NEW YORK — Horror and shock hung heavy in the room. Susan DeJarnatt had just told some friends that her fifth-grade daughter would not be shifting from the neighborhood school to a private one - or even to the more prestigious public magnet school downtown.
"In the silence you could just feel them thinking, 'How could she do that to her child?' " says the Philadelphia mother of two.
It's a tension played out in countless ways as parents try to navigate a maze of choices for their young children's development.
Some sign up for preschool slots before a child is even born and look for structured learning opportunities as early as they can. Others find themselves dizzied by that pace and worry that something valuable will be lost if their children don't have free time to play and daydream the way they did growing up. Still others feel pulled in both directions, depending on the messages coming at them from peers or the media.
The drive to push even the youngest students to reach their full potential - academically, athletically, artistically - sometimes turns into a fearful scramble among parents to get their children on the fast track, educators say. And some observers worry that it's taking the whole experience of school and childhood in directions no one intended.
Everyone's familiar by now with the sight of elementary school children rolling their heavy backpacks along the sidewalk. A study by the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center shows that the amount of homework assigned to 6- to 8-year-olds tripled between 1981 and 1997.
Extra lessons and classes are also on the rise. Commercial tutoring has become a $3 billion industry in the United States, partly because students who already get good grades are now expected to polish their skills even further. A few years ago, for instance, Japanese- inspired private Kumon math classes served primarily children who were doing poorly in math. Now, more and more parents are paying to send students with excellent skills, says Mike Shim, deputy general manger of the US East Regional Office of Kumon North America Inc. in Teaneck, N.J.
"[The parents] are telling us that it's more competitive out there, and they want their children to get a head start," Mr. Shim says.
SAT tutors talk of students as young as 13 bursting into tears because of the pressure to get into a good college.
Even the terminology and application procedures normally associated with college admissions are pushing down into the lowest grades.
A group set up to help shepherd Boston-area parents through the private-school process reminds them to seek out "safety schools" - even at the preschool level. And an administrator at a private school in the Boston suburbs says it's now not unusual to see art portfolios and videotapes of dance recitals attached to elementary school applications.
The overheated atmosphere surrounding private-preschool admissions hit the headlines recently with news that stock analyst Jack Grubman sent e-mails saying he traded willingness to boost AT&T stock for help in getting his twin daughters into the 92nd Street Y, a top preschool program in New York City. Mr. Grubman has since said the e-mails were just inflated claims designed to hype his reputation, but he was hardly alone in his sentiments that preschool can be as hard to get into as Harvard.
"I get parents who call and want to get their 7-month-old in the program," says Amy Flynn, director of the Bank Street Family Center at the Bank Street School of Education in New York. "Or they say, 'My 18-month-old is a genius and needs the stimulation.' "
School admissions in Manhattan have always been a concern bordering on the obsessive, but the impulse to push children harder is noticeable all across the country. "There are schools that still believe the primary grades do not need to be as pressured, but they're getting hard to find," says Leslie Williams, a professor of early childhood education at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York.
The pressure buildup in schools is not just a result of parents who push. Education reform has put schools under fresh scrutiny. Standardized test scores suddenly matter as never before, and some teachers and administrators are fearful of losing their jobs if students don't perform well. One response is to dish out more homework and do more test-prep drills.
Yet many parents remain convinced that schools still aren't trying hard enough.
"I'd like to see more work - more projects, more research," says Bonnie Stott of Holiday, Fla. There are nights when her high school-aged daughter has no homework at all. "When I was her age, I was in the library all the time," she says.
Parents can hardly be blamed for having some doubts about their neighborhood schools. For years now, they've been absorbing a barrage of information about the inadequate state of public education.
But private schools can't necessarily be trusted to do enough either, says May Weng, one of several parents crowded into the bustling waiting room of one of Kumon North America's New York City centers two weeks before Christmas.
Her 6-year-old daughter, Rebecca, spends time on extra math instruction every day, in addition to piano and Chinese lessons and regular homework.
"She's not so happy, because it takes her TV time and her free time," but the education Rebecca receives in private school is not rigorous enough by itself, Ms. Weng says.
More work outside school hours is not the crying need in education, some experts say.
There is substantial research showing that children in lower grades may actually benefit from less homework, says Kathryn Jens, a school psychologist for the Cherry Creek, Colo., school system.
But when she counsels teachers to go easier, their response is, "Oh no, the parents would be so upset."
In Philadelphia, Ms. DeJarnatt and her husband, Peter Schneider, say they would not be upset if the second-grade teacher scaled back on the amount of homework given to their son, Rafi. Right now it's nearly an hour every night.
Rafi - a cheerful, bespectacled child with a Harry Potter look about him - does a book report each week, totes home a backpack crammed with math work sheets, and has already done research projects on famous African-Americans and ancient Egyptians.
His parents don't like the rate at which he's working, but they feel out of step with most of their peers.
"Other parents want all the homework because they think it signals seriousness," DeJarnatt says. "It's all part of a whole 'more, more, more' thing."
