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.


  1. Thank you Tracy thought provoking and pragmatic blog. I think we are due for a revolution is the job market and since so much turns on this market it will effect or school and society. What do you think would be a first step? Could we generate a list of jobs or business that share your thoughts? Do we need to address these issues in schools? How do you talk to parents about these issues without sounding anti-academic?

    Thank you.

  2. I agree that kindergarten should not be the prime place to instill expectations of achieving higher education onto children. The illusion of a college degree as a means to success is over-generalized. Some of the wealthiest people and celebrities whom many people admire were not college-bound babies, but they produced tangible results. I do think that personal skills, social skills and a passion to find one's craft in life can be way more beneficial than a college education.

  3. nice post. thank you.

    have you read diy u... speaks a lot to what you are saying.

    also - at the end of Sir Ken's The Element - he talks about a school in England - Grangeton i think.. where the town wanted to help improve ed, so they turned all the town problems over to kids to solve in school.
    i just wrote our mayor - asking if kids in an innovation lab we are launching fall 2010 could do that. the kids are pumped... anxious to see what happens.

    one more thing.. great post here: -
    gregory writes that the one goal of school should be to answer that question.. then help provide the learning space for the kid to explore it.

    gosh i want to make this happen.

  4. Wonderful conversation! And how about first asking the question 'who are you' because 'what do you want to be' is, to my mind at least, really 'how do you want to express who you are'? Not only should Kindergarten not be about college, but neither should *any* education except, perhaps, college. The only education i had that was worth anything (despite attending what were considered to be some of the 'best schools') was that which made me hungry -- the rare exception, to be sure.

    Now THIS is a conversation worth having - bravo, Tracy!

  5. Thanks all for the comments. Monika, I too hope that happens! Thanks for the great link. Bruce, I think your last statement says it ALL and is in perfect agreement with M.H. Rossi's. I think that is what education should really be about.

  6. David, I love your action-oriented questions. I think we should generate a list of jobs that do not actually require a college education. I think we should talk to businesses about these ideas and get their input. I think we should talk to schools about this "movement" (dare I call it a movement at this nascent state?). I think you talk to schools and parents with their "pain" in mind. Schools' pain = some kids are difficult to jam in the square if they are a circle. Giving them alternatives may make their lives easier. Schools have much more pain than that, but we'd have to appeal to their pain to get this through. Parents' pain = does college cost a lot of money? Yes! Do you want you or your child to be in debt? No! Do you want your child to be happy and find a job doing what he loves? Yes!

    I would love suggestions on where to take this next and getting this idea out where it can grow.

  7. As an early childhood teacher, I always wondered why we were suppose to get 4 year olds ready for kindergarten instead of the kindergarten getting ready for five year olds.
    As a relocated American in New Zealand, I am always a bit shocked at the cultural differences with nz and the US. The pressure to attend University is something you must do, instead of a path chosen. I also find that my 20 something university nieces and nephews lack general survival skills and problem solving, where in NZ Children have lots of freedom to run and learn on their own. I completely agree with your post and enjoy your blog. Thank you.

  8. Wow, I just came across this from another blog and its exactly what I was writing about in my blog - as I read my daughters Kindergarten curriculum last night, I am having second thoughts about putting her in in the public system. How does one allow them the good of the public system but also ensure they are not feeling pressured? What a challenge.

  9. Have you read John Holt's "Freedom and Beyond"? He has a couple of great chapters at the end that address the idea (slash myth) of higher education "eradicating" poverty. His arguments, much like yours, are spot-on.

    As a 23-year-old college "dropout," my mother is driving herself (and me) crazy, trying to convince me to go back to school and get *any* degree. In the research I have done, many guidance counselors and employers say that what your degree is in doesn't necessarily matter, because they have to train you on the job anyway. However, getting a college degree "proves you are responsible and have follow-through." I think that you are completely correct in pointing out that it is just another sneaky way of discriminating against those who cannot afford to get a degree, allowing those occupying the high-paying jobs to believe that they have what they have because they "deserve" it, and those who don't have a degree are just lazy and dumb, and therefore have no one but themselves to blame.

  10. Kim, yes, exactly, Kindergarten should be preparing for the five year olds, not the other way around. Why do we have to race through childhood?

    Ashley, we've felt the same way. It pains me that some of us have a choice to opt out of that high pressured system and others don't. Our one year in a private Waldorf school was fantastic though. I wish every kid had that option.

    cgremore, I have not read that book but I will get it for sure. I love your unpanicked perspective. You have such a good point about the "proves your are responsible and have follow through" argument. That seems like an incredibly expensive way to prove that that not everyone can manage. It does seem like sneaky discrimination.