We present school as a race so adults can feel like winners. But it’s hurting the kids.

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.

20 replies
  1. cindy
    cindy says:

    Brilliant. Thank you. One of my sons struggles with self esteem issues because he didn’t do well in “the race”. He sees his talents and gifts, but doesn’t think he’s good enough because was always squashed throughout school. He has an amazing, creative mind. He has a wonderful work ethic. He has a great heart. He’s agile and healthy. He’s only 20, but already making $60,000 and getting another raise next month.

    Even so, the school years left their mark. He said no teacher ever liked him (he’s actually a really likeable kid, just not classroom friendly) He almost has a repellent reaction when a classroom setting is even suggested these days. He feels less-than because he didn’t go to college and get an impressive degree like his brother. It isn’t his path. It isn’t who he is. It haunts him at times.

    It’s amazing (and sad) how our school experiences growing up shape our feelings about ourself as adults.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I like that you are able to pin point two issues I need to have a tirade about: parents feeling better than everyone because of the resources they have to homeschool, and parents feeling better than everyone because of the “great” school their kids go to.

      The urge to have parents tell me I’m great is so strong. It’s ridiculous to do such a totally impossible job and not have anyone give gold stars. Every time I manufacture gold stars for myself I feel guilty. But overtime I forgo the gold stars I start drinking.


      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        There is a fine line between giving information to better educate someone on the opportunities available and saying “Hey look at me and all the great things. Be like me!”

    • Lynn Oelkers
      Lynn Oelkers says:

      thank you for your comments. I work as a para or aide and some kids struggle all the time to regulate themselves. They are very smart and wonderful kids just can’t sit still in a chair and doing paperwork blah blah blah. Then they get upset because the can’t work fast like their peers who are good at self regulating and dealing with distractions. As parents we just want our son to try and learn. Grades are not the main focus in our household.

  2. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    When you live in certain areas, pretty much everything is a “race” or a competition with other adults. Where the kids go to school is just another bragging right. How much homeschooling resources one has is a bragging right. In the meantime, what do the kids actually want? There has been actual research on this. In a recent study done 83% of high school students wanted schools/parents to teach personal finance. It showed that most students thought a good credit score was 500, and a significant percentage thought they wouldn’t have to pay any federal income tax. (Mental note to us all: Make sure we educate our kids on personal finance and how to use an Excel spreadsheet.)

    Another study done interviewed foreign exchange students who said that high school in the US was significantly easier than back in their home countries. They also said there is a big emphasis on sports. When I read that, I totally agree. Why do we even need high school sports? Why can’t they just have intramural sports for kids who want to play. I can’t imagine that high schools get the same revenue that colleges get from their athletic programs.

  3. Caroline
    Caroline says:

    When I read the title, I first thought “race” meant ethnic race; and I was thinking how school, especially elite ones, represent a quest for superiority. “There is nothing better than being better than somebody,” said my friend’s dad when they discussed her and her ex’s argument over whether or not to keep the kids at the most prestigious school in town.

  4. Aquinas Heard
    Aquinas Heard says:

    This study assumes that it is advantageous for a young child to learn math and reading as fast as an adult dictates they should. What bothers me most about this study is how much it is taken for granted that someone else should be in charge of a child’s learning schedule. The universal fact (assuming a normal functioning brain) is that children learn. Their natural curiosity and the requirements for functioning in the modern world make it so that they will eventual learn basic math and reading – when they are ready. I am also assuming a parent or guardian will help them in this process if they are asked.

    I’m guessing readers of this blog have varying criteria and parameters in how they gauge, success, for their own lives or for their child’s life. I also bet Penelope’s readers have different ideas about what constitutes a good education.

    This comparison component among parents, and with regards to their children and their children’s peers has a name among Objectivists. We call it second-handedness. It’s pervasive in America society and it is strongly fostered in a public school setting.

    “A [second-hander] is one who regards the consciousness of other men as superior to his own and to the facts of reality. It is to a [second-hander] that the moral appraisal of himself by others is a primary concern which supersedes truth, facts, reason, logic. The disapproval of others is so shatteringly terrifying to him that nothing can withstand its impact within his consciousness; thus he would deny the evidence of his own eyes and invalidate his own consciousness for the sake of any stray charlatan’s moral sanction. It is only a [second-hander] who could conceive of such absurdity as hoping to win an intellectual argument by hinting: “But people won’t like you!” – Ayn Rand

  5. Christopher Chantrill
    Christopher Chantrill says:

    I was visiting my daughter in East Connecticut over the weekend. My son-in-law offered as how the Mellon and Cargill heirs down the street were homeschooling.

