The year our first child, a girl, turned two, I visited 44 liberal arts colleges in 25 states. I interviewed more than 4,200 students, professors, college presidents, deans, coaches, and alumni: What makes your college distinctive? What does this school do well? Where do you fail? What’s the value of earning a degree here? How is this place life-changing? I went to classes (and realized I remember nothing about calculus), sampled more than 100 meals in dining halls (and wished the farm-to-table movement was around when I was getting three squares a day in college) and interrupted students eating lunch, cramming for exams, and meandering across lush green quads.
You might think I’m an education-obsessed parent—a stereotypical Tiger Mom who is meticulously carving the perfect path from toddlerhood to Harvard for her precious offspring. Not quite. I was writing a book called Colleges That Change Lives, so getting the inside scoop on higher education was my job.
The book’s first edition was written by Loren Pope, a former New York Times education editor, and published by Penguin in the mid-“90s. Pope was one of the first outspoken critics of Americans” collective obsession with top-ranked colleges and universities. What if, he posited, the value of a school isn’t in how talented its incoming students are (a common factor in the ubiquitous ranking systems, which the Ivy League schools dominate)? What if, instead, we evaluated schools by how talented and transformed its graduating students are? To that end, he asked, what are the practices that turn students into avid and capable learners—inside the classroom and out
Pope passed away in 2008 after a few small revisions of Colleges That Change Lives. The book had such a cult following that the publisher wanted a brand-new edition—and, in 2010, sent me on this epic college tour. I discovered campuses on which curiosity and creativity thrived, where students wrestled with the big ideas of human history—delivered by rich, original texts—not interpretative textbooks. Science students did science in labs with equipment that, at other places, is reserved for grad students. Undergraduate statisticians analyzed huge data sets for real-world problems. Budding poets got candid feedback from their peers and professors about when their verse sang—and when it stunk. Students learned how to sit among a dozen or two of their contemporaries and discuss hot-button issues respectfully and thoroughly. Learning was collaborative; values were central; community mattered.
In between visiting campuses, examining data and writing, I was parenting a toddler (and, it turns out, growing a baby). And then, a funny thing happened: My husband and I began looking for a preschool for our daughter, and I realized that some of what I had learned in writing a college guide might apply to early childhood education.
Should “Top-Ranked” Be The Goal?
I began with robust skepticism about ‘top-ranked” schools. In higher education, the ranking systems are contrived and misleading and rarely reflect the actual teaching and learning that’s happening on a particular campus. Turns out, the same is true of preschool and K-12 programs: Unless you’re sure the formula used to rank schools is clearly reflective of the values you’re pursuing, they”re false guideposts.
And I remembered the hundreds of students who told me versions of the same story: They had come from high schools where achievement was king. Asking too many questions was discouraged. Following a lark of an idea? Please stop. Risk-taking? Forget about it. All pursuits, so long as they were assigned by a teacher, were equally worthy (which, we adults know, is bunk). One student at Juniata College in Pennsylvania told me ruefully: “Before this place, I was disciplined but miserable.” Not until they rediscovered their innate curiosity and began to understand meaning (not just facts) did these students find the joy in learning—which is its driving force.
I realized that I wanted a preschool that felt like a powerful, little, humble, vibrant liberal arts college. Was there a place that ran on the power of learning—not testing or achievement? Could we enroll our daughter in a place that treated students as curious human beings, capable of joyful discovery? I wanted a school that would help her develop a genuine thrill of learning, teach her how to look at the world, ask good questions, and sniff out answers.
In the end, my husband and I chose a classical, Christian school that feels like the best of the liberal arts colleges I visited. Our first-born marched into the school as a three-year-old and four years later, thanks to the school’s K-12 program, it’s still the best place for her (and her little brother). It’s not fancy; it has no elaborate computer lab or robust children’s orchestra, and there’s no organic farm on campus from which our kids harvest their own wheat and corn. But it excels in the realms that are important to our family: The content is rich, and students get a lot of it. The instruction is age-appropriate, which makes learning satisfying for even the littlest students. Students learn subjects not in silos but in context, so they get a holistic view of life. It emphasizes excellence, not grades, and community over competition.
One day, perhaps a strange journalist will ask my grown kids, as they meander across a lush green quad, if their college is life-changing. I hope they”ll say, “Yes, just like all my other schools have been.”
Hilary Masell Oswald is a Denver-based writer, speaker, and editor of 5280 Home who spends most of her time covering education, health, design, and architecture—and trying to keep up with her two curious, clever kids.
Questions To Ask A Prospective Preschool
You probably know the usual inquiries about class size, licensing, teacher qualifications and references from current families. (If not, visit qualistar.org.) Here are a few additional questions to help narrow down your search.
How would you describe the school culture? One school might emphasize kids” independence; another might celebrate a rigorous academic program. We sought out a place where teachers described the classroom vibe as joyful and discovery-based.
How does your program align with preschoolers” brain development? This is a biggie for me, as some of my research for Colleges That Change Lives underscored how the happiest, most eager learners are the ones who receive instruction suited to their particular stage of development. What’s true for teens is true for preschoolers, and at this age, kids care more about process than product. In other words, the doing matters more than the outcome. Freedom to try new tasks, to fail, to explore and experiment—those matter much more (to the student and to her growth in learning) than a perfectly executed art project.
What types of teaching tools do you use? We sought out a no-tech preschool for our kids. Teaching and learning are human experiences. We listened for answers to this question that involved language-based learning that brain sciences show to be highly satisfying to young children: singing, chanting, memorizing poetry and rich storytelling, led by a teacher, not a computer.
How are parents involved in the classroom? We believe that as parents, we”re our kids” first and best teachers, and our kids” school is our partner in educating them. We wanted a place where parents are welcomed into the classroom, as observers or helpers, not treated as pesky outsiders.