Mr. Schneider notes that he and his wife - who live in a charming home filled with Mexican art and enjoy careers as a legal-aid lawyer and a professor of law, respectively - managed to put together fulfilling lives without receiving any particular academic jump starts as children. He'd like to believe his kids can do the same and yet still enjoy time for bike riding and daydreaming.
But the world is not the same as it was a generation ago. Parents are dealing with the new reality of a more global economy.
"I have so much admiration for parents today. They're trying to raise children in a complex world, and this is one thing that makes sense to them - that you've got to have the best education possible," says Christine Brown, director of foreign languages for the Glastonbury, Conn., public schools and the mother of two young boys.
"I worry about the future," says Nanda Surti, another parent in the Kumon waiting room in New York. Her 10-year-old, Sona, is already a straight-A student, but Mrs. Surti reasons that additional expertise in math can only help.
"Money doesn't last, but education does," she insists. "If she has a good education, she'll be able to stand, whatever comes."
In addition, Surti says, Sona genuinely enjoys coming every day after school for math instruction, and even complains if she misses it.
"We know more today about children's development," says Roxanne Curwin, another mother in New York. "You want to give your children more because there's more available."
Ms. Curwin says her husband and mother-in-law protested when she wanted to enroll their 8-month-old daughter, Bridget, in French class. But today, at 22 months, Bridget joyously calls out "Oiseau!" every time she sees a bird, and they all agree it was the right decision.
In addition to French twice a week, Bridget takes a weekly music class and athletic training. She enjoys it all and even begs for more French, her mother says. "Would it be so much better for her if she were just having play dates all week?"
In all the demands for more structured learning, people may be losing sight of the idea that a child's development is also about exploration and social and emotional readiness, says Jeanne Bustard, who's been teaching prekindergarten at the private Friends Select School in Philadelphia for more than 30 years.
Adolescents face the same problem, says Armen Dedekian, a veteran Russian teacher at Buckingham, Browne & Nichols, a private school in Cambridge, Mass. In the past few years he's seen an unprecedented level of parental involvement and concern.
On the one hand, he says, it's wonderful that they care so much. But he also worries that parental pressure to keep their children constantly engaged in "productive" activity threatens other equally valuable interactions.
"The kids used to have more free time, and they would be more apt to shoot the breeze with teachers and to have these incredible conversations. That can't happen now," he says.
People may also be losing a sense of what's genuinely good and appropriate for children, says Ms. Flynn of the Bank Street Family Center. On a lovely fall day when she takes her young charges - all of whom are under 5 - out for a nature walk amid colorful leaves, she risks receiving calls from parents asking, "Where's the learning component in that?"
Sometimes she feels sad for her young students. "They're losing their childhoods," she says.
In many ways, of course, the more- structured calendar of today's child is the result of other changes in American society. After-school activities have become a necessity in a world of dual-income families and heightened concerns about safety.
Cece Waters, a mother of three in Menlo Park, Calif., says she's glad to cart the kids to soccer matches and other organized activities. But with the structure has also come heightened competition, and she sometimes feels she needs to buffer her children from a "win, win, all the time" attitude.
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The ordeal that New York City parents go through to get their children into the right kindergarten has become a bit of a national joke. Stories abound of 3-year-olds with résumés, 6-month-olds taking foreign-language instruction, and admissions counseling that begins during pregnancy.
But competitive New Yorkers are not unique when it comes to testing tots. Private schools across the United States generally require test scores for admissions, even for their youngest applicants.
The government is getting into the act as well, with the Bush administration announcing that all 500,000 4-year-olds enrolled in Head Start will be given standardized tests.
Of course, there are differences. The government testing would be done to determine what children have learned. The tests relied on by private schools generally attempt to measure intelligence.
The most popular of the latter category is the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence - better known as the WPPSI. Taking between 45 and 60 minutes, it includes a verbal portion - designed to test a child's vocabulary and overall verbal skills - and a performance-based section, in which a child completes tasks such as drawing a line through a maze or using scissors to cut a paper spiral.
Despite widespread use of tests for the under-5 set, their reliability remains a point of debate.
"It's a very flawed system," says Samuel Meisels, president of Erikson Institute, a graduate school of child development in Chicago. In children so young, intellectual development is still fluid, changing almost monthly, he says.
Some suggest WPPSI reveals much more about social class than intelligence.
"It doesn't mean that kids who don't do well on this aren't bright," Dr. Meisels says. "Part of the tragedy of this is that the stakes become very high very early in children's lives."
WHAT: A site created by the University of Southern California to help middle and high school students navigate the college- preparation process.
BEST POINTS: The site covers college-prep course schedules, homework requirements, standardized testing, college research, financial aid, teacher recommendations, interview tips, and summer plans. There is also a searchable database of "success stories" written by graduates who studied a variety of subjects at different colleges.
There are separate navigation portals for students, parents, and guidance counselors. The site offers grade-by-grade checklists of steps students need to take to get into college based on their grade level, grade-point average, and the courses they've taken. It suggests starting early, advising eighth-graders to take a foreign language and algebra.
What you should know: Full access to the site's resources requires registration. The site asks for personal information including a mailing address, ethnicity, and whether the student is the first generation in the family planning to attend college.