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The Good School
How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve
By Peg Tyre
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2011 Peg Tyre
All rights reserved.
THE PRESCHOLL SCRAMBLE
IN THE EARLY years of parenting, it seemed to Mai and Rush Ogden that the thorny questions never stopped coming. Of course, breast is best but is a sometimes bottle okay, too? Is Dr. Ferber a demigod sent to earth to preserve the sanity of new parents or a demon aiming to break the sacred bonds between parent and child? And what is the best way to lay down a time-out — one that hits the sweet spot between ineffectual finger wagging and Shock and Awe? When their son, Ian, turned three, the challenges of keeping him well fed, clean, dry, and safe gave way to long discussions about how to educate him. They weren't the only ones. The Ogdens realized that many of the thoughtful, well-educated couples they socialized with near their home in the Bay Area had become fixated on which preschool their child would attend. Neither Mai, a graphic designer, nor Rush, a mechanical engineer, who are both in their early forties, had attended preschool themselves. Mai set out to become an informed consumer. Already, Mai had found that parenting demanded that she balance short- and long-term concerns for her child. And choosing a preschool seemed to Mai to be a significant brushstroke in the Big Picture.
After talking to friends and a few weeks of virtual research, Mai had a short list of schools — four in all — that she wanted to visit. "There were several different kinds of schools but the one I was most drawn to marketed itself as a highly progressive program that stressed plenty of play. The Web site listed words like developmentally friendly and promised to teach kids what they were interested in," she recalled. After a series of school visits, Mai and Rush felt like they were pretty much back where they started. "I wanted to like the school that billed itself as progressive but to me it looked really disorganized. They made a huge deal about having a chicken for a class pet and growing food in their garden and then eating it — and that's all very nice — but the kids looked stressed out and the classrooms, which were filled with toys, were more like a messy playroom than a place for learning." To their surprise, the program they liked the best was a highly structured one that stressed academics. Children sat behind desks that were arranged in rows and faced the teacher's desk and a chalkboard. "It looked like an elementary school," says Mai.
Back home, the couple ran the tuition and fees for each program through their family budget; the prices were variable but one cost $15,000 a year and that was for a half day. They tried to figure out their best option. "It was a really hard, pressure-filled process," says Mai. "In the end, I realized that for all the research I'd done, and hours spent on school tours, I really didn't know what I was looking for or even the smartest questions to ask."
What kind of preschool should you choose for your child? It is a decision with big consequences. For many children, preschool will be their first opportunity to spend regular time with people who are not family. And, understandably, parents want to ensure that their child makes the transition easily. No one in their right mind believes that getting into a particular preschool (even the very best one in your town) will make a child a shoo-in for the Ivy League. Sorry to say, raising academically successful children isn't going to be that simple. And having a bad experience the first time out does not mean your child is doomed for school failure. Preschool, though, is the first footfall on a long and winding path toward becoming a well-educated adult. All parents want to do what they can to make sure that first step is a steady one.
If it feels like many of your friends are thinking, talking — okay, maybe even obsessing about this — it's because they are. A lot of middle-class kids now attend preschool. In 2009, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, 47 percent of all four-year-olds, roughly 3.7 million kids, attended some sort of preschool programming ranging from the federally funded Head Start, to state-supported preschools, to community-based for-profits, non-profits, and faith-based classes in church basements. Even as the Great Recession plays havoc with family budgets, the number of children attending preschool is growing. In moneyed urban areas — Manhattan, Los Angeles, Austin, Dallas, and the Gold Coast of Chicago — and in affluent suburbs, places where the population of advanced degree holders is most dense, getting into the right preschool has become a competitive sport. And along with that level of anxiety come the predictable excesses. Remember the name Jack Grubman? In 2003, court documents revealed that Grubman, then one of the nation's leading telecom stock analysts, upped the rating of AT&T, a stock he was supposed to be monitoring, as a favor to Wall Street tycoon Sanford Weill after Weill donated $1 million to a prestigious Manhattan preschool to pave the way for Grubman's kids to gain admission. In the end, Grubman lost his job. No word whether his kids learned a lot at preschool that year.
Wealthy parents without those kinds of rich and powerful friends have turned to hiring preschool admissions consultants. Often retired preschool directors themselves or college admissions counselors making money in the "off-season," they charge anxious moms and dads between $500 and $12,000 to steer their toddler's acceptance into the right program.
