I recently read Pawan Dhingra’s new book Hyper Education, which explores the competitiveness that some parents feel about their children’s schooling and their fear that their children might be “falling behind.” This pressure, as many here have noted, makes children feel stressed out and deprives them of imaginative and creative activities. I invited Professor Dhingra to write a précis of his book for readers of the blog, and he kindly obliged.

Hyper Education and The Attack on Public Schools

Attacks on the public school take many forms, some of them even outside of the school system. For-profit tutoring centers like Kumon, Mathnasium, etc. have a role to play in educating children. But how big of a role and how much they should be supported by our federal government – that’s a different question. They have become some of the fastest growing companies in the country and show no sign of slowing down, especially under Covid, with significant implications for our public schools.

While one might imagine that it’s mostly children in learning centers who need support catching up to grade level, more and more it is children in higher-income families looking to get ahead. For my new book, Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough, I spent time with many parents, educators, learning center directors, children, and more around the pursuit of education outside of school.

Due to people like Bill Gates, parents are told that their schools are failing their children and cannot be trusted. As parents seek external for-profit learning options in response, it erodes the centrality of the public school. Even if we could get equal funding for our schools and avoid budget cuts, we would find growing educational inequality as some families afford to take advantage of these options.

Teachers see the effects in their classrooms of extracurricular academics. A third-grade teacher sees stressed and anxious children who are, “not talking. Being almost non-verbal. Overreacting to a small problem.” A health educator told me, “The thing that breaks my heart – because I’m an educator, I love to learn – is when I talked to high school students about what do you like about school. [They] respond, ‘Nothing. I hate it.’”

It is not only students who can suffer. Children in the classroom who have been exposed to such different amounts of knowledge complicates the entire teaching effort. Parents start to disrespect how much their kids are getting from school. A second-grade teacher was frustrated with the lack of appreciation. “I think if parents come one day, they would go, ‘Those teachers deserve a medal! How do they do it every day?’ And we do.”

I am not against students pursuing academics outside of school, and in fact I think it can be a wonderful thing for children depending on their interests, other commitments, and family atmosphere. But what we are seeing is a new normal in education that is prone to grow under Covid as parents wonder about their schools’ academic content. We need to understand what is motivating parents to seek extra learning, how the children feel, and hear from teachers. But right now, these voices are talking past one another. Only then can we work towards a school system that values compassion, solidarity, and equity.

Pawan Dhingra is a professor Of American Studies at Amherst College with over 20 years of teaching experience. His most recent book is Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough. He can be reached at pdhingra@amherst.edu. You can learn more at http://www.pawanhdhingra.com and follow him @phdhingra1