Education =/= Panic

GoodBooksThis is apparently true: a Long Island elementary school cancelled the annual-year end kindergarten show because it would distract the kindergarteners from preparing for college.

I’m not as surprised by this as I might have been twenty years ago or so. At that time, when I was living in New York City and my husband and I were looking for a preschool for our older daughter, we were told–with a straight face–by the head of a Montessori school that my kid couldn’t hope to get into Harvard without the help her fine preschool.  I don’t doubt that it was, and still is, a fine preschool.  But my daughter was a little over two, and my goals (written on the application, which we ultimately decided not to submit) were for her to socialize with her peers, learn to work in groups, use her words, and perhaps be reading-ready by the time she reached kindergarten age.  I don’t think we were the audience for this particular school.

Flash forward twenty years: this fall my younger daughter, like millions of 18-year-olds around the nation, applied to colleges.  I’m proud of her grit and determination in slogging through the process and coming through the other end–if you haven’t had to go through this in the last decade or so, I gotta tell you, it’s different than it was when I was her age.  And here’s one huge, and to my mind, negative change.  The rhetoric surrounding academic accomplishment has gotten so shrill and anxious that it’s taken a toll on the students it’s meant to help and encourage.

What rhetoric?  It’s gone way beyond “do your best and shoot for the stars,” to railing about the demands of the the work place in the 21st century, and being competitive, and how much is riding on every grade and every extra curricular. The message is, consistently: Don’t Screw Up, Everything Counts, You Only Get One Chance, Oh My God Omigod omigod we’re all gonna die…

These days, starting as young as in preschool, the message that many kids are given is that they have to do everything right because it is all on their permanent record, and if they mess up any little thing their lives will be ruined.  This message has been aided and abetted by the dreadful No Child Left Behind program, where everything was about the Test, including your school’s standing and your teachers’ livelihoods.  That my kids emerged from this system with an interest in learning (as well as strong math and writing/reading skills) is a tribute to the teachers who managed to shoehorn learning, and a little of their own passion for their subjects, into the test prep that their classes often became.  Is this stressful?  I’d say yes, for students, teachers, administrators, and the parents as well.

High school is a hard time. Increasingly ambitious course loads,  the miracle of hormones, school politics, and racking up extra-curricular brownie points, and these days Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat and lives lived much more publicly than they were when I was a teen.  Imagine all that…plus the pressure of having to do it all right or else.  Shudder.

Canceling a two-day kindergarten show because your students have to get ready for college and a career sounds like madness to me.  Like “your child won’t get in to Harvard without a rigorous preschool education” sounds like madness to me.  I understand that no one wants the US to become a third-rate power, academically.  I’m a huge fan of education.  But I’m also a huge fan of curiosity, and trying things out, and seeking information for its own sake.  Are we raising, instead, a nation of kids whose curiosity and native love of learning is being ground into dust?  When do kids get to try out a class they might not do well in, or try a sport in which they’re not necessarily going to do well, or pick up an instrument (and maybe put it down again), if not in school, before the pressures of earning a living and being a citizen start up?

I don’t know the answer.  I sure have a lot of questions, though.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Education =/= Panic — 9 Comments

  1. There is a crises in public education in the United States, but it didn’t happen organically. It was manufactured by the same critics who want to close down the public schools and replace them with corporate run factory schools. The reason: PROFIT. The U.S. spends about $700 billion annually to fund its public schools and most of that money is raised through taxes in each state.

    The war against the public schools started decades ago in the late 1970s or early 1980s about the time I started teaching. During the 30 years I taught (1975 – 2005) mostly middle school and high school English, a few years of high school journalism and two years of high school reading in a high school surrounded with poverty that was dominated by mulch-generational and dangerous street gangs, I experienced this war as it escalated.

