Spring-ish

After a brutal winter, we’re emerging from our bunkers and having nice adventures again. Here are some pictures from our trip to Little Italy in the Bronx last weekend.

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SL 749

You have to check out this girl’s YouTube video for some mean girl gossip on mean girls. Whew! And that vocal fry! Whew! From the Daily Mail.

Real question: Does everybody have their own lifestyle YouTube channel now?

Everybody is talking about the fact that only 7 African-American kids out of 900 got into Stuyvesant High School in NYC.

Any recipe that calls for two kinds of pork products is a win around here.

Teenage Wasteland

About five years ago, I wrote an essay than I never ended up publishing anywhere talking about how the rise in dystopian YA novels was a sign that kids were really f*cked up today. My theory was that teens preferred fictional dystopias to their realities.

How many kids read The Hunger Games and thought about the cut-throat world of college admissions? And saw their parents as the micro-managing and semi-evil as the rulers of the Capital? But instead of submitting to the system, the heroine blows it up and finds freedom.

I must have dozens of blog posts over the past few years about the stress, unhealthy world that we’ve given our kids. Here’s another article about the mental health issues that coming out of this disaster.

(I’m scavenging through the articles that came out last week and picking out the little tidbits that have some actual meat to them. I’ll post some random thoughts throughout the day.)

Are Elite Colleges The Victim in this Admissions Scandal?

We all know that bribes are illegal, but what exactly are the charges in this case? According to the law, the victims were the colleges.

The WSJ explains that “prosecutors are alleging that the parents conspired to deprive colleges out of the honest services of athletics coaches and administrators accused of taking bribes. ”

But the elite colleges didn’t care enough about this problem to police their own people. They didn’t care enough to initiate their own FBI sting. The college presidents from these schools haven’t been holding triumphant press conferences or even giving interviews with reporters.

So, you know what that makes me think? They really didn’t care about this problem.

Maybe these college thought that an occasional student who gets into their side door was just the cost of doing business. It wasn’t worth an expensive and disruptive crackdown for the one or two students that sneak in every year.

Or maybe schools didn’t care because the whole system is a joke and they know it. In a school where 30 percent of the incoming class have parents who attended the school, it’s hard to claim that merit is the sole admissions standard.

It’s also hard to maintain a high moral high ground, when another 30 percent of your incoming class are the children of wealthy factory owners in China. Those students always pay full freight, which is nice for the school.

And you think applications here are fraudulent? Do you know what those wealthy Chinese factory owners are doing for their kids? Puts us to shame. Rumors are that the wealthy parents in China buy apartments for their kids around Columbia and NYU years before their kids admitted, because they know it’s a sure thing. Wealthy Chinese students are such a huge part of the Gen Z college experience that they all have jokes about the Maseratis outside the student center.

There’s way, way more about the shallowness of the admissions process and the meritocratic myth in this story, but let’s go back to talking about the crime.

So, you have to imagine the cops coming to your door saying that arrested a criminal who was breaking into your shed. Yay. Aren’t you happy? And, oh by the way, the cops say, what are all those unopened boxes of televisions doing in your shed?

That’s what happened. It’s actually pretty funny.

And by pointing out all the problems and rot in elite universities, it totally trashes their brand, which is about they only thing that they have going for them.

Not only are faculty teaching the exact same classes as other universities (see my discussion of Intro to American Government here), but many times, they aren’t even teaching.

Last year, a friend of mine sent me her daughter’s syllabus of economics class at an ivy school. The class was taught by a huge name in the field. Having a big name at the podium is a big part of the justification for $70K tuition. But my friend was ticked off, because the guy only showed up to give about half of the lectures. The rest were taught by his TAs.

The only difference between an elite private college and an elite public college is the handholding by administrators and the fancier buildings. That’s why a lot of parents are starting to send their kids the public schools and why the lower ranked private schools are having problems.

But most parents and kids don’t really care about the classes, I suppose. It’s all about the brand. The windshield sticker. The branded sweatshirt. The bragging rights. That’s all these elite colleges offer. So, when a scandal like this tarnishes the brand, it’s a MAJOR disaster. When people start questioning their decisions about legacies and international students and athletes, when people shed light on what they like to keep very private, it’s a MAJOR disaster. When people question whether or not this is a school for the world’s absolute best and brightest, it’s a MAJOR disaster.

The colleges are the victim of a crime, but from their point of view, the villains aren’t the botoxed Hollywood mommas. For them, it’s the FBI and the public attention that threaten their brands and their empires.

What Should Parents Do For Their Kids?

One of things that I’ve found fascinating while eavesdropping on twitter this week is the continuum of opinion on parents.

On the first day of the scandal, when most of the focus was on the Uber-rich and their bribes, there was near consensus that these people acted inappropriately. Except for the brother of one the kids that was caught up in the sting.

“They’re blowing this whole thing out of proportion,” said Malcolm Abbott outside the home that overlooks the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I believe everyone has a right to go to college, man.”

But then on day two and three, when pundits and writers were looking for new angles, attention started focusing on middle class and upper middle class parents and how they help prep their kids for school and college.

The NYT had some nice data on the percentage of parents of all incomes, who do things like help their adult child (aged 18-25) study for a test and make their doctor’s appointments. I didn’t see charts this week about the percentage of parents of younger children who help them study for tests or hire tutors for them. (LMK if you came across any new data in the news.)

But beyond the just-the-facts stories like the NYT, there was much discussion around how wealthier parents skew educational outcomes. And this discussion was ideological.

My kids are privileged in a dozen different ways. They have two highly educated parents, an extended family, a tradition of sitting down for dinner with discussion. They live in a low crime community, where their peers are all expected to attend college. Their school is well funded with AP classes and guidance counselors. They attend summer camps and travel. Right off the bat, they have a HUGE leg up on lower income peers.

