Education, part 1: primary school

We don't need no education

Today, I am starting a multi-post series talking about education.

There’s an old saying: “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” To a lesser extent, that is true about education. People do take actions regarding education (they may run for School Board) but there is a limit to the types of actions they take. Education in the United States is fairly uniform; yet I claim it is uniform not because the approach is optimal but because of inertia in making changes from 1890s pedagogical doctrine.

The current school system was not designed, it evolved; and motivated by forces far removed from any of our actual goals. Once we explicitly state the goals of the education system, certain improvements will present themselves.

We start with primary school. I assert (as an axiom) that the primary two purposes of primary school are "social integration" and "day-care". Education is merely the tertiary purpose.

Surely seven and eight year olds must learn how to interact with others, and (for economic reasons) they must not be a burden on their parents during working hours. I assert that is more important than anything they may learn about multiplication, the Battle of Vicksburg, or American Sign Language.

Personally, I feel that a society that incentivizes various parents to insist that they must find the “right” elementary school in order for their children to have the best options for the future is, in a way, perverse. If we have such inequality of opportunity that you must find the best elementary school (or even the best preschool) for children to have the best opportunity, that is a problem. We must strive for a system where every elementary school gives children that opportunity.

How would I improve the ability of primary schools to provide social integration and day-care?

  1. Age availability. I recommend two optional years (pre-K and Kindergarten), followed by 4 mandatory years (1st through 4th grades). Certain private and religious schools that meet government guidelines are allowed as an alternative.

  2. Split-year cohorts. Students can start school either in February or in August. There is roughly a six-month age gap in students, rather than 12 months. This allows for students to have a more consistent age for starting school; 6 years1 ± 3 months, as opposed to ± 6 months.

  3. Time availability. Schools should be open from 6:30AM to 6:30PM. Students are permitted to spend as much time as their parents desire at school. This is constructed in such a way that the ordinary “9 to 5” worker can use schools as day-care for elementary school students. An “educational window”, roughly from 9AM to 3PM, is the only time students are expected to be present. Students are expected to attend at least 90% of school days.

  4. Food availability. Breakfast and lunch are available free of charge to all students. No nine-year-old can be expected to work to pay for their own food, and it is immoral to starve children based on their parents’ ability to pay.

Why not more day-care time? Why not dinner? Because these are not residential schools. They must not expand to the point where they begin to function as residential schools. Residential schools are different from non-residential schools, and it does nobody any good to pretend they are the same.

Why not purely virtual? Because humans were not designed to live in isolation, and the children would surely need a parent to act as monitor.

Why not more focus on “book learning”? Why not “educational tracking”? Well, that’s going to come in part 2: secondary school. There’s absolutely no reason to force this on children (or their parents) at this age. After all: Don’t you people know enough already?

Certainly education is a goal of schooling for children under ten. But what should they be taught?

  1. Fluency - ability to speak English

  2. Literacy - ability to read and write English

  3. Sign Language Familiarity - ability to communicate basic concepts in American Sign Language (ASL)

  4. Second Language Familiarity - ability to complete basic tasks in Spanish (or some locally-relevant language)

  5. Kinesthetics - ability to complete obstacle courses and do fine motor tasks

  6. Fitness and Mobility - ability to run 1 km in under 7 minutes and bike 5 miles (8km) in under 30 minutes

  7. Shared Cultural Background - the The Matter of America. That topic will be a follow-up post; very roughly this covers “science, social studies, and history”

  8. Technological Literacy - ability to use cell phones, computers, and food preparation appliances

  9. Financial Literacy - ability to understand what money is and how to use it

  10. Ethical Literacy - ability to understand the difference between good and bad

There’s a certain amount of combining topics here to get to the magic number ten. Arithmetic is covered by financial literacy, and art by kinesthetics (can you do a coloring book page?).

Surely everybody can agree it would be good if the average fourth grader could do these things, and that it is not an unreasonable demand of them, even if you suppose that education is a tertiary goal for elementary schools.

My estimate of the educational time necessary to accomplish this is 520 instructional hours from 2nd to 4th grades for students that can already speak and read English. There will surely be additional unstructured learning; it would be more of a challenge to get students to not use cell phones and talk to each other. If students get homework, it should be more “watch an hour of TV” or “do 30 jumping jacks” and less “write an essay on the Battle of Vicksburg”.

The scoring metric I want used to assess this outline is Is this sufficient knowledge for a 25 year old with only a 4th-grade education. Clearly it is not all necessary. I assume the average 25 year old American is not fluent in either Spanish or ASL. Most could meet the fitness requirements — yet being able to run faster than the average ten year old is no great feat. Many struggle with basic financial and ethical literacy.


6 years is the age for “mandatory” 1st grade, 4 years ± 3 months is the threshold for free pre-K.