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Article: Private Schools have become truly obsene

Vikrant Duggal
Vikrant Duggal
• 10 min read

An Atlanta-based friend sent me an article in The Atlantic last week. I'm traveling so I don't have time to share my thoughts just yet, maybe I'll come back to it, but here are the highlights I made.

You can find the full article here.


What do hedge-funders want? (View Highlight)

Note: They want their kids to get into Harvard

How long could the Dalton parent—the $54,000-a-kid Dalton parent—watch her children slip behind their co-equals? (View Highlight)

Note: I think lots of parents felt this

In very small classes, we read very good books and pressed the students to think deeply about the words on the page. A lesson plan was not a list of points for the teacher to make; it was a set of questions. Even better: a single question. I always joked that the perfect lesson plan would have been to wait until the students had assembled in the classroom, throw in a copy of The Iliad, and go to lunch. By senior year, it might have actually worked. By then, they knew what we were teaching them to do. “The seventh grader says Macbeth is weird,” my department chair told me once. “The 12th grader says Macbeth is ambitious.” Once students could make discernments like that, it was time for college. (View Highlight)

Here’s how you know that this private-school story is a quarter century old: The school had my back. When I talk to today’s private-school teachers, they no longer feel so unilaterally supported. Many schools have administrators whose job it is to soothe parents—but who often suggest to teachers how they can help with that task. If the mom had called the brass (which I’m sure she did), no one told me about it. Nor did anyone at the school inform me that these parents were major donors. In those days there was an understanding that the teachers kept the kids in line, and the administrators kept the parents in line. (View Highlight)

but things were shifting in the world of private schools. Parents were gaining an ugly new sense of power (View Highlight)

Michael Thompson’s 2005 book, Understanding Independent School Parents (co-written with Alison Fox Mazzola), gave me a clearer insight into the many dynamics of private schooling. (View Highlight)

But it wasn’t until I changed teams—from private-school teacher to private-school parent—that I really appreciated how overwrought these places were. (View Highlight)

Note: Private vs independent

“The relationship between independent school parents and their children’s teachers has only grown more intense,” Thompson wrote in the introduction. “Administrators and teachers are spending more time focused on the demands and concerns of parents than they ever did in the past.” (View Highlight)

A decade and a half later, the problem has gotten worse—so much so that Thompson is writing a new book, this time with Robert Evans, another psychologist. “What’s changed in the last few years is the relentlessness of parents,” Evans told me. “For the most part, they’re not abusive; it’s that they just won’t let up. Many of them cannot let go of their fears that somehow their child is being left behind.” They want constant reassurance. (View Highlight)

In their eyes, teachers are staff. But the teachers don’t work for them. (View Highlight)

Why do these parents need so much reassurance? They “are finding that it’s harder and harder to get their children through the eye of the needle”—admitted into the best programs, all the way from kindergarten to college. But it’s more than that. The parents have a sense that their kids will be emerging into a bleaker landscape than they did. The brutal, winner-take-all economy won’t come for them—they’ve been grandfathered in. But they fear that it’s coming for their children, and that even a good education might not secure them a professional-class career. (View Highlight)

“Half of lawyers say their income doesn’t justify the tuition they spent on their degrees,” Evans told me. Getting into a top medical school has become shockingly difficult; in 2018, U.S. News & World Report found that the average admission rate among 118 ranked medical schools was 6.8 percent. For the very best ones? The rate is 2.4 percent (View Highlight)

Daniel Markovits, a professor at Yale Law School, coined the term meritocracy trap—a system that rewards an ever-growing share of society’s riches to an ever-shrinking pool of winners (View Highlight)

This is a system that screws the poor, hollows out the middle class, and turns rich kids into exhausted, anxious, and maximally stressed-out adolescents who believe their future depends on getting into one of a very small group of colleges that routinely reject upwards of 90 percent of their applicants. (View Highlight)

