Stiff competition for entrance to private preschools and kindergartens in Manhattan has created a test prep market for children under 5. The New York Times profiled Bright Kids NYC. The owner confesses that “the parents of the 120 children her staff tutored [in 2010] spent an average of $1,000 on test prep for their 4-year-olds.” This, of course, makes admission to schools for the gifted a matter of class privilege as well as intelligence.
The article also tells the story of a woman without the resources to get her child, Chase, professional tutoring:
Ms. Stewart, a single mom working two jobs, didn’t think the process was fair. She had heard widespread reports of wealthy families preparing their children for the kindergarten gifted test with $90 workbooks, $145-an-hour tutoring and weekend “boot camps.”
Ms. Stewart used a booklet the city provided and reviewed the 16 sample questions with Chase. “I was online trying to find sample tests,” she said. “But everything was $50 or more. I couldn’t afford that.”
Ms. Stewart can’t afford tutoring for Chase; other parents can. It’s unfair that entrance into kindergarten level programs is being gamed by people with resources, disadvantaging the most disadvantaged kids from the get go. I think many people will agree.
But the more insidious value, the one that almost no one would identify as problematic, is the idea that all parents should do everything they can to give their child advantages. Even Ms. Stewart thinks so. “They want to help their kids,” she said. “If I could buy it, I would, too.”
Somehow, in the attachment to the idea that we should all help our kids get every advantage, the fact that advantaging your child disadvantages other people’s children gets lost. If it advantages your child, it must be advantaging him over someone else; otherwise it’s not an advantage, you see?
I felt like this belief (that you should give your child every advantage) and it’s invisible partner (that doing so is hurting other people’s children) was rife in the FAQs on the Bright Kids NYC website.
Isn’t my child too young to be tutored?
These programs are very competitive, the answers say, and you need to make sure your kid does better than other children. It’s never too soon to gain an advantage.
My child is already bright, why does he or she need to be prepared?
Because being bright isn’t enough. If you get your kid tutoring, she’ll be able to show she’s bright in exactly the right way. All those other bright kids that can’t get tutoring won’t get in because, after all, being bright isn’t enough.
Is it fair to “prep” for the standardized testing?
Of course it’s fair, the website claims! It’s not only fair, it’s “rational”! What parent wouldn’t give their child an advantage!? They avoid actually answering the question. Instead, they make kids who don’t get tutoring invisible and then suggest that you’d be crazy not to enroll your child in the program.
My friend says that her child got a very high ERB [score] without prepping. My kid should be able to do the same.
Don’t be foolish, the website responds. This isn’t about being bright, remember. Besides, your friend is lying. They’re spending $700,000 dollars on their kid’s schooling (aren’t we all!?) and we can’t disclose our clients but, trust us, they either forked over a grand to Bright Kids NYC or test administrators.
Test prep for kindergartners seems like a pretty blatant example of class privilege. But, of course, the argument that advantaging your own kid necessarily involves disadvantaging someone else’s applies to all sorts of things, from tutoring, to a leisurely summer with which to study for the SAT, to financial support during their unpaid internships, to helping them buy a house and, thus, keeping home prices high.
I think it’s worth re-evaluating. Is giving your kid every advantage the moral thing to do?Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
brg — August 3, 2010
A socialized approach to child rearing is ideal but before the individualist structure of society is torn down yes it's moral to enter your child into stringent academic competition in an increasingly globalized capitalist information-based economy.
Kyle H — August 3, 2010
Umm, major logic fail.
"If it advantages your child, it must be advantaging him over someone else; otherwise it’s not an advantage, you see?"
If there were only a finite amount of people who were allowed to learn to read or count or understand E=mc^2, or if there were only a finite amount of correct answered to be doled out on the OLSAT, then you might have a point.
But they don't. My learning and your learning are mutually exclusive. Just because I read Shakespeare doesn't mean you can't read it, too.
Learning to read and count "advantages your child." But since every other kid (essentially) also learns to read and count, do those not count (no pun intended) in your eyes?
The reductive conclusion of this argument is no one should learn anything (or God forbid, pay someone else for their time in helping them learn anything) lest they acquire an "advantage." Ridiculous.
And your non sequitur from getting your kid tutoring to gifting them a house is patently offensive to this middle-class American.
EMB — August 3, 2010
To me, the craziest part of this story was that there are "gifted" kindergarten classes in the first place.
I feel like throughout elementary school just having separate "reading groups" and "math groups" works just fine to accommodate students with varying abilities. Even that though seems like it would be a pretty bad idea in kindergarten.
