(This is a guest post by Pawan Dhingra, author of Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough. He has been published in The New York Times, CNN, and elsewhere. He and his work have been featured in The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, NPR, and USA Today. He can be reached at [email protected].)
“The stress. Kindergarten stress—the crying, constant. I mean, if you have a full-day kinder, then after the full-day kinder, you do swimming, you do math, you do piano—[and] this is like [for] a five-year-old. And then after all that, you have to make time for reading. I think the issue is that we’re pushing them above and beyond, and not every child is ready for that.”
Alexa was a former kindergarten teacher in an affluent Boston suburb. She told me that she saw stressed-out children in an environment of high expectations. No longer is anxiety waiting to creep up in high school; it was now filtering down to the lowest grades.
Teachers and administrators know that emotional problems come from a variety of sources. But, they increasingly see the growth of after-school education for enrichment rather than remedial purposes, including popular tutoring companies like Kumon, Sylvan, Mathnasium, etc., as a culprit. An elementary-school principal in the Boston area said to me, “If a family asked me, I would say that [after-school education] doesn’t make sense to me.”
The consequences stretch beyond the families involved in after-school learning. As some students get extra academic support, other students start to feel inadequate. Betty, a third-grade teacher, explained to me, “I see third graders who think they’re not good at something when they’re perfectly fine at something. And it bothers them. I see kids who have a hard time verbalizing their ideas because they’re worried. … This is my twentieth year. There’s so much anxiety.”
It is time we take seriously the growth of educational spaces outside of school walls. Youth extracurricular activities are no longer limited to sports, the arts, religious spaces, and other non-academic options. Kumon and Mathnasium, two popular franchises, have seen record-setting growth recently. New York City is rife with such learning centers, and these are no longer reserved for upper-east side Manhattan families looking to place their children in elite kindergartens and then Stuyvesant. With remote learning now the norm due to the coronavirus, tutoring companies are attracting even more families.
As I explain in my new book, Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough, the implications of extracurricular education are extensive. After-school academics can be beneficial for children who need extra support or want a deep dive into a particular subject. But generally, it furthers the erosion of the public system, as more families seek the for-profit marketplace for enrichment learning. Educational inequality widens in the process.
Despite possible negative consequences, parents involved in enrichment education believe it is a necessary ingredient in their children’s development. They contend that hyper education made their kids more competitive for advanced academics in high school and, ultimately, for a competitive college slot. They also felt as if they had no choice in the matter. As a mother, Tanya, explained to me regarding her third-grade daughter, “The reality is, you know, we have competition from Asian countries and . . . different parts of the world that are just stronger in education. [Competition] for colleges, for jobs, for everything. . . . It’s a different world to even when I grew up, . . . [where] you go home or you go to the pond or go skating in the afternoons. That’s great too. It’s just not our reality.”
Getting into college isn’t parents’ only motivation. Surprisingly, they also believed that enrichment education helped provide moral values to their children. Children would grow up respecting hard work, respecting elders, and other attributes, unlike peers who invested just in sports after school. Karen, a parent of a ten-year-old daughter and twin boys age seven explained her daughter’s participation in a weekly math class, “My grandparents worked really hard. They’re Holocaust survivors. I want to maintain that for my kids.” In her mind, taking part in a learning center once a week connects with surviving the Holocaust, for it helped create a committed person. With such an outlook, it is hard to convince parents to stop.
How did the children feel? They are in the middle of parents’ endorsement of this activity yet teachers’ criticisms. How they felt depended on why they were enrolled in after-school education. As I explain in my book, parents need to know that children will come to resent the learning activity if they are not enjoying it. Tutoring companies vary in how they teach and engage students. Parents should make sure that the company is aiming to keep the child interested in it for the long term, not just in the short term through prizes or other external incentives. Tutors also should be able to connect the content to the children’s lives, so that it becomes more relevant to them. Small tutor to student ratios also help create productive learning environments.
The more that parents attend to their children’s well-being while engaged in enrichment learning, the more that children will appreciate it and the less that teachers’ concerns around anxiety will manifest. Such attention by parents also helps model for children the right values that education matters but so does our emotional health. Because hyper education is only going to grow, it is essential that if parents take part that they do so in the right way.