Pediatricians who see a lot of these kids tell me that they’re starting to crack, and that some parents try to help their kids keep it together by asking doctors for study drugs or even sleeping pills. The feeling that the child isn’t doing as well as she could—combined with the knowledge that with the requisite documentation, students can take their SATs and ACTs untimed—often has Mom calling her friends, locating the right educational psychologist, and subjecting the teenager to a battery of tests. The doctor almost always finds something. (View Highlight)

At Sidwell Friends, a Quaker school in Washington, D.C., there were four such parents: Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Barack and Michelle Obama. (Richard Nixon also sent his daughters to the school, inciting no stampede. But today he would provide a little diversity to the parent body: He was an actual Quaker.) (View Highlight)

The school is now so flush that its campus is a sort of Saks Fifth Avenue of Quakerism. Forget having Meeting in the smelly old gym. Now there is a meetinghouse of sumptuous plainness, created out of materials so good and simple and repurposed and expensive that surely only virtue and mercy will follow its benefactors all the days of their lives. The building’s citation by the American Institute of Architects notes that the interior is lined with “oak from long-unused Maryland barns” and the exterior is “clad with black locust harvested from a single source in New Jersey.” (View Highlight)

Like all Quaker schools, Sidwell aims to help children listen for and respond to the still, small voice of God. But it’s safe to say the contemporary Sidwell parent cares more about college admissions than about Quakerism. And if she tells you the two go hand in hand, then she doesn’t really understand college admissions (or, perhaps, Quakerism). (View Highlight)

The most astonishing of Gallagher’s admonitions was this: “While I often arrive at the office well before 8:00 a.m., that does not mean a parent should ever be waiting for me in the vestibule, parking lot, or outside my office door.” This is what prosecutors in murder cases call “lying in wait.” (View Highlight)

The god of private school is money. (View Highlight)

O’Connor wrote a series of articles in The Daily Princetonian about the advantages that these students have at the university. Whereas the math curriculum at most American high schools tops out at Calculus I, he reported, “multivariable calculus and linear algebra—subjects normally reserved for college sophomores or juniors—are widespread among moneyed high schools.” Andover offers organic chemistry, as do several other top private schools. (View Highlight)

All of this preparation doesn’t just help private-school kids get into elite colleges; it allows them to dominate once they get there. Over the past decade, O’Connor reported, two-thirds of Princeton’s Rhodes Scholars (excluding international students) came from private schools. So did more than half of the winners of the prestigious Sachs Scholarship, which provides two graduating students the opportunity to work, study, or travel abroad.* Forty-seven percent of the winners of “class legacy prizes”—academic awards given to students in each class—attended private schools. This is why wealthy parents think it’s life-and-death to get their kids into the right prep school—because they know that the winners keep winning. (View Highlight)

Parents are obsessed with finding out which are the feeder schools to the best colleges. College counselors tell parents that times have changed and there are no longer schools that lead directly to one elite college or another. But they aren’t being fully honest about that. (View Highlight)

The result of Yeung’s research is a website called PolarisList. Looking over the data for Princeton’s classes of 2015 through 2018 is bracing. The list of sending schools is dominated by highly selective magnet schools, public schools in wealthy areas, and famous prep schools: the Lawrenceville School, Exeter, Delbarton, Andover, Deerfield Academy. Among the top 25 feeders to Princeton, only three are public schools where 15 percent or more of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (View Highlight)

If you went to Lawrenceville, a boarding school not far from Princeton and the university’s top sending school, your chances of going to Princeton were almost seven times greater than if you went to Stuyvesant High School, an ultra-selective public school in New York City and itself a top Princeton feeder, where 45 percent of the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. But compared with an average American public school? You don’t want to know. (View Highlight)

Here is another big number that really needs to be investigated: More than 50 percent of the low-income Black students at elite colleges attended top private schools, according to Anthony Abraham Jack, the author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students. This means that these schools, which collectively educate a tiny proportion of Black teenagers, have a huge influence on which of these kids get to attend the best colleges. To some in education, this is a cause for celebration—the old route to social and professional success has within it some dedicated lanes for Black children from low-income families. To others, it is a cause for concern—if these children want to attend an elite college, their best bet by far is to spend their adolescence in a school where the experience of being Black is, for many, a painful one. (View Highlight)

