Cookie Cutter Kids: “Send us your winners…”

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…and we’ll make winners out of them”

There’s a good article in the latest edition of Independent School magazine that challenges some cherished notions of excellence and the hypocrisy of so many claims about diversity, equity and justice.

It is starts with a question and a well-aimed slice at the euphemisms of so many school mission statements.

What does it mean when a school, having rejected a child who applied for admission, explains that he or she just “isn’t a good fit” (or “match”) with the school? In some cases, sure, the phrase would seem appropriate — for example, if there’s a marked discrepancy between the school’s and the family’s religious orientations, or if the school is committed to progressive education while the parents demand grades, quizzes, worksheets, and traditional discipline.

More commonly, though, it’s not clear at all how the decision to prevent a child from enrolling is best described as a lack of fit, particularly if the school’s goals and priorities (a) correspond to what most parents (including these) are looking for, and (b) can’t easily be distinguished from those of other schools. Try to imagine an admission director saying something like this to an applicant:

Well, you know, here at Tweedle-Dee School, we believe in “guiding our students to reach their optimum potential intellectually, physically, and socially” — so I’m afraid this really isn’t the right place for you. Perhaps you’d be happier at Tweedle-Dum Academy across town, which, in contrast to us, offers a “rigorous college-preparatory education in a caring and attentive school community.”1

Kohn follows this up with  the school admissions testing practices and an irrefutable truth about standardized tests:

It’s particularly painful when schools that think of themselves as progressive, child-centered, alternative, or otherwise enlightened continue to require prospective students to take one of these tests when they apply. Their rhetoric says, “We look at children as individuals and are committed to 21st-century education.” Their use of these tests says, “We still haven’t let go of standardized assessment that represents a throwback to early 20th-century beliefs about intelligence and sorting.”

Here’s what we know about standardized tests in general:1

• Their results are highly correlated with socioeconomic status, to the point that they tell us less about the potential of the child than they do about the size of the house in which that child lives.

Selective school admissions means that schools end up with the children who need them the least and often with a very narrow band of intellectual abilities. So much for mission statements about equity and justice and diversity.

Consider a conversation that the education theorist Martin Haberman reported having with his grandson’s kindergarten teacher at a selective school. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to admit the children who don’t know their shapes and colors, and teach them these things?” he asked. The teacher looked at him as if he were “leftover mashed potatoes,” but he persisted:

Next year, my grandson, who is already testing in your top half, will have had the added benefit of being in your class for a whole year. Won’t he learn a lot more and be even further ahead of the four-year-olds who failed your admission exam and who have to spend this year at home, or in day care, without the benefit of your kindergarten? Will the four-year-old rejects ever catch up?

This question did even less to endear him to the teacher, but Haberman by now had realized what was going on more generally, and he summarized his epiphany as follows: “The children we teach best are those who need us least.”4

Kohn concludes with this challenge to schools and educators and their faux claims to be schools of excellence:

Take a look at your school’s admissions practices. Then look at your school’s core values and the reason you personally became an educator. How’s the fit?

And if you think this is over the top then read:

Getting into the “right fit” private school Experts explain how to navigate admissions process for area’s most elite schools.

It’s a news story that makes Kohn’s case.

This is the educational consultant:

“Schools are looking for consistency in grades, attitude, testing and recommendations,”

And the test-prep tutor on the topic:

“Just like you preheat your oven, you’ve got to get your child ready for the test. Just knowing the format of the test can really help,” said Anderson.

So you can get out the cookie cutter and shape your child into the prescribed and acceptable shape to be well-baked in the oven or you can come to Poughkeepsie Day School where we actually respect cognitive diversity and seek to add value to all children on their individual journeys.

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