    Meanwhile you peasants should send your kids to school with the other peasants.

  6. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    The NY Times should pay you for this article if they haven’t. It’s such a good ad. Not only does it make me want to sign up to read their articles (which I already kinda wanna do because Facebook puts good articles from them on my feed), it makes me want to sign up just so I can read the story summaries on their app, because you make it sound so appealing.

  7. Bos
    Bos says:

    I liked this post a lot, and I’ve been puzzling over some smaller ways in which I still find parts of it a bit off-point.

    I agree that we suffer from an over-arching myth of meritocracy in this country. The race is, for very many kids, a race to nowhere. Graduating with a BA and no hint of career prospects could be just a good opportunity to have some fun for some kids; for others, it could be the beginning of a life of crushing, opportunity-preventing debt.

    Back when I taught at the university level, I would sometimes ask my kids why they were there. The most common answer was in the genre of ‘because it’s what you do after high school.’ Very few of such kids were really going to profit from college. College enrollment has been extended to the broadest proportion of our society ever – almost 70%! – but the benefit of a college education isn’t extended to nearly so large a group. That means that a huge number of kids leave college, finished or not, with nothing to show for it but a monthly payment.

    The conviction that the only way forward is for kids to go to college, all kids, is like a failure in game theory, perhaps a variety of the prisoner’s dilemma. It benefits fewer kids if all kids try the same move. Yet, per the NCES, 68.4 percent of kids enroll in college in the fall immediately following high school completion.

    Today on NPR I heard a piece talking about how few high school graduates are interested in a career in the skilled professions, something like 3%. And yet the college dropout rate is 40-60%, depending on age (the older, the worse). That’s a terrible consolation prize.

    Why does everybody feel they need to run this same race? The most important reason is anxiety. It’s a fact that the middle class in America is disappearing. In 2015, for the first time, only half of Americans could be defined as middle class (2/3 to 2X national median income). The Pew calls this a tipping point in their report “The American Middle Class is Losing Ground.” The percentage of people who fall below middle class is increasing as well as the percentage of income going to the group above.

    As traditional means for staying in the middle class decay, who wouldn’t want their kid to fall on the upper end, rather than the lower end, of the income distribution? Hence the race. And, as our host points out, the obsession with this race distorts our entire educational system, from overpacked college campus to boiler-room high schools to worksheet infested kindergartens.

    I’ve seen all of these settings now. It’s sad to see a college packed to the gills with kids who really shouldn’t be there, whose degrees will be nigh-worthless and who are racking up a house-worth of debt with no equity. It’s depressing to see high school kids so overworked and overscheduled that they are losing sleep, happiness, and sanity. And most of all it’s heart-rending to see tiny children crushed to tears by the weight of “shut up and sit still — all day!”

    Our host is right that the rich don’t put their kids through that. That discredited nonsense is for suckers. Rich kids get play-based preschools, elementary schools that don’t care if kids take weeks off in the middle of term to go on family vacations, schools that (rightly!) really don’t care if the kids don’t read until they’re seven. Rich kids in high school get less work and more sleep. I just looked it up even though I knew it was true. According to the Andover winter 2016 magazine, students there get an average of 8.4 hours of sleep a night.

    This hysteria is counterproductive. It is getting us nowhere as a nation or as individuals. The only people profiting from it work in testing corporations, colleges, and mental health services. Meanwhile, America loses its place among nations. We stopped being the world’s biggest economy in 2014 (ni hao, China!). And in 2017 America’s president stopped being the leader of the free world (nichts zu danken, Dr. Merkel).

    I don’t want to see us become more like China, but it might be worth investigating how Germany manages to provide quality of life and employment for its citizens despite less than a third of the kids going to college, and none of them incurring debt from it.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Germany certainly has a different system. For one, homeschooling is illegal there, a left over Nazi era law.

      However, they seem to have a decent college set up for either vocational track or career track.

      I like the European model that makes universities tuition free, of course, there are more people who want to obstruct than actually get anything done here. Plus we have some serious cognitive dissonance (at a minimum) going on in the current administrations choice to lead the Dept of Ed.

