The NYT app is my favorite thing on my phone. It provides a great summary of the five most important stories of the day. I always know who in the Trump administration lied that day, and one of the five items is always devoted to interesting quantitative research.
Today the Times reports: “A study found that by the end of kindergarten, children who had attended one year of ‘academic-oriented preschool’ outperformed peers who had attended less academic-focused preschools by, on average, the equivalent of two and a half months of learning in literacy and math.”
That summary really bothers me. Because intrinsic to these results is the idea that school is a race and the person who’s ahead in the race is benefitting from a good education. But here are the problems with studies like this one:
1. It’s not a relevant race. There is no correlation between winning the race and success on standardized tests. Top colleges would rather see you homeschool than do well on standardized tests. And there is no correlation between how well you do in school and how much success you have meeting your goals as an adult.
2. The race panders to parents. School sets up guidelines that the school can meet if the kids sit in their chairs and don’t talk. Then the school tells parents that the best parents enforce the guidelines. The hardest thing about parenting is there are no official metrics of success. There is only love. School alleviates parents from the existential problem of parenting by telling parents they are officially good if their children stick to guidelines.
3. It’s not a fair race. School reaffirms class rather than overcoming it. Rich kids who are a year behind poor kids in the education race still outperform poor kids on tests. On top of that, rich kids are not penalized for paying someone else to do tasks poor kids have to do themselves. For example, it’s totally acceptable to pay for $2400 for a tutor who guarantees a high test score. And schools have scant ability to penalize kids for paying for high-end essay writing help if the kid doesn’t have interest in writing.
4. The race is a way to keep poor kids poor. Parents who can afford to manage their kid’s education pay extra to make sure preschool is about playing. Which makes sense since kids who play develop the skills that do correlate to success as adults. The poorest families send their kids to Head Start, where their kids fall into a system that is test-centric and data-obsessed with little room for unstructured play.
5. The race disproportionately hurts girls. The kids who follow directions and do what they are told are the clear winners of the race. And those are girls. Girls have higher GPAs and higher SAT scores than boys. But breaking rules actually correlates to higher earning as adults, and the boys are breaking the rules — and therefore “losing” the race of school but winning in adult life. Kids who get the best grades because they follow the rules are largely mediocre performers in adult life; because as adults, the people who get paid to follow rules are low-level service-oriented employees. Which means the race serves to stamp down the future achieving power of girls.
So when you read the research published in supposedly reputable sources, ask yourself what is the point of the research. If nothing else, realize that you can only get funding for research if you can show measurable results. Which means in most cases the research does not even question the idea that school is a race.
It makes sense that the army of education reformers judge themselves on how much funding they receive, so they support the race. That’s how they feel validated. And if the parents support the idea of the race it’s because it’s a path to their validation as good parents. But that makes kids the pawns in a race that is only there to validate the adults who are watching. And if we are educating children to be their best selves then there is no universal measuring system.