Is "gifted" kindergarten a wide-spread phenomenon?
Gina — August 3, 2010
Kyle - no, you have major logic fail. The point of the post is that there *is* a finite amount of people who are allowed to learn certain things. Those who go to better schools will have far more access to information and learning than those who are unable to pass the tests being discussed and must go to public schools that are increasingly underfunded. If no one ever taught me a robust vocabulary, it's going to be pretty difficult for me to read Shakespeare. But I'm guessing you'd argue that those kids should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, check out some Shakespeare from the library, and get to reading.
Also, yes, the reductive conclusion is ridiculous. Perhaps you've heard of reductio ad absurdum?
12345 — August 3, 2010
Education is not zero-sum, no matter how you want to frame it.
However, this isn't about education. It's about training for testing, with our school system creating a specific testing system that needs to be learned only for its own sake. One could argue that it is created that way specifically so you have to prepare specially for the test, just so that the privileged will do better on it.
Maria — August 3, 2010
This reminds me of an article by Malcom Gladwell where he asks http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/10/20/081020fa_fact_gladwell "Why do we equate genius with precocity?" when many "late bloomers" prove to be extremely intelligent, which many of those precocious kids go on to be of ordinary"intelligence. "Picasso’s greatest works came early; Cézanne’s came late".
Do we think the snowballing advantages of getting an average kid (with lots of expensive test prep) into good schools beginning at kindergarten trumps the natural abilities of an intelligent kid without those advantages?
Naomi — August 3, 2010
ugg. my eldest is entering public Kindergarten in a few weeks. We had a reading placement meeting where they saw what he knew already. I don't know how that will effect what class he will be in. We are a small city and there is not much competition here luckily. All I see is how miserable those kids must be in boot camp and getting endlessly tutored. How is their quality of life/ahildhood enhanced with this kind of hyper-learning?
Shannon — August 3, 2010
As someone with no kids who admittedly knows little about elementary education, I often feel like these gifted programs and other high-end schools are just a fancy of saying "you have to pay a huge premium for a low student-to-teacher ratio."
To me this seems like a failure of public education, which, of course, is a whole other can of worms.
carol — August 3, 2010
The piece seems to be endorsing the practice of teacher recommendation for gifted placement ("Whereas at one time teachers recommended students to these programs, today entrance to both public and private schools for gifted children is dependent entirely on test scores") instead of testing. The author might want to think about the fact that the "teacher recommendation" system gives an advantage to obedient, helpful, teacher's-pet types of kids (who are often white and privileged) while disadvantaging students whose intelligence lies outside the "good student" norm or whose intelligence might not be visible to a typical teacher for a variety of reasons. Test prep is, of course, a problem, as outlined here, but teacher recommendation is highly imperfect at best and suffers from many of the same issues.
shuffle — August 3, 2010
I agree that this topic, the systemic privileging of more financially advantaged students, is important to be illuminated. We should be thinking about it so that we can understand which families (kids) are disadvantaged in the education system, and which paths we can take to alleviate some of those problems.
But what the HELL was with the author's mocking and aggressive tone? It's one thing to explore a topic and invite discussion. It's completely another to outright attack well-off families with sarcastic remarks that imply they're doing this terribly immoral act, this great disservice to society through their efforts to give their kids a head start in school. What would you do in their situation? Would you really abstain from any sort of academic prep just so you could fulfill your ideal of everyone being a mind-Communist? I didn't see a solution, or even a suggestion in your write-up. And as other commenters have noted, when you reduce the implications of what you wrote to the end, it's completely absurd: Why try to get employed this summer when there are other people who are less financially secure than me? Why go to the gym and take up one of the precious few treadmills when there are people less fit than me, who could benefit from it more?
I think this write-up needs a different direction. Exploring the class-divisions when it comes to academic prep is important, but all of the judgement that rained down was completely unnecessary. You're not winning anyone over. Perhaps another interesting way to take it would be into the question "How early in a child's life is 'too early' for academic prep?" - though that totally ignores the class element.
I just don't see what sort of argument you can make here that doesn't make you sound like a desperate jerkwad.
Sadie — August 3, 2010
I wish some of these jackass parents would actually keep "supporting" their kids learning a little later in life. Sure, they may be willing to shell out rediculous amounts of cash to tutor toddlers, but later on in middle and high school the same parents can't even be bothered to ask their kids about what they are learning in school or to go to parent-teacher conferences. It's like they come out of the starting gate all cranked up and ready to kick some (already) less-privileged ass, but then later on, when it really counts they can't be bothered and blame the teachers for their kids lackluster performance and bad habits. Yeesh.
