September 13, 2003
THE PUSH....As long as we're on the subject of parents, Diane
Patterson over at Nobody Knows Anything has a long, but typically
readable and compelling post about schools and parenting in the 21st century.
She starts off with an excerpt from School of Dreams: Making the Grade at a Top American High School, by Edward Humes (reviewed here):
School of Dreams is
the story of kids at Whitney High School in Cerritos, California (a
suburb near Los Angeles) and their struggles to not only be high
achievers but ridiculously high over-achievers so that they can get into
the "right" college (Harvard, Stanford, Princeton) and then get the
"right" job, et cetera. I'm only one chapter in and already I'm
depressed out of my mind: is this what my kids have to look forward to?
The title of Part I says it all: "Four is the Magic Number: Four Hours
Sleep, Four Caffè Lattes, 4.0."
Before you say, Well, it's always been like this... permit me to cut you off with No it hasn't.
Thanks. I went to a top prep school in San Francisco, where I was
ranked #1 in the class (though I wasn't valedictorian for some reason I
can't figure out), took four or five AP tests and got 5 on all of them,
and attended Stanford University. I know about being a high-achieving
student. And there was no question of my sleeping only four hours a
I think about education and school a lot these days. It's a huge part of my children's future: how could I not?
Diane's question is one that niggles at me all the time. I don't quite have her academic pedigree, but I was a
very good student — and knew kids from around the country who were also
very good students — and school just wasn't like this 30 years ago.
Even run-of-the-mill bright kids here in Irvine have a far more intense
academic experience than I or my friends did, and that's on top of a
mind boggling assortment of after school activities that keeps them on
the run 24/7.
I can't explain it. Public schools, I hear incessantly, are failing,
but aside from the 10% of schools in inner city hellholes, that really
doesn't seem to be the case. My mother's high school — a very good one
in Los Angeles in the 40s — didn't offer calculus. Everyone knew that
was a college subject. By the 70s calculus, if not exactly universal,
was commonly available to the brightest kids. Today, practically all
suburban high schools have one or two full classes of calculus.
Diane has much more. Five hour kindergarten classes with only one
short break. Homework for preschoolers. Wondering if your kid is
backward if she's not reading by age three. The whole Push Mentality
and the peer pressure that maintains it.
There are no answers here at Calpundit, and I know perfectly well
that anecdotal stories about Palo Alto schools don't mean much about the
general state of education in America. But still, something is screwy
in the standard storyline about Education in America™ and I can't quite
put my finger on it. Maybe someday I'll figure it out.
Posted by Kevin Drum at September 13, 2003 09:24 AM
I'm going to post a couple of excerpts from School of Dreams on my
site (in my copious free time), but one of the bits that struck me was
that kids who take two years of calculus in high school are much sought
after by the elite universities, because of the number of students who
take hardly any math at all.
It's part of the whole death of childhood trend in America. Only adults are allowed to be children anymore.
Though I was an underperforming student while in public education,
being in the Gifted program connected me with the smart and/or
overperforming kids, and I have a couple of simple observations. Some of
the overperformers didn't noticeably suffer as a result. But many did. I
knew several people with 3.9-4.0 GPAs, and I don't think what they had
to do to get there was healthy. Few of them seemed to want what they
were being made to do. Most of them were developing deep mental stress
fractures, and resentments to society, their parents, etc. Few of them
are better off than I am. Also, their value system was pretty screwed
up. The A in a class mattered more than the knowledge and insight.
That's natural, because that's how they were being judged. I didn't
undergo any of that, I just sort of watched from nearby. I got a 3.1 GPA
or something like that. Now, years later, I'm finishing up the physics
program at a pretty good school, NCSU. I think it's ranked 40 or so in
the nation in terms of physics. It's not Caltech. It's not Harvard. But
so what? If I'd been driven as hard as my friends were, I'd have cracked
long ago, maybe before even being accepted to Stanford or MIT. And for
what? An eventual professorship at a top school? The prestige of leaving
my undergrad years $120,000 in debt? Perhaps for the rare few who
accomplish things with ease, it's worth it, but for those like me, such a
hyperactive lifestyle to gaing recognized accomplishment is more harm
than it's worth.
"the standard storyline" is not about the kids of an erstwhile high
achiever or the children of top-2% earners in Palo Alto. it is about
the education that the other 98% get.
I'm not a practitioner, so I don't know where to begin to measure the
broad quality of elementary and high-school education in the US.
however, I do know the kids who were walking to McClymonds in Oakland
back when I lived across the street were quite emphatically not having a
good pedagogic experience.
In the mid-1960's our east coast high school had calculus and trig. I
*still* didn't do much homework - never had to work at it past 11 PM or
so even on the worst days.
Still - from my class, the C students tended to go into teaching at
the high school level - the ones with more academic power went into
advanced degrees and University positions.
The world gets more and more divided. The bright ones and the underclass. I don't have any solutions, either.
Haven't read the piece but my guess is that these are overachievers
driven by their parents. And way back in the 60's I knew some kids like
that. Genuinely bright kids with strong interests have to worry less
about that kind of thing.
I read somewhere that admissions people at top schools admit one
small group of applicants immediately, reject another moderate group
immediately, and then have to select the rest of the class fairly
arbitrarily from a large number of qualified but not outstanding
candidates. So all the work here is to get kids to stand out within the
If what I read about admissions is correct, it makes the furor over affirmative action less justified.
It's a common refrain from the conservative "education" community
that "schools are worse now than they were 50 years ago," which is
patent BS. The bar has been raised tremendously on what kids have to
know for college and entry-level jobs in the knowledge economy, and most
schools do a commendable job preparing them.
The difference is that the lower-performing schools didn't exist 50
years ago, because the kids that largely inhabit them (minority,
immigrant, English-as-second-language, poor) were weeded out as a matter
of course. Now, these populations have better access to education, but
resources aren't provided because of the property tax-based education
funding system largely in place.
I'd like to second what Kevin said about the quality of schools. My
son and ten nieces and nephews (in three states and one province of
Cnada) all had access to good educations, and only one went to what can
be called an elite school. Watching my son's friends, the biggest
variables in how well students did seemed to be the parents'
expectations of the kid and the kid's respect for the parents. People
trashing education have a large number of agendas, some of them
So here's a question for those of you with children (of which I'm not):
Given the hypothetical that you knew your child was smart enough to
go to the #1 college in the country if they put in the same amount of
work as the children described in the article, would you push your child
to do that, or would you let them do enough to succeed in their current
environment, possibly leaving them plenty of free time as a result of
it being "easy" for them?
A couple comments:
One big difference between today and a generation ago is in the
percentage of students who are expected to attend college. I don't have
any numbers in front of me, but my perception is that today, a kid who
doesn't attend college is almost considered a failure -- something that
wasn't true twenty or thirty years ago. A BA or BS is a basic, entry
level credential for nearly any skilled job outside the trades (which,
by the way, are in some cases hurting for workers).
The more students going to college, the higher the premium is on
getting into a *good* college, and the more students there are competing
for these positions. The intense academic pressure is, I think, a side
effect of this.
