Tuesday, October 9, 2012

What did you get on your pre- pre- pre- pre- SATs? Oh, too bad.

My front porch was filled with pastel sidewalk chalk designs.  The classic pre-schooler executed squiggly lines, circles and Picasso-esque faces that will advance over time into happy faces, dolphins and actual letters of the alphabet.  Caleb, now in school, was in fact practicing some of these letters. His C was sometimes backwards and his A was a triangle, but I was impressed he was even attempting letters.

His good friend, the guard, thought otherwise.

"No Caleb" he said erasing with his palm the superfluous line on his capital A. "You don't need this line here. See?"

Caleb, being three, stubbornly insisted he was correct.

The guard turned to me and asked, "Mama Caleb, what position is Caleb in school?"

Me: "Um... do you mean, what rank is he in his class? I have no idea. He's only three."

Totally missing my point, he continued. "Well, what did he get on his exams?"

His "exams"?!?!

Um.... First of all, what exactly are you implying here, guy? My boy ain't no dummy.

And secondly:  He's three!

Thirdly: THREE!!  He still needs my help tying his shoes and occasionally wets his pants.  He's three.  Should he really be subjected to exams and rankings?

You know, I figured being in Kenya we could escape the Manhattanite your-baby-can-read cut-throat competitiveness that has been infamously creeping earlier and earlier. But then someone asks me how my three year old has fared in his "exams."

Truth is, schooling is a serious issue here. It makes sense that in a country with high unemployment, an enormous do-or-die premium is placed getting as much schooling as possible.  And entrance to University is completely based on a test.  GPAs, extra-curriculars, an eloquent admission essay get you nothing.  Have a bad test day, and you're screwed.

It can help having gone to a good secondary school (high school), but to do that, guess what?  You better perform well on another test.  If you do, you win admission to a federal secondary school and are set up for further success.

Exams are so important that most schools have a "prayer day" in which parents are invited to come to school and pray with their children for high marks on exams.  When I first heard about prayer day, I thought it was hilarious.  Like the nation had enshrined a desperate teenager's hail Mary the day before a big exam, "Please God let me do well," into a formal tradition.  But it makes more sense to me now. You do all the preparation you possibly can, and then you pray. Don't leave anything this important to earthly chance. May as well call in some deities.

The great expense and effort that goes into schooling children and helping them do well is one of the great under-reported stories from this continent.  The most common financial struggle I've heard from people living on the margins is paying school fees. Every single mother I interviewed during my village stay mentioned obtaining enough school fees as her number one stressor as a parent. Primary school is now subsidized by the government (though this has led to overcrowding and an exodus to and proliferation of private schools), but secondary school is a big expense.  Of those who can even afford it at all, parents spend, on average, 55% of their income on secondary school.  That's more than half of their income on high school alone.

Tell that to anyone who says or implies that what keeps countries poor is people's apathy or inertia to better their lot.  Living here you regularly see children walking to school before the sun is fully up and then coming home in the evening.  You see them in school uniforms on Saturdays.  You see them going to extra classes during their school holiday.

I'm not saying children should go to school all those hours and years.  And I'm not saying anything about the pedagogy of the Kenyan education system.  High stakes testing is currently driving out creativity and critical thinking in the US, and it's no different here.  Too much time in the classroom  leaves little room to develop other important life skills. There's room for improvement everywhere.

I guess what I'm saying is that even though I'm terribly annoyed that someone feels it appropriate to ask how my pre-schooler (That's his age group.  Pre. School) is ranked in comparison to his classmates, I understand where this comes from.  The drive to grab a slice of the pie is more desperate in a country with not enough slices for everyone.  And that drive percolates down to the youngest ages.  Even Caleb's class.  A class called "Baby Class."
Because each post needs a picture: A sample of Caleb's homework. (the teacher started it for him to show him what color he should use.)


  1. I am going to get off my ass and fill out those forms so I can vote for this post. It's beautifully written and freaking educational. I think that means it's creative non fiction, right? Whatever it is, I love it and am glad you escaped Manhattan and so glad you blog.

    1. Second this sentiment exactly!
      Also, great use of vignette->education tidbits segue! I totally remember the fear my Malian friends had going through their exams to get into the Federal jobs force..so....crazy...but maybe better than some other systems we have around (Canada's is almost as crazy). Great post!

  2. Wow. This was really well-written, and I learned so much. Fascinating post.

  3. Fascinating and educational - I loved reading about Kenya's educational system. Thank you for opening my eyes and busting stereotypical ideas about poor countries and education. Well done and well written.

  4. Amazing post, Mama.

    I'm glad my boy isn't in Kenya. He's only two, but he struggles with his "L" sounds and once ate a cigarette butt off the sidewalk.

    However, he's progressing. I can't swear that he won't draw a triangle for an "A" when the time comes, but if we ever make it to Kenya, I will tell him to be on his smartest behavior.

    Great, great post! You schooled me!

  5. "the teacher started it for him to show him what color he should use" <-- I laughed out loud at this. Another fascinating post!

  6. This was such a fascinating post, mama. I had no idea how thing worked where you are. Thanks for schooling me.

    Loved this part; it rather sums up many facets of parenthood: "You do all the preparation you possibly can, and then you pray. Don't leave anything this important to earthly chance. May as well call in some deities."

  7. Very enlightening and enjoyable. I'm curious about digging in more; what an adventure you're on


  8. So interesting -- I might direct my friends to this post when they complain about the annual assessment exams schools give here -- the ones that have no bearing whatsoever on which college you get into. And I hope your son aced his circle homework!

  9. This is a great story. I don't have kids yet, but I am in constant awe of the competition, even at such a young age. So interesting to know that this brand of competitive schooling is not unique to the United States, but can be found the world over.

  10. And I thought competition here in sports and universities was nuts. Kenya takes the cake. Thank you for teaching me all about what is going on somewhere else, outside my suburban bubble. This was educational and wonderfully written. I love the picture and so very "three". It was perfect!

  11. Found you via yeahwrite and like your post but I am also too obsessed with education. Amazing that the test driven culture in America is even stronger in Kenya, something I was clueless about.

  12. I love the picture of another culture I always find here. I would never have imagined the competition for a good university to be so strong ... well, anywhere, let alone in a nation where the struggle to obtain any education at all is so great. I'm glad primary schools at least are subsidized.

  13. As troubling as our educational system might be here in the U.S. it's still something we take for granted. Not so in other areas of the world. Great post to open our eyes to what education means to another country. And what is more important? Food and good nutrition maybe, but beyond that - education.

  14. I've got a daughter all tested out and accepted into a college next fall. At the other end, my American son on the Autism Spectrum is in 2nd grade. I think about their educations frequently. I'm relieved that the Kenyan educational system/competition does not apply here. How stressful for parents and their educationally-goaled children. Amazing post.

  15. Wow, this was fascinating. I love hearing how other cultures do things. I wouldn't have expected this, but it makes perfect sense when you explain it. Wonderful post!

  16. Unbelievable!! This was so well done. I'm in SAT mode with my oldest (but at least he didn't have to take a test to get into HS!).

  17. Your posts are always so intriguing to me. I love the way you explore the cultural differences in a way I can relate to!

  18. Sounds like an awful lot of pressure on children from an early age and on their parents as well, not only mentally but financially. Wonderful job illustrating this.

  19. :-) Such a wonderful read. You took me right back to the Mother Continent. Thank you for making these important points and making them enjoyable to read!