? The standards are set by a group of governors and school officers from around the country. In 2010, this distinguished group saw technology as a replacement for cursive writing, and cursive writing instruction was quickly removed from curriculums.

When I began teaching middle school, I required cursive writing for all written work. As the years moved along, I became aware that students did not know how to write using traditional script. If they had been taught at all (in second or third grade) students told me they were never expected to use it again in subsequent years – until they got to my classroom. For a period, I tried to reawaken their cursive writing skills, thinking it was kind of like riding a bike. Let’s just say it wasn’t quite like jumping back in the saddle again. Eventually, students couldn’t even read cursive writing. I was stunned. 

Historian and former Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust wrote an article for The Atlantic in which she talks about her experience teaching an undergraduate seminar at Harvard on the Civil War. One student explained, when giving a presentation, that as he came across documents about the Civil War, he was unable to read many of them since he could not read cursive writing. Ms. Faust stated, “There are limits in your sense of how the world works and your sense of how the world used to work when you can’t have access to communication.” 

Something is lost when you have to rely on someone else to translate documents written in cursive. You have to hope the interpretation is truthful. 

And what about those dear letters from Grandma? 

Humorist Jeanne Robertson was told by her young grandson that he was not taught cursive writing in his third-grade classroom. His take on it was that he didn’t need it because they could use computers. After telling him that he could learn it even if it wasn’t taught in school, she told him why he would need it. “I’ve worked all my life giving my speeches and people pay me. I have saved my money and I’ve put some in a secret place for you. There will be a piece of paper and on that piece of paper, it’s going to tell you where that money is. And it’s going to be written in cursive.”

Four-day school weeks, lack of play-centered learning in kindergarten, and the elimination of cursive writing — some trends in education are just plain dumb. It’s about time we get it right. Our kids (and grandkids) are depending on it. 

Here’s to introducing the Commonsense Act in 2024.