Posted by: Tracy Barsamian | August 27, 2012

OFF KLTR JOURNEY TO WALDORF: THE PROBLEM (part 2 of a 4-part series)

Keira holding a Torah at Community Meeting

Initially, I was a bit worried about our formerly Catholic, now (supposedly) Unitarian family attending a Jewish preschool.  But, the religious part of the school was not an issue.  I’ll be honest with ‘ya, I didn’t look forward to being the Shabbat parent (I sent Rob whenever possible!), but in Keira’s mind she was Jewish for those two years.  She memorized this “I’m a Little Torah” poem that she recited for weeks!  Not a problem for us.  The problem was the school’s seemingly singular focus on kindergarten readiness.  I believe this to be a problem in many of our preschools. And in our schools in general.  We are constantly preparing our children for the next thing. We are always looking forward, as opposed to being in the present and assessing the child’s needs at the moment.  What is developmentally appropriate for the child right now?  Preschool used to be called playschool because that is what is developmentally appropriate for 3, 4, and 5 year olds: PLAY!  Children learn through play.  Teaching children to form a straight line and requiring them sit in a circle to formally learn letters and numbers is not what these young children need.  They need the opportunity to run and jump and skip with other children.  They need a really safe place – both the right physical environment and the right teachers are needed to create this safety – where children can take risks and try new things.

But here’s the thing about Keira’s preschool – it had a reputation with the public school kindergarten teachers as best preparing children for success in kindergarten.  This scared me.  The kids were given so little time to play/explore socially. So how were these kids doing socially in kindergarten?  Well, I got my answer loud and clear at the public school’s kindergarten open house.  The kids have NO TIME TO PLAY IN KINDERGARTEN.  The half-day kids have recess once a week!  Once a week!  This town has good teachers. It has good administrators.  It has very involved, well-educated parents.  But the town has to prepare its children for the MCAS.  And as a result, they must follow the Massachusetts framework.  And there is too much content in that framework to make the student’s social development a priority IN KINDERGARTEN.  But, if not kindergarten, when?!

There is this incredibly documentary called The Race to Nowhere.  Here’s the site’s description of the film…

“Featuring the heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids, Race to Nowhere points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.

“Race to Nowhere” is a call to mobilize families, educators, and policy makers to challenge current assumptions on how to best prepare the youth of America to become healthy, bright, contributing and leading citizens.”

Rob and I went to see this film in Newton.  We were stunned.  The stories were just so sad.  Kids in really affluent communities were staying up all night to finish their endless streams of homework.  I remember one girl’s testimony so well…she said that she would often end up crying herself to sleep because she just couldn’t stay up any longer and knew there was no way to finish all of her homework.  And the boys had different coping strategies – they would quit.  They would drop out of public school and finish their high school requirements on-line or at a community college.  Really, the boys’ chose healthier paths.

After the film, a man named Alfie Kohn spoke.  He’s actually from the Boston Area and his research is fascinating!!  His research shows that in the elementary grades, there is no benefit to homework! (See his article, The Truth About Homework ).  I taught at a very competitive private school in Providence and the FOURTH graders had more than two hours of homework per night. They were stressed out!  And then to read the research that homework isn’t even beneficial ’til high school!  And even in the higher grades, minutes of reinforcement, NOT hours of new learning is helpful.

But what really surprised me was that I could recognize myself (as a high school student) in some of the girls.  I would just flat-out memorize sh*t so that I could score well on the test.  The day after the test, there was not so much as a trace of the memorized information in my brain.  I understood the system and from the time I was in seventh grade, I had a single focus:  create the best school record possible to get into the best college possible.  And I did just that – got high grades and strategically participated in school and community activities – and got into a really good college with a whopper of a financial aid package.  So I achieved my goal.  But, at no point in my 12 years of pre-college schooling did I love school.  I didn’t even start to read for pleasure until I was an adult!  Read for pleasure?  Why?  I read the minimum amount necessary to ace the test.  I only did that which was required.  And, I didn’t want that for Keira.  I didn’t want her to learn for the sake of getting a good grade on the test.  I wanted her to love to learn.  And I knew in my heart that we were on the wrong track.

Tune in again tomorrow for part 3 of the series.