    In the beginning, the Walton family was the driving force behind the manufactured crises in the U.S. schools. Today the economic, corporate forces behind this fake crises have added to their ranks: Bill Gates, the Walton family, the Koch brothers, Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, several Hedge Fund billionaires and different political and/or religious factions who have agendas of their own that may be profit driven or driven by a desire to control what their kids learn. For instance, fundamentalist, evangelical Christians who want their kids to be taught only what the Bible says about creation and leave out science.

    And “the dreadful No Child Left Behind program” isn’t alone. President Obama launched his “Race to the Top” and “Common Core Standards” and they are much worse.

    “Race to the Top” mandates by law that every child in the United States by college ready by age 17/18 and the target year to achieving this is this year, 2014. The program rolled out about three to four years ago and the public school were told they had to catch every child up or face being labeled failures.

    But the horror story doesn’t end there. Once schools are labeled failures, teaches may be fired, public schools closed and turned over to corporations owned by families, for instance, the Walton family, who will then be in charge of teaching our children but the parents will be cut out.

    Instead of democratically elected school boards being in charge of transparent 13,600 public school districts in the United States, our 50+ million children will be going to opaque corporate schools run by distant CEOs, many who may be Hedge Fund billionaires bankrolling the start up money for the schools.

    Under President Bush’s No Child Left Behind, the public schools weren’t in danger of being turned over to people like Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, the Walton family or Hedge Fund billionaires, but soon after Obama became president and he passed his Race to the Top” legislation, the public schools were put on notice that they were going to be replaced. The roll out of this program was done under secrecy. The Obama administration partnered with Bill Gates, the Hedge Fund billionaires and with one giant corporation that would end up supplying all the material the schools would be required to use in the nations classrooms.

    But this isn’t a secret any more. Back in 2011, the alarm went off but it was difficult to get the traditional media to report it so it has been spreading organically through the social media of the internet.

    If you’re curious and you want to visit resistance central, I suggest you go to Diane Ravitch’s Blog @ and star reading her daily posts. You may even want to read her latest book, “Reign of Error”.

    Diane Ravitch was the Assistant US Secretary of Education under G. W. Bush and one of the architects of No Child Left Behind (she has a PhD in the history of education), and then one day while doing research she discoverer the plot that would lead to the end of democratic public education in the US and did a 180 degree shift to sound the alarm.

    She launched her Blog back in 2012, and it’s approaching almost 12 million views and her allies are growing: parent groups that opt their children out of these insane Common Core tests, teacher activism, even the Tea Party people have joined the resistance mainly because they are against big government and this means the feds will control how and what our children are taught. The plan calls for the public schools to be replaced by corporations that will profit from the taxes that fund the public schools. It’s already happening in cities and states across the country.

    Recently, Texas was one of the first states to rebel and refuse to cooperate with Washington, but that hasn’t stopped on Hedge Fund billionaire, who worked for Enron but quit before the company went bankrupt, trying to take over the Dallas school district and have it turned over to his private Charter school corporation. Parents and teachers in Dallas are fighting this Hedge Fund guy and they defeated one of his attempts but he recently came back in another attempt to achieve his profit driven goal of taking over an entire city’s schools.

    Texas was soon followed by Washington State and others. We don’t hear much about these battled in the main stream media because the main stream media is owned by six corporation that have a big stake in winning this war to take over teaching our children.

    Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, has threatened these states with the loss of federal fund from his department but the Washington State legislature basically told him to “F” off in an almost unanimous vote.

    One Fox conservative talk show host who has even defied his master, Rupert Murdock, who ha also invested big in this take over of public education, is Glenn Beck who hates what’s going on.

    Beck’s done a series of shows on this topic and here’s one you may want to watch:

    I seldom agree with Beck’s opinions but in this case, I do agree. In this issue, we are all on the same page—to keep our democratic schools in the hands of the people and not Bill Gates, the Walton family, the Koch brothers or Hedge Fund billionaires.

  2. Much of the ‘be perfect OR ELSE’ attitude directed at children and youth flows downhill from the job market. Employers have so many applicants for every first-after-education entry-level job that they skim off the best of the best at the expense of everyone else.

