USA Today, December 18, 2007

    No Child Left Alone
    There's good reason this country is wringing its hands over our education
    system. But what happens when society's anxiety begins to engulf our

    By Bruce Kluger

    I almost lost itand in a seventh-grade classroom,
    no less.

    It was "curriculum night" at my daughter's middle
    school, and all the parents were stuffed into small
    chairs, listening to a parade of teachers describe
    what was expected of our kids this year. My 12-year-
    old, Bridgette, had been complaining about her
    heavy workload, and now I was seeing firsthand just
    how daunting her schedule was. It put me on edge
    for her.

    Then the guidance counselor stood up.

    "Seventh grade is a crucial time for the children,"
    she said soberly, explaining in detail how our
    kids' academic performance this year could dramatically affect their educational
    path. "So we stress to the kids that this is when their grades really start to matter."

    That's when I felt the blood rush to my face.

    "Wait a minute," I interrupted. "Are you actually telling this to our kids?" I shot a
    glance at my wife to see whether she was giving me the customary, slit-eyed signal
    to shut up. But I could tell she had my back.

    "You're scaring the hell out of me," I continued. "I can't imagine what this is doing to
    our kids."

    Murmurs of concurrence rumbled through the room. Finally, another dad said what
    we were all thinking:

    "They're 12 years old, for God's sake."

    These days, cracking the nut of education is a formidable task, and one that is
    made all the more complicated by America's ongoing struggle to raise national
    averages and close the achievement gap.

    On one hand, our policymakers are keenly aware of this problem, as they continue
    to concoct a variety of jujitsu-like solutionsfrom the president's ambitious but
    deeply flawed No Child Left Behind program to the ongoing experiments with
    charter schools, voucher programs and standardized testing.

    And yet as we earnestly try to fix what's broken, we are, in the process, turning an
    entire generation of children into a giant flock of canaries in the coal mine. Don't
    get me wrongI'm all for the heavier workload in middle school, as it helps prepare
    students for the academic challenges to come.

    But when that homework includes asking our kids to focus less on the Louisiana
    Purchase and star clusters and more on living up to some arbitrary, government-
    crunched data, then we've truly begun to lose touch with what learning is all about.

    "What I find so scary is that the schools, and often the parents, are burdening
    children with unrealistic expectations," says Sherry Cleary, executive director of the
    New York City Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at City University
    of New York. "Instead of focusing on the real goal of educationto support our
    kids' healthy development and nurture their curiositywe're telling them, 'You have
    to spend the next six years of your life trying to get into an Ivy League school.' It's
    all about the grades, not the learning.

    "And it doesn't end with test scores," Cleary adds. "Nowadays, in order to be a
    wholly 'attractive' child, you also need to travel around the world and have lots of
    civic participation."

    Cleary's last words made me cringe. Only recently, Bridgette mentioned to me that
    she wanted to join an after-school project involved with African relief. This is typical
    of my oldest childshe was born with her mom's heart. What was unusual,
    however, was Bridgette's next comment.

    "And it'll look good on my resume," she said.

    I almost fell off my chair. We never speak of resumes in our house. I subsequently
    learned that this was what she was being told in school.

    Cleary says this is common. "We deliver pure children to the schools, and then they
    get corrupted with the wrong motivations. It's a perverted shifting of priorities."

    Experts point to middle school as a particularly fierce pressure cooker for kids (their
    hormones are on fire, notes Cleary, and they are "prey to a culture that is dragging
    them into adulthood"); and researchers at the Stanford University School of
    Education are discovering a disturbing rise in depression, anxiety and even drug
    abuse among some kids as a result of school-related stress.

    But I fret about my 8-year-old, too. In January, she and her classmates will begin
    the mandatory testing required by No Child Left Behind. From experience, I know
    this will not be pretty.

    Thankfully, some educators have begun to take actionon and off campus.
    Principals and administrators in 45 middle and high schools across the country
    have formed a support network called S.O.S. (for "Stressed Out Students") to train
    students in relaxation techniques, including yoga. And PBS KIDS has launched its
    Next Generation Media, a multiplatform learning tool (using TV, Internet and
    handheld devices) designed to keep kids up to speed academicallywithout
    turning up the heat. That's entertainment? Sure. But it's also education.

    Predictably, everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Jay Leno has mocked this take-back-
    the-classroom movement as overly P.C. and coddling. But it's not a laughing matter.

    "What's at stake is the children's perception of themselves as learners," says
    Cleary. "Kids are supposed to ask questions; schools are supposed to provide the
    path to the answers. But now we're looking to the children for the answersand the
    accountability. We're telling them that if they screw up, they don't have a future.

    "And, trust me, when kids think they don't have a future, bad things start to happen."

    (Illustration by Web Bryant, USA TODAY)