NYC's high school wars: Helicopter parenting hits a new peak

"School choice" in New York has birthed a bizarre system that rewards parental madness and reinforces inequality

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 9, 2017 12:00PM (EST)


I can tell you any number of amusing or alarming anecdotes about the arduous process of applying to high school in New York City, in what feels like a high-tide year of parental anxiety and over-involvement. There is nothing like it anywhere else, yet it is also a distillation of trends in parenting and politics and social life that permeate our entire society.

But hardly anything is worse than hearing stories about someone else's kids, and these would mostly be of interest in the sleep-deprived universe of parents and teens currently going through that process, where apocryphal fables and fragments of arcane lore are traded back and forth like fireside ghost stories. I have heard the muttering about the highly regarded school that supposedly has a big heroin problem, and about the rape accusations at another school that have sparked all-out warfare between parents and the administration. Fake news, or evidence of a Deep Schools cover-up? It’s so hard to say!

I spent eight hours trapped with hundreds of other parents in the prison-like cafeteria at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School — that’s the performing arts school from “Fame” — while my daughter auditioned for a spot in their drama program. (Hey, she got a call-back.) We waited in a four-block-long line for 90 minutes to get into a brief presentation at a former groovy-lefty alternative school that is now — this is not so much ironic as inevitable — intensely competitive and desirable. My son and I tried to visit a tiny math-and-science target school in Harlem (which features, I kid you not, mandatory German) and found ourselves in a mob scene perhaps five times the size of the school’s entire student population. But there was one small moment, in itself neither controversial nor alarming, that summed up this whole strange experience.

A few weeks back, we went to an open house at Stuyvesant High School, the most famously demanding of New York’s public schools, which is widely perceived as a funnel into the Ivy League and the upper echelons of the professional, financial and academic elite. Let me back up and make this clear: Yeah, all this is about public school. By contrast, private school applications are a model of comfort and transparency, until it comes time to write the check.

I was accompanied to Stuyvesant by two eighth-graders closely related to me, along with a significant proportion of all the other 13-year-olds in the city. They filled the school auditorium — which seats more than 1,000 people — for a vainglorious lecture from the principal, who congratulated us for our good judgment and good taste in showing up to listen to him talk, and then filled it again three more times before the evening was over.

This exhausting, overcrowded event was constructed less to convey information than to batter visitors into submission: If my child is admitted, “Hunger Games”-style, to this temple of ruthless competition and unparalleled academic rigor, it will indeed be the finest accomplishment of my life. The three of us were done after 45 minutes, pretty much, but stuck it out a bit longer to see what would happen. We ended up beached in the school library, where multiple tour groups collided with each other in unpredictable wave patterns and our infinitesimal 17-year-old guide ran out of things to read aloud from the printed sheet in her hand. One parent in our group looked at another and shook her head in an expression of rapturous wonder. “What an amazing school,” she said. “I wish I were going here!”

I do not wish I were going there; given a choice by the Almighty between attending Stuyvesant and life in a village in rural Afghanistan, I might need to research the latter option more thoroughly. But a light bulb went off, sort of: I do understand the sentiment, and must plead guilty to sharing it in a more general way. This ludicrous, byzantine and maddeningly opaque process — the hard work of many intelligent and well-meaning people, resulting of course in a nearly catastrophic outcome — is almost entirely about the parents. The actual kids who will end up attending these schools are kind of an afterthought. It might well be the apex moment of helicopter parenting in America.

Virtually all of the 13-year-olds at Stuyvesant that night, I would propose, would rather have been doing something else. Quite likely anything else. For their parents, however, it was a critical test of patience, savvy, endurance, critical thinking and navigational skill. The principal’s words of praise were directed entirely at his adult listeners: If our children were prepared for Stuyvesant, he told us, it was because we had been “preparing them for academic excellence since they were in utero.” I wanted to get up and leave then and there. But who can admit defeat in front of that many other parents?