A related comment is this: if there is one single book that has most
strongly effected my perception of the society we live in, it is The Winner-Take-All Society,
by economists Robert Frank and Philip Cook. This book's thesis is that
our economy is structured in such a way as to give outsized rewards to
those who are *just a little bit better* than others competing with
them. This results in a winner-take-all arms race for every advantage,
so that one can become one of the few winners rather than the many
losers. The application of this idea to the competition among
youngsters for entry into elite schools is, of course, obvious.
I don't think you can divorce what's happening here from the economic
climate; that is, the increasing disparity between the "haves" and the
"have nots" and the shrinking of the middle class. Parents are pushing
their children to overachieve because they want them to have a chance to
be among the "haves." The disappearance of viable manufacturing and
other well-paying blue collar jobs means that there are fewer and fewer
careers for "average" people where they can earn enough to live some
semblance of the American dream. Parents are panicking because they
instictively understand that without the "right" education and
experiences, their children may never be able to achieve their parents'
standard of living.
I suspect that part of it has to do with the influx of Asian
immigrants. I know that Taiwanese kids take physics in elementary
school, and I'd assume that they take caluculus before college, and many
of them spend every evening at "cram schools." They also expect to get
smacked if their grades aren't good.
What pretty much blows my mind is that in addition to A.P. classes,
4.0s, athletic stardom, prodigy-like talent in music/art, and membership
in just about every school club, top schools are now recommending that
kids become community volunteers! I think it's amazing that ambitious
kids actually find a way to sleep 4 hours every night!
Diane: *two* years of calculus?!? Holy cow!
Everyone else: as I mentioned, I don't want to try and analogize from
elite schools to the entire educational establishment. But it's still
my impression that aside from the very poor schools, which obviously
have some chronic and very specific problems, the general level of
education is actually higher than it was 50 years ago. The evidence is
all over the map, of course, but overall that's how it strikes me.
The review of School of Dreams is good all by itself. And be sure to read the anecdote about the Yale admissions officer....
It's not quite as bad as all that, really. I recently graduated from
a good suburban high school, am going to a "top" college, and I got 7-8
hours of sleep a night. Granted most people I knew got less than that,
but they usually got at least 6 a night. 4-5 sounds much more like
what it's like at some of the really exclusive high schools (Stuyvesant
or ones like that come to mind), rather than above average suburban
Also...I suppose that it might be due to the fact that I'm used to
the environment and the demands, but I don't feel like it was _THAT_
bad. Yeah, it was pretty stressful at points (end of junior year in
high schools sucks, there's no way around it), but then I was taking my
school's hardest classes and applying to really selective schools. And
it's not like I was at any point near to a nervous breakdown or anything
I guess I look at the way people describe the lives of people my age
(David Brooks, anyone?) as so amazingly pressured and jampacked of
activities and obligations and lack of sleep, and it doesn't ring true.
There were people like that, sure, but that wasn't my life, put it that
A College Degree is not only a basic credential, many people seem to
think it isn't enough. I went through a fairly extensive job search last
year (I now have a job and am applying to law school). Lots of
employers would tell me that jobs that used to go to people with BAs and
BSs out of school now require MAs and MSs and JDs or even PhDs. It
seems like people don't take undergrad seriously. Also, a lot of
employers told me that I didn't need to include my GPA on resume, even
though it was good. This amazes me. I had just left a 4 year college,
and the BEST AVAILABLE measure of my performance over the last 4 years
was that GPA. However, it wasn't necessary? What in the world would they
base my employment on? Obviously I listed all my summer and year round
part-time work, but I still think the GPA should count for something.
Unfortunately, it seems like personal connections count for a lot more.
Also, I actually worked harder in High School than college (partially
because I had tons of extra-curriculars, partially because it's harder
to socialize after 10pm on a school night in High School). I often only
got 4-5 hours of sleep a night, but it was actually a great time in my
life. A lot of the material was really fundamental and interesting (US
history, European History, Physics, Calculus, Biology, etc). Mediocre
atheletes (like me) can still compete. You can do extra-curriculars like
Music and theater without devoting your whole life to them (If you have
a local community theater that is or your school has one). You can be
in charge of a publication and do debate and pretty much do everything
at once. The Whole Well Rounded Education seems to only exist in High
School, whereas in College you're expected to specialize a lot.
Professors don't really take you seriously unless you've read TONS in
their subject field. Extra Curricular groups expect you to devote all
your time to them alone. It's hard to compete with so much talent.
However, the worst part is really the specialization of academic study.
It seems like History Professors HATE to teach survey classes and just
want to teach WWI - social History of Britain OR Legislative dynamics -
Congress between 1950 and 1975. Interesting subjects, but the professors
often seem less enthusiastic about the intro classes that help a
student get grounded in a subject. They don't want you to be well
rounded and interested in lots of things. The darlings of the Political
Science Department at my school often spent 4 years studying one
philosopher. I hate that.
As a proponent of home-schooling, perhaps I have a different opinion
about American public education. I am a product of a public school and I
taught at Ohio State for two years, both of which provided varied
examples of the American education system's failures.
I believe that the dichotomy between "failing schools" and overworked
children has to do with the way we are taught. There is nothing in
schools today that suggests a connection between the transcendentalist
movement in American literature and the Civil War. Why not? Because
these topics are taught in two different classes, history and English.
Science exists in its own realm, and "mathematics" just is - it didn't
evolve or have a historical progression. Economic, civic and (an
absence of) religious education are further segmented when they should
be intrinsic to a broader understanding. Subjects are taught
individually, and thus there is no link between the bits of knowledge
children are expected to learn and regurgitate. All of these overlaps
and gaps create a wealth of information that makes no sense at the end
of the year.
Ultimately, I do not believe that the amount of information a child
is expected to learn before college is outrageous, and in fact has been
drastically reduced since the days of Jefferson, a man who included
sketches of French diplomats when reporting home to Congress. Art was
considered as much a part of learning (because of the way it accessed
differing regions of the brain) as was rhetoric and language. Instead,
the cult of childhood (where kids should just be kids) and an inability
to make facts and concepts fall naturally into place for students
through more carefully interconnected instruction has made high schools
into high-pressure places of busy work and segmented information.
All NYC anecdotal-type evidence:
On the other hand, I have two friends who have just (successfully)
defended their dissertations, and another who is about to (all three
were/are candidates for doctorates in history). I have a fourth friend
who is working toward a Ph.D in education. All four are teaching in
colleges/universities in NYC. All four tell horror stories about
students (not just freshmen) who are unable to write essays
(particularly the education major). She is teaching in a remedial
writing program that all students at her institution MUST pass (unless
they test out of it) to graduate.
When I say "unable to write an essay" it's not JUST that they don't
know what a thesis is. Or how to set up an argument. It's basic problems
with grammar, punctuation, sentence structure (verb agreement, etc.)
and spelling. It makes my mind boggle because it was something
essay-writing was something I was routinely doing (along with all my
peers) as a freshman in high school. I was writing (literally
hand-writing) 6- to 20-page reports for history, science, and English in
upper elementary school (and this was public school).
