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June 17, 2003

Reader Request #4: Testing Preschoolers

Reader Alina asks my opinion on a wacky thing they're doing out there in New York City: Testing kids to get them accepted to elite preschools. She writes, in part:

"Basically, in New York City, three and four year olds take the ERB's or, as I call them, Baby SAT's, which you then submit to the private (and some public) schools of your choice. It is, of course, imperative to go to a private school, because the right pre-school puts you on the road to Harvard. The wrong one, I presume, leads to... um... Brown?

Now, my husband and I have a young lad who turns four next week. He is a fine young lad, to be sure (except for the whining and the food spilling and the general acting like an almost-four year old). But is he Harvard material? How the heck should I know! Not to mention the fact that, my feeling is, if he wants to go to Harvard, let him figure out his own road to getting there - isn't that part of the fun?

So, I guess what I'm asking John is, not only how do you feel about testing the pre-school crowd, but the whole concept of parents wanting to give their kids 'the best advantages.' And what are those 'best advantages,' anyway?"

I feel sorry for the preschoolers being tested, basically. I'm a tremendous believer in the value of education, even and especially at an early age, but I also think this sort of thing is rather more about status than it is anything else, and that's of course a big problem. Your average three or four year old is not going to lay awake nights wondering what the neighbors will think if he doesn't get into a particular preschool -- or if he does, his parents need to be taken out behind the brownstone and brained with a squash racquet. In many fundamental ways, one of the goals of parents should be to shield their egos from their children. If junior doesn't get into a particular preschool his parents need him to go to for their own purposes, he's going to know that his parents are disappointed in him, he just won't be able to understand why. That's a grand way to mess up your kid from an early age.

I'd also be worried that all this testing and competitive pre-school hoo-hah grinds into a child at a very early, critical age is that learning is work rather than fun. If you're three and your parents are drilling you mercilessly with flash cards so you can pass a test you don't understand for a goal that's conceptually beyond your grasp, what's going to be your takeaway from the whole learning experience? Primarily that it's a pointless grind, and that's it's no fun. And somewhere along the way, the kid is going to wake up to the realization that he or she is expecting to pitch in to this pointless grind for another couple of decades. That's not going to be a happy day for that kid. And what follows from there aren't going to be happy days for the parents.

My daugher is four. She can read and write, she can add and subtract, she knows the name of all the planets and tell you a little bit about each of them and she's known how to operate her own computer since the age of about sixteen months. She's curious about the world and how and why things work and she asks a lot of questions and makes a lot of observations. There are a number of reasons why she's as aware and engaged as she is, and I think one of them is the philosophy of her parents regarding her education at this point, which is: Offer but don't insist. Encourage but don't require. Make it fun, not work.

That's the best advantage you can give your kids, really: The understanding that learning can be a pleasurable experience rather than just another chore to get through. Which is why even if I lived in New York City, I wouldn't be bothering with having Athena tested to get accepted for preschool. It just doesn't seem like it would be much fun for her. And anyway she's got lots of time for standarized testing later. At age four, I'm happy just to let her play. This joy for life and learning will serve her later in life, as she's blowing past all the people who ground away so long as kids that they never learned how to do much of anything else.

(Remember I'm still taking topic suggestions for Reader Appreciation Week! Make your suggestions in the message thread here.)

Posted by john at June 17, 2003 02:22 PM

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Brennan | June 17, 2003 05:47 PM

I think that's my favorite Athena picture yet.

MadJayhawk | June 23, 2003 12:48 PM

I agree that young children need to play. Unfortunately too many of them continue to play and expect to play throughout their entire school experience.

The most important thing for a child to learn is to develop plans and goals then complete them.

True happiness, someone told me, is weeding a garden. I have raised one goal-oriented child and one scatterbrained one. Both were equally Lake Woebegone intelligent. Both are now happy in their own adult ways, but the scatterbrained one has waves of severe unhappiness and pain roll into his life quite often because he does not plan, has no long term goals, and completes very few tasks. The goal-oriented child happily goes through her adult life enjoying things as she checks off things on her Palm's to-do list. The dayplanner kid doesn't know today is Monday. The planner went off to Northwestern; the day-by-dayer works in a gas station. To me there is a difference between doing and accomplishing. One of our kids learned how to accomplish things and feel good about that as a small child and the other didn't. One kid would set aside time to weed the garden at the proper time and then do it completely and the other child would only do it when the weeds were 2 feet high and then only finish half of it because some friends wanted to go to a movie. As parents we tried but we didn't know and no one from the government told us.

Consider home schooling. Schools stink. Teachers stink. The system stinks. If your child is exceptional she will be held down. If she cannot do the work, she will be socially passed on as if her inabilities in a subject matter will miraculously disappear the next year. If she learns how con the educational system (many of them do - out of laziness or for fun) she can get through the public educational maze without being educated while being aided and abetted by her friendly sometimes overworked, sometimes imcomptent teachers. It is a real danger. Look at the debates about the FCAT test in Florida. Kids who have gotten straight A's cannot pass the test!! They, of course, blame the test.

If you do not homeschool, watch what goes on in your child's classroom very closely. Get your child out of the incomptent teacher's class quickly especially in grades K-5 before they can waste a whole year. 3rd Grade ruined my son and I knew it was happening but as a good citizen I didn't say anything. The woman was a lazy con artist witch. Get in the school system's face. Early and often. That is why testing is a good idea. A child and a teacher cannot con a test.

Look at your school's Objectives. If the words "self esteem" appear anywhere in those objectives, run, don't walk, to the nearest door and start researching how to home school your child. Schools that overly focus on building children's self esteem do not focus on educating children. If properly done, a child will develop self esteem by learning to accomplish things that they said they were going to do.

Sorry to lecture about this. I get passionate about education. I have seen what it did for my daughter and what it did to my son. Our country is going to educational hell. Parents need to stand up and tell school boards they are not going to take it anymore.