Over 100 years of eudcational research and scholarship.  Subscribe today.
Home Articles Subscriptions About TCRecord Advanced Search   


First Things First! Creating the New American Primary School

reviewed by Maria Coolican

coverTitle: First Things First! Creating the New American Primary School
Author(s): Ruby Takanishi
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807756938, Pages: 208, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com

In the acknowledgements that preface her book, First Things First! Creating the New American Primary School, Ruby Takanishi describes herself as a first generation American and would-be junior high school drop-out were it not for the federal education programs that the post-Sputnik Congress created in her small, rural town in Hawaii. She further asserts that her own daughter was able to make the choice to pursue her dream as an art historian because her family had truly achieved the American educational dream. “For those of us who grew up knowing that our forebears had left their countries to seek a better life for their children, their unspoken aspiration was that following generations would not select professions just for economic considerations but because of their passion for learning” (p. xii). And yet, Takanishi begins her book with a call to action rooted in the disturbing dilemma that fewer and fewer children are being afforded the opportunities embraced by her own daughter: “Talent is universally distributed. Opportunity to develop that talent, sadly, is not” (pg. 1).


Takanishi’s entire argument rests upon the idea that we are squandering the talent of our youngest and, not surprisingly, oftentimes poorest students by failing to invest in what we know would comprise high-quality and life-changing pre-K through 5th grade education for all children. Further, she argues that despite the siren call of reports such as “A Nation at Risk” and the repeated, research-based pleas for attention to early childhood and elementary education that we in this country have heard since the 1930s, we seem incapable of finding the fortitude to invest in our children. And she’s right. Whether one cites the repeatedly dismal international comparisons of educational achievement or the mind-numbing and what should be intolerable data around how poverty affects children and families in our poorest neighborhoods, one simply cannot ignore the fact that we have up until now refused the invitation to do what we know is right. Her final chapter is entitled “First Things First! If Not Now, When?” Indeed, if not now, when? And who? And how?


Takanishi has an answer for those questions. When? She demands that it be now. The longer we wait, the longer we allow generations of hopeful young learners to experience a less-than-adequate education in their primary years. We know better, and we know how. What are we waiting for? Who? Well, it’s us: researchers, reformers, practitioners, policymakers and parents. And how? Takanishi calls for four very specific actions. First, she says, we must reimagine just what primary education could look like for our youngest learners. Accusing educational reformers of assuming, wrongly and blithely, that critical thinking and other higher-level learning activities are best-suited for middle and high school learners, Takanishi offers extensive research that belies this and asserts that, contrary to popular belief, primary schools are not “doing just fine” (p. 156). Despite our very American need for quick fixes and easy timelines, resulting in the barely incremental progress we’ve made in primary education this century and last, Takanishi calls for the collective will and imagination to connect policy and practice with what we know about what young children truly need in order to maximize their learning potential.


Second, she asserts that innovation is to be found at the local level, and that we must learn from the few exemplars we have in this country as to just how robust the new primary school could be. Mayors, local districts, and a few states have pushed to begin public education at age three; Takanishi demands that we not only learn from these initiatives, but that we push to reframe access to pre-K as a fundamental civil and human right. There are fewer more worthy targets of a social justice movement.


Third, Takanishi asks that we identify the ways in which we can harness the specific features and elements of these local innovations that work and figure out how to sustain them on a larger scale by demanding legal and statutory reform. Identifying what works and why, and then offering those answers as part of a long-term solution to the reimagination of primary education, is our collective calling. And fourth, none of this will happen without the tax and budget reforms that are necessary for this new vision. Clearly there is a gap between the laws that dictate educational opportunity and the funds available to support such opportunity. Is it time for the courts to again take the lead in ensuring that social inequity is decried as against American law and, presumably, against the American ethos.


Do we have the political will, the social will, the commitment to a new vision of social justice, to demand the new American primary school? If opportunity is not universally distributed, perhaps the time has come for us to create a new distribution pathway. Thomas Jefferson reminded at the very founding of this nation that the preservation of a democratic society rests upon an educated citizenry. Until we realize that our youngest learners are the very foundation of that citizenry, and that our future depends upon us giving them our very best, we continue to risk the very democratic fabric of our nation. Talent, Takanishi asserts, is universally distributed; opportunity is not. Takanishi reminds us that we have both the capacity and the moral imperative to reinvent opportunity for our youngest learners. When? Now. Who? All of us. How? With the same moral compass that has guided our very best decisions in this country.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, 2018, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22518, Date Accessed: 10/19/2018 3:03:48 PM

Article Tools

Related Articles

Site License Agreement    
 Get statistics in Counter format