So how is it possible that there are juniors in college who don't
know what a PARAGRAPH is. (And I'm not talking about community colleges,
Anyway, I went to a bar last night with the two history
professors/one candidate (one of the three's defense was yesterday and
we were celebrating). There were many other newly-minted Ph.D.'s there,
all of whom are teaching. And gradually, they all came to a concensus:
the kids in their classes were bright, and they were capable of asking
good questions and understanding the material (though not all were
necessariy motivated to do so). But there was a huge (huge) gap between
their verbal and their written skills.
My friend who teaches at the writing program of a major New York
institution has a different set of issues. She's dealing with a great
many ESL (English-as-a-2nd-language) students, as well as the product of
NYC schools, which produce, shall we say, uneven results.
I think that the hyper educational world of Mr. Hume definitely
exists, but it is, in part, a sign of the growing disparity between the
-- how shall we say it -- the more and less priviliged classes in this
country. Also a part of a tendency among a certain sort of parent to see
the child as an extension of themselves, i.e, that their kids'
successes reflect glory back on the parental units.
MDtoMN: Rampant grade inflation at universities has rendered the GPA all but meaningless.
I discovered this recently when my son, who'd graduated with a
3.9 and scored extremely high on the LSAT, encountered some difficulty
getting into the top three law schools on his personal list. When I
began questioning different schools about criteria, I found out that
since so many students graduate these days with a 3.4 or higher, grades
are no longer as reliable an indicator as they once may have been.
For more on this, see the many critiques out there about grade
inflation at Harvard, at other elite schools and at most major
Long story short: universities, now run largely like
corporations, must cater to consumers, their students, with high GPA's
to keep all satisfied. There's of course much more to it, but the point
is that so many students make high GPA's now that the value of grades
has been diluted.
I went to a quite mediocre high school, but even there options
existed for those who wanted to study hard. We had great school spirit,
good sports, no big cliques or anything like that. Even still, going
to a better school is pretty important for college admissions. My
friend, incredibly nice, worked for all the community service orgs, 4.0,
IB classes, didn't get into even "sorta elite" schools like
Northwestern and Pomona. I didn't get into the "elite" schools (well,
Princeton) with a 4.0/1570/middle class family/10 IBs and APs/a grip of
varsity letters and two editor positions. I didn't see anyone only
sleeping four hours a day, but the competition is certainly damn stiff
I'll second what wcw said above at 9:55am. Mr. Drum concedes that you
can't extrapolate from anecdotal evidence of rich areas of town, and
the kids of high achievers, but I still think this is where the
discrepancy comes from.
Just drive through a poor part of town, or any rural area, or blue collar burg - you'll see the *standard storyline* holds.
Remember, less than 25% of Americans have college degrees. Less that 7% have graduate degrees. Those of us here are outliers.
That said, I think that even at a upper-middle class high school in
some non-descript suburb, the top, say, 5% can get a really good
education, since schools are offering more advanced classes and
accommodating the gifted students. But their success has more to do with
their parents than the school.
I grew up in a blue collar, lower-middle class suburb in Texas, where
most of the parents did not go to college, and most of the kids didn't
go either. Maybe some community college. Of my closest 6 or 7 friends,
only one went on to college. And I know many kids, personally, who went
to prison or otherwise faded away through drug abuse.
It's a common human tendency to think that our personal experience
was the norm. I did it too, until I met a bunch of these high-achievers
that this post describes, and realized just how different they were.
We have two children, eight and ten. I really don't get why they
have to go to a top school. What's wrong with a pretty good school? My
husband, who went to Dartmouth, might disagree, but I don't see any way
in which he is smarter, better educated, more successful
professionally, or happier than I am, with my state school credentials.
The specific atmosphere Kevin is describing is way out of whack to
me. How can anyone think it is healthy for kids to sleep four hours a
night? How can this kind of competition be healthy? I would do
everything I could to discourage my kids from living like this.
A few years ago, education writer Peter Schrag wrote an excellent piece in the Atlantic, The Near-Myth of Our Failing Schools.
Bottom line: there never was a golden era of public education.
Here's a golden piece of anecdotal evidence: when my wife attended in
the 70s, San Jose high schools, in the heart of the Silicon Valley, had
exactly one calculus class for the entire district. This was *before*
Prop 13, before our state average test scores fell from 10th to 49th.
OTHO, I went to an elite public school in the San Diego area. My
buddies were on the national championship math team. The entire college
prep crowd had good luck getting into top schools. As a relatively bad
student with a 3.0 and problems at home, I ended up graduating from an
elite engineering school.
The contrast between our kids’ education and ours is black and white.
We had no homework in elementary school. Our kids usually have much
more than the stated minimum of one hour per night. Current 5th grade
math standards include algebra.
There is no comparison between now and then. The mythical golden age of education was a cakewalk.
According to the review of the book at WaPo, the
kids at that high school are 80% Asian. They
are relentless as striving parents.
Long story short: universities, now run largely like corporations,
must cater to consumers, their students, with high GPA's to keep all
satisfied. There's of course much more to it, but the point is that so
many students make high GPA's now that the value of grades has been
Also, some schools now make a C or even a B- a failing grade for some
unaccountable reason. I think this is more in grad school than college,
and don't know whether it's a cause or effect of grade inflation.
I was a 5 AP kid at a suburban high school and I sure didn't get 4
hours a sleep a night--except when I had a paper or something like that,
but that was my own fault for procrastinating. 6 hours was common
enough but usually less a function of workload than, I am not programmed
to get to bed before midnight and high school starts early.
My school was heavily tracked which was good for the honors kids but
probably not for the others. I tend to think that if you're going to
have tracking in high school it at least should be completely self
selecting so you're sixth grade teacher or junior high guidance
counselor does not control your destiny.
your sixth grade teacher, that is. maybe our public education system is failing after all.
Unfortunately, it seems like personal connections count for a lot more.
My suspicion for some time has been that the real reason for trying
to get into an elite school is less about quality of education and more
about the quality of personal networking. Graduates of these places can
move together up the ladder and into positions of prestige and power.
Doubtless there are plenty of very smart people in these schools, but
the social advancement seems to happen even to the intellectual deadwood
(see George W. Bush).
In any case most of the highly specialized arcana of upper academia
have next to nothing to do with anything that leaders-in-training will
encounter as they move into the upper slots of business and government.
Businesses that demand MAs and more from entry-level candidates aren't
doing so because they need a postgraduate background in the positions
being filled. Instead it's just a way to weed out the hoi polloi.
Ultimately, I do not believe that the amount of information a
child is expected to learn before college is outrageous, and in fact has
been drastically reduced since the days of Jefferson, a man who
included sketches of French diplomats when reporting home to Congress.