Kids who are supported at home in their learning and who are brought up in an environment that encourages education will almost always outperform kids from "at risk" backgrounds. In other words, kids from homes with higher levels of income and education already have an advantage, one that doesn't need to be paid for in the form of toddler tutors. Encouraging parents to do this is just blatant consumerism, and has nothing to do with quality education.
Putting your kid in a mainstream, public school class is probably the sanest thing you can do; if you support your child in their learning, they will probably fare well. If you expect the school system to turn your kid into Einstein by throwing tons of money at it...you will probably be disappointed.
Kim — August 3, 2010
Related, from a positive perspective:
Laughingrat — August 3, 2010
It seems that you've overlooked, hopefully by accident, the fact that the kids involved aren't pawns or property or prizes--no matter how much their parents might sometimes treat them that way--but human beings, whose lives will be shaped by the experiences they have. You asked, at the end of your post, "Is giving your kid every advantage the moral thing to do?"
Well? Is denying your child the chance to get education in a stimulating, supportive, or safe environment, because by god you're sticking to your principles, the moral thing to do?
This isn't about treats, or vacations, or toys, or fancy clothes. This is about the development of individual human beings with feelings and minds. Children rely on us to protect them and provide them with the best we can give them. The question we should be asking is not, "How can I best sacrifice my dependent child's intellectual and emotional health to my ravening desire to seem really consistent on matters of social justice?" but "Why is high-quality, ability-appropriate education such a limited resource, and what can I do to make it more available to all?" Denying your kid the chance to go to gifted school does not increase the size of the pie for everyone, but it does narrow the world for your child.
alawyer — August 3, 2010
The principle you're articulating here—that it's wrong to advantage one's kids in a competitive environment—seems far too broad. If it's wrong to give your kids an advantage because that comes at the expense of someone else, it wrong to give myself an advantage as well? Should I have applied only to open-enrollment colleges, because a slot at a competitive-admissions school denied one to someone else? Should I have refrained from prepping for the LSAT with the money I earned, because my slot in a law school deprived someone else of a slot? Is it wrong for me to prepare for job interviews, because if I get the job then someone else doesn't?
Syd — August 3, 2010
I really don't like the fact that this article seems to put the blame on middle class parents doing what they feel is best for their individual child. Most parents, rich or poor, will do what they and their bit of society deems 'best' for children. They aren't going to think 'well, the poor parents and the rich parents who haven't heard of this program aren't using it, so my little Johnny might have a leg up. That's so mean to everyone else, so I won't.' They're thinking that their kids is going to get a leg up, and that's what is best for THEIR kid. Parents as individuals are not at fault for taking what they think is the best approach to their child's education. Our society values education and the things that comes with it; no parent is going to ignore that because society is unfair to certain groups. The companies offering tutoring are simply doing what business does: they see a demand for a product or service, and they provide the product and service for the fee they deem appropriate (and why it's so expensive? Tutors are often taking that job because their first job pays next to nothing, and they have to deal with snot nosed kids. I cannot IMAGINE doing such a job for very little money).
What needs to be challenged instead is the school system that makes such things seem necessary. The school system is focused on maintaining the status quo, spending as little money and time as possible, and testing. Standardized tests with rigid parameters that ignore students' differences are the way public schools work nowadays. Even students with learning disabilities or language barriers aren't given a break. The tests are based mostly on test taking skills, and have next to nothing to do with what the teacher is lecturing about in class. And worst, the tests are seen as more important than any other part of the students' records. Combine this with a system that ignores any students who aren't 'average,' and it's hardly a shock that parents who can afford it think that it's better to spend a few hundred dollars to make sure their kid knows how to deal with the system. THEY aren't the ones that need to change, the system that makes them think it is necessary is.
Single Mom — August 3, 2010
Education - a good solid education - should not be a zero sum game where one child's opportunities or advantages come at the expense of another child's opportunities or advantages. But, even when it's not a zero sum game, there are countless heartbreaking stories of kids not getting the educations they deserve, the educations our broken public school system promises. Until public schools are supported in a more equitable manner, as opposed to property taxes that support high-quality schools in rich neighborhoods and the bleak opposite in poor neighborhoods, this will not change. As a single mother who had a child who struggled in an overcrowded, grossly underfunded urban school, I know firsthand how lousy it can be for kids. To this day one of the most profoundly sad chapters in my life as a parent was my inability to live in a decent neighborhood so my kids could get a better education and could be better protected from the kind of crime and violence that a poor urban school suffers. He knew, too; he knew he was in trouble. Kids in that spot start to give up because the system has failed them.