Over the summer, Jim Best, the school head, announced that he had “committed Dalton to becoming a visibly, vocally, structurally anti-racist institution.” He issued plans for making this transformation. But the teachers had their own ideas. (View Highlight)

In December, a document that 120 faculty and staff members had signed over the summer became public. It outlined a list of proposals: Half of all donations would have to be contributed to New York public schools if Dalton’s demographics did not match the city’s by 2025; the school would have to employ a total of 12 diversity officers (roughly one for every 100 students); all students would be required to take classes on Black liberation; and all adults at the school, including parent volunteers, would be required to complete annual anti-racist training. Tracked courses would have to be eliminated if Black students did not reach full parity by 2023. (View Highlight)

Private-school parents have become so terrified of being called out as racists that they will say nothing on the record about their feelings regarding their schools’ sudden embrace of new practices. They have chosen, instead, anonymous letters and press leaks. In December, someone from the Dalton community leaked the teachers’ list to Scott Johnston, who writes often about elite education. He published it on his website, The Naked Dollar, where it got enormous traction. The Wall Street Journal asked him to write an opinion piece, and he did—it ran under the attention-grabbing headline “Revolution Consumes New York’s Elite Dalton School.” (View Highlight)

According to the letter, in science class there have been “racist cop” reenactments, art class has focused on “decentering whiteness,” and health class has examined white supremacy. “Love of learning and teaching is now being abandoned in favor of an ‘anti-racist curriculum,’ ” the parents wrote. “Every class this year has had an obsessive focus on race and identity.” (View Highlight)

The parents had demands of their own, including an immediate halt to curriculum changes. According to Scott Johnston, some board members feel the letter itself is racist, and the school has taken the extraordinary step of scrubbing the names of board members from its website. (View Highlight)

The parent letter was gleefully mocked. But these aren’t parents in the public-school system; they are consumers of a luxury product. If they are unhappy, they won’t just write anonymous letters. They’ll let the school know the old-fashioned way: by cutting down on their donations. Money is how rich people express their deepest feelings. (View Highlight)

. But it’s one thing to feel chastened in the Hamptons; it’s another to come back to the city and have your child casually ask if you’re a white supremacist. (View Highlight)

At Harvard-Westlake School—where I taught so long ago and from which one of my sons graduated—some faculty members have adopted a practice that has become common in colleges: acknowledging that the campus sits on Native lands (View Highlight)

An Instagram account called Woke at Harvard-Westlake was created in response to the school’s new anti-racist initiatives (View Highlight)

The problems at these schools are endemic to their business model (View Highlight)

The current system is devoted to excess—bigger, better, more. The schools compete with one another over programs and campuses; many have such luxurious facilities that they’re almost revolting (View Highlight)

The kind of changes that would solve their problems would involve not only limiting the amount of money that individual parents can give, but also accepting that schools don’t need to be showplaces (View Highlight)

But in their typical way, they want the tennis club and to be regarded as hubs of social change. (View Highlight)

In a just society, there wouldn’t be a need for these expensive schools, or for private wealth to subsidize something as fundamental as an education. We wouldn’t give rich kids and a tiny number of lottery winners an outstanding education while so many poor kids attend failing schools. In a just society, an education wouldn’t be a luxury item (View Highlight)

Many schools for the richest American kids have gates and security guards; the message is you are precious to us. Many schools for the poorest kids have metal detectors and police officers; the message is you are a threat to us (View Highlight)

Public-school education—the specific force that has helped generations of Americans transcend the circumstances of their birth—is profoundly, perhaps irreparably, broken (View Highlight)

In my own state of California, only half of public-school students are at grade level in reading, and even fewer are in math. When a crisis goes on long enough, it no longer seems like a crisis. It is merely a fact. (View Highlight)

In those innocent days, I thought of schools as places of actual transformation. You came in as one person and left as another. In the fall, the Valley heat was intense, and Macbeth was weird. In the spring, the jacaranda trees burst into flower and Macbeth was ambitious. And after that, it was time for the boys to leave. We didn’t have anything else to give them. (View Highlight)