That point makes no sense. How many people went to college back
then? One in three hundred? The word "college" means something totally
For what it's worth:
I had a 1510 SAT (800 verbal, 710 math), 34 ACT, 3.5 GPA at what is
supposed to be a fairly reputable school, LSMSA (Louisiana's state
magnet school.) I took up to integral calculus and numerous programming
classes, and I'm a state champion swimmer.
And, the following schools rejected me from their electrical / computer engineering programs:
MIT, Cornell (both of my parents are alumni), Duke, Rice, Harvard,
and Cooper Union. In fact, the only school that accepted me was my
safety school, Georgia Tech. Well, okay, and LSU, but I had no intention
of going there.
GT is a great school, of course, but still... what the hell does a white male have to do to get into college these days?
Hold on - Imagine the scorn if some hard core conservative person
looked around and said "Hey, education isn't so bad - look at my local
school." It all depends on the socio-economic bakground of the
district. Surprize, areas with high property values have more involved
parents and more money. Coming from a working class suburb of Los
Angeles, I can tell you that the poorer parents care - they just don't
have the job flexibility to be super active in school support. Further,
both Mom and Dad (IF the kid is fortunate enough to have both) probably
The answer lies beyond money. Sure, it is needed, but why did my
fellow parachial schoolmates do SO much better than the public school
students down the street? It was not money - and the parents were from
the same economic, social and enthnic mix.
School performance is just an philosophical discussion, until your
kid is attending. Then all bets are off and you will move your kid to
the best performing school he can get into.
Calpundit: You aren't really suggesting that you don't care if your
kid goes to public school in Irvine or the poorest part of Santa Ana,
[And this is said in the context of my growing up in a very similar area as the latter example.]
scarshaped scar, it was your math SAT score. I know two "ahem" white
males that got into MIT and were not state champ swimmers. while 710 is
commendable, MIT doesn't want anyone below 730 or so, and preferably in
the 750 range for them to really care about you. harvard, et al, I'm
not sure about.
There is a problem that the number of spots in elite schools hasn't
changed in 30-40 years while the numer of student applying is up what X4
or more. The quality of students at near-elite schools (UVA perhpas?)
is probably better than what Harvard had 40 years ago. So we need to
change our metric about what constitutes a great school.
On the white male post, I wouldn't look at the South, the Ivy League,
and big private schools as the universe of choices. The South does not
have the same quantity or quality of public schools, as do states whose
voters place high priority on education.
If there aren't enough good slots open, it may be that there aren't
enough good schools. It may be there aren't enough good schools because
we have not built enough to keep up with the population. We haven't. In
CA's example, the majority of UC system schools were built 40 years ago
under one governor, Pat Brown. There was a period of about 20 years when
we just stopped building them altogether - at a time when demand was
exploding. This was largely influenced by the federal attitude through
the 80s. Not only did the US Dept of Ed get slashed, the states were
starved of federal funds.
So, if the big private Eastern engineering schools are harder to get
into that ever, one need only look at the artificially high demand
You must know, it’s hard to feel sorry for a guy whose parents went
to Cornell, when for each such example, there are likely hundreds of
more talented kids whose families did not understand the thousand little
details it takes to even compete at the same game.
I went to a piss poor high school, the worst in the county. The kids
and parents discussed in the article would have fainted and/or vomited
at the sight of it. However, I had just as much success as those kids
despite my supposed deficiencies.
I graduated second in my class with a 4.79 gpa (honors and AP classes
were bumped up a point on the scale). I played the clarinet. I did 4
years of the following: Marching band (2 years section leader), concert
band (2 years concert mistress), and pit orchestra for the school
musical (1 year on the saxophone as well). I volunteered for 3 years
with the Special Olympics, played softball for 2 (I hurt my shoulder and
had to stop), helped build sets for 2 years, and had minor involvements
with 2 other clubs. My junior and senior years, I also had part-time
jobs during the school year, full time in the summer.
Outside of my school, I did just as well. There were only 2 AP
classes offered at my school, US History and Calc AB; I got a 5 and 4
respectively. My SAT scores were 700 Math, 750 Verbal(for perspective, I
think the average combined score at my school floated around 950), 760
Writing, 700 American History, and 680 Match IIC. I was selected to the
American Legion Auxiliary's Girls' State where I held 4 positions
within my 'county.' I played in the clarinet ensemble and wind ensemble
at a hardcore all boys prep school a few towns away; none of the
students who actually went there could touch me for musical ability. I
also auditioned successfully for at least one honor band every year,
first 9th grade regionals, then area concert band, then area and
regional concert bands, and finally area wind ensemble and regional and
all-state concert bands. I was also a camp counselor at a music camp.
I applied to 6 colleges. I was admitted to Barnard (my safety),
UPenn, and Northwestern and waitlisted at Harvard, Georgetown, and the
University of Chicago. I chose NU (by the way, whoever said we aren't
elite, we were ranked as having the best academics by the Princeton
Review last year and are ranked within the top 15 overall in the country
every year, but I digress) where I have had no problems so far as being
So why did I do as well as the elite kids at a tiny fraction of the
cost? I think it's a combination of 3 things. First, my parents never
pushed me to do anything. I like to call their parenting method "benign
neglect." They never knew what I was up to unless I needed a ride or
some money. I did everything because I loved it, so I never burned out.
Secondly, the fact that I did all these things with my background gave
admissions offices a better idea that I was really gifted, even though a
kid who was prepared better probably looked better on paper. Finally,
because I wasn't ensconced in a happy little world where everyone had
very similar experiences, I like to think I stood out as a person rather
than a resume. I wrote about the effects racism and classism had on my
life, and thus filled the angry, blue collar,
pulled-herself-up-by-the-bootstraps white girl spot, if such a thing
So what I'm trying to say is, the more scheduled and therefore
predictable lives parents create for their children just because they
happen to be able to afford it, the less those lives are going to mean
to the admissions officers. Sure, some people have the connections to
get in anywhere, but the people making the decisions still want to be
This isn't really on topic, but we're talking about education....
The Math curve for HS students is incredibly steep. There are 3
Math SATs: the Aptitude, Schievement I and Achievement II. Aptitude
basically tests brightness, quickness, and basic algebra and arithmetic.
Achievement I seemingly is for students with a solid year of calculus.
Achievement II is for more advanced students.
When my son's results came back (he did poorly on achievement I) I found
that something like 10% of the kids who took Achievement II got 800
scores. So anyway, someone who does well on the Aptitude, or even
Achievement I, might be quite mistaken about where they stand in the big
Well, 1590 (800 Math) SAT/99th percentile in my class got me rejected
from Yale and MIT, waitlisted at Harvard, but I go to the University of
Chicago so I can't really complain. White male from New Jersey suburb,
Something nobody seems to have brought up yet about the "4 hours of
sleep" thing -- sure, I rarely got more than 5 hours of sleep a night,
and some nights I also had a lot of homework to do. But those two facts
are unrelated. The more important issue was that I *naturally* went to
sleep at about 2 or 3 AM. And I don't think I'm some sort of freak --
isn't there scientific literature out there that supports the notion
that teenage circadian cycles tend to be shifted later than adult and
I can't help but think that high school students who are getting 4
hours of sleep a night are doing something wrong somehow, either trying
to do too much or wasting a fair bit of time as they do it. As someone
who went to a moderately prestigious prep school, a top level university
for my BA (University of Cambridge), and am now at an Ivy for my MS
(Columbia) I rarely got less than 8 hours of sleep. A significant
number of the people I knew who did work until all hours of the night
tended to be those who couldn't get it together to do it during the day.
