OPINION: Out of necessity, I taught my son to choose a college for its value, not its prestige or vibe — My latest in The Hechinger Report

Without photoshopping his face onto the body of a water polo athlete, like some of the parents caught up in the recent U.S. college cheating scandal, I could have prepped my older son, Jonah, for college like a prize pumpkin at the county fair.

Starting when he was in middle school, I could have taken a stronger role in overseeing his schoolwork by editing his papers, re-teaching certain subjects and hiring tutors in others. I could have checked his online gradebooks daily. I could have supervised homework and nudged him to schmooze with teachers. In high school, we could have hired one-on-one tutors to prepare him for standardized tests. I could have pushed him to take on leadership positions in clubs he didn’t care about. I could have written his essay and filled out the Common Application for him.

Lots of parents do these tasks; most aren’t even considered cheating. It’s just how things are done these days among many upper- and middle-class families.

With our backgrounds in higher education, my husband and I have more relevant skills than many other families in our community. We likely could have micromanaged our kid into Harvard. But we didn’t. Between our son’s stubborn resistance to our help, and our own ethics and laziness, we did very little to turn our kid into a tidy package for colleges. Instead, I taught my son how to be a good education consumer.

More here.

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Prepping The College Kid For College (and Life)

The kids are on the way out. Jonah goes back to college on Saturday. Ian is lingering until next Thursday. Sigh.

Getting boys ready for school isn’t very tough. My kids got new sneakers, a new backpack, new binders, and, boom, we’re done. They honestly don’t give a crap about how old their t-shirts are. I think Jonah knows that his charm is in eyes, not his clothes, so he’s cool with Old Navy’s best.

But there’s more to preparing a kid for college, than just handing over the credit card for textbooks and the dining hall pass. There’s also preparing them to be good students.

As a dual-PhD family, we assumed that Jonah would know what he was doing once he got to campus. I guess we thought the knowledge about college would pass to him by osmosis or something. Sadly, that didn’t happen, and his first semester included some painful learning bumps.

But college is nothing like high school. There are strange offices — what’s a bursor’s office? — and jargon. There are dozens of majors with confusing names. In some schools, like Jonah’s, it’s possible to major in public policy in three different departments. There’s more reading than lectures and few deadlines. Tracking down elusive professors to ask questions takes patience and cunning.

After we figured out that Jonah needed direction, Steve and I swooped in to help. (Yes, my kid is ridiculously privileged.) We created a lecture about how to be a successful college student and still repeat our key points from time to time.

One lesson was about the importance of talking with your professor. Showing up at office hours and having the professor get to know the student is worth half a grade.

Tom Ferriss, in one of his self-help books, said that he would show up to every office hour in college and fight over every point on his exam, so that the professor would avoid pain the next time and give him a better grade. I don’t want Jonah to do that, but establishing a relationship with a professor does make it harder for them to give you a bad grade.

We’ve also been talking lately about the benefits of clubs. See, Jonah thought that students belonged to clubs to pursue hobbies and interests that they found genuinely fun and recreational. He thought a good club should be something like a frat, that would boost one’s popularity. Well, maybe, but mostly the purpose of a club is to put another line on your resume that signals to future employers that you’re a serious person. He had no clue. So, he’s signing up for clubs this semester.

In this week before school starts, I’ve been sending him to various workplaces of friends and relatives to sample work environments. Yesterday, he was at an engineering firm and an architecture firm. Today, he’s on Wall Street with Steve.

We made his first resume. I made his summer busboy jobs look like a NASA engineer. It was fun. Then we sent to him to these jobs in chinos and a button down Oxford shirt. We talked about how every company has a wide range of jobs. You don’t need to be an architect to work at an architecture company. So, he should shop around for the type of environment that he liked working in and for a company that revolves around a passion of his.

Last month, I met a woman who crunched numbers for the Bronx Botanical Garden. She wasn’t in love with the spreadsheets, but she loved working in such a beautiful place, so she was a happy person. I told Jonah her story and few others.

Jonah’s leaving us on Saturday about ten pounds heavily than he was back in May, when he staggered home after finals pale and skinny. He’s a lot smarter about many things. I’m sure he’s ready to have a couple of days to hang out with his friends before school starts on Tuesday. I’m putting off the sadness of losing him again with mini life-lessons. I think that’s what I do.

When Suburbanites Start Questioning College

I live in one of those high-achieving school districts that is well known to every selective-college admissions director in the country. With average SAT scores above 1250, a 98 percent graduation rate and 95 percent of graduates attending four-year colleges, my northern New Jersey district boasts excellence.

