EarlyStories has been watching The New York Times blog “The Choice,” with great interest, waiting for Harvard Admissions Dean William Fitzsimmons to be asked about the connection between “the right pre-school,” and getting into Harvard. Inevitably, it just had to be among the flood of angst-filled queries that in many cases read like an out and out plea for Harvard acceptance.
Two such questions were posed, but even the parents who asked them seemed bewildered by the concept of Ivy League dreams for the toddler set. Fitzsimmons, however, has been asked about the pre-school connection before; he once assured Bloomberg News of a fact that he’s often repeated to parents: Harvard ultimately admits, in addition to countless valedictorians and peerless scholars, students who have never set foot in a formal classroom in their lives.
Fitzsimmons made the remark in the context of straightening out parents who bring a similar mentality to finding “the right preschool.” In New York City, the quest has become something of a competitive sport, as the hilarious documentary “Nursery University,” detailed last spring.
The early learning questions to The Choice unfolded as follows: “How do you manage to deal with all these Harvard-obsessed parents and students, who begin a mindless academic death march in kindergarten with the sole purpose of being the last one standing at the end of the admissions process? ” A second parent described attending a preschool admissions tour where a parent actually asked how many of the preschool’s graduates had attended Ivy League colleges.
Fitzsimmons did not address them head on, to his credit instead focusing on a more important and far reaching issue in education: equity.
“As important as it is to help students cope with the pressure found in many (usually more affluent) communities, a bigger public policy issue is how to assist the 30 percent of students who want their parents to be more involved in their college search,” Fitzsimmons responded. “The waste of talent in America—the denial of the American dream for a large portion of our youth—is a serious threat to our nation’s future. A student from the top income quartile is more than six times as likely as a student from the bottom income quartile to graduate with a BA within five years of leaving high school.”
Imagine if instead of obsessing over how to get one’s progeny into the most selective schools, parents, policy makers and the press would turn more attention to the challenges facing needy students and their efforts to attain a better education in the United States. President Barack Obama is pushing degree completion and access, and focusing on community colleges as a way of meeting the goal of getting more Americans to graduate from college.He also is pushing an early childhood agenda that would raise the quality of early learning and care programs that serve children from birth through age 5.
Still, far more children want to get a high quality pre-school experience than can afford it, and cash-strapped states are finding it difficult to forge ahead with promises of expansion.
These issues should take center stage and are far more critical than the make-up of the class of roughly 2,067 talented and able students Harvard will accept this spring. The more than 22,000 highly qualified applicants they will turn down are not the students we need to be worrying about either.