    Employers have had their pick of new graduates for so long that demands on youth to enter the workforce have reached the level of requiring perfect grades, perfect extra-curriculars, and the ability to survive during long unpaid internships with no promise of future paid work.

    In this environment, it’s not wrong to tell youth that they must be perfect at every stage of their academic careers because youth who don’t meet this standard won’t be permitted to land on job tracks that lead to secure employment.

    The way to give children and youth their childhoods back–so they can experiment without fear of throwing their futures away–is to tighten the entry-level labor market so that employers don’t have the power to consign graduates to lives of ditch digging for being less than perfect.

  3. While it’s true that about half of college graduates land jobs in the field they majored in that doesn’t mean the rest go without a job. The reason half don’t end up working the major of their choice is often because they made a poor choice. There are jobs in the United States where there are shortages of skilled labor that don’t require a college education. For instance being a machine set in manufacturing as these jobs returns to the United States from overseas.

    The colleges are doing okay as they are (if they adjust they do so from market forces and demands of the public—-not the federal government or the Bill Gates of the world who think they know all the answers for everyone else) and the public schools don’t need to become book camp nightmares for kids. The best strategy the US could employ would be to implement early childhood literacy and basic math programs that would be mandatory for all children starting at age 3 for parents who live in poverty. The way to identify these children is if the family is collecting food stamps and/or are on welfare. These early childhood literacy/general math programs should be for maybe an hour or two daily five days a week and be designed to instill a love of reading in these children who are often the segment of children in school that are the most difficult to teach. In fact, these programs could be held in local community libraries by coordinating with the librarians.

    In addition, class sizes in public schools should equal class sizes in the best private and/or private sector charter schools which is about 12 kids a class, I think.

    In Finland, the kids enjoy school because they are not pressured to do well on super secret standardized tests orchestrated by the federal government with permission from the White House that are used to doom your life if you fail, fire teachers and close community schools.

  4. I don’t think everyone should go to college. For some people it is the perpetuation of a kind of learning that doesn’t work for them, leading to the possibility of a job that won’t work for them either. On the other hand I will defend to the death the right of a college student to study something that interests them, rather than something that appears to suit them for a particular job (okay: lawyers, doctors, engineers–some of these things have significant undergraduate prerequisites). My degree is in theatre (although I had almost enough English classes to have majored in English, which has come in handy from time to time). I was not gorgeous, and not sublimely talented, but I was a hell of a stage manager, and got a lot of practice at it. Those are the skills that I have taken with me into every job I’ve ever had, and allowed me to flourish.

    It is not surprising that one of the success narratives of our time is that of the barely-graduated-from-high-school genius who had the creative insight to start a business and grow it into a powerful corporation. If we’re grooming kids to go to work for employers like those powerful corporations, maybe there should be a little more emphasis on that creative insight–which includes permission to try, fail, try, and fail better.

  5. I agree. Everyone doesn’t have to go to college. In fact, there isn’t a country in the world where 100% of high school graduates go to college. And in South Korea with one of the highest college graduation rates in the world, there are a lot of college graduates who are either unemployed or working in jobs that a high school graduate could do.

    If the U.S. is really a country of choice—and the fake education reformers use the idea of “choice” a lot to make their case that kids should be able to pick the school they attend as if they were out shopping for candy or clothes—then why are they taking away or limiting choice for kids graduating from high school when it comes to college choices.

    As it stands, most parents have the ability to choose where they live and what public schools their kids attend. There’s a lot of information about schools to help parents who are involved to make this choice. My wife and I selected the city where we’ve lived for more than ten years based on the schools where our daughter went to 7th through 12 grade—she’s graduating from Stanford this year and already has a job.

    That was a choice we made as parents, and the schools were public schools that did a great job. After all, she did get into Stanford, a university that rejects about 93% of its annual applicants.