I sat with a group of parents who did not flinch while a biology teacher told us that 80 percent of incoming freshmen seek after-school tutoring because the homework load is so arduous. While conversing with an English teacher, I was interrupted by a mom who demanded to know whether her daughter could take all seven of the school’s A.P. English classes, thereby piling up college credits in advance. (She was displeased to learn that the answer was no.) I don’t recall hearing any actual kids ask any questions at all. It felt like a competitive reality show driven by intense skepticism and social-dominance behavior, qualities the American economy rewards in general, and that are honed to an exquisite sharpness by social and professional life in New York.

Everyone involved with the high school application process (like everyone involved with American public education at any level) insists, of course, that the education and welfare of the students is the most important thing, perhaps the only important thing. Based on the evidence, that’s a dubious proposition. Whether we’re talking about liberal parents from brownstone Brooklyn wading into battle on behalf of their special snowflake or about the incomprehensible fact that President Donald Trump has appointed an avowed enemy of public schools as his Secretary of Education, America’s immensely dysfunctional and unequal educational system is a zone of political and cultural warfare between adults.

If New York is in many ways an exaggerated, extreme version of America, the version of hypercompetitive, upper-middle-class parenting found here offers a distorted reflection of trends found almost everywhere. What used to be a bureaucratic or logistical problem in the nation’s largest school district — sorting roughly 80,000 eighth-graders into hundreds of high schools, year after year — has been remade into an opportunity for adults to display the superiority of their parenting ideology and score symbolic victories over the educational establishment, conventional wisdom, the hegemony of standardized testing, the intransigence of their own offspring and, of course, each other.

As I suggested earlier, the New York high school process would strike parents in most other places as grotesque and unbelievable; it has something of the character of a lab experiment gone awry, or an illustration of the law of unintended consequences on a grand scale. Essentially, it’s “school choice” on steroids, a legacy of the 12-year reign of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a neoliberal centrist who believed passionately in public education, but also believed it should be driven by market forces and a consumer-based business model.

No eighth-grade student, rich or poor, in any neighborhood of New York is automatically promoted to a nearby high school. In some cases, such a "zoned school" may be available, but it's never mandatory. All eighth-graders in the city must apply in the fall, via a bewildering panoply of methods, to anywhere from one to 12 different high schools, selected from a daunting directory of 400-odd options that’s roughly the size and weight of a 1980s big-city phone book. Each student will then receive one (and only one) “match” spit out by the Department of Education’s computer the following spring. An algorithm is said to be involved.

As the New Yorkers reading this are already aware, even that summary is a gross oversimplification. I haven’t mentioned the three-hour standardized test that is the only criterion for admission to Stuyvesant and a half-dozen other “specialized” (i.e., elite) schools. That’s right! Those schools neither know nor care about a kid’s grades or her proficiency on the trombone or her limitless appetite for community service or her fascinating life story; if she aces the test, she’s in. I haven’t mentioned the dozen or so performing arts or visual arts schools that admit largely (though not entirely) through auditions and portfolios. I won’t try to elucidate the differences between “screened” schools (which overtly compete for the best and the brightest), “unscreened” schools (which will take their chances) and “educational option” schools that use a Bell curve-style formula to achieve a mix.

This convoluted mishmash reflects a series of overlapping attempts to achieve laudable goals, not to mention the shifting political tides of the last 20 years or so. One goal was to break up the gigantic neighborhood high schools, which were widely perceived as failures, and create more different kinds of schools for different kinds of kids. A second goal was to make the system more equitable and more transparent, and to lessen the de facto segregation that affects American education as a whole: Schools in richer, whiter neighborhoods are cleaner, nicer and “better” than schools in poor black and brown neighborhoods.

Clearly that first goal, of dismantling the old neighborhood-based system, has been achieved to some degree, although whether it was worth doing, whether it was done in the right way and whom it benefited most are all subjects of intense debate. I don’t think anyone would argue that the second goal, the one about equity and transparency, has been accomplished at all. You will notice that I hadn’t mentioned race until the previous paragraph, and only brushed past the issue of class. But there’s no way to talk about public education in New York, or America, without talking about those things.

