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Circle time for America's education crisis

How does the future look for U.S. education? A kindergarten tour enlightens CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos.

Recently, I toured educational facilities where the following questions were asked:

Do you offer classes in both Cantonese and Mandarin? How are computers integrated into the curriculum? What emphasis do you place on biological sciences?

Have I been trying to find a college? No, these were hurled by concerned parents at elementary school officials.

If you want to get a close-up view of America's anxieties about globalism and educational standards, a kindergarten tour is the place to be.

Selecting a school used to be simple. Kids grabbed their Planet of the Apes lunch pail and walked down the street. Now parents (rightly or wrongly) believe that the path toward success or stumbling mediocrity begins around age 4. Hence, school selection involves a battery of interviews, assessment tests, teeth gnashing and humility.

"This is an incredibly disempowering process," a fellow dad said to me while on a tour.

It was a surprising statement. By day, that fellow parent is the president of a Fortune 500 company whose statements are parsed by Wall Street and thousands of technology executives. Across the room, a partner at one of the more prominent venture capital firms in the industry chatted up the English teacher.

The fever pitch isn't confined to private schools. The public school down the street from me, which has a Japanese-language immersion program and advanced science courses, admits just one applicant out of every 25. Princeton University accepts about twice that percentage of applicants.

The fever pitch isn't confined to private schools.

Despite the clear status-seeking element to all of this, a good part of the panic is justified. The American pre-eminence in science, which emerged during World War II, came in part because of the expansion of public schools, university admissions and federal research funding. It was not a result of Manifest Destiny.

"There was a direct connection between this knowledge-based society and economic productivity," George Atkinson, the science and technical adviser to the State Department, said at the Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology earlier this week in San Francisco.

Nations that have replicated the model--China, Singapore, Taiwan--have prospered. Conversely, Japan has been mired in recession, and executives openly worry about the declining interest in science among college students. Germany has a high unemployment rate and is having trouble filling its engineering schools, according to EE Times.

So how does the United States' future look? Here's a report card:

• Many schools are quite good. Decades ago, going to elementary school involved mastering a few skills (long division, cursive writing, drawing a turkey with the outline of your hand) and absorbing an inordinate number of facts about the 50 states. Now the curriculum might include science labs, creative writing, public speaking and conflict resolution. Computers are everywhere, and most of the time, they are Macintoshes.

Foreign languages are far more prominent. At one school that highlighted Latin and Spanish, I asked if other languages were available. No, but if a child were interested, the classics teacher can tutor in ancient Greek.

In the Rocky Mountain states, some high schools have switched their schedules so that the three-month break comes in winter. That way, hopefuls for the 2016 Olympics can train. Surprisingly, the effort that educators are putting in to develop Renaissance kids is sort of uplifting.

• Homework has increased. "I won't kid you. There's about two hours of homework a night," one sixth-grade teacher told me. The eighth-grade reading list she showed me looked familiar; it was the same one I had in 10th grade. Some schools proudly claim only an hour a night of homework.

• The anxiety gap is slimmer than you think. Earlier this year, an Indian IT executive tried to shock me by telling me that the principal asks children applying to the school to solve problems. That's nothing. In Chicago, kids who want to attend an elementary school associated with the University of Chicago undergo tests, too, according to parents. During the interview, graduate students jot down observations about the child's behavior.

This is a bit scary because school often takes on ominous overtones in the countries that have moved rapidly up the ladder. South Korea comes to a near standstill on the day teens take the daylong college admissions test. Students get tracked from first grade in many countries.

• Public schools are falling behind. One father, a logistics expert between assignments, has become a hero to his daughter's public kindergarten: He's organizing the renovation of the bathroom. Supporters claim that public schools are underfunded; critics claim that they are mismanaged. Both, in reality, are probably correct.

In any event, a huge divide is growing. The ethnic-friendly admissions policies adopted by the elite universities in the first half of the 20th century became a factor in the postwar scientific explosion. A lot of technology chief executives can also talk about how they got by on scholarships.

• There seems to be some wishful thinking going on. In one school, the teacher's note below explained a series of student paintings.

"Kindergarteners examined the work of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian and his use of geometric designs and primary colors."

Granted, I can see them trying to emulate the Fauvists, but it's probably pushing 5-year-olds to really internalize the early theories of abstraction.