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My mother, now that we kids are all long out of the house (my youngest sister is a senior in college this spring), works as a childcare provider for a family in the neighborhood. Both parents are teachers in the public schools, and this past weekend my mother sent this great anecdote that I thought I would share with y’all.

K [the mother] told me a hilarious story about science lessons in her kindergarten. They had apparently finished a mandated unit on the concept of “force.” And there was a test at the end. One of the questions asked them what would they use to get a ball to move, the answer being “force,” but overwhelmingly the kids said she would need a dog. I love it. Interestingly, K was discouraged by this. But I said, just refuse the grounds of the test. They can’t identify something as vague as “force,” even if they can talk about it. The demand is inappropriate. Nothing is wrong with exposing them to the vocabulary, but expecting them to manipulate so abstractly is maybe useless to them.

I actually think the kids provided a perfectly logical response to the question posed, given their experience in the world (and, I would bet, the illustrations in the teaching packet used). So they actually have the answer correct: want the ball to move? You need something to move it! It’s not going to leap into action on its own (that is, it requires outside “force” to give it momentum). What have you seen make a ball move? A dog playing fetch!

This story reminded me of a story in New York Magazine that I saw while browsing at the newsstand in Trident Booksellers, “Junior Meritocracy,” by Jennifer Senior, which explores the (apparently highly competitive?) world of kindergarten entrance exams. The article is interesting (though, if you’re a test-skeptic like me, somewhat stressful to read) and I recommend clicking through. In a nutshell, Senior describes the culture of competitive kindergarten and then talks to sociologists who point out what (to me, anyway) seems like the obvious:

“People have the idea that with these tests you can cancel out socioeconomic background and get to some real thing in the kid,” agrees Nicholas Lemann, dean of the journalism school at Columbia and author of The Big Test, a history of the SAT. “That’s a chimera. If you’re a 4-year-old performing well on these tests, it’s either because you have fabulous genetic material or because you have cultural advantages. But either way, the point is: You’re doing better because of your parents.”

Rather than promoting a meritocracy, in other words, these tests instead retard one. They reflect the world as it’s already stratified—and then perpetuate that same stratification.

Since getting involved in the debate at Yes Means Yes over the culture of home education last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the powerful assumption made by Americans (and Americans of the liberal persuasion particularly, I venture to suggest) that education (specifically universal public education) is the solution to all of the inequality that exists in our country. This was certainly the point of view Gregory Butler (commenter “Movies, Reviewed”) put forward over at Yes Means Yes: that mandatory public schooling would guarantee universal cultural harmony . . . or at the very least, protect us from the stress of living in a society in which not everyone shares identical values. The idea that education (in the specific package of schooling) is the key to life success has the status of common sense: we seldom question this notion, and therefore scramble — like these parents of prospective kindergarten students — to give children the advantage of what is seen as the best schooling (whatever we feel that to be).

I’m skeptical. While I value learning deeply, I am also wary of buying into the notion that schools are the best educative space in which to invest as a solution to the inequities that (yes, absolutely) exist in our culture. If nothing else, I am mindful of the legacy of turn-of-the-twentieth-century progressive educators like Jane Addams and John Dewey who (while, don’t get me wrong, put forward many wonderful ideas about how to reshape learning environments to better suit the children who inhabited them) held up public schooling as a way to Americanize the influx of immigrants who were seen as jeopardizing America’s social stability and national character.

Possibly more thoughts to come on this. Meanwhile, rest easy in the knowledge that when faced with the task of how to move a ball, you know what to do: go find the nearest golden retriever!

*image credit: Dienstelle 75 @ New York Magazine.