By Leslie Crawford, Senior Editor
Summer got off to such a promising start.
The sun was dappling ... dappling I tell you! We lounged, poolside, at a 7-year-old’s birthday party; the first Sunday after school let out. Parents sipped lemonade, children howled as they bounded into the sparkling water. I was so joyful. And why not? For the next 2.5 months: no homework! Goodbye, for now, to the grind of getting kids to bed at 8 pm and up at 6:30 am! I was feeling so relaxed, so relieved … until, without warning, a dark cloud eclipsed my bright, sunshiny day.
School's out for ... summer school
“Oh yes, both our girls are starting summer school on Monday for eight weeks.”
“Summer school?” I muttered, trying to stifle any hint of the parental Molotov cocktail of envy, confusion, and anxiety this father’s comment stirred in me. I did a mental inventory of the spreadsheets I’d created for my two children’s summers: sleep-away circus camp, endangered sea animal camp, bike riding camp, cooking camp, and, so they can relax after a stressful school year, a few restorative weeks of free time (aka doing nothing ) at home. My self-recrimination stress level dropped a little when I reasoned that both were continuing their music lessons – piano for my teenage son, violin for my daughter. (Ha ha ha, Amy Chua!) Plus, my second grader is doing a week of science camp. Take that, you showboating parents: I’m pushing my daughter in STEM!
Perhaps picking up on my defensiveness, the father went on, almost apologetically explaining why he was making sure his daughters spend precious vacation months improving their reading and math skills, while my kids will be juggling and making flan. “We have to, really,” added the father who, like his wife, is from Mexico. He explained that since the girls are bilingual, school - particularly in the early years - can be especially challenging. Plus, as good as our school is, he said, it really isn’t preparing them well enough.
I groped for a hostile comeback – What's next, SATs training for 4-year-olds?... We value creativity in our house. … I guess can't kids be kids anymore when they're in training to be corporate drones – but the truth is that their high standards have put an uncomfortable spotlight on my slacker standards.
Attack of the summer school parents
Indeed, this seems to be happening a lot lately. It’s as if parents are skulking around, at the ready to remind me that our public school system – at least my city’s public school system – can’t be depended on to properly educate our children and keep them competitive. I keep hearing foreboding stories. At the public library, I ran into Ed, a neighborhood electrician and second-generation Chinese dad, who all but staked a tent in the San Francisco Unified School District office until they moved his then kindergartner from a low-performing elementary school to one of the city’s highly sought-after Chinese immersion schools. “I have her in summer school,” he tells me. “She has to keep up.” Like my other summer-school-boosting friends, he doesn't feel his daughter is getting a strong enough foundation in math and English – even in one of the city’s best public schools. He also has her attending a weekend math program.
Then, at another recent birthday party (A tip for shirker parents: stay away from kids' birthday parties!), a mother – who turns out to be a district-employed reading specialist – confessed she'd been tutoring her son an hour in reading and math every day after school to supplement his first grade education. Right before summer started, she sat him choose the 12 books he’ll read – a book a week – so he’ll be ready for the increased demands of second grade. In every case, these parents have insights I lacked – some came from other countries and cultures, some had the added expertise that allowed them to see the gaping holes in their children's educations.
Education realities that'll ruin even the brightest summer
But what’s my excuse? As an editor at GreatSchools, I’m all too aware of the sobering stats: America’s schools area falling behind and superstar school systems like South Korea, Finland, and Shanghai that make our advanced students look just so-so. I also know that a majority of American parents defy logic in believing that their children’s schools are above average. But the educational disparity isn’t just a matter of one country excelling over another. From school to school, the quality of our children’s educations can be worlds apart, and even some of the better schools are at best mediocre.
So why haven’t I taken these realities into my own home? Maybe, like so many parents I know, I shy away from the uncomfortable truth that I grew up in a different America, where so many middle-class kids sailed through meh public schools, earned so-so grades, and still got into pretty great colleges. It was a given for the middle-class children of a super power that had the best universities and no other choice than to admit it’s less-than-prepared high school graduates. It’s certainly not a given anymore.