Gone nuclear in the affluenza academic arms race

So the first offspring of the Trackball of Truth (Minnie Trackball?) has entered public school and as a result, Mrs. Trackball and I are getting one heck of an education. We knew we were in for it, but didn't realize how badly. Haughty teachers, check. Overly-protected kids, check. Uncommunicative bureaucracy, check. We had both gone through it as kids ourselves.

But academic doping? Insider trading for teachers? Selective disability advantages? Geographical high school selection considerations? Over-maturation strategies?

In areas of the country caught in the grip of a horrible ongoing affluenza outbreak, education status (as in my kid is smarter than yours) is a bigger deal than the car you drive or the clothes you wear. The rush to get your kid into a primo elementary, middle, high school, gifted and talented track and then college is a damn near obsession for many apparently mature adults, usually starting somewhere in the preschool years.

For those who grew up in less cosmopolitan areas of the country, like us Trackballs, where attending a good college was not a deeply desired parental goal, this can come as a big shock. As I'll detail later, "My Tatooine" was a place where college was either a ju-co or a 4-6 year kegger. Only the weird kids with AP credits went to brainy schools and they were few and far between (me and the Mrs.). And for K-12, parental involvement in the education substance stopped at the school bus door and maybe forcing you to opt out of sex ed for religious reasons.

So we ventured forth into the land to find a place where there were educated people who actually valued education, knowledge for knowledge sake and liked going to libraries and bookstores. We wanted the two of us and any children we had to grow up in an environment where learning and academic achievement were honored. And the schools in Affluenza are excellent and the kids are doing stuff at least two years ahead of what our schools expected 20 years ago.

What we found, however, was the other extreme. Once you're into the school system, you are in the loop on how it all works and the tips and tricks to get your kid to the next level.

Fasten your cap and gown, here we go.

The over-maturation manuever. Minnie was born right at the beginning of the school year calendar. So when to start kindergarten was an issue. For me, with a summer birthday, your age was always your grade + 5. Except here in the state of Affluenza, though, sending a 5 yr old to kindergarten is quickly becoming akin to child abuse. At first we thought it was because people wanted their kid to be the bigger, stronger, more mature kid on grade-specific sports teams.

No, no. Our school tracks kindergarteners academically and they believe that a child won't be down-shifted to a slower group. So if you get into the advanced track in kindergarten, she's good to go for the gifted and talented program (GT) through high school. And that is the good college track. So parents wait till the kid is 6 before packing him off. There's no max age for kindergarten. And when 'all' the parents are doing this, everyone else follows suit. Except the Trackballs.

But holding off on kindergarten till 6 is not enough. They do assessments on kids as they come in, so you better get junior all prepped to do double digit addition and read independently before they step into first grade. Preschool will only do so much, so you send the kid to private school kindergarten first when she is 5. Then have her repeat it at 6 in public school. For older grades, use academic summer camps to put your kid ahead of the others or just send them to Sylvan during the school year for extra prep. Just like the never-ending campaign in politics, cram time is now a year round thing and not the week before the SAT and finals.

Insider trading. But that may not be enough. All teachers are not created equal. You don't want Susie to essentially lose a year of math progress in K or 8th grade because the teacher is a dud. Like the NFL Draft, you have to do some scout work each year.

So you volunteer at the school (yeah, moms, drop those jobs or you won't even be allowed to chaperone on field trips, much less get the insider info). You volunteer a lot. Like several times a week. You become the teacher or administration's best friend.

And you find out about which teachers are good, okay and bad, which ones are getting the advanced kids, the on grade level kids and the remedial and special ed groups. Then you either directly or indirectly lobby to get your kid with the star teacher. If your school has been traumatized by over-involved parents demanding specific classroom assignments, like ours has, and has adopted a policy forbidding such requests and underhandedness, then you have to get all stealthy about it. More strategy has been pored into pulling this off than the entire anti-terrorism effort in the U.S., I can assure you.

Selective disability advantage. You don't think that after all that work that affluenzaed parents were going to let the kid make or break the education experience themselves, do you? You can't just get your kid into GT with a height/weight/age advantage and the best teacher and just hope for the best. There is an entire zero sum war for school resources to win. You can score extra resources for your GTer by getting them classified as learning disabled. They get an individual development plan, extra attention from teachers and possibly more time to take tests. Stigma? Watch the stigma get into Harvard.

Academic doping. Then there is the actual academic performance. It's student eat student out there and your kid needs that extra edge when it comes to filling in bubbles with a number two pencil. Yes, I mean having him or her take performance-enhancing drugs such as amphetamines. They are perfectly legal, there are no rules prohibiting them and they do help your kid think better. Apparently there are no long term consequences to the kids health, although I am doubtful. All you do is go to the pediatrician and claim the kid ADHD or ADD. Yeah, that kid sitting quietly in the exam room crunching quadratic equations needs a shot of speed.

Geographical high school selection considerations. So what is a parent to do? Compete in this environment? The problem is that having junior graduate from Affluenza High actually will hurt their chances of getting into a top-notch college. They only take so many over -achievers from the same place at a state flagship or the Ivys, no matter how good they are. You would be better off living in some less advanced place so you're kid can be the big fish in a redneck pond.

Of course, this alternative has its own problems. Namely, will your child resist the anti-education environment of such a place and still excel? The entire culture of East Lowskill may encourage them to maybe not even complete high school, or graduate with either a meth habit or a baby in tow. And will the dearth of AP and IB courses and meaningful activities (hanging out in the Burger King parking lot only goes so far on a college application) doom your child more certainly than not becoming a speed fiend? It's a tough call.

The moral angle. It's one thing to prepare your children to be competitive in school and the world in general. But almost all of these techniques are morally shady if not outright cheating. Schools need to crack down on this stuff. No amount of charter schools, vouchers or hot lunches is going to level the playing field for poor kids if the rich ones are dropping uppers on test day. There's also a nasty lesson for children here - do whatever it takes to get ahead, blow right past any ethical issues and grab everything in the school system that you can. What's next, room mothers knee-capping the other smart kids on test day? Or Harvard students who have run this rat race getting their cheated outed finally?

Wait that's already happened.

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