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 it—and in a seventh-grade classroom,
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
Then the guidance counselor stood up.
"Seventh grade is a crucial time for the children,"
she said soberly, explaining in detail how our
path. "So we stress to the kids that this is when their grades really start to matter."
"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
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 solutions—from 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 wrong—I'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 education—to support our
kids' healthy development and nurture their curiosity—we'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
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 child—she 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 action—on 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 academically—without
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 answers—and 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)