10/01/2014 11:55 am ET Updated Dec 01, 2014

The iPad Wars: A High Class Comedy

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During a recent presentation I made to students from Chinese universities, one particularly poignant moment arose. A young woman asked, "What can we do about the millions of Chinese children who lose their dreams at age 10 or 11?"

She was referring to the competitive Chinese system that uses rigorous exams to exclude children from further opportunity as the so-called best and brightest are culled from the pack of so-called "ordinary" kids. The stress to make it through this threshold is excruciating. Similar systems exist in England and many other places, where life outcome is partially dictated by competitive exams long before puberty.

We Americans scoff at these cruel systems and claim to hold the door of opportunity open to all. That's nonsense. Our system is less obvious, but it may be even more severe in its exclusivity. Last week's Wall Street Journal article about the kindergarten admissions "war" in New York City private schools provides evidence.

The article summarized the competition between two iPad-based tests for pre-school and kindergarten. Until recently, all kindergarten applicants to NYC private schools took a test developed and administered by the Educational Records Bureau, known in the trade as the ERB's. In a miniature analog to the test-prep industry that plagues the College Board, organizations like Aristotle Circle jumped in to profit from high anxiety by developing test prep for 4-year-olds. This rendered the ERB scores less relevant (if that's possible) and, as is true in much of life, advantaged the privileged few who could buy the expensive service.

The Calhoun School, where I serve as head, cared little about the gaming of the system, as we don't require any tests (as is also true for a few other private schools) for admission. Testing young children doesn't measure anything important and the tests have collateral effects that may be long-lasting. When the ERB was jettisoned, I had a brief surge of hope that schools were going to get out of the dreary business entirely. But that hope was dashed quickly, as this new iPad-based assessment emerged. One version was developed by researchers in Minnesota, the other by the ERB, which hopes to regain dominance in the testing business.

The architects of this competition claim that the new iPad assessments are impervious to test-prep. But that's simply not true. A child's performance will at least partially correspond to how much time she spends with an iPad or similar device. Lots of iPad time will certainly provide a leg up. And this is what education has come to? Rewarding (requiring) more screen time for little kids? Never mind that most sane early childhood experts recommend against screen time.

Identifying the "most likely to succeed" at age 3 or 4 is the first step in American schools' only slightly friendlier version of the Chinese system we claim to abhor. To ambitious parents, a few hours a week with an iPad is a small price to pay for a chance at the brass ring of admission to a "highly selective" school. It happens again when 5th graders vie for coveted 6th grade spots and when 8th graders hope to go to an elite private school or one of New York's specialized high schools -- like Bronx Science or Stuyvesant. It's all part of a self-fulfilling process through which schools carefully select students who appear most likely to succeed (in the narrow ways they define as success) and then claim victory because the students do exactly as they would have done no matter where they went to school.

The whole process deserves criticism, but the kindergarten iPad war is in a class by itself. A 4 year-old's "performance" on any kind of test has little to do with his or her potential. In the early years of childhood, development is ragged and uneven. Some children walk at 9 months, others at 15 months. That obvious variation predicts nothing about eventual physical prowess. This lack of predictability is similar in areas of cognitive development. Selecting the kids who can do well on these tasks at age 4 just makes life a little easier for the school -- for a while.

But there are other consequences. It sets chronic anxiety in motion, especially when parents take the competition seriously. Parental anxiety and competitive aspirations are unquestionably transmitted to children, imparting a message of lesser worth to the children who are developing more slowly or are brilliant in ways the stupid iPad doesn't recognize. These kinds of standard assessments punish eccentricity or non-conformity, which are two of humankind's most valuable traits.

The battle between iPad tests for little kids in Manhattan is a comedy in rarified air -- a caricature to be sure. But as with all caricatures, it represents a truth in American society and education. We have a system that does precisely what we criticize in China, England and other places. We just dress it up in fancier clothes.