I saw in the news last week that legislation is getting passed to change the management structure of the Red Cross. I actually have nothing to say about any of that. I know there's been lots of criticism of the Red Cross, and maybe some of it is deserved, but generally speaking I tend to think the American Red Cross is a perfectly fine organization.
Except when it comes to the health and safety aspect, the swimming program in particular. In that respect I have a lot to complain about, and now that I'm going to have to fill out report cards for my students next week my frustrations are bubbling to the fore.
When I was a kid of swim lesson age (say between 1980-91) the Red Cross swimming lessons were structured as "Beginner," "Advanced Beginner," "Intermediate," "Swimmer," and "Advanced Swimmer." These were serviceable levels, except at the lower end when there would be a big bottleneck because the requirements to pass Beginner were a little too steep. For example, I remember having to swim 10 yards or so with the crawl stroke, without stopping, to pass, which took me at least three different 3-week classes to manage. These steep requirements meant that in a Beginner class you would have kids who could get their heads wet, prone float, and do a rudimentary crawl stroke mixed in with kids who might not even be willing to put their faces in the water. That's an enormous range of abilities. But apart from this problem with the Beginner requirements the rest of the curriculum generally made sense, as new skills were added later on (e.g., elementary backstroke in Advanced Beginner and sidestroke in Intermediate) but not before previous ones were reasonably mastered.
In the early 90s the Red Cross redid the entire curriculum, doing away with those class tiers and replacing them with Levels I through VI (give or take, as I think the numbers may have shifted over the years). What was good about this change was that now Level I was truly a beginner class for all the basic water acclimation skills kids needed to have before they could even begin to learn proper strokes. So by Level II in theory you'd have kids who were now really ready to learn to swim. Except that's not the way it's actually worked out. Given the almost negligible passing requirements of Level I, in Level II you still get kids that aren't necessarily ready to swim, but it turns out they aren't really expected to anyway because the requirements for passing Level II are also very low. Which means the bottleneck has simply moved to Level III, which requires decent mastery of the crawl stroke - a very difficult stroke to master - as well as the beginnings of all sorts of other strokes, including the butterfly(!)
All of this is completely unrealistic. For one, even if you were to decide that the crawl stroke should not be put together until Level III, which is awfully late, neither of the preceding two levels effectively require mastery of any of the basic skills that go into it. Meanwhile, Level III just has way too much to cover. As it is you could fill an entire 8-10 session course with instruction in the crawl stroke alone. First you have to ensure that the students can do a good prone float that keeps them on top of the water (some kids end up submerged, which will prevent the arm strokes from being successful). Then you have to make sure that they can kick with straight enough legs to not affect their buoyancy. Then you have to make sure that when they do their arm strokes they are able to generate enough momentum (as well as perform out-of-the-water recovery). With all that, then you can add the side breathing, for which you will need to have done drills on breath control so that they'll have any hope of being able to coordinate the timing. Which itself is hard to master, as is proper positioning of the head and proper form of the arms and legs. But because none of the earlier levels even require more than exposure to these elemental skills, they're forced to work on them all, plus the skill on the whole, in Level III. Where they also must now learn all sorts of new strokes (e.g., back crawl, elementary backstroke, butterfly). Unfortunately there simply isn't time to cover all of it. (There's barely enough time to teach all these things, let alone give the kids time to practice them). Now, if you're at a facility where you'll see a kid over the course of the summer, you might be able to cover everything eventually. But kids come and go and change instructors, classmates, and facilities. The courses have to be standard enough so that the levels will all be taught the same wherever they go. And I don't think they can be, at least not if the teaching is going to be effective.
Furthermore, there was another significant change in the 1990s that was also ill-advised, and that is the shift away from water survival skills to competitive swimming skills. For instance, back crawl is taught before elementary backstroke. And while the flutter kick that goes with the back crawl is potentially easier to do than the whip kick, the arm strokes for the back crawl are pretty difficult for little people to do well. Plus, like any stroke involving out-of-the-water arm recovery, it burns up much more energy than one (like elementary backstroke) where the arms can stay under the surface. But instead of these more efficient strokes, kids are now sooner taught the skills they need to be on a swim team. But wouldn't the swim team itself be in a better position to teach them? Not every kid goes on to swim competitively, and those that don't will need survival strokes more than they'll need competitive strokes. Unfortunately their aquatic education is now co-opted by these other students, even though by virtue of being on the swim team they will have an opportunity then to learn what they'll need to know for it.
Which is not to say that I think it's a good thing no one taught me the butterfly under the original Red Cross curriculum. On retrospect I would have gladly done away with some of the former Swimmer and Advanced Swimmer strokes like the trudgeon, and even perhaps the inverted breaststroke, and instead have learned the butterfly. But there's no reason the butterfly should be taught anywhere before Level IV, preferably Level V, and certainly not before the basic crawl stroke, breaststroke, sidestroke, elementary backstroke and even regular back crawl have been learned to the point that only more practice is needed for any remaining issues of form to be corrected. Students may not be able to go blazingly fast with all of them, but they should be able to go pretty far.
Perhaps the thinking is that because kids don't always progress through the entire Red Cross curriculum, it's better to frontload lots of skills while they're still around so at least if next summer they don't come back they'll have learned lots of basics. But I think the way the curriculum is set up it undermines that goal because it causes too much time to be wasted. For instance Level II, as it's currently constructed, is a waste of time. And Level III has too much in it, so advanced students have to waste their time waiting for their classmates to catch up. It puts instructors in a terrible position, because we may have kids ready for the new strokes, but we can't get there because other kids in the class are still trying to get the basic pieces of the front crawl down.
What's at least good about the Red Cross is that it does reassess the curriculum from time to time and make changes to it. My point is that it needs to do so in response to these issues, and below the fold I articulate specifically how the current level requirements need to be changed. What with 15+ years or so of experience teaching actual kids, and having had a valid Water Safety Instructor certificate since 1991, I think I know what I'm talking about.