As for people who are actually filling 20 hours a day with school
work and extra-curriculars to pad their applications I can only suspect
that they are under the impression that they have a lot more choice in
where they go to college than they actually do. My experience has been
that college admissions are pretty much a crap shoot and while a good
student has a pretty good chance of getting into a top-flight school
they have a very small chance of getting into the particular one they
have their heart set on.
I'm also going to semi-second something Vickie said about "benign
neglect". I wasn't pushed to do any one thing by my parents, there was
simply a level of achievement that I was expected to reach. My folks
didn't much care if I went to a particular institution or did particular
activities as long as what I did seemed in line with what they
perceived to be my abilities. So I suspect the answer is to push your
children, but not pigeon-hole them.
In 1960 I was able to get accepted to Radcliffe from one of the
better CA public high schools with probably a 3.7 or so average, getting
8 hours of sleep a night. I could have applied to UC Berkeley in
August and been accepted for the fall. One big difference is that the
number of places at Harvard probably hasn't increased, but the
population of the US has probably doubled. Certainly California's
population has gone way up, and many nore out-of-state students apply to
UC because it is cheaper than the private schools. I think there are
both more students applying to the top schools (a larger percentage of
the young population) and at the same time the top schools, public or
private, have not increased proportionately to the population increase.
So its more competitive. In California at least my generation has
simply not provided the opportunities for today's kids that were
provided for us. And with the budget cuts it will only get worse.
Another reason why school is harder now is that there is simply much
more to know. I tutor kids in high school science. Beyond the most
elementary biology and chemistry, it is stuff that either I had in
college or that wasn't known then. This is of course less true in other
subjects, but it is certainly true in science.
A third reason? Maybe some of these kids are being forced to work beyond
their abilities. Do their parents ever think about their kids'
hapiness as opposed to their material success?
One of the mind deadeners I swore never to use is the "this is the
worst class I ever had". Never have, never will, but I know a lot of
folk who do use it.
A real motivator NOT.
Aw, hell, I stumbled into my SAT half drunk from the night before,
there were beer cans falling out of the car... I barely attended class
my senior year, loaded up on art classes, and graduated in the middle. I
could care less. I dropped out of polite society for awhile while
living in Boston, and spent my time reading my roommate's philosophy
books and hanging out in bars. I ended up joining the Air Force, and
then finally decided that going to school would be a good idea. I spent
3 semesters at a community college getting some basic credits and my
math up to a calc II level and left with a 3.9. I'm now at a top flight
science school and, after the LSAT (160), will be going to a decent law
school, all while working 20-25hrs per week. The thing I find
remarkable is that I've basically stumbled my way through this. Neither
of my parents graduated from college. There's more than one way to
succeed in this game. I may not have done things the traditional way,
but I'm confident in my abilities and I know I rank far ahead of my
age-related peers, who already have their advanced degrees, in terms of
Let kids be, and they will blossom. I think the Vickie termed it
properly, "benign neglect." Granted, I could be doing doctoral research
right now, but seriously, I spent my early 20's drinking in Europe on
the US Government's dime and not walled away in a lab for 12 hours. I
think I made out ok...
Parents are panicking because they instictively understand that
without the "right" education and experiences, their children may never
be able to achieve their parents' standard of living.
On top of this is the fact that the expectation that these children
should be able to achieve their parents' standard of living is
completely out of alignment with reality. Do these parents really think
that their exalted suburban way of life will be around forever? The
global ecosystem is not going to be able to support very many "haves" in
the future, particularly with the way we are using it now.
I'm...a little struck dumb by this entry. If there is such
hyper-competitiveness out there it can only exist in small pockets. I
tested very highly as a child, skipped a grade, spent my public school
career in 'accelerated' courses and made excellent grades in
them...without ever having to spend more than five minutes a day on
homework. Generally classes 'challenged' me right to sleep. Eventually
I dropped out.
If I lacked ambition it may have been somewhat due to parental
disinterest. I admit that I didn't make the most of what was offered to
me. And I have no idea how 'good' these schools were in national
rankings...the ones in Nebraska were well-funded, at least, but I
suppose that doesn't mean anything.
It must be a truly horrific ordeal trying to get into one of these
overrated, overhyped top-tier degree mills, and usually I'm glad I never
Man, I feel like a massive underachiever! I am 33, I only went to
college (Central CT State U) for a year and a half, and that was 15
years ago. I did pretty well in most of my classes in high school, with
very little effort. I gave up on math after Algebra II, which I had to
drop so it wouldn't drag me down any further. I got only 1100 on my SATs
(790 on the Language portion - maybe I'm a little too left brained?). I
didn't receive "benign neglect" from my parents, my father is an abuse
alcoholic, so it was bad. No one from my family came to my high school
I got accepted to Sarah Lawrence College, Hampshire College, and
Wesleyan, all three on the strength of my interview and essay, I think. I
didn't go to any of them because my father refused to fill out any
financial aid forms, so I ended up paying out my own pocket for Central.
I got a scholarship after the first semester, but then I got pregnant
My kids have much more involved parents, but I do not push. My older
daughter just started high school, she is in all Honors classes, and I
couldn't be more proud of her. I'm especially proud that she chooses to
work so hard - I was a terribly lazy student, and I probably could be in
a very different place right now if I had exerted any effort.
Where I came from, the two final years of HS had mandatory classes for Calculus. It's been that way for years here.
It was noted above too that the basic Undergrad degrees are becoming
devalued by saturation and aren't enough for employers: this isn't just
the case in the USA. Where I live now (New Zealand, culturally very
similar to the US) the BA especially is very poorly regarded, yet is
seemingly absolutely neccessary for even the most basic white-collar
jobs. I found it neccesary to continue at Law School long past when I
found I didn't enjoy the area anymore, and as I near graduation I don't
have any plans to work in the field (unless there's a sudden explosion
in international law that I've been missing :P). The BA I spent several
years on is essentially worthless.
As for grade inflation - my discussions with college faculty (some of
whom are very pissed off) reinforces this. Colleges are industries
now, and B/C grades aren't what they used to be worth. They made the
point that A grades tend to be still have meaning. Keeping fee-paying
students (especially foreign ones who pay much more and whose command of
english is often atrocious) is the name of the game.
We should note that the high school mentioned in the book review is a
public school with perhaps the best record in the state. Of course,
there is only one "best" by definition.
There have been hyper-competitive CA schools for years: Los Gatos,
Gunn, one near Torrance, one near Westwood. Real estate prices near
these schools are much higher for schools right next door.
As with most education issues, you can't generalize based on a few examples.
