Tony Bullock, a lobbyist with Ogilvy Government Relations who graduated from Yale, says his 13-year-old, who attends St. Albans, spends about four hours a night on homework, far more than Bullock did as a child.
He and his wife aren’t shooting for “rock-star status” academically—they’re aiming for A’s and B’s with the hope that their son will have his choice of colleges. The Bullocks have hired a math tutor and work with their son on the fundamentals—organizing the workload, note-taking, preparing for tests, and writing. Bullock says the schools “assume the kids know all this, but they really don’t.” His son sleeps about seven hours a night. “Fretting over schoolwork has become a huge intrusion on our life as a family,” says Bullock.
Schools are requiring children to reach academic goals at increasingly younger ages: Pre-K is functioning as kindergarten, and traditional middle-school demands are drifting down to elementary-age kids, says Martha Bridge Denckla, director of Developmental Cognitive Neurology at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore and a professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins. But most kids’ brains aren’t developed enough to handle the demands. Says Denckla: “The school, the society, and the parents are trying to get the child to function at too high a level.”
Denckla has seen a ballooning in diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and learning disabilities in success-oriented cities like Washington. She says these diagnoses wouldn’t be made in parts of the country where academic demands are more age-appropriate.
Denckla sees kids who have nothing wrong with them but are brought to her office because they can’t keep up with the breakneck pace of their schools. Many are very smart—they’re just not ready for college-level academics.
But teachers say high-octane parents press them to keep raising the bar.
Cornelia Atkins, a third-grade teacher who has taught at Beauvoir—the National Cathedral elementary school—for 27 years, says some parents push for more homework, especially higher-level math, because they believe it will give their kids a leg up.
“We have really held the line of what is an age-appropriate amount of homework,” says Atkins, who assigns 30 minutes a night plus silent reading. “More isn’t always better. The brain needs time to muck around and process life and not be overly programmed in order to be creative.”
At top schools, it’s no secret that even the smartest kids have tutors. “The only way it can be explained is that they’re being asked to perform skills beyond their cognitive capacity,” says Siobhan O’Neil Hannes, an adolescent and adult psychologist in Chevy Chase. Some schools discourage using tutors, telling students to seek help from teachers. But teachers tend to have only brief windows of time during the day and can’t meet the demand.
Teachers who moonlight as tutors—either making house calls or doing virtual tutoring on Skype—make $60 to $100 an hour, and some tutors at private firms cost more than $200 an hour.
“The families we work with know the critical document is the transcript,” says Nina Marks, who was a college counselor at National Cathedral School and now owns Marks Education, a tutoring and educational-counseling firm. “People feel increasingly that there’s so little room for error when you’re ‘on transcript.’ A decade or more ago, if you had a bad semester or year, there was some understanding, but now kids and parents feel that so much rides on doing the best they can every moment. Every test, every exam counts.”
Tim Emerson, director of the upper school at Maret for almost two decades, agrees: “There’s less tolerance from parents of a range of grades. Parents are feeling the most important thing is the end, and the simplest reduction of that is college. That looming aspect of college is what is driving everything.”
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