Newspaper Blogs

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 night.

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 | TrackBack


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.

Posted by: Diane at September 13, 2003 09:37 AM | PERMALINK

It's part of the whole death of childhood trend in America. Only adults are allowed to be children anymore.

Posted by: pj at September 13, 2003 09:39 AM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: Steve Story at September 13, 2003 09:53 AM | PERMALINK

"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.

Posted by: wcw at September 13, 2003 09:55 AM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: meg at September 13, 2003 09:55 AM | PERMALINK

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 middle group.

If what I read about admissions is correct, it makes the furor over affirmative action less justified.

Posted by: zizka at September 13, 2003 09:59 AM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: KevStar at September 13, 2003 10:00 AM | PERMALINK

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 transparently nasty.

Posted by: zizka at September 13, 2003 10:05 AM | PERMALINK

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?

Posted by: paul at September 13, 2003 10:17 AM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: Alex R at September 13, 2003 10:18 AM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: ELowe at September 13, 2003 10:26 AM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: David at September 13, 2003 10:35 AM | PERMALINK

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!

Posted by: susan at September 13, 2003 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

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....

Posted by: Kevin Drum at September 13, 2003 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

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 schools.

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 like that.

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 way.

Posted by: Mark at September 13, 2003 11:08 AM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: MDtoMN at September 13, 2003 11:28 AM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: MDtoMN at September 13, 2003 11:38 AM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: Lindsey at September 13, 2003 12:09 PM | PERMALINK

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, either.)

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.

Posted by: renska at September 13, 2003 12:11 PM | PERMALINK

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 universities.
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.

Posted by: Baker at September 13, 2003 12:17 PM | PERMALINK

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 these days.

Posted by: cure at September 13, 2003 12:20 PM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: andrew at September 13, 2003 01:10 PM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: EmmaAnne at September 13, 2003 01:11 PM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: Pacific John at September 13, 2003 01:12 PM | PERMALINK

According to the review of the book at WaPo, the
kids at that high school are 80% Asian. They
are relentless as striving parents.

Posted by: Bartolomeo at September 13, 2003 01:22 PM | PERMALINK

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.

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. Probably both.

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.

Posted by: Katherine at September 13, 2003 01:30 PM | PERMALINK

your sixth grade teacher, that is. maybe our public education system is failing after all.

Posted by: Katherine at September 13, 2003 01:30 PM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: jimBOB at September 13, 2003 01:33 PM | PERMALINK

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 different now.

Posted by: Xhenxhefil at September 13, 2003 01:44 PM | PERMALINK

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?

Posted by: scarshapedstar at September 13, 2003 01:56 PM | PERMALINK

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 work.

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, are you?
[And this is said in the context of my growing up in a very similar area as the latter example.]

Posted by: Michael at September 13, 2003 02:01 PM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: moleculo at September 13, 2003 02:11 PM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: cakdem at September 13, 2003 02:46 PM | PERMALINK

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 created elsewhere.

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.

Posted by: Pacific John at September 13, 2003 02:52 PM | PERMALINK

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 underprepared.

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 exists.

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 impressed.

Posted by: Vickie at September 13, 2003 02:57 PM | PERMALINK

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 picture.

Posted by: zizka at September 13, 2003 03:56 PM | PERMALINK

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, publicly schooled.
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 child ones?

Posted by: Anno-nymous at September 13, 2003 04:09 PM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: Nick at September 13, 2003 04:20 PM | PERMALINK

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?

Posted by: Mimikatz at September 13, 2003 04:26 PM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: Josh Halpern at September 13, 2003 04:45 PM | PERMALINK

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 life experience.

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...

Posted by: ChrisS at September 13, 2003 04:55 PM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: JLowe at September 13, 2003 05:01 PM | PERMALINK

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 tried.

Posted by: theperegrine at September 13, 2003 05:41 PM | PERMALINK

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 graduation, AAMOF.

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 and married.

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.

Posted by: Maureen at September 13, 2003 06:18 PM | PERMALINK

Some observations--

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.

Posted by: Downunder at September 13, 2003 06:50 PM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: Pacific John at September 13, 2003 06:59 PM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: American Citizen at September 13, 2003 08:09 PM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: craigie at September 13, 2003 10:32 PM | PERMALINK

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 survey.

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.

Posted by: frankly0 at September 13, 2003 10:59 PM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: Vickie at September 13, 2003 11:03 PM | PERMALINK


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?

Posted by: Pacific John at September 13, 2003 11:33 PM | PERMALINK

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 at 14.

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?

Posted by: frankly0 at September 14, 2003 12:26 AM | PERMALINK

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 book.

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.

Posted by: MDtoMN at September 14, 2003 12:47 AM | PERMALINK

"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 exceedingly small).

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 chances.

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 1.07%.

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
Harvard: 3.9%/6.9%
Cornell: 5.9%/5.2%
Duke: 7.5%/10.5%
Standford 13%/13%
Swarthmore: 7%/5%
Tufts: 11%/11%
Penn: 7.5%/8.8%

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.

Posted by: epist at September 14, 2003 02:55 AM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: raj at September 14, 2003 03:39 AM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: Anno-nymous at September 14, 2003 03:52 AM | PERMALINK

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?

Posted by: frankly0 at September 14, 2003 07:09 AM | PERMALINK

...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.

Posted by: Pacific John at September 14, 2003 08:50 AM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: llamura at September 14, 2003 09:02 AM | PERMALINK

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."

Posted by: Vickie at September 14, 2003 11:02 AM | PERMALINK

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 suffered.

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 academic careers.

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.

Posted by: Matt McIrvin at September 14, 2003 11:06 AM | PERMALINK

...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 spring.

Posted by: Matt McIrvin at September 14, 2003 11:20 AM | PERMALINK

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 example.

Posted by: tavella at September 14, 2003 01:05 PM | PERMALINK

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 jail.

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.

Posted by: Maya at September 14, 2003 03:53 PM | PERMALINK

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, consider MIT:

Consider MIT:

(MIT stats)
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).

Posted by: realistic at September 14, 2003 05:00 PM | PERMALINK

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 incomprehensible.

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.

Posted by: Joe Schmoe at September 14, 2003 05:27 PM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: Joe Schmoe at September 14, 2003 05:34 PM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: DougLevene at September 15, 2003 08:12 AM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: halle at September 15, 2003 10:42 AM | PERMALINK

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.

Posted by: kokblok at September 15, 2003 12:30 PM | PERMALINK

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
juvenille competitiveness?)

Posted by: Destiny at September 15, 2003 03:49 PM | PERMALINK

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 educated.

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