I think things are better and worse than people think. Per Kevin's
example, there are plenty of over-achieving kids. On the other hand,
there still are plenty of low-expectations schools out there. I spoke
with the parent of one non-"inner-city" student who was on the 5th grade
honor roll. Unfortunately, she hadn't learned division yet since the
school "didn't want to embarass the kids who couldn't do it".
Ultimately, I believe kids are going to get the education their
parents demand from the school system. Unfortunately, there are many
school systems where the parents don't demand much.
Does anyone track these overachievers? Because my hunch, born of
personal anecdotal evidence, is that very few of them actually achieve
escape velocity and make it into orbit. Most of them burn out somewhere
between Freshman year and their second job after graduation.
In the end, you have to be internally driven to do something and get
somewhere; if your whole life is based on pleasing your parents or your
teachers, then you just can't maintain the desire as you get further and
further away from them.
Besides, real life is filled with really bright people who didn't
change the world. Give me a well-adjusted better-than-average over a
crazed genius any day.
When I was in high school, I remember it was a pretty unusual day
when there was more than one hour of homework assigned on a given night.
The general concept at the time was that serious work really began in
college, and that seemed to do the trick pretty well all around.
At my kids school, in contrast, a public school, 40% of the class
spend an average time of FOUR HOURS on homework a night, according to a
Now my high school was not a particularly distinguished one in the
Central Valley of California. My kids school was in an affluent suburb
in the Northeast.
But the differences seem remarkable to me, and the four hours of
homework, which, believe me, my own kids DID spend, seemed brutal and
not especially healthy.
I'm glad some of you liked the idea of benign neglect (the phrase
originally came from how the British Empire treated the American
colonies), but it wasn't all happy fun candy. My parents probably spent
more time at the bar than they did with me on any given day, unless I
went with them (I was 16 before I realized this was not normal),
although my home life was nothing like Maureen's.
On topic, American Citizen is right that too many parents don't
demand better educations for their children. However, there are also
parents who make demands that are just insane. At my school, one of the
teachers was Russian and had doctorates in chemistry and physics (I
have no idea what he was doing at my school). The Doc had little
patience for supposedly 'honors' students (one used to complain that she
didn't get chem because she didn't believe in something as small as
atoms) who couldn't keep up with the pace he demanded from us, but he
was also funny (my favorite was when he would shoot back to the idiots
who would complain about his accent that perhaps they were in need of
remedial English classes) and was more than willing to take time with
you if you were legitimately trying to learn. The class wasn't
outlandish, but it was no easy A. A couple students whose chemistry
grades were bringing down their GPA's complained to their parents that
the Doc wasn't a good enough teacher, which was absurd, but the admins
made him lighten up his grading system and he wasn't allowed to teach
chemistry after that year. It was a damn shame.
Same story over here on the coast. Tho' the media doesn't mention it,
I have the sense that CA's standards are currently much higher than
much of the nation's - an over reaction to the dismal performance during
Dukemajian/Wilson. Up in the Santa Clara Valley, some top schools have
had parents' revolts, where large groups of kids were kept out of the
SAT9 and CAT5 tests. Something has to give. What family can fully comply
with this bullsh*t?
OK, here's the thing I don't get about spending a huge amount of time on homework and school before, say, the age of 16-18.
Let's suppose that, at age 16-18, one is generally a pretty good deal
smarter than at, say, 12-15. This would imply, I'd think, that one
could far more rapidly master concepts at age 18 than at age 14, and
that there may be concepts one could master at 18 which one might never
So what's the point of spending a huge amount of time on homework
when one is 12-15? If one can learn the same material maybe twice as
fast at 16-18, isn't it just a total and brutal use of one's time to try
to master the same material when one is younger and less capable? So
what if you are a year behind? What does that one year (bought at the
expense of many years of excruciating studying) mean in the long run, if
one can make up for it by tacking an additional year of studying on at
the end of one's academic career, or can simply make it up by spending a
few extra hours throughout one's college and graduate career?
I disagree. I think I was almost as smart at 13 as at 18. Indeed, I
think my intelligence has decreased rapidly as I have aged (many others
seem to suffer this condition as well, so I'm not too worried) while my
wisdom has increased.
Also, I loved teachers who demanded a lot of me. It made me feel
important, and it really engaged me intellectually. I loved spending an
hour readin 20 pages of US history from a college level book much more
than I would have enjoyed reading 10 pages for 10 minutes of the general
I think the self-esteem concerns really hurt education, as teachers
often shy away from being demanding. That's one of many reasons Honors
and Non-honors classes make so much sense.
"MIT, Cornell (both of my parents are alumni), Duke, Rice, Harvard,
and Cooper Union. In fact, the only school that accepted me was my
safety school, Georgia Tech. Well, okay, and LSU, but I had no intention
of going there.
GT is a great school, of course, but still... what the hell does a white male have to do to get into college these days?"
It seems to me I have seen this exact sentiment expressed on the net
many, many times: I was an excellent student, I had very good test
scores, I went to a good school, etc., but because of preferential
admissions for diasadvantaged minorities, and me being white, I couldn't
get into a single ivy league school.
But it doesn't seem to me that the facts bear this sentiment out. And
I don't mean to say this because I believe that the claimants are lying
about their academic records (although some may be). Instead, my reason
for doubt is the small effect such preferential admissions can have on a
white applicant's chances of admission.
Take a look at this page-
It gives a breakdown of the application/admittance/yield and (for
some schools) racial make-up of next year's incoming class. Let me quote
the bit from Harvard, as an example:
5/15/02 The Harvard Crimson: "Minority Yields Unaffected By Scandal,
". . .The Class of 2006 will
also see a similar ethnic makeup as past years’ classes. Blacks will
comprise 6.9% of first-years, down slightly from 7.2% this year, while
the percentage of Hispanic students will slightly rise to 3.9%, from
this year’s 3.4%. The
percentage of Asian-American students saw a more significant rise, going
from 14.5 to 17.4% of the incoming class. With only 1,650 spots for
first-years, Harvard admits slightly more than [that] number, roughly
2,000 students, assuming
a small percentage of students will not accept."
So Harvard admitted 2110 students out of 19 014 applicants this year,
for an acceptance rate of 11.097%. Out of that group, 6.9%, or 145
students, were black, and 3.9%, or 82 students, were Hispanic. This
means that 10.8%, or 227 students out of 2110, were of the groups that
might reduce a white candidate's chance to go to Harvard through
preferential admission (on the further assumtion that Harvard is not
letting in Asians preferentially-and for the purposes of this argument, I
leave out Natives, as the data is sketchy, and the numbers are
Now let's assume that every single one of those 227 students was, in
fact, less qualified an applicant than the white candidate we are
considering. Let's further assume that Harvard takes every single
applicant of this sort that applies. These two assumptions are, of
course, wildly exaggerated in the claimant's favor; the fewer accepted
minority applicants that actually fall below the standard, and the lower
the percent of minority applicants accepted, the less effect this
discrimination will have on the applicatant's chances. So the two
assumptions we are making will allow us to calculate the limit of the
effect that such discrimination will have on the white applicant's
And in the limit, the chances of getting into Harvard fall from
11.097% (2110/19014*100) to 10.022% (1883/18787*100), a difference of
If the limit effect is this small, it's not hard to see that the
actual rates of 'preference-based' admittance will not lessen a
qualified white applicant's chances of admittance very much at all.
