Academics should NOT be the primary element in elementary education.
Current practice in most schools along with the ideas of the authors of No Child Left Behind and other high stakes testing advocates makes mastery of symbol manipulation behaviors (a.k.a. academics or the 3R's) into the paramount concern of elementary schools.
This has had the effect of marginalizing effective alternative schooling models that have proven success in a variety of communities around the world for decades.
Howard Gardner in his 1995 book The Unschooled Mind describes how academic symbol manipulation behavior came into prominence,
Once the importance of symbols had been recognized within the academy, researchers concerned with human development reached a consensus that this period of development [the early childhood/elementary school years] is best termed a time of 'symbolic mastery.'
Such otherwise disparate scholars as Jean Piaget, Heinz Werner, Alexander Luria, and Jerome Bruner would all concur with this characterization.Indeed, so great is the consensus that one wonders whether possibly everyone may inexplicably have overlooked some competing issue-- one as manifest as the prose that was missed by Monsieur Jourdain [a character in Moliere's play Le bourgeois gentilhomme who was shocked to discover that he had all his life been unknowingly speaking in prose.]
Gardner is, in fact, correct in his speculation that everyone (including himself) has inexplicably overlooked a fundamental issue. That issue is commonly known as attitude, or more technically known by the rubrics of social/emotional/interpersonal/intrapersonal intelligences.
The premature consensus on the primacy of symbol manipulation behaviors overlooks the evolutionary primacy of our species hundreds of thousands of years of social group development.
This consensus puts the past fifteen thousand years in which symbol manipulation behaviors have developed in a dominant position in schools that diminishes the opportunities children would otherwise have to consolidate their more fundamental social skills.
Yes, symbol manipulation is important, but being an accomplished member of a cohesive group is a fundamental pre-requisite to being able to skillfully apply symbol manipulation behaviors to good effect within a particular social context.
This way of thinking about education means that the most fundamental element in elementary education should be the social structure in which the children are embedded.
What kind of social skills are we developing in children when they are embedded in a behavioral dictatorship?
I realize that most teachers do not like to have their classrooms characterized as dictatorships, but having the power to dictate behavior is a dictatorship even if the dictator has benevolent intentions and refrains from using that power.
No matter how much a teacher explicitly disavows their power to dictate, the hidden curriculum of school policies that bestow that power are still teaching the lessons of dictatorship.
The existing alternative education cultures that are marginalized in what passes for debate on educational issues is the democratic education movement.
Democratic schools embed children in behavioral democracies.
Children learn what it means to be a member of a community in which everyone has the right to have their grievances heard and to have the grief they cause others to be addressed directly by the judgment of their community.
And it turns out that this kind of democratic schooling implicitly turns academics into a practical social advantage that all the children eventually learn. Daniel Greenberg, one of the co-founders of Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, MA, USA, has written about how efficiently and effectively academics can be conveyed in the context of democracy.
There are hundreds of democratic schools around the world that put attitude first and consistently facilitate their graduates transition to becoming good, contributing citizens beyond their school.