  1. That is such a bad experience. Hannah loved her preschool, she learned a lot, but mostly through play. Her reading teacher now is about play, you would love her she is amazing. I was horrified that my sister’s kids all had summer homework, even the one going into 2nd grade. Can’t believe school starts next week!!!

    • A reading teacher all about play? I LOVE IT! I remember how much you loved Hannah’s preschool. It’s amazing what a difference it makes when you find the right match your family! In fact, it’s life-changing, really. Happy first day of school to Miss Hannah! Josh is going to miss her like crazy, I bet. Lauren isn’t going to know what to do with herself when Keira goes back on Thursday…

  2. I really think all parents should see this documentary. It was incredibly well done and has a powerful message. I am a full supporter of higher education and achievement. However, I think many parents feel that their kids will 1) go to Harvard and 2) play in the NHL, NFL, NBA and/or MLB. Therefore, they have mapped out a plan to get them to achieve these goals starting at age 2. Unfortunately, a very small percentage of the population achieves these goals. Instead of designing educational programs for normal students, they are being tailored to the top 2%. This leaves the masses feeling like failures and they can’t keep up. There is a really powerful stat in the documentary (which I may misquote). The University of California system is one of the best public college systems in the country. The average GPA of an entering freshman is around 3.5 (very good…therefore, I could argue that they only take smart kids). A crazy number of freshman (over 1/3) need to take remedial courses. That’s right, high school honor students need to take remedial courses! How can that be? They must have gotten and A or B in that class in high school!?! It’s simple. They either memorize for the exam and then purge their brains (i.e. don’t retain) or are stressed out and cheat. Neither scenario is ideal.

    I will leave you with this question to think about. America has the best college education system in the world. Students come from all over the world to learn. There are no standardized tests at that level. However, there are curriculum guidelines that cross from one college to the next. For example, an Economics major at BC would study comparable topics to an Economics major at UCLA. By forcing schools into a one-size-fits-all model, we limit the school’s ability to tailor the program to the needs of the students. The needs of Newton are going to be very different than inner-city Boston.

    I plan to fix the education system of this country shortly after I get the economy on track, clean up the environment and fix healthcare. I am not just a pretty face you know….

    • Wow. What a thoughtful post. Thank you! And just so we’re clear, fixing the education system, economy, environment, healthcare issues qualify as alone time!

  3. This life sounds all too familiar. Push kids too far… And sometimes they swing the other way ( and you get a photographer with two degrees in engineering and accounting/ finance) hehe

    • Wow! Engineer/Business Woman who finally found her passion in photography! I have an undergraduate degree in Economics. May I find a profession that I love and that suits me as well as your new career does you, Bella!! And may Keira and Lauren never even consider business degrees of any sort…shortening their roads to happiness and success!

      • I think you’ve found it ! The way you’ve helped your little girls grow in the little time they’ve been with you has been amazing. I just read what you’ve accomplished with Rob in 6 months. Blogging about it will definitely lead to bigger things as well! I’m sure this will lead to the career that will be rewarding and fulfilling, and in the meantime will enrich your little girls’ lives.

  4. I couldn’t agree more about preschool – it should be about play, play, play. Children learn through play. And your comments about how our society has become so much more about preparing for what’s next instead of focusing on the here and now, current needs and concerns – so true. Sometimes I feel guilty that I don’t have my kiddos in all kinds of extra-curricular activities, but then I read my cousin’s blog and am reaffirmed in the idea that this slower pace suits our family and my boys. And my big boy is having a tough time in Kindergarten…it’s SO much time away from home (we have all day kinder here) and mom…at least they’re not sending homework (yet). Sigh…

    • Isn’t it funny that we do get just the messages we need from the most unexpected places?! It is soooo hard to keep our family lives calm. In fact, it’s not possible to keep them slow…even just maintaining a steady pace is a challenge! Life is just moving so fast. We have to work so hard just to protect our kids from the sheer speed of it all, never mind the content!! Keira only goes half days, but she still comes home and rests for an hour. I feel like the Grinch, always saying no to playdates. But she’s too tired! So stay strong, Dear Cousin! The Tracys have never been ones to overdo things!! Slow and steady. Happy and healthy kids. Much Love, T.

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