Not all preschool anxiety is quite this cartoonish. But even well-grounded parents can get sucked into the madness that surrounds landing a spot in an affordable, high-quality preschool for their child. Michelle Howell, thirty-six, a marketing consultant, and her husband, Chris Miller, forty, who is in sales, applied to a number of preschools in their Austin, Texas, neighborhood when Michelle was pregnant with their daughter, Sydney. They thought they had the game beat when she was accepted to one when she was just an infant. But then, as Sydney grew, both her parents saw that she would benefit from interaction with other children before she was three years old — the age that their preschool of choice began. So they applied to a short list of twos programs. Their first-choice preschool program accepted Sydney to their wait list — and asked the wait list families to come to the school on a particular day at 7:00 a.m. Chris was traveling and Michelle's nanny starts at 7:30, but Michelle asked her to come early. "I figured I wouldn't be the first one to arrive," said Michelle. "But when I got there I found a couple of parents in chairs with blankets." One father showed up at midnight with a lawn chair, an extra sweater, and a cooler, as if he were waiting for tickets to go on sale for the Super Bowl. Three moms had gotten there at 2:00 a.m. Michelle and Chris were shut out. Their second-choice program also accepted Sydney to the wait list, but in the end the program's twenty-six spots for twos were filled by siblings of already-enrolled students.
Grandparents, watching their competent, usually rational sons and daughters grow bewildered and frustrated over preschool choices, are often confused. "I don't understand the stress," said Barbara Cohen, sixty-four, of Margate, New Jersey, who has watched her daughters, Dana, thirty-nine, and Stephanie, thirty-five, agonize over finding good preschools for Barbara's four grandchildren. "I think (my daughters) are getting caught up in a cycle: their friends are doing research and it's like a contagious condition. They stress more than necessary. They second-guess themselves. They question it. They rehash it." Back when she was a young mother, Barbara says, it seemed like there were fewer choices. She sent her children to the Jewish Y. "And that was it."
Barbara Cohen is right. There are more choices than ever before. What she may not realize is that for parents today, it pays to be particular.
When you visit a preschool, it's hard to see past the endearing and hopeful aspects of nearly any program. Four-year-old human beings — small, active, frank, wide-eyed, and endlessly curious — seem almost by design to fascinate and delight us. To the untrained eye, all but the most troubled programs look like reasonably happy places. What we know, though, is that all preschools are not created equal. There is good data to suggest that our gauzy and trusting perceptions of preschool can hide a troubling reality: there are badly run preschools or badly run classrooms within an otherwise acceptable preschool.
In his work at the Child Study Center in New Haven, Connecticut, Walter Gilliam, a Yale University professor of child psychiatry and psychology, collects data from 3,898 preschools nationwide. In 2004, following a hunch, he added a few questions to the annual survey he sends to preschools, querying them about their expulsion rates. The results he collected shocked him — and later, the nation. It turns out that there are a whole lot of children who experience preschool — which should be a joyous phase of exploration and expanding horizons — as a dark time indeed. When he analyzed his data, he found that children in preschool are three times more likely to get expelled than children in kindergarten through twelfth grade. Expulsion rates were lowest in preschool classrooms in public schools and Head Start, and highest in faith-affiliated centers, for-profit child care, and other community-based child care settings.
Mark and Stacy Ambrose, thirty-five and thirty-two, respectively, who live outside of Nashville, Tennessee, didn't know kids could get expelled from preschool until it happened to their daughter. They were thrilled when their daughter, Marcella, entered the fours program run by an exclusive private school in their area. Stacy and Mark, who owns a chain of dry-cleaning businesses, weren't ready to commit to paying for private school from pre-K to year twelve. That decision depended on the economy, the profits from Mark's business, and if and when Stacy, a lawyer turned stay-at-home mom, went back to work. But they figured that enrolling their daughter in preschool at the school would give them a leg up in the competitive admissions process. Which made it all the more surprising when Marcella, who was initially thrilled at the idea of school, began to balk at going in the morning. "She's a spirited child and has strong ideas about how she wants to play, but she's a wonderful kid. We couldn't figure out what was wrong," says Stacy.
