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Suing Preschool and Getting into Harvard -- Not

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Every now and then along comes a story that's just too good to be true. And such a story appeared in last week's New York Times. Manhattan mom Nicole Imprescia is suing York Avenue preschool for failing to properly prepare her 4-year-old daughter Lucia for the Ivy Leagues.

Well, it's not quite that direct. Her suit claims that York promised to prepare her dc for the ERBs. ("Dc" is code for darling child, used by pretentious Manhattan parents to identify themselves as among the elite.) ERB's are the early childhood version of SATs. A high score is currency for admission into the more selective kindergartens in the city. Imprescia evidently believes that York's failure is the equivalent of smacking her daughter at the knees with a 2x4, forever handicapping her in the quest for Ivy League glory.

Speaking of taking out her daughter at the knees with a 2x4, Imprescia might want to consider that a permanent record of the family suing their school is not the most endearing credential for a child to lug into the college application process. But I digress.

This is just one more example, albeit an entertaining one, of an educational world gone mad. And, I'm afraid to say, members of the Ivy League and other highly selective schools are very much to blame.

The College Board, founded in 1900 and intended to be a great equalizer in educational access, has become part of a dreadful process that has an increasingly toxic impact on children and learning. As SAT scores became an ever more crucial component in college admissions, the great equalizer was transformed into just another form of discrimination. Many claim the test is culturally biased. Few can deny that the test-prep industry has tilted the playing field dramatically in favor of those who can afford to spend thousands of dollars for hundreds of points. No one can deny that the College Board is deeply complicit in creating a process of selection that leads students and families to "game the system."

Things like U.S. News and World Report rankings have added to the problem. Americans seem determined to rank everything and these college rankings are essentially meaningless. "Good schools" are the ones who reject as many kids as possible. "Good schools" have entering freshman classes with the highest SAT scores and grade point averages. Virtually nothing in the ranking and reputation scheme has anything to do with teaching and learning. It's all image, pretense and competition.

The trickle down effect of all this nonsense is what creates people like Nicole Imprescia. Ivy League schools strongly prefer students with high scores and perfect grades, partially because they may be bright and hardworking, but also to enhance their institutional rank and prestige. Secondary schools, particularly private schools in Manhattan, try to attract families by proving that they are good at getting students into schools like the Ivy schools. Primary schools try to attract families by proving that they are good at getting students into the secondary schools that get the students into Ivy schools. Preschools try to attract families by proving that they are good at getting kids into the primary schools that get kids into the secondary schools that get kids into the Ivy schools.

While the whole system stinks, it would not stink quite as much if it were evidence of a true meritocracy at work. It's not. But even worse is that the competitive process is driving bad educational policy and practice down through the entire system. Worthless and oppressive amounts of homework are leaching the "child" out of childhood. Curricula are skewed toward preparation for AP exams and other assessments that privilege short-term mastery of content over deep understanding and critical thinking. Early childhood education, which experts nearly universally believe should be play-based, joyful and interactive, is becoming more and more pre-academic. All of it starts with colleges and universities establishing admission criteria that enable, if not require, "gaming the system."

Throughout the system there are a few places saying, "enough". Some, not many, colleges are now SAT optional. Calhoun, where I serve as head, does not require admissions tests. Going against the grain has its risks. In the trickle down game described above, this leads some folks to think Calhoun is not the "safest" choice if you're looking for an Ivy League guarantee. If Ivy League schools adopted an SAT optional policy, they would doubtless get fewer applications from students who played the game well and wear their SAT scores and GPAs like a badge of honor. It's a small price to pay, because I'm increasingly convinced that those who most intensely care about these things are among the least interesting students.

Nicole Imprescia's dc probably won't apply to Calhoun for kindergarten, but we wouldn't take her anyway. It's not because of the lawsuit. We're just not interested in families who think prepping for standardized tests is a good way to raise a child.