It wouldn’t quite be fair to say that the current, confusing, multi-tiered high school system in New York privileges white people in particular, or rich people. The parents I’ve encountered at school tours and auditions over the past three months have been a highly diverse group. As for actual rich people, they mostly send their kids to Manhattan’s legendary array of exclusive private schools, where they don’t have to deal with any of this crap. But the public-school application process unquestionably rewards parents with patience, persistence, organizational skills and the indefinable but distinctive commodity known as cultural capital. There can be little doubt that those things correlate strongly with middle-class neighborhoods and professional occupations.

While there’s some evidence the Bloomberg “school choice” model has marginally improved educational outcomes for poor kids, it has also replicated the de facto racial segregation of the past, albeit in altered or disguised form. Screened schools that require good grades and high test scores skew predominantly white and Asian, in a system whose students are roughly 70 percent Latino or black. (The Beacon School, where my daughter and I stood in line for 90 minutes, is one of the few majority-white high schools in the entire city.)

As everyone knows, but no one knows quite how to talk about — still less how to address — the “specialized” high schools that rely on the standardized admissions test are overwhelmingly Asian. (This year’s freshman class at Stuyvesant is close to 80 percent Asian, with the remainder largely white.) Programs designed to prepare black and Latino kids from poor neighborhoods to pass the test have so far failed to change anything. Whatever a test like that actually measures, in other words, is not something that even a bright kid can pick up in a few months of cramming. On the other hand, the more successful audition-based arts schools are disproportionately white (and female), and have hardly any Asian students at all.

A large majority of the city’s black and Latino families, who are likely to live in working-class, immigrant-rich neighborhoods in the Bronx, south Brooklyn or central Queens, simply aren’t taking part in the same time-consuming, labor-intensive process I went through with my kids over the last three months. Their kids will apply to high school too, because everybody has to. But most of them will then get shoveled into low-performing, racially monolithic schools a world away from the helicopter-parent circus.

It wasn’t those folks, by and large, who stood in the four-block line at Beacon or struggled through the tidal aggro-scrum at Stuyvesant or spent multiple audition Saturdays in fluorescent cafeterias drinking watery coffee. There's not much mystery to that: They might not have heard about those events, or grasped their importance. They might not have been able to take so much damn time out of their lives. My colleagues at Salon were of course very accommodating about all the times I had to leave work early or start work late; it’s an invisible but powerful aspect of class privilege. I’m not sure that a nursing home aide or an office-building custodian gets the same kind of latitude.

An extensive report on the “broken promises” of the school-choice model published last June in the New York Times cited Kristen Lewis of the nonprofit social-science initiative Measure of America, who said her team’s data analysis “revealed, in essence, two separate public school systems operating in the city. There are some great options for the families best equipped to navigate the application process. But there are not enough good choices for everyone, so every year thousands of children, including some very good students, end up in mediocre high schools, or worse.”

In the top tier of that dual system we have, yes, “some great options,” along with a process that has unleashed power-parenting as a tournament sport. There’s that Stuyvesant lady with the question about the seven A.P. courses, impatient with me for blathering on about Faulkner or whatever while she has her eyes on the prize. There’s me, judging her as a philistine while silently telling myself that even if her kid graduates from MIT at 20, invents a cold-fusion reactor and brings peace to the Middle East, my kids are somehow ineffably cooler. We are of course much more alike than different.

I don’t think it’s completely off base to suggest that she and I and the rest of the helicopter-snowflake brigade are acting out a certain amount of guilt. Intolerable as we may find each other, we are navigating a game that was effectively designed for people like us. Our kids will almost certainly do fine. In the lower tier of the system — which has a much larger context than public education in New York — millions of people have been told that new opportunities are now open to them and obstacles to equality have been removed. If they or their kids fail to thrive in the meritocratic new world of the “free market,” whose fault is that? They know it’s a con; we all do. But we can’t figure out what to do about it, and it's making a bad situation worse.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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