    And in those public schools, our daughter had to take the core courses that were required for high school graduation (as mandated by the legislature), but she also had choices in electives and academic clubs she joined in addition to joining sports (her choice was pole vault). This idea that we need school choice as if we were going out to shop at Wal-Mart or Target or the buy a shirt is stupid.

    Parents that care make choices of where to live and the schools they want their children to attend and the kids who go to those schools make choices too.

    And what will replace the public schools if they are closed as the fake education reformers want.

    Will we get to choose between a Walton family charter school where the class sizes will e 50+ with teachers who are paid poverty wages with no health care or retirement, or a Hedge Fund charter school where the CEO that runs them is paid a half million annually, or a Bill Gates charter school where there’s test for even using the bathroom, or a Koch brothers charter school where they teach that global warming is not caused by CO2 and little or no government is better, or the local fundamentalist Christian charter school that teaches science from the Bible instead of from science books?

    Imagine making a choice between that list?

  6. If they’re economically disadvantaged, parents really may not have much choice about where they live and where their children go to school. My daughter went to a grade school where more than 90% of the students were eligible for free lunch. The school was pretty much 60% Latino English-language learners, and 39% Asian English-language learners. As it happened, it was a terrific school: excellent teachers, a truly committed and fierce principal. But just as many parents–especially if their English is not good (or is non-existent)–can’t negotiate the SFUSD system. Their kids go to the “neighborhood school.” Some neighborhood schools in San Francisco are terrific, but those are often the schools with middle class parents advocating for them. And it may be that these parents can’t live anywhere else, for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with how good they are as parents or how much they care.

    We chose to live in a city (San Francisco, and before that, New York City) in part because we wanted our kids to grow up in a city (I’m a city kid. I swear by it). Living in a city has allowed us to get by with only one car, to let our kids take ownership of the place they live by learning to get around on their own, to take advantage of a lot of what their neighborhood and the city as a whole has to offer. It has not been perfect, but it’s been overall a good thing. This has meant that we’ve been very involved in the schools they went to, and in the process of selecting those schools. Our choices are not everyone’s–but then, everyone else’s choices would not be ours, either.

  7. Madeleine,

    From your comment, it’s obvious that the involvement of parents in the schools makes a BIG difference in the success of a school. If there are enough supportive parents regardless of the poverty level, from your experience, most if not all of the teachers at the school do a good job teaching. I think just knowing there are parents who care helps teachers get beyond those who don’t.

    But it’s still up to the kids to learn and the parents to support the teachers and provide an environment at home where the children may continue to learn.

    I taught for 27 of the 30 years I was a classroom teacher in an area mired in poverty in a community dominated by violent street gangs, and in every class I taught, there were kids who paid attention, asked questions, did the work and learned but there were also too many kids who did the opposite and fought the teachers every step of the way.

    About 80% of the students at those schools were on free and/or reduced lunch/breakfast program, and almost half were ESL kids with a Latino/Hispanic ratio between 70-80% with 8% Asian, 8% black and 8% white (the rest were listed as other). That was about 10 years ago. Last time I looked the blacks and whites were almost gone.

    And according to President Obama’s Race to the Top and the draconian testing regime that comes with the tragically flawed Common Core standards teachers will be fired and public schools closed because of the kids who do not cooperate and who may live in dysfunctional environments with unsupportive parents when it comes to learning.

  8. The testing standards, from No Child Left Behind through Race to the Top, remind me of a line from the Woody Allen film Bananas: “All children under 16 years old–are now sixteen years old.” As if saying you’re going to be ready to go to college is the same thing as being ready.

  9. Yes, it’s like saying everyone will be ready just because Bill Gates and the White House say so. After all, they wrote that into the Common Core standards’ draconian punishment for teachers who don’t get all children ready by age 17/18 as if kids grow and develop at the same speed.

    What does this say about Bill Gates and the Obama White House and what is their “REAL” agenda here?