Gifted kindergarten in private schools? Seems silly unless we're really talking about off the charts gifted, as in calculus at age five. It sucks but it's private school. But if allowing parents to buy their way into a better education for their kids in public school - which seems the case for some in this post - is a bad idea, well then it's been a bad idea that has been the law of the land for decades. Same old thing. And same result. Those with more resources continue to grab more and more resources. Those without sit and watch....and simmer.
Parent and PhD Student — August 3, 2010
Test-prep for kindergarten kids - ridiculous but hardly shocking. Since when is it a surprise - in any setting - to find those with more getting more and those with less getting less? I think the rhetoric about "kids come first" and "all kids matter" and "kids are the future" is such a line of crap. Symbolic crap. No one wants to say, "those kids don't matter" but states, cities, other systems and institutions (and the people who shape them - that includes us, folks) communicate that with every decision, every process, ever policy, etc. that reinforces inequality. Education unfair? What's new?
And to those who've posted defensive comments about how middle class parents are just doing what's best for their kids, etc., let me say, deny all you want but unless you're part of the solution - part of changing things for disadvantaged kids at some level, macro or micro - well, then you're part of the problem. Period. Hiring tutors to give your kids an advantage that other kids can't afford is part of the problem. Want to throw your money around to help your kids get a better education? How about helping your kids AND other kids by funding progressive school board member candidates or buying school books for the class or some other effort that reaches beyond your child? How about insisting that the so-called gifted class be peopled with truly gifted kids as opposed to well-prepared kids? How about at least owning your privilege and how it operates to oppress others?
R.T. — August 3, 2010
who can believe the lady from Bright Kids anyway? In a Nov. 2009 NY Times article she stated she had 200 kids with 80 on a waitlist but in this last NY Times article she says it was only 120. Do you want someone teaching your kid that can't keep her numbers (lies) straight? I vote no.
Sad Mom — August 4, 2010
Please let me bring in a factor not being discussed. My son IQ tested over 200 at age 5. He was NOT like other 5 year old kids. He didn't talk like other children his age, he didn't think like other children his age and he didn't fit in with other children his age. At the same time, he was emotionally immature. We chose to do what we could (financially it was impossible to keep him in a private gifted program) to help him at home, but kept him in public schools. That decision was mostly financial, but also ethical. I can tell you he was harmed. He never felt he fit in. He came home every day for the first three years of school crying because he was different. Different is not good in egalitarian American schools. A genuinely 'gifted' child doesn't have an advantage. He is resented by teachers, shunned by other children and disliked by the parents of his peers. My son's childhood was miserable in every way. We tried, but nothing short of a full-time gifted program would have helped him and we couldn't afford it.
gasstationwithoutpumps — August 4, 2010
The problem with test prep for kindergartners is that testing at that level is not a very good measure of who needs different education 5 years later, but that is what the schools (in New York, not so much in other places) are using it for. If the schools did a decent job of teaching kids at the level they were at and letting them move forward at their own rate, there would not be any advantage to pushing kindergartners ahead.
There are several different problems being scrambled together here:
1) inadequate education in New York public schools, particularly for kids from low-income areas, 2) slightly better education being rationed by tests at the kindergarten level, 3) parents gaming the system by cramming for tests that are supposed to be measuring something other than cramming, 4) commercial operations fleecing worried parents by selling educational snake oil, 5) education being used and rationed as a marker of social class, rather than as right for all children.
As the parent of a gifted child in an area where gifted education is essentially unavailable in the public schools, I have been forced to put my child into private schools for several years---despite my personal beliefs about the high value of public schools to society. We're returning to the public school system for high school, in part because we can't really afford the private school, but more because the high school was willing to place him in classes where he could learn something, rather than with his age mates (unlike the local public elementary and middle schools).
