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Education K-12 and status anxiety

There have been many calls over the years for an education “reboot,” but two early-June articles this year in prominent East Coast national newspapers (one Canadian, the other American) illustrate how difficult any kind of reboot will be. It’s sort of like trying to stop genital mutilation (ok, I can just feel the firestorm exploding over my head, but…): as long as the mothers and grandmothers are in cahoots with this crap, good luck trying to stop it.

Exhibit A, from June 2: Want your kid in prep school? Students reveal how to score a coveted spot (from Canada’s Toronto-based Globe & Mail). Read this and wilt (or throw up). The parents – all of them – are driving this pony show:

In an era of intense competition for private school admission, many parents have already done their homework and know the merits of various schools. What they’re really looking for is the inside scoop on how to ace the SSAT and win a coveted spot. Enter the admissions prodigies.

“In general, parents are very anxious about the SSAT. They want to know any behind-the-scenes information,” says Agatha Stawicki, the publisher of an annual guide to Canadian private schools called Our Kids Go To School and a sister site,

Today, Adam [Lam] delivers. In both one-on-one chats and in a short speech to the crowd, he says that before the SSAT, he’d never taken a three-hour test. He did 11 practice tests, revisiting his mistakes and learning the material. After making the first cut-off, he signed up for a second round of tutoring to ace further tests and interviews, saying he wanted to be “battle-ready.”

(This business about taking the standardized tests reminds me, by the way, of an excellent Quora topic, Is Amy Chua right when she explains “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” in an op/ed in the Wall Street Journal? Just go and read the top-rated Jan.8 2011 answer by anonymous, which includes a fascinating update on how Chua is marketing her book in China – where it’s branded as an “American” success strategy… The killer in this comment is, of course, the description of the sister’s suicide: Asian children, especially girls, have a very high suicide rate, sadly. One wonders why – or does one?)

Re. the child mentioned in the Globe and Mail article, above: he may be “battle-ready,” but the question is, what exactly is this battle?

Well, perhaps it’s just a question of beating out the other guy to make it into the Ivy Leagues?

And then what?

I have a total of six nephews and nieces (three each, actually) whose fathers are Japanese: oldest sister with one son and two daughters; sixth oldest with son and two daughers. All of us (in our family, that is) used to marvel, laugh, and – being relatively uneducated ourselves – slightly bow to the drill-and-kill method that intermittently ruled the lives of those children, particularly my oldest sister’s kids. Piano lessons? Check. Violin lessons? Check. Math tutors? Check. Homework tutors? Check. Ensuring they got into the “right” preschool so they could get into the “right” grammar school? Check. From the right grammar school to the right middle and high school? Check. To the right university (that is, #-1 rated University of Tokyo for the most Japanese of the two Japanese boys)? Check. It is a truly ridiculous system. Several of them escaped, as children, to the US (or, if periodically returned to Japan by their father’s work schedule, to international schools), several didn’t and made the whole K-12 journey in that lockstep method.

This educating-the-children business became a little less abstract when I had children of my own, and – living in Greater Boston – I could begin to see “Japan” writ large in their lives. I actually knew people whose friends registered with the “right” preschool when they found themselves pregnant, so that their little offspring could “get in.” From there, it was clearly imperative that the child would have to get into the right grammar school, from whence s/he would enter the right middle and high school. The goal? Getting into one of the Ivy Leagues or into one of New England’s well-known small, but elite and terribly expensive, colleges like Bowdoin or Colby.

It was the parents, their fears, and the culture they endorsed that drove the system.

Exhibit B, from June 7: Push for A’s at Private Schools Is Keeping Costly Tutors Busy (from The New York Times), which describes the doings of a private-school tutor, Siddarth Iyer, and sheds light on the revolting world of East Coast private schools:

“He’s been prepping my son all week,” said the mother of one [student], a senior at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, speaking on the condition that she not be named because Riverdale discourages both tutoring and talking to reporters.

“Prepping” — in this case for an oral exam in Riverdale’s notorious Integrated Liberal Studies, an interdisciplinary class laden with primary sources instead of standard textbooks — did not start the week before the exams, the mother pointed out. She said she had paid Mr. Iyer’s company $750 to $1,500 each week this school year for 100-minute sessions on Liberal Studies, a total of about $35,000 — just shy of Riverdale’s $38,800 tuition.

Last year, she said, her tutoring bills hit six figures, including year-round SAT preparation from Advantage Testing at $425 per 50 minutes; Spanish and math help from current and former private school teachers at $150 an hour; and sessions with Mr. Iyer for Riverdale’s equally notorious interdisciplinary course Constructing America, at $375 per 50 minutes.

I know these parents will never stoop to reading John Taylor Gatto and just pull their kids out of this nonsense (we did, although – WARNING – it’s not a simple panacea). But you have to wonder how tightly wound this spring is going to get, at a social and at an individual level.

…Of course we’ve already bred plenty of psychopaths to head up banking and investment firms, so maybe the whole private school and SAT/ test-prep racket is just another way of ensuring that there continues to be a steady supply of more. Because, if you don’t end up suiciding yourself and you instead play the game, where are you on this game board, anyway?

If ever there was a status quo worth smashing, …well, standardized tests and their ability to cement a rotten system seem a worthy target.



  1. Here, here!!!

    Comment by Betsy — June 14, 2011 #

  2. Hear, hear, I should say. Here in Italy, it was stated that in these last few decades, the behind-the-scenes skilled craftspeople and professionals were sorely lacking. In fashion, seamstresses, in show-biz, camera-people and everything down the line, because well… everybody wants to be a star. Potentially good jobs that nobody wants anymore.

    Comment by Betsy — June 14, 2011 #

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