Parents boast, too. College stickers on the back windshields of BMWs are brag sheets for winning families. Everybody seems to have a kid on the fast track to success, with internships, semesters abroad and academic honors. My husband likes to say that we live in “Magic Town,” because every kid seems perfect.

But on a recent evening in the aging administrative building, the guidance counselors and administrators leading a presentation on “Alternatives to College” took one look at the parents packing the room and ran out to make extra copies of their handouts.

More here.

Disruptive Technology: Can the computer and tech crowd disrupt higher education?

ABCs in ordinary objects in a school

Last summer, I got a desperate email from the guidance counselor at Ian’s high school. The elective that he signed up for was cancelled, so she needed to find another elective for him pronto. The only opening was an Advanced Photography class.

I wasn’t totally pleased. He had never shown an interest in photography and hadn’t taken the Beginning Photography class. But I wanted to be a good sport, so I said okay.

And then I totally forgot about that class. I would ask him about it from time to time and he would say great, but I didn’t hear anything more, and I didn’t ask anymore questions.

Then a couple of weeks ago, we visited the school to see his percussion ensemble and was surprised to see his artwork pasted up on the hallway to the band room. There was one project where he combined three faces into one composite fictional face. And another one where he made a mock-up of a magazine cover. It looked fabulous.

And then on Wednesday, his photography teacher sent us an email saying that Ian was spectacular at Photoshop, the best in the class. He suggested that he take a video effects class next where he would learn to do Game of Thrones types of special effects. Burning castles in the background and dragons in the sky. He wants to write Ian’s college recommendation. Nice, right?

Ian can spend 18 hours a day working on his projects at home. And has endless patience for manipulating pixels and music notes. Some of his electronic songs on YouTube have gotten tens of thousands of hits, but he hasn’t posted anything online in years, because of weirdos on the Internet.

I know nothing about special effects and art technology, so I spent hours googling information over the past few days. What local colleges offer degrees in that program? What skills do employers look for? Are there jobs on the East Coast? Are there places that employ people with poor social skills? (Yes.)

The gossip on places like Reddit is that these skills are so new that colleges haven’t really set up degree programs yet. And the geeks that run these companies don’t trust college classes anyway. They said that portfolios that come from college programs are often group projects, so it’s unclear which students really completed the work. They prefer self-taught workers who have a solid portfolio of projects that they create themselves. They will even hire people who have taught themselves these skills through YouTube videos.

We were talking about alternatives to college a few days ago in the comment section. Has credentialism gone too far? Do people have to get degrees in fields that are totally unnecessary, which end up filtering out people with irrelevant learning disabilities or financial difficulties? Well, it seems that at least in computer/tech fields, at this moment in time, a college degree is unnecessary.

I wonder if that ethos will carry over into other fields. Do accountants really need a full liberal arts education with Introduction to Sociology and Philosophy 101? Don’t they really just need to add up columns of numbers and manipulate formulas on Excel? Does a stock broker need those classes? I mean it’s probably a good thing for all people to take those classes and broaden their horizons, but should it be mandatory?

The computer and tech crowd has tried to disrupt higher education before (hello MOOCs!) and hasn’t gotten anywhere, so some doubt is warranted. But, still, it’s interesting.

School-Whipped

Schools dominate my life.

It’s been decades since I’ve been in a classroom as a student and many years since I’ve been in the classroom as a teacher. But I have never been able to detach from education institutions, because of my kids. Classrooms, homework, grades, the school calendar command my time and brain space. Writing about schools is an effortless task, because they are on my mind all day long.

Ian’s school turned Memorial Day into a five day holiday. Which is fine. But it meant that I couldn’t quite get into the writing zone and get my crap done. I got some minor e-mail tasks done yesterday, but after three hours of him playing Plants v. Zombies, I felt guilty and took him to the mall. My work day was finished. On Monday, he had to be at the school at 8:00am to perform with the school marching band in the town parade.

Other chores for Ian today include a phone call to his case manager to discuss how we would go about bumping him a year ahead for math. I have to figure out what I’m going to do with him for a two week gap between camps in August. Is there enough money in the Ian slush fund for extra tutoring in the summer?

Even though Jonah is a college kid, he’s not quite baked. His sloppy work habits and poor “soft skills” came back to bite him in the ass last semester. Distracted by the demands of pledging for a frat, he did stupid things like not making sure that his assignments in an online class were properly submitted and was generally disorganized. So, I’m making him take classes on organization at his college over the summer. We’re talking through various lifestyle changes and basically scaring the shit out of him.

