Ask most school-age children and parents what September means to them and they conjure up images of shiny new notebooks, pencils and sneakers. They think of first-day-of-school jitters, getting up early after sleeping in all summer, and bright beginnings amid fading foliage and crisp fall air.
But for those of us with children entering transitional school years -- end of pre-school, 5th, 8th or 12th grade -- our focus is not on the here and now, but where our children will be this time next year. My son just started 8th grade in a New York City public school, and we, like other 8th grade families, are scheduling specialized high school exam prep sessions, poring over a high school directory the size of a metro area phone book, and maintaining constant surveillance of 15 to 20 school Web sites, waiting for signs of access to scarce and coveted fall tours. We started school this year applying for the next school, and we are not alone.
Thousands of parents around the city and country are about to be sucked into the zone of school choice anxiety -- a space where all the stresses of parenting in the early 21st century are magnified tenfold and thrown in our faces every day.
The stakes seem incredibly high, as if our children’s entire fate rests in this one decision. We lose sleep thinking about the cost of failure in a process that is not entirely under our control -- a process in which a late mouse click can shut you out of a tour of your child’s favorite high school, significantly reducing their chances of getting in despite high grades and test scores.
How did we get here? Mounting evidence suggests that our experiences as parents shepherding our children through the educational system today differs starkly from that of our parents. That system has changed dramatically to become more competitive and cutthroat. And even when we are not making critical school choice decisions, we are raising children in an era of unprecedented inequality, which in turn places extreme pressure on families and schools. This is especially true for more educated, high income parents who worry their children will have less -- a clear violation of the American Dream.
Over the last 30 years, the United States has become a much more unequal country. Our middle class has eroded, and more people are either on the high or low end of the income distribution, with more at the bottom than the top. Those of us in the upper 10 percent -- e.g. families with annual incomes of more than $164,000 -- suffer from what Barbara Ehrenreich, the author, has called a fear of falling. And we have come to believe that one important way for our children to maintain a toehold in the upper-middle class is through high-status educational credentials.
Couple this with an educational system obsessed with narrow measures of achievement -- mainly standardized tests -- and you have a recipe for greater competition for scarcer educational resources = high parental anxiety.
Competitive gifted and talented programs that divide students from “non-gifted” peers beginning in kindergarten are not for everyone -- not even for some, like my son, who can get into these high-status educational programs.
I have, over the last eight years of being a New York City public school parent, tried to calm the fears of devastated parents whose children do not get into these programs. I point out that we should not define our children by the narrow measures used to judge their worthiness for the system’s “gifted” label, that we should celebrate them and their multi-faceted way of making sense of the world.
Lately I have met more parents who, like me, have turned down acceptances to such programs because we do not buy into the more standardized way of defining children. We are paying close attention to what type of learning environment our children need to not just survive, but to thrive. We also are uncomfortable with putting our children into school settings that are almost exclusively white and Asian, when we live in a city and a society that is so much more diverse and dynamic. We look for schools that embrace and develop our children’s unique gifts and those of other children who did not make the standardized “gifted” cut off.
I have often advised parents take a deep breath, and reflect more on this crazy school choice process. As summer turns to autumn this year, it's time for me to take my own advice, and remind myself to take a deep breath.
Those of us looking forward to the next school, the next year, should put less pressure on our children to get into a high-status school that may not even be the right place for them. We should pay less attention to the Joneses and more attention to school environments and whether they will engage our children, make them happy even.
This is all easier said than done. But if our generation of parents helped fuel the flames of a more competitive and cut-throat educational system, we can also help foster the process of making that system more humane.