Rewind to the conversation you overheard on Sunday, where I’m on the other end of the line with the mother of Madison (MOM), a friend on the brink of a school shopping meltdown. Here’s what I had to say:
1) The school Madison attends is not going to make or break her test scores. When it comes to academics, the more your home is like a high quality school (particularly in the early grades), the less the school matters. That means that if you own Baby Einstein and have oodles of books, maps, and science kits cluttering up the bottom shelf of your coffee table, you are probably worrying more than you need to.
MOM is sure I’ve got this wrong. I tell MOM that she should be more worried about which teachers Madison is assigned than which school attends. More importantly, given that Madison is in school for only 6 hours a day, MOM and I should be talking about what Madison’s going to be doing after school, on the weekend, and during the summer, since they’re going to make up the bulk of Madison’s K-12 life anyway.
2) MOM is down to five schools, and the differences between the schools she’s choosing – whether on teacher quality, approaches to instruction, and peers - are negligible. MOM is drawing strong contrasts, i.e. the school in Dangerous Minds versus the school in Gossip Girl. This masks a more nuanced reality. The schools Madison might attend are not that different in terms of academic quality. I remind MOM that very few parents are choosing between schools on either end of the continuum, though many of them think they are.
MOM brings up my previous post about class size, where I note that there are kindergarten classes in New York with 15 kids and others with 31. I remind her that the some of the schools she’s looking at have classes of 16, and others have classes of 18. (In cities, there are families who are choosing between a wide range of schools, but this is certainly not representative of the parents of America’s school age kids.)
3) MOM sees the Final Five as hierarchically ranked – i.e. School A is better than School B is better than School C – and I suggest that we think about choosing a school as a matching process rather than one where some people win admission to “the best school” and everyone else is screwed. Madison is a delightful kid who’s on the shy side, and probably would be most comfortable in a place that is attuned to the social dimensions of schooling. MOM concedes that all five schools are alike in this regard.
100 million parents aren’t wrong. But particularly in some circles, they are more stressed about schools than they need to be. I buy MOM, and myself, a copy of Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety . I’ll let you know how that book is soon.
Enjoy the weekend, everyone!
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