Kindergarten sets an aptitude test for anxious parents

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The Independent Online
I am living through one of those all-important crossroads-of-life moments, when a destiny is sealed, a career is made or broken. I am not referring to marriage or starting a family, the death of a loved one, landing a vital job or linking your fortunes to the right presidential candidate. In the great sweep of life in Washington DC, such matters are trivialities. For a test of nerve, character and resilience, try getting your child into a private kindergarten here.

Surely nothing could be simpler, this non-American innocently thought, convinced that it didn't really matter where his five-year-old called Stas went to school, provided he was happy. A quick visit to a few possible schools, choose the one you like best, pay the first instalment and Bob's your uncle.

How nave could I be. For one thing you don't pick the school, the school picks you (or more exactly, the fortunate children it consents to admit through its portals for fees of up to $12,000, some £7,500 a year). And that only after your offspring has undergone a battery of assessments, trial visits, interviews and tests that make acceptance for a place at Oxbridge and then getting the right A-level grades a cakewalk by comparison. Here in Washington, you're hardly out of diapers and the rat race begins.

The process begins in November or December, when the kindergartens hold visitors' open days. This is the easy part, when you and your fellow punters size up the field and no commitments are made. But already teachers at your child's pre-school are drawing up reports on their charges, and independent child psychologists have sat in to make their separate evaluations to arm you for the battle ahead. Then you make formal applications; if you're wise not to one but several schools to improve the chances. Get past the preliminary winnowing, and your child will probably undergo an aptitude test. And so to March and the wait: will the apple of your eye make it, or end up as a five-year-old has-been ?

For proud parents, these are agonising times. But this being America, you need not face the ordeal alone. A veritable army of specialists is there to help you. Just as American football is said to illustrate two facets of national life - endless committee meetings and random acts of violence - so the American kindergarten selection process underscores two others: the intense competitiveness of America, and its incurable addiction to pundits, gurus, and other purveyors of gobbledygook.

Thus it was at a parents' session at Stas's current school one Saturday afternoon a few months back. I was expecting a gentle meet-and-mix occasion with the teachers. Instead, not a teacher in sight, but a couple of formidable women, one an "educational consultant", the other representing an outfit called the National Learning Laboratory, who spoke for half an hour about children and the "submodalities" of the "visual, auditory and kinesthetic systems" in cognitive development. "Cognitive ability" incidentally is the PC term for intelligence. I didn't understand a word of it. But most of those present found it rather reassuring. And who needs to rely on their own common sense, with experts like these to hand?

Washington is full of over-achievers who want to ensure their young follow in their own over-achieving tracks. The obvious - and infinitely cheaper - alternative, of packing the little devil off to the local public, or state, school (which has to accept him), brings you up against the city's financial crisis. Washington is, in effect, bankrupt and cuts in education funding are inevitable. And this at a time when DC spends more per pupil than any state in the union, only to see its public schools come bottom of the national league table.

I would have less objection to the entry rigmarole if the system we aspire to enter were one of unmatched excellence. But it isn't. Studies show that in most disciplines the 17- or 18-year-old product of an American high school is less well educated than the equivalent in most other developed countries. But there's no escape. The only consolation is that the toddlers seem to handle it better than we grown-ups. If the ordeal is turning me into a twitching wreck, Stas isn't batting an eyelid - so far.