To get to the bottom of the problem, Stacy started staying late after drop-off, finding ways to "volunteer" in the classroom, and arriving for pickup time early. The teacher, she noticed, emphasized a great deal of quiet — sometimes even silent — seatwork. Each class had indoor and outdoor playtime, but Marcella's teacher spent nearly a half an hour marshaling the children for the two-minute walk to the outdoor play space. "I could hear the teacher barking commands all the time like 'line up,' 'walk in twos,' 'don't talk,' 'sit down,' 'don't fidget,' 'play quietly,'" says Stacy. "By the end of the day, Marcella seemed like a bottle of shaken-up soda, ready to fizzle over!"
While Stacy says she never observed the teacher yelling directly at Marcella, the teacher seemed frustrated with her child's unwillingness to follow her constant commands. Stacy worried that Marcella's behavior was becoming the focus of the class. Stacy asked for a meeting with the teacher, got nowhere, and then had a meeting with the preschool head, who told them that Marcella had trouble following directions, a trait the couple rarely encountered at home.
As weeks went on, the Ambroses' cheerful, happy daughter turned mopey and miserable. She argued with other children. One day, she even bit another child in class — something she hadn't done since she was a toddler in diapers. The preschool head called Stacy in and asked her to withdraw Marcella. "I couldn't believe my ears. She was getting kicked out! We were devastated," said Stacy. "It was horrible to think that she had failed at her first foray into formal learning."
At their best, preschools can improve kids' social skills and have some positive effect on children's academic achievement, at least in the early years of their education (the long-lasting effects are less clear). Many policy makers believe that preschool is a crucial part of a strategy to close the achievement gap between poor kids and middle-class kids by making sure that children from homes where reading and math are not emphasized get enough early learning to be ready for kindergarten. What often remains unacknowledged, however, is evidence that suggests that for some kids, preschool has a distinct downside. In a 2005 analysis, researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, found that kindergartners who had attended thirty or more hours of preschool every week were less motivated and more aggressive in class. Probably not the outcome parents were hoping for when they camped out overnight to make sure their child got a spot in a coveted program.
How do you determine which preschools to put on your short list? The first and most obvious step is checking out the Web site. But you may not get the best information there. For starters, some preschool programs can claim to be a certain kind of school and are actually certified as purveyors of that approach. Others can claim to be and aren't. For example, a preschool that calls itself a Waldorf school or a Rudolph Steiner program is evaluated by a governing body that measures that school against specific standards and practices. On the other hand, a school can call itself a Montessori program, and many do, without knowing a single thing about the educational philosophy developed by Dr. Maria Montessori.
The cursory "school tour" is often not that much more helpful. A smiling representative from the school describes a program as "developmentally appropriate," "play-based," "progressive," or "hands-on," and that seems reasonable enough when you are surrounded by other nodding parents. But when you are sitting alone in your car in the parking lot, you end up asking yourself, What does it really mean? How can we judge a program whose stated aim is to "improve school readiness"? It sounds good, but what the Ogdens at the start of this chapter discovered is that those terms can mean radically different things in different places. For example, preschools that claim to teach "reading readiness" run the gamut: a classroom where children are exposed to pictures of letters posted above the blackboard or a program where they are seated at a desk twice a day filling out phonics worksheets. Yet those different approaches to reading readiness could have a significant impact on your child.
In the pages that follow, you'll learn how to look beyond the boilerplate description to figure out what makes a quality preschool. First, we'll look at how ideas about early education have evolved. The preschool programs available to your son or daughter are a result of some deeply held — and in some ways deeply conflicting — views on childhood and childhood learning. It's helpful to know where some of these ideas come from before you can evaluate the three most important things about a preschool: the quality of the teacher, the quality of curriculum, and whether the school is delivering instruction in a way that is thoughtful, deliberate, and appropriate for your child.
By the end of this chapter, you'll have enough information to slice through the jargon on the Web site and look past the admissions director's sales pitch. You'll be able to fire off some meaningful questions during your school tour. You'll be able to analyze the underlying assumptions that the school is making about the kids they serve — and better figure out if it is a good fit for your family. By the time your child is ready to start preschool, you're still going to be filled with joy, hopefulness, anxiety, and a whale-size case of the oh-my-gosh-where-is-the-time-going nostalgia. But you'll also know a little bit more about what your child is getting into when she says good-bye and heads into her first classroom.
Excerpted from The Good School by Peg Tyre. Copyright © 2011 Peg Tyre. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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