  8. J.E.
    J.E. says:

    “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. ”

    Ugh, I feel like this will be me forever. I was the classic, introverted good student from kindergarten through college. School was something I did well. I pushed myself to make A’s, it wasn’t imposed by my parents. I had that mistaken idea, that a lot of good students have, that getting good grades would translate to a high paying job later on. I don’t know how I thought that would happen without actual job experience, but I had it. Now in my late 30s, I work full time in academia (seems I couldn’t leave the womb of school in some form) but it’s in an hourly support staff job. School was something I excelled at and was academically exceptional, but I made the mistake of thinking that my grades would be what got me into a career track job, I’d learn more there and move up. Of course, without much actual job experience when I graduated, I wasn’t getting many interviews. Being meek and studious didn’t seem to do me any favors except to make a career of being told what to do.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      FWIW, companies like SpaceX and Tesla require SAT scores and college GPA as part of the final application process. They certainly feel that grades are a good weeding out system. My husband came in at a senior level and they STILL wanted them.

  9. Alice Alexandrescu
    Alice Alexandrescu says:

    Kindergarten me feels validated right now. The Quistic course I’m taking currently (wish I had it decades sooner, great work Penelope) emphasizes the importance of my types gut feelings. I can remember the “this is a bad idea” feeling that rocked the core of my 5 year old self entering the threshold of a stuffed to the brim New Jersey public school. Unfortunately my language processing skills couldn’t articulate points as smartly written in this article at the time. The only way I could communicate was by scream crying “NOOOoooo” and vise gripping the classroom door frame as my mom was hurriedly/comically trying to push me in so she could get to work on time at the Port Authority. K-12 wasn’t a good fit for me, I made the best of it, but the experience left me with atrophied parts of the mind that thrives on meaningful work and connections. I’ve been deschooling my adult self since, getting healthier in mind and body. Soon I’ll be going to my job that directly helps kids who’s abilities don’t fit into rigid systems that kills play/empathy/creativity and makes adult- kid relationships drainingly adversarial instead of nurishingly collaborative. Yes, the race has its priorities and value metrics tragically confused. Some smart books that help solve these stupid problems come to mind… “Raising Human-Beings” and “Fostering Resilient Learners” also fun blog “Taught by Finland”.

  10. Yocheved
    Yocheved says:

    Such an odd post given how competitive you are and how you seem more invested in your kids for self worth than anything else. So weird that so many people were successful in earlier decades without our current helicopter tiger momming!

  11. Alice Alexandrescu
    Alice Alexandrescu says:


    Social complexity just spit its drink out on Constructivism and Human connection walked out the door and everyone is confused and concerned with the taint of conflict orientation emanating from the word sequencing of this sentence.

    “You seem more invested in your _______ for self worth than ________.”

    Let us Mad Lib it!

    cat/sneaker collection
    tps reports/meal prepping
    groupon/executive functioning skills

    We’re not worried about whether the sentence can represent someone’s truth, because it always will. The concern is “idea toxicity” where one idea crudely represented harmfully reduces/cuts off a multitude of others.

    I’m perceiving that Penelope is collaboratively problem-solving with her kiddo to achieve a mutually satisfactory and realistic goal and adapted competitiveness is well represented. The metric is transformation. Aren’t the current hover parents the former kids of the good old days parents? Seems like this idea deserves some more exploration.

    The idea of a school is treated like some weird race demonstrates that there is a preoccupation of winning in our culture. Process, form and living are thrown out the window along with the parts that make humans — human.

    We are left with a population holding onto a predetermined generic idea of the word “winner” without the meaning, form and process to actually be feeling the emotions and values that are associated with success. Then all sorts of negative feedback loops begin and we have the coping consumer economy to prove it.

  12. pat sommer
    pat sommer says:

    Can’t beat ’em… Cheat.

    Short of a fake birth certificate, I have asserted my daughter’s grade level 2yrs lower when applying program entry.

    Made her, of course, grades ahead when that was needed.

    If she learns nothing else from me, it’s to rewrite rules

  13. Caroline
    Caroline says:

    Exxon’s corporate culture is struggling with all thestraight A rule-followers who don’t take enough risks. When I heard this from two of its overachieving Valedictorian employees, I thought of this blog.

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