Letter to the Editor: Life is a Journey, Not a Race

The writer is Larry Ksanznak, a retired educator who served as assistant superintendant of Lawrence Township Public Schools. Ksanznak was the first principal of Ben Franklin Elementary School when the school opened in 1961.

A very lucrative business, in some suburban communities, is tutoring to prepare pre-kindergarten children for entrance into school. Parents are already making plans for their 5-year-olds to have an extra advantage in being accepted at an Ivy League School. In New York City, parents pay in excess of $20,000 a year to enroll their 5-year-olds in an exclusive, status-driven and competitive school. Parents spend months investigating school programs to be assured the selected school meets their socio-economic status. There is a built-in fear that other children may be getting a competitive edge over their child.

Before we subject our young children to “hothouse”-pressured school experiences we need to remember the words of Plato in The Republic: “In every task the most important thing is the beginning, and especially when you have to deal with anything young and tender.”

The new educational leaders are now our politicians. We trust the judgment of politicians even when all recent polls have shown a low regard for the conventional wisdom of the members of Congress. Albeit they can’t develop or balance a national budget, they have taken control of our schools.

In ten years, they have introduced over seven national reforms to improve the quality of education. One of the latest reform movements was approving the federal mandated No Child Left Behind. Dr. Diane Ravitch was selected to be the educational leader in implementing the program. The major components of this reform were reliant on standardized testing, opening of charter schools, excessive drill and homework.

After five years of administering NCLB, there was no research to prove any degree of success. The big winners were testing companies that made large profits and the owners of charter schools. Testing has become big business. We spend more than $200 million a year on tests. The market for standardized tests is growing faster than that for textbooks. Unfortunately, the two giants get together very quickly: three publishing companies dominate the market for tests and textbooks.

Dr. Ravitch, with skepticism about the program, departed as the CEO of the federal No Child Left Behind. Dr. Ravitch, wrote a book, “How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.” She refers to “reform fatigue” and its impact on education:

“The first step in combating reform fatigue is to recognize it as such. In other words, teachers have had one ‘reform’ after another thrown at them for the past couple of decades, with many such reforms modeled on inappropriate business practices. The next thing to do is to talk about it and recognize that non-educators should not be telling educators how to do their job. Being a professional means have a certain amount of autonomy. These days, however, politicians and corporate leaders treat educators with disdain and feel no embarrassment about interfering in what should be professional decisions. Perhaps recognizing the syndrome will encourage educators to resist and stand fast the next time some lawyer or corporate executive arrives with a plan to reorganize the schools. Maybe teachers should come up with ‘reforms’ to improve corporate governance and legal ethics”

Children are consistently placed under undue stress and accountability. We have taken the joy out of learning and replaced it with rote instructional practices. The tyranny of testing has become so intense that teachers may find themselves spending more than half of the school year teaching specifically for test results. Teachers realize their performance evaluation and the status of the school are based on placing numerical numbers on the foreheads of the students. Many excellent teachers have left the classroom rather than conform to robot teaching styles. If you recall, the teachers you remember the most are those who instilled a love of learning and enriched all your learning styles. They were inspirational and challenging and brought joy and excitement to all their lessons.

We need to remember that life is a journey not a race. In schools, we have reduced the amount of recess time, cut back time for physical education and fitness, cut back on art and music time and added excessive amounts of homework. This is being done even when we see more obese children and lack of physical fitness. There was a time when recess was a time for communication skills to be enhanced by students. You learned to accept other children and to learn how to play a variety of skilled games. Many friendships and social skills were forged at recess and lunch play periods. There seems to be a feeling that if children are having fun they are not learning the basics.

After No Child Left Behind proved to have limited impact in the classrooms the politicians designed a new scheme, Race to the Top. To deter this new political reform movement a hard hitting documentary, “Race to Nowhere,” was produced to show the disregard for research on child growth and development in implementing Race to the Top. The film was viewed by more than 600 medical professionals in 38 states.

Anne Robinson, a pediatrician and mother of three in Ridgewood, N.J., has shown the “Race to Nowhere” multiple times in her community to raise awareness about the importance of adequate sleep, reduced homework loads and a balanced schedule to student success and well being. She has expressed deep concern about the intense competition and pressure surrounding academics and standardized testing, and the unmanageable time demands of extracurricular activities and sports.

Dr. Ravitch has raised similar concerns about the over emphasis of standardized tests. She asks, what do we mean by improving our schools?

“If all we mean is raising test scores that is not synonymous with good education. We have to begin to reframe the debate so that when people talk about improving our schools, they think about strengthening arts education, history education, civic education, science education, and foreign language instruction. We have to get the public to realize that children come to school with differing levels of readiness to learn, conditioned in large part by their family, their economic circumstances, their health, their prior schooling, their language ability, and their own motivation.”

There was a time when there were countless games being played in alleys, playgrounds and the neighborhood school playgrounds. Kids would make arrangements in schools for pickup games either after school or on weekends. Many highly-competitive football, basketball and baseball games were played when there were no coaches, referees or “soccer” moms hovering over or directing the games.

Look what we have today. We have 6-year-olds in shoulder pads and expensive football uniforms. Three coaches are monitoring their positions. Coaches and parents are putting kids at risk of early injuries. This is the age when bone formation is not ready for the physical contact of tackle football. At many games 6-year-old girls are dressed in team cheerleading outfits. At one game I attended, the 6-year-olds came through a smoke tunnel and the PA announcer called out each player for a personal introduction before the start of the game. In, baseball starting at age 6, we have players in lavish uniforms, personal bats, batting gloves and a carry-on bag for their equipment. Parents feel that all this extra instruction by adults will produce a son or daughter who will get an athletic scholarship and a chance to play professional sports. The statistics tell us that a very small percentage of all athletes make it to professional sports.