Mike — August 4, 2010
By the way, this article kept making me think of this:
Sad Mom — August 4, 2010
I'm glad you know my son and my situation so well, or think you do. Here's the way it happened: he was my first child and I had no clue he was different. We talked about what interested him (anything mechanical mostly), he dug our backyard full of trenches so he could make dams (something I spent my childhood doing), and the older he got the more he preferred the company of adults to that of other toddlers and young children. Other adults told me he was 'weird' or 'different' but I just thought they were being judgmental of a child with a different temperament. We put him into a play-based pre-school mostly so I could have time one-on-one with his younger brother. About five month into the program his teacher called me in and said that he had to be tested 'intellectually' because in the 30 or so years she had taught preschool she'd never met another child like him. She said he was 'not normal' and 'a problem' in the class. I panicked. He was a premie and I just assumed that he was showing signs of some deficit. I called the state follow-up program that helped us during his first year of life and asked to have him tested. I took him to the test and half way through the woman giving the test came out and said I had to take him to the Center for Academic Precocity. She said she'd never encountered a child like him. I still assumed there was a problem (there was, but not the kind I assumed) and took him for more testing with a lot of fear. It was during this testing (which took several days) that the director called me into her office and told me that my son was as handicapped with too much intelligence as a child with low IQ would be. She warned that he would have problems in school and that without specific education he would never flourish. She was right. We tried a lot of things that she suggested, including finding a 'mentor' for him through a program they had. The man was a physicist. He and his wife were childless. After meeting my son (age 5 by then) and spending an afternoon with him they asked to adopt him. They said he was the child they should have had. Creepy, creepy, creepy. I stopped that relationship immediately.
I never told a teacher he was 'gifted' until the phone call that I came to dread during his elementary years. It was usually about 2-3 weeks into the year and there was typically panic in her voice. His second grade teacher hated him and make it known. She thought he was mentally retarded and he thought she was stupid. There was no alternative in that school and I really didn't want to change schools. My attitude was worn out trying to make my son respect people he found little about to respect. I never asked for special anything. I never went into a school with 'attitude'. I was a volunteer in the nurse's office for five years. I was a classroom volunteer. I was the parent who went on field trips and ended up carrying the smallest child in the class who got tired. My kids both knew I was there and I expected them to work hard and be a respectful person. And they both are. But my oldest son is not a happy person and I can't imagine him ever living up to his potential. I put that down entirely to the educational system which is geared to the low/middle. All the 'enrichment' in the world won't help when nothing in a classroom engages a child's mind. It didn't help that several of his teachers openly resented him. I was told by one teacher that she really didn't need kids like him, that they messed things up for the rest and that they really weren't worth the effort it took to engage them. Thanks.
So go ahead and believe what you want. It's easier I suppose than to believe I'm telling the truth and that the conditions my son met were real. I wish your disbelief would change reality. Would be nice.
Sad Mom — August 4, 2010
BTW -- I never, ever told my son he was 'different'. He came to that conclusion early in his life. I never told him what the Center for Academic Precocity was. We told him he got to take extra classes but gave no reason. He knew by second grade when the 'enrichment' class tests were given what they were for, and his school made a big deal of his score (some sort of record high score). But we didn't. Those talks didn't come until he was nearing middle school and then it took the form of 'People with gifts need to share them with others.'
robert — August 9, 2010
i didn't what my shoulder was during my kindergarten screening + i'm a student at columbia u. now
lsmsrbls — August 10, 2010
What I want to know is how anything containing, "While probable, it is highly unlikely..." can make any sense at all.
Understanding Privilege « Social Problems — August 27, 2010
[...] that validate this “knowlege” - exists at every level of the education system. A sociology blog puts it this way: Test prep for kindergartners seems like a pretty blatant example of class [...]
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[...] a round of stories about the cut-throat preparation of kids for entry tests for kindergarten (like this one, a few weeks [...]
Ivana Kommentski — June 24, 2017
"Seriously. You don't refuse to give your child good food because many don't have it."
2017 Medley #20 Privatization – Live Long and Prosper — June 30, 2017
[…] Is it ethical to give your child “every advantage”? […]
Sara — July 3, 2017
I don't think we can hold individual's accountable for how systems work. The only way to overturn a system on the micro level would be with a huge level of cooperation. In a heterogeneous society, expecting that much cooperation isn't practical because society is always a balance between competition and cooperation.
I think it would be more practical to overturn an educational institution from a government policy level than it would be to simply impose a 'morality' on all the individuals in competition for the best outcomes for their children. We KNOW that capitalism results in inequality. If we want to mediate the negative results, it doesn't do much to hold individual's responsible because individuals were born into the system and are inherently path dependent.
Plus, historically, there have been great results with overturning inequality with government policy. Less so with personal shaming for a system we were born into.
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