Caitlin Flanagan, who writes about various aspects of education and culture for The Atlantic (check out her article “Meghan Markle Didn’t Do the Work“), used to teach at a ritzy private school in L.A.: the Harvard-Westlake School. (Have a look at their “notable alumni“!) She draws on her experiences there for her latest article, whose title doesn’t pull any punches. Click on the screenshot to read.
The private schools she’s writing about are “college prep” schools, and not just any college prep school, but those who try to provide students with a moving walkway to elite colleges like Harvard and Princeton—and beyond. Her point is that these schools are obscene in just about every way: in their bloated tuition, in their incessant demands for money beyond tuition, in the cowering of the administration to rich parents and donors, to the arrogance and racism of their students, and to the obsessive concentration on getting into the right school and getting the right grades to do that. (An A-minus on an assignment is apparently enough to bring angry parents bulling their way into the teacher’s office.) And talk about privilege! Attending one of these places (tuition runs abut $50,000 per year, the same as an Ivy League college), puts you on the fast track:
These schools surround kids who have every possible advantage with a literal embarrassment of riches—and then their graduates hoover up spots in the best colleges. Less than 2 percent of the nation’s students attend so-called independent schools. But 24 percent of Yale’s class of 2024 attended an independent school. At Princeton, that figure is 25 percent. At Brown and Dartmouth, it is higher still: 29 percent.
The numbers are even more astonishing when you consider that they’re not distributed evenly across the country’s more than 1,600 independent schools but are concentrated in the most exclusive ones—and these are our focus here. In the past five years, Dalton has sent about a third of its graduates to the Ivy League. Ditto the Spence School. Harvard-Westlake, in Los Angeles, sent 45 kids to Harvard alone. Noble and Greenough School, in Massachusetts, did even better: 50 kids went on to Harvard.
. . . By the time their kids get to the upper grades, parents want teachers, coaches, and counselors entirely focused on helping them create a transcript that Harvard can’t resist. “This kind of parent has an idea of the outcome they want; in their work life they can get it,” Evans told me. “They’re surrounded by employees; they can delegate things to their staff.” In their eyes, teachers are staff. But the teachers don’t work for them.
And if you go to these places, you have an advantage that persists will beyond college admission:
All of this preparation doesn’t just help private-school kids get into elite colleges; it allows them to dominate once they get there. Over the past decade, O’Connor reported, two-thirds of Princeton’s Rhodes Scholars (excluding international students) came from private schools. So did two-thirds of the winners of the prestigious Sachs Scholarship, which provides two graduating students the opportunity to work, study, or travel abroad. Forty-seven percent of the winners of “class legacy prizes”—academic awards given to students in each class—attended private schools. This is why wealthy parents think it’s life-and-death to get their kids into the right prep school—because they know that the winners keep winning.
Flanagan recounts some horrific stories of parents badgering teachers, lying in wait for them outside their offices, calling them on the phone repeatedly, and so on. I suppose they see the massive tuition as an entitlement to ensure that their kids get into the right schools. And if you donate money to the schools (“campaigns” for more bucks are incessant), you get better treatment as a parent, and—the worst part—your kid gets treated better as well. As Flanagan says, “Its not unreasonable for a big donor to expect preferential treatment for his or her child. And it’s not unusual for him to get it.”
Flanagan reviews the situation at a few other elite schools, like the toxic meltdown at The Dalton School in New York City that I’ve described before. She also describes convincing evidence of racism directed at the few black students, examples that make these schools even more obscene.
What’s the cure? Well, you could say “get rid of these schools”, but that would mean getting rid of private schools in general. While that’s an ideal, it’s not gonna fly—not so long as parents have money, local schools are crummy, and parents want their children educated in a religious school. But drastic improvements in public schools would help, for many parents send their kids to these schools because public-school education is not a viable alternative:
We have become a country with vanishingly few paths out of poverty, or even out of the working class. We’ve allowed the majority of our public schools to founder, while expensive private schools play an outsize role in determining who gets to claim a coveted spot in the winners’ circle. Many schools for the richest American kids have gates and security guards; the message is you are precious to us. Many schools for the poorest kids have metal detectors and police officers; the message is you are a threat to us.
Public-school education—the specific force that has helped generations of Americans transcend the circumstances of their birth—is profoundly, perhaps irreparably, broken. In my own state of California, only half of public-school students are at grade level in reading, and even fewer are in math. When a crisis goes on long enough, it no longer seems like a crisis. It is merely a fact.
Shouldn’t the schools that serve poor children be the very best schools we have?
Although a reader extolled the article as being very well written, I found it so-so. It’s a bit discursive, leaping from topic to topic, and there some attempts to inject flippancy or breeziness into the text that don’t work. Still, if you want an idea how elite (i.e., rich) Americans are educated, this is a good place to start.