Even if I never looked at a term paper or attended back to school nights or hired tutors (I do for Ian.), they are ahead of the game. I recognize that. I vote for politicians who will support education and economic prospects for the less fortunate. But I’m going to keep going IEP meetings for Ian and helping Jonah (and his roommates) with their political science classes.

There are some, on the left, who think that parents should be shamed into doing less for their kids in order to reduce inequality. I agree with Rick Hess and say that’s impossible.

The right views public education as fundamentally broken. In the past, the answer to the broken system were charter schools and vouchers, but they’re moving past that. Now, the only answer to the broken schools are parents who bring change from within.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to those arguments. I’m not sure if it’s a bug or a feature, but there are many in this group who have children with special needs. But I’ve also seen a lot parental advocacy that doesn’t benefit the common good, but their own particular children.

There’s probably a sane middle to those two extreme points of view, but I’ll let you all figure it out.

Cheating and Coaching, Part 3

This is a long brain dump. First read Part 1 and then Part 2.

So, all this work to get kids into elite schools. Is it worth it?

Jonah is taking Introduction to American Government this semester. It’s a class that I taught many times, in various capacities at different colleges. I taught the class to 52 students (always a couple overdraft students) at a CUNY school, to graduate students at Teachers College at Columbia, and slightly different class at a suburban liberal arts college.

So those colleges show up on ranking systems on VERY different levels — high, medium, and low. And guess what? I taught the exact same class at every place. I gave the same lectures, same exams, and had the same grading standards.

And my father taught that class for 30 years at his college. The exact same class. How a bill becomes a law, what compromises went into the constitution, how power changed over time, yadda yadda. Same class.

While I am certainly not writing Jonah’s papers for him or writing his study guides, I did insist — okay, demand — that we talk on the phone for an hour before his midterm on Monday to make sure that he knew Marbury v. Madison and the Articles of Confederation. He told me what material he had to study for the exam. It was the exact same class that I taught and my dad taught. He’s getting the same class as any kid at Harvard.

So, if the actual product of education at a public college is identical to the product at a fancy, elite college, why are people going insane about this effort to get their kids into elite schools? And all the evidence shows that elite school graduates earn exactly the same as equally smart kids at less prestigious schools.

Why the bribes? Why the schemes? Why all this sacrifice by the parents to completely devote their lives to getting their kids to those schools.

Well, I see more parents settling on elite public schools over private schools. University of Delaware and University of Maryland are very popular choices around here. But the private colleges can offer the nicer dorm rooms and pampering that the kids have gotten used to at home.

My son’s off-campus house outside of his public college is so horrifically awful that I need to bathe in Purell after stepping into his living room. Overflowing ashtrays and empty beer cans and a stray cat named Freeto that lives on the front porch. Sometimes I feel guilty that he’s living in pestilence, but this mess is of his own making. And he seems quite happy there.

But back to the topic here. Brand names. How much do they matter? Are these families working so hard to get their kids into fanciest of schools. Some are. Some are happy with the big name public schools, even kids who come from families with deep pockets. The kids are more democratic about their school choices than their parents.

Whew. Stopping now. More later.

Cheating and Coaching, Part 2

So, this is long brain dump. Start at Part 1.

Where was I? Oh yeah, talking about parents and the college process. See the road to college starts long before junior of high school. Kids are groomed at very early age to get into an elite colleges. They are groomed from the first moment that parents buy a home in our town.

The only reason that they move to this town is for the high school, which boasts a private school type education at a public school expense. The trick is just to have enough money to buy a home in this town. And as soon as the kids graduate, sometimes the week after graduation, they put their homes on the market and move elsewhere.

Then there are a million decisions about nursery schools, sports and extracurriculars, ADHD medicines, tutors, summer camps, enrichment activities, and so on. All that is going towards building the type of kid that will someday go to an elite college.

College is the finish line for parenting. I admit that I thought that way, too, at least for Jonah. We never thought Ian was going to go to college, but he’s doing so well in school that we are suddenly having to consider college for him, too. Maybe a specialized college. But that’s another story.

Now, are these parents crazy? Are they evil? Are they rule breakers?

No. Their actions are completely rational. The employment options for people who attend college are limited, and getting worse over time. We’ve all read the headlines that robots are going to replace jobs soon and looked at downward economic graphs.

And they live in this fishbowl with everybody else hiring tutors and coaches. To not participate in these activities, takes enormous courage and faith in the child.

We didn’t do coach Jonah or review his papers or help him study for his history exams, in part because of lack of funds and principle, but also because he wouldn’t let us.

He had a term paper for his AP History class that was the same topic as Steve’s PhD dissertation. I begged him to let Steve at least review major concepts of the paper with him, but he refused. I like to think that he spurned our help over the years because he’s a great kid, but it’s more likely because he was scarred deeply over the years by all the talk from others about his parents with the PhDs.

But other kids aren’t damaged like my son and happily accepted help from their parents. They are biggest victim in this crazy culture. They have been taught that they must sit passively back and let adults do the work for them. They have learned helplessness. Even though parents tell them all day every day that they are perfect human beings, they discover that their parents really think they are stupid. The tutors at the door on Saturday mornings signal that their parents’ lack of confidence in them.

Think about how hard those parents in the scandal worked to hide their cheating schemes from their kids. The kids want to get to college on their own steam. Or not. One of the kids said on her YouTube channel (eyeroll) that she didn’t even want to go to college, but her folks insisted on it.

But it screws up a kid’s mind to tell them that they’re smart and then signal in a hundred different ways, that they really aren’t smart.

And it leads to stress. Oh, the whispered stories that I hear about high school girls who cut themselves and the mental breakdowns at college. Shame on all of us for doing this to young people.

More soon…