This year in Colorado Springs, Colo, they have cancelled the annual Easter egg hunt. This disciplinary action was not for the kids but for the parents. The organizers of the egg hunt found the parents were planning ways for their children to get a head-start on finding the eggs. Some of the parents ignored the prescribed boundaries and found ways to get their children into the restricted area before the contest was started by a person in charge. Once again it is about competition and getting ahead rather than for the pure joy of fun. There is a whole new generation being spawned called the “Helicopter Adults.” They are adults who hover over the children during their formative years and need to be involved in every aspect of their children’s lives to ensure they don’t fail. The Helicopter Adults can only accept their child being better than the next kid.

Childhood is a magical time of a child’s life. It is a time to explore, dream, imagine, pretend, make new friends, laugh, cry, chase fireflies, look glowingly at a rainbow after a rainstorm, play in dirt, learn how to whistle, slide down a snow bank, share an ice cream popsicle with a friend, play a game of marbles, flip baseball cards, build a model airplane, experience success and rise up after a failure, play a game of baseball without coaches and referees, arm wrestle, have a hula hoop contest, sit on the front lawn at night and star gaze, start a coin collection, get some friends and have a summer carnival to raise money for a charity, give a dog a bath, watch the movies “Simon Birch,” “ET,” “Eight Below,” “Oliver” and “Bambi,” see how many tricks you can do with a Yo-Yo, climb a tree, be glad that you have freckles a sign of beauty, girls can wear pigtails to school, eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, pop some popcorn, fly a kite at the beach, draw a treasure map, make a pea shooter from a bamboo tree twig, build a campfire to roast potatoes until they are black and toast marshmallows, play a game of Monopoly, swing on a rope into a stream, play a game of ping pong, try walking backward and standing on your hands and try walking on stilts, roller skate and ice skate, smile at least twenty times a day, give your mom a huge hug, stick your tongue out to catch raindrops, dig up worms, bait a hook and go fishing, make homemade ice cream, peel an onion, go camping, try playing a harmonica, ride a roller coaster and a Ferris wheel, call your grandparents and tell them they are very special, walk along a stream and check all the beauty of nature, and shovel the snow from the sidewalk of a senior citizen.

The real beauty of all these learning experiences: they are not followed up with a standardized test and extensive homework.

There is a choice to be a Helicopter Parent or a parent who knows when to put band-aids on hurts and the heart. We need to remember that life is precious and that life is a journey, not a race.


- Larry Ksanznak, Oakland, N.J.



Bill Michaelson September 05, 2012 at 11:43 AM
Thanks for writing this. Consider a law, NCLB, with an ostensibly noble goal embodied in its name, but that guarantees that practically all public schools - even excellent ones - will be deemed failures by a certain date. What should we conclude about legislators who pass such a law and their motivation and/or competence? As that deadline approaches, the absurdity of NCLB provisions has been laid bare. So now we have Race to the Top, which breathes new life into the corrosive practices spawned by NCLB. I like to believe we are holding the line and enabling our administration and faculty to preserve broad educational opportunity in Lawrence Township schools, but it will become increasingly difficult as school boards lose local control and correspondingly, educators lose autonomy in the face of simplistic accountability mandates imposed from on high. I sincerely hope that more citizens will dig deep to learn the truth about the performance of US and particularly New Jersey public schools. It's a complicated subject and the prevalent sound bites misinform and distort. I represent myself here as an individual, not the LTPS Board of Education of which I am a member.
Overtaxed September 05, 2012 at 03:04 PM
The grave problem with the LTPS Board of Education and school district as a whole is that the board members do not realize (or do not want to acknowledge) that spending $18,000 (and constantly increasing) of our property tax dollars per student per year in Lawrence is a losing proposition. Lawrence residents do not support of $18,000 student/year to support the many (well too many!) hefty/fat salaries and generous benefits of the district's administrators. To all those uninformed: please check the statistical data posted on the LTPS web site (www.ltps.org) for yourself to see that the average Lawrence school district administrator earns much more than the average NJ school administrator does! The average teacher's salary in Lawrence is slightly less than the average teacher's salary in NJ. Unless the "administrative fat" is cut in half and many new enthusiastic college graduates with teaching degrees are hired (with above average salaries!) I do not envision any improvement in students' performance in Lawrence.
Bill Michaelson September 05, 2012 at 04:28 PM
Yes, education is expensive. LTPS spending is in line with other NJ districts according to most recent data published by NJ DOE. Precise link is: http://education.state.nj.us/rc/rc11/rcreport.php?c=21;d=2580;s=040 Administrative salary percentage costs are slightly less than average and in the most recently reported year declined by 7% according to these data. They have generally declined over the three reported years. By contrast, such costs have increased slightly in other districts over the same period. Our standardized test performance relative to DFG can be seen there as well. I encourage you to investigate the performance of NJ public schools in comparison to other states for some perspective.
Overtaxed September 05, 2012 at 06:59 PM
Education in Lawrence is TOO expensive! Well too many administrators here have their salaries above the state average. Lawrence schools are not the top schools even in Mercer County - they are just in the middle, as far as the student performance is concerned. You can spin and twist your writing and argument as much as you want, but $18,000 per student per year (and this cost is still rising fast!) is not acceptable! Your last school budget was defeated ("oh, that was a side effect of the failed township referendum" - another spin and twist by your colleagues and school district administrators). Your next school, budget will also be defeated if you don't cut the "administrative fat."


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