Sunday, June 6, 2010

How Classism in the Job Market Affects Kindergartners

There is a movement afoot in education to get all school children lined up for college and their motto is "college starts in Kindergarten". I feel uncomfortable with this on so many levels. I realize that the those who tout this notion have wonderful intentions. Their goal is for students from low socio-economic backgrounds to have equal access to college. The thought is that by setting the expectation and providing a college-prep education, all students will go to college and have higher paying jobs. On the face of it, this seems like a great idea. I, too, want ALL children to be able to attend college if they choose. And who wouldn't want to educate more people and reduce poverty? But we should carefully consider the impact of the "college starts in Kindergarten" mindset.

Kindergarten used to be a transition year, a year not even considered part of the regular grade school. Attendance at Kindergarten is optional, not mandatory. Now play is disappearing, naps are gone and Kindergartners have homework. We even need to be "prepared" for Kindergarten. Often there is talk about how difficult it is to get your child into the "right" Kindergarten because it will set your child onto a trajectory for the "right" college and a high paying job. This puts tremendous pressure on any child, regardless of background, to look at the long term, big picture, to constantly work towards the goal, and to succeed. On the face of it, these values and behaviors are what we want our children to learn - but at five? Five year old children do not think this way and it is unrealistic to expect them to behave this way. While we can certainly encourage and nurture this way of thinking along the way, to build an education system around this expectation seems to ignore the very population you are hoping to serve. We must provide a developmentally appropriate setting which will nourish children in the way they learn if we truly want them to succeed.

It has been well-researched and documented (see the Alliance for Childhood's "Crisis in the Kindergarten" report here) that children learn through play and must have enough movement, creativity, and rest to properly learn. This is ignored more and more by schools in favor of pushing for academic achievement in just the tested basics at ever earlier ages. "College starts in Kindergarten" only exacerbates this condition. As Sir Ken Robinson says in this wonderful TED presentation here, "a three year old is not half a six year old", meaning that we should children treat as they are, not as we would aspire them to be in later years.

We are already a society that struggles to be present. We have been raised to multi-task and to hurry and to "get things done." This way of thinking permeates every aspect of our lives, to how we eat, how we work, how we spend our free time, and even how we relate to others. Making college begin in Kindergarden increases this "ever forward" way of thinking at the cost of missing out on the present moment. If we are constantly thinking and worrying about the future, we are not experiencing what is happening right here and now and it makes us an anxious society. Childhood should be savored not rushed.

Making college seem like the only valid choice feels wrong to me. There are many kids in every socio-economic category that will not be best served by going to college. There are many different paths to a happy, creative, productive adult life and college is not the only path. If we imply that college is the only way, we create the mindset that money is the single most important factor in choosing a career, ignoring things like strengths, interests, talents, fulfillment, and happiness. A recent New York Times editorial profiled the success of the robust German apprenticeship programs that provide alternatives to a college degree that put their apprentices in higher demand for higher paying jobs than their college graduate counterparts for the same investment of time and for far less expense. The article advocates for more apprentice programs like the Germans have and for the return of vocational choices within our educational system without tracking students in them.

Speaking of investments, attaining that college degree can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but many graduates these days are not finding the high paying jobs they have prepared their whole lives for. The students from low socio-economic backgrounds do not have the resources that are available to others to pay for this degree and so they disproportionately incur a tremendous amount of debt in student loans. This puts them at a significant disadvantage at the beginning of their careers and increases the pressure to find a job that will allow them to pay off their loans to make college worth it.

It seems to me that we should be fixing this societal problem from the end rather than at the beginning: at the job market. Education inflation abounds today. It used to be that a college degree was the exception, now it is the rule. But it is not just a B.A. that is necessary, now we routinely see a master's degree as a requirement for many jobs. A closer look at several job categories will show that it is completely unnecessary to require that much education when experience would be far more valuable. For instance, the job I have had for the last 10 years in telecom sales required a bachelor's degree. It made no difference that my bachelor's degree was in Spanish and English Education, which had nothing to do with the job. All sales people have to learn the specific product or service they are to sell on the job anyway. To require a college degree when it is irrelevant is classist and essentially discriminatory. If jobs that didn't actually need a college degree were opened to a larger pool of talent as they should be, there wouldn't be so much pressure on everyone to get a college degree and all of the baggage that tends to go with it.

I think college is a great choice and provides many significant benefits to be sure. If we put the appropriate value on a college education, vocational education, and apprenticeship programs, we could also value Kindergarten for what it is intended for as well. If the job market ended unnecessary, discriminatory policies and every student had equal access to many paths to a variety of careers, perhaps we could preserve childhood and we'd see many more happy, productive adults unhampered by debt.