Data on actual 'preferential admittance' is, understandably, hard to
come by. But there are some signposts. To take one such: UC Berkely's AA
program claimed (in 1993, mind) that 85% of it's disadvantaged-minority
acceptances were within the standard academic range for acceptance.
That leaves about 15% of D-A acceptances below par.
If we apply a similar percentage of (let us call them) unfair
preferential admittances to the Harvard case, then only 34 D-A stundents
got in 'unfairly', costing the white applicant 0.014% off his chance of
getting in (11.097-10.937).
Of course, the actual effect will vary from school to school,
according to the percent of D-A admissions by different schools, and the
percent of those that were truly preferential. The lower these
percentages, the less effect it will have. For context, here is a list
of the D-A percentages for the schools that provided them to this list:
Brown: 8% Hispanic/9%African American
As we can see, the range is from 10-25%. Thus, going by our 15%
estimate for unfair admittance from above, the effect will range from
0.014% (Harvard) to about 0.04% (Stanford).
But, I submit, at all of these schools, other factors, such as alumni connections, will statistically swamp such a tiny change.
Even on the assumption of 50% preferential admittance for these
groups, the average white male who would even bother to apply to these
sorts of schools will see his chances drop by around 1% on average.
It just doesn't seem to me that a 1% drop (on a dubious assumption) is that severe a penalty.
I'm surprised at the surprise that a high school might have two years
of calculus. At my (public, generally middle class) high school in the
1960's the standard 4th year math course for college prep students had
an introduction to calculus.
In addition, the school offered an accelerated math curriculum. In
the third year of the accelerated curriculum one took a course that was
essentially the material in the 4th year math course of the standard
curriculum, and in the fourth year one took an advanced placement math
course that was entirely calculus.
Frankly, math isn't all that difficult. The problem for people who
believe math is difficult is either that they had lousy teachers, or
they didn't do enough problems (practice), or both.
Epist--I think you're reading the sentiment incorrectly. It's not
that white males have a hard time getting in because of minority
admissions, it's that white males have a hard time getting in because
white males have the most competitive resumes. If Harvard accepted only
white males, white males would still have a hard time getting in, and a
lot of them with great SAT scores and perfect grades would be rejected.
I don't have any numbers in front of me, but I'm willing to go out on a
limb and make a prediction that males are more likely than females to
get, say, SAT scores of 1500, and whites are more likely than blacks or
hispanics to do the same.
And then in my case, it also doesn't help to come from a suburb of NYC.
I disagree. I think I was almost as smart at 13 as at 18. Indeed, I
think my intelligence has decreased rapidly as I have aged (many others
seem to suffer this condition as well, so I'm not too worried) while my
wisdom has increased.
I had been under the impression that, at least until recently, the CW
was that one's "intelligence" peaked at 16-17, insofar as it was
measured by IQ tests. I believe lately the consensus has changed, with
one's "intelligence" continuing to improve, though less dramatically,
until age 20 or 21. Of course, whether the improvements in
"intelligence" is due to real developmental changes in the brain that
come about more or less in the natural course of things, or due to the
effect of increased sophistication stemming from further education, is,
as always, pretty unclear. It is also likely that there's some
interaction effect between developmental changes in the brain and
education, so the situation is fairly murky here.
Yet the basic point is that, so long as a child is reasonably active
learning, he is a far more efficient learner at certain later ages than
he is at earlier ages. Other than to keep his mind active, and in
continued development, there seems to me to be little point in piling on
homework at the earlier ages. Inherently, he will be far far less
efficient at learning material at an earlier age than at a later one, so
what exactly is the purpose?
...also, if overnight, there were only 1/3 of the total seats at
Harvard, we'd still have the "what does a white guy have to do,"
consruction of the problem.
Returning to a previous topic, I think Kevin is onto something when he asks why we always hear "public schools are failing."
One answer: because politicians win votes by making us think that's
true, and they distort the studies to make it true. I know it's an odd
source for this blog, but check this out.
How much you're able to learn at what age is highly dependent on the
subject. For example, the ability to think abstractly about say, the
effects of gender norms on 1950's American society isn't something a 13
year old will be able to do as easily as an 18 year old. But a 6 year
old is will beat the 13 and 18 year olds at learning a foreign language
because little kids are sponges.
About public schools failing, I think everything we hear about it can
be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Where I went to school, we all knew
that all the surrounding towns thought we were drug dealers and gang
members who couldn't possibly be as gifted as children just a few miles
away. We read in the paper all the time about our various problems
because we couldn't afford a PR person to cover our backs; it was
usually pretty inane stuff, especially compared to the drug problems at
the high schools who could afford it. I got spit on at softball games,
body checked at the mall "accidently" because I was wearing my school
colors, asked all the time about how many of my peers brought guns to
school (none) or if it was safe in the hallways (of course), and then
demeaned for being oblivious if I told the truth, etc. This kind of
stuff happened to all of my peers, and after about 10 years of it, even
some of the kids most equipped to do extraordinarily well were saying,
"To hell with this, it isn't possible or useful to me even if it is."
Rich school districts might be unrepresentative, but, also, I suspect
that mathematics is unrepresentative. My anecdotal impression is that
math and science education have gotten better in the US over the past 50
years, but training in the arts and humanities, and particularly
history, geography and English composition, have correspondingly
The quest for the most prestigious degrees is absurd if you see it in
purely educational terms. I know firsthand that kids at Ivy League
schools are not getting several times the undergraduate education that
they get at state universities. They may not even be getting a better
education at all. The presence of world-famous researchers will benefit
a few outstandingly motivated students who will push for research
opportunities outside of class, or take a dozen graduate courses before
they get a bachelor's degree. But most college students aren't like
that, nor is there much reason they should be unless they're headed for
But I also think that the parents and students are not primarily
seeing it in educational terms; they're thinking about brand recognition
in the job market and in society. The funny thing about that is that
the best software engineer I ever knew, who was my supervisor and mentor
my first few years on the job, was a college dropout.
...But on the other hand, advanced degrees do help one's reputation.
They're not necessary to get a white-collar job, but there's a sort of
ceiling that comes into play. My father, who had, granted, gotten
pretty far as a manager in software engineering on his bachelor's degree
in mathematics, was told flat out a few years ago that he couldn't
advance much further unless he got a graduate degree (never mind whether
it had anything to do with his job). So while I was finishing my
Ph.D., he went back to school and got a "Management of Information
Services" master's degree from Virginia Tech, which in his case
consisted largely of computer-science courses. We graduated the same
scarshapedstar, for engineering programs in schools at that level, a
710 math SAT and a 3.5 grade average is considered pretty bad, unless
there's extenuating circumstances. MIT's average score is 760, for
We need to quit looking at education in terms of how *schools* are doing, and look at how *kids* are doing.