I don’t think there’s another government institution that has a bigger impact on me on a daily basis. There’s definitely more brain space in my personal life for non-school stuff that there used to be. I joined a running group this spring and ran a 5K on Monday. I have a couple of harmless hobbies. I read a lot and see friends on the weekends. But school issues, which are so integral to my kids’ lives, still dominate.

Other parents are even more driven by schools. Ian doesn’t spend over twenty hours per week doing a varsity sport, like Jonah did. He’s not in honors classes, so he comes home with no homework. And Jonah’s missteps only become known when the semester ends, so we can spend months in la-la land thinking that he’s taking care of his shit.

Last week, a neighbor told me about her weekend schedule driving her two young boys around the state for various sporting activities. One kid had to be an hour away for a full day Lacrosse tournament. The next day, the other kid had a full day of swim meets. Between reading tutors and school dances, her schedule was packed. She couldn’t grasp what we did with our lives without a kid in sports. Because I couldn’t gossip with her about teachers for next year or the school play, we quickly ran out of conversation topics.

Walking through Storm King with the family

Ian’s life is a lot more simple, so we drag him around to do our various interests, rather than living our lives on the soccer sidelines. We took the boys to an art park over the weekend. It feels somewhat rebellious to craft our own schedule, rather than have one dominated by sporting activities and schools. We could be even more whipped by schools than we are.

Being whipped by schools is both a privilege and a burden. Parents in towns like ours demand these services and are able to pay for it with high taxes. Three quarters of our local property taxes go to schools. The superintendent is more powerful than the mayor.

But it also means that schools oversee our lives. They control our children’s destiny. They structure our social lives. The school panopticon’s oversight is totalitarian in communities like ours. While schools are broken elsewhere, the system is still rigid in its own ways making it difficult for individuals to take alternative paths.

I think when my kids move onto the work-world and schools are a thing of the past, I’m going to stop writing about education. I fantasize about reinventing myself as a travel writer. Maybe I might write about my weird hobby of selling used books. Who knows? But I would love to break the school chains someday.

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…

Who Should Pay for College?

photo_51975_wide_largeIn the Chronicle, William Deresiewicz reviews a documentary about higher education. After several bad paragraphs about student loan debt, he makes interesting points about the higher education crisis. Even if he doesn’t think that student loans are a crisis, he does think that the entire system of higher education is in hot water. He demands more public financing of higher education funded by a tax hike on the wealthy and upper middle class, changes in the administration of colleges, greater activitism by faculty and college students, and a serious examination of expenditures by administrators.

There was a manifesto-like feel to the end of the essay.

The truth is, there are powerful forces at work in our society that are actively hostile to the college ideal. That distrust critical thinking and deny the proposition that democracy necessitates an educated citizenry. That have no use for larger social purposes. That decline to recognize the worth of that which can’t be bought or sold. Above all, that reject the view that higher education is a basic human right…

The problem of costs, to be sure, is not a one-way street. Higher education must indeed increase efficiency, but how? Institutions have been willing to spend on everything in recent years except the thing that matters most: instruction. Dorms, deans, sports, but not professors. Piglike presidential salaries, paid for by hiring adjuncts. Now, with MOOCs and other forms of online instruction, the talk is more of the same. My friends, they are coming for you. The professoriate no longer has the luxury of thinking that all this is someone else’s problem. If you want to save your skins, let alone ensure the future of the enterprise, you need to wake up and organize against the people who are organizing against you. The fact is that by focusing exclusively on monetary issues, the current conversation prevents us not only from remembering the higher objectives of an undergraduate education, but also from recognizing just how bad a job our institutions have been doing at fulfilling them. Colleges and universities have a lot to answer for; if they want to regain the support of the larger society, they need to prove that they are worthy of it.

…If service workers can demand a $15 minimum wage, more than double the federal level, then those who care about higher education can insist on the elimination of tuition and fees at state institutions and their replacement by public funding furnished by taxes on the upper 10 percent. As with the minimum wage, the campaign can be conducted state by state, and it can and should involve a large coalition of interested groups: students, parents, and instructors, to start with. Total enrollment at American colleges and universities now stands at 20 million, on top of another million-plus on the faculty. That’s a formidable voting bloc, should it learn to exercise its power. Since the Occupy movement in 2011, it’s clear that the fight to reverse the tide of growing inequality has been joined. It’s time we joined it.