I graduated in 1999 from a high school which was, by all criteria, an
inner-city school. My freshman class started with over a thousand
students--we graduated with 430. We didn't have enough money for new
text books, the buildings were falling apart, we had five kids murdered
in gang violence during my four years there, and we lost good teachers
every year because the job was too hard and the pay was too low.
The interesting thing about the school was that it was incredibly
diverse--I'm Anglo, my family is middle class, my mom is a CPA, my dad a
real estate broker. Most of my friends came from similar backgrounds.
But I went to school with many kids whose parents were worked at
Wal-Mart, or were illegal immigrants, or were in jail. The school was
about 38% Hispanic, 32% Anglo, 12% African-American, and the rest Native
American and Asian.
I know that I had a drastically different high school experience than
my classmates who didn't have all the advantages I did. I took AP
English, did well on my SATs and ACTs, did a million extracurricular
activities, and got straight A's. I didn't spend a lot of time on
homework, but I was doing something productive from 6:45 am (Student
Senate) to 10:00 pm (Youth Orchestra, or ballet, or Academic Decathlon,
or piano lessons, or volunteering on political campaigns) every day.
I graduated near the top of my class and went on to the University of
Chicago. I received my BA from there in June, and I'm now a Masters
student at George Washington University. But I know that
many--*many*--of my classmates were not so lucky. If they graduated,
most didn't go to college. Many are now in low-paying jobs; some are in
We all went to the same school, but ended up in such different
places. Taking kids out of a "bad" school and putting them in a "good"
school won't make much of a difference--the things that matter are
family, intellegence, hard work, and strong support from teachers and
administrators. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't work to improve
schools--of course, we should make sure teachers are qualified, and kids
are being taught. But we don't need to fix the school system--we need
to fix kids. And that's a much tougher things to do.
This all boils down to demographics. The kids in the article are Asian. Asians and Jews are vastly
overrepresented at the top schools because they work hard and are (in
my opinion) naturally smarter, whether because they're a self-selected
subset of immigrants or what-have-you.
Asian stats are obvious. For stats on Jewish enrollment, you can
check out Hillel, the campus Jewish organization, which has the # of
Jews on each campus.
Anyway, the point is that it's not *white males* per se who are
losing spots, but white gentiles. Depending on the school, they're about
as underrepresented or more so than blacks and Hispanics. For example,
8% of MIT's undergrads are foreign
27% of MIT's undergrads are Asian.
20% are black/Hispanic
Hillel counts another 10% as Jewish.
That leaves 35% white gentiles
Subtracting the blacks/Hispanics gives about 80% of the seats
assigned on a merit basis. Of the 72% that went to Americans, slightly
more than half (37%) went to Jews and Asians, while the rest (35%) went
to white gentiles. Again, Jews and Asians only make up 5-6% of the
population, while white gentiles make up 69%. In other words, a tiny
fraction of the population beat out the largest group in the population
for the merit-based seats at arguably the best engineering school in the
country (alongside Caltech and Stanford).
The quality of English education has definately decreased over the last few decades.
I have to review a lot of documents in my work, and every so often
I'll have to read stuff written by engineers. I once had to read a
bunch of internal corresponcence from an engineering society. The
members of the society all had advanced degrees. The quality of prose
was pretty bad. Some of the documents were more or less
A few months later, I had to review a second set of the society's
documents. This set consisted of documents created in the 1930's
through the 1950's.
The difference was astonishing. The documents written in the 30's
were lucid and engaging. These too had been written by engineers with
advanced degrees, but the quality of writing was infinately better.
Even dull interoffice memos read as if they were press releases written
by a public relations firm; they were that good.
I read a fair amount biographies, and they too demonstrate how the
quality of writing has decreased. A biography written in the 40's,
50's, or even 60's is usually far more interesting that one written
today. Today's top writers are just as good as the ones of the past,
but if you simply pick a biography off the shelf at random, odds are
that the one published in 1953 will be a lot more readable than the one
written in 2003.
In the above comment, I didn't mean to imply that all engineers are
poor writers. I was just using the engineering society to illustrate
the idea that the quality of writing has decreased over the years.
The problem is really very simple, I don't know why people can't understand it.
Thirty years ago there were X number of Ivy League schools and Y
number of kids; today, there are still only X number of Ivy League
schools but there are now Y+Z number of kids. One result of this
increased competition is that schools that were formerly regarded as
good regional schools now can attract first rate students and
accordingly have developed national reputations (e.g., Duke, NYU).
If you want to blame somebody, blame the billionaires of today.
During the last great period of wealth creation, the robber barons
formed and endowed a number of great schools: Stanford U.,
Carnegie-Mellon U., Rockefeller U., U. Chicago. What is missing today is
Gates U., Ellison U., Dell U., Buffet U., and so on. Gates has given
$17 billion to charity; with that sum he could have created a worthy
competitor to Harvard and Standford, but for some reason today's
billionaires are not interested in creating new universities.
a couple of points -- I remember reading a survey some years ago
where people were asked if public schools today were failing. A very
high percentage said yes. But, over 80% of the people in the survey
said the public schools in their neighborhood were very good. The same
survey asked people about their congressional representatives and guess
what? The answers were similar -- Congress was awful, corrupt, bad, but
people's perceptions of their own representatives were good. I think
this fits in nicely with what Vickie said about schools being unable to
hire PR folks.
On a different point, there seems to be a perception among math and
science people that their preferred subject matter is so important that
it overrides any need to learn how to write effectively. Writing is
portrayed as "soft" and "easy", thus, "hard" math and science types
think it's beneath them. I remember during my first week of law school,
a woman got up and announced to one of our professors that since she
was an engineer, she didn't "read". Who knows what she thought law
school was going to be about. I guess she didn't read the descriptions.
I think many of the points of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu are apropo here:
The main one being that schools are generally effective in teaching
those who already have other compelling reasons to want to do well in
school. The school, in Bourdieu's terms, almost always "preaches to the
converted". Our schools are good for those who have the disposition to
go on to college, but are not good for those who are, for whatever
reasons, not planning further study. Furthermore, the decrease of the
social value of the high school diploma over the last decades has
exacerbated the two-track nature of our schools.
What's the answer? Not sure, but I think a way to start is to stop
pretending that all high school students have an interest in going to
college, and to put serious resources into making their high school
experience valuable in itself.
Here's my theory. There's "degree inflation" -- a college degree
doesn't guarantee a good job any more, since more people get them; now
it needs to be from a good school. And the bigger trend would be the
shrinking of the middle class. Getting in to a good school determines
whether you'll be upper class or lower-middle class. Though
18-year-olds intuiting all this pretty much means their parents are
projecting their own frustrations from the last 20 years. (Unless this
is just yuppie-ness reborn -- or
In some public high schools, a very small minority of the most elite students are being well educated.
That doesn't at all change the fact that at a ridiculously high
number of schools a huge percentage of the students are very poorly
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