Monday, April 02, 2007

Amazing Girls

The New York Times had a rather odd feature piece on the cover this Sunday on "Amazing Girls" and their struggles to stand out and get into top schools. Students around the country are hearing from the elite colleges this week, which is always a time when joy comes in fat envelopes and tragedy in thin. I remember the anticipation I felt about all of this exactly 10 years ago this week. I had gone to Sweet Briar, Virginia for the weekend for a conference on women in science. I came back to my dorm to find some notes indicating packages in my mailbox. A good sign. Rejection letters would have fit in the mailboxes easily. Acceptance letters had to be held for later pick-up.

For the Amazing Girls feature, Sara Rimer, a New York Times reporter who often writes about education and gender issues, followed a group of high-achieving girls at Newton North High School just outside Boston as they waited for similar letters. Newton North is one of the nation's most affluent high schools, and so the article tries to document the angst of America's upper class teenagers who have been groomed for elite colleges since birth. They are expected to take multiple AP classes, to ace their SATs, to be on student council and play varsity sports. The article describes these high-achieving girls working until 4am on physics lab reports, at the same time that the town's BoBo sensibilities (that's Bourgeois Bohemians, the title of a David Brooks book) draws yoga studios and Whole Foods stores that tell you to relax and be yourself. The girls have grown up always hearing they can do everything boys can. But now more girls than boys apply to elite colleges. That means that it's even harder for them to get in, since most elite schools strive for gender balance. So there's the pressure to do that, as well as the standard adolescent girl pressure to be attractive, thin and happy. One mother said "you just hope your child doesn't have anorexia of the soul."

Well. I am sure life is competitive for the girls of Newton North. But I can't help thinking that articles like this reinforce the idea among America's elite (the folks who read the New York Times religiously) that this is what all schooling and teen culture is like. Esther, the lead character, has a literature class in which the teacher asks what Virgil's Aeneid teaches us about destiny and individual happiness. She's read Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, and debated what it means to be condemned to freedom. As I've written on this blog before, I had to move three hours away from home to go to boarding school in order to receive an education that valued asking questions like this. At my local school -- in a middle class town featuring a major research university -- I spent weeks in an honors English class listening to my classmates read A Separate Peace out loud, paragraph by tortuous paragraph. We were tested over what happened on p. 86. Not about the themes of friendship, betrayal, etc. If any thing approaching a significant number of American high schools suffered from the angst of Newton North -- of too many people applying for elite colleges and taking AP classes that had them working until 4am -- we would be in a much better position for future competitiveness. And the vast majority of gifted kids -- girls and boys -- would be happier.

But most schools aren't like that. Given that only 25% of high school seniors can solve a simple algebra problem (as we talked about on the TIMSS thread a few weeks ago), the Newton North experience is as rare as getting a fat envelope from Princeton is. The problem for gifted education is then that America's most affluent parents do not see the problem first hand. And so these politically well-connected people become inclined to believe that gifted kids can fend for themselves, that there's too much homework as it is, that schools demand too much, that kids need more non-academic time, etc. For most gifted kids, nothing could be farther from the truth.

That's not to say that the amazing girls of Newton North aren't appealing characters. Teen angst always dredges up certain emotions, and reading about Esther's rejection from Williams, her top choice, stings a bit. But then she got into Smith, so the story ends on a happy note. I just wish articles like this came with a disclaimer noting that Barbie still way outsells Baby Einstein in this country. And that most high schools send, at most, a handful of people to colleges like Williams and Smith.


Anonymous said...

Maybe the politically well connected and affluent parents don’t support gifted education reform because they don’t want the additional competition for ivy league slots from the masses.

Caitlin Borgmann said...

Good post. I also think that the pressure placed on these girls contrasts oddly with messages they receive later in life that discourage them from pursuing high-powered careers once they become mothers. This latter phenomenon is described in other NYT articles, stories that are similarly focused on a small, elite, nonrepresentative subsection of society. I write more about this on the Reproductive Rights Prof blog:

Diane Kelly said...

> Teen angst always dredges up certain emotions, >and reading about Esther's rejection from Williams, >her top choice, stings a bit. But then she got into >Smith, so the story ends on a happy note.

But not into Amherst or Middlebury. It's so bizarre. Look at the list of accomplishments that these students come to the college admissions table with. I went to an "elite" school back in the '80s on nothing but reasonably good (but not perfect) grades, a couple of extracurriculars, and a pair of recommendations. I wonder whether I could get in at all now.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Diane: It's hard to know. Harvard accepted about 9% of students this year, and accepted 10.7% five years ago. The school accepted 12.3% in 1997, but 10.9% in 1996, which reflects the change in SAT score distribution for kids applying that year (scores were "recentered," which made them look higher on the high end of the bell curve, and may have encouraged people to apply for reach schools that otherwise would have been considered out of their league). So there's been some fluctuations. Princeton admitted 12.6% of its students in 1997, the year I applied, and admitted 9.5% this year for the class of 2011. So in theory, it's "harder" to get in now than in 1997, but Princeton is also expanding its class size over the next few years, which may clear up a little breathing room among the applicants. I suspect that, given the demographics of many reporters and editors right now (there was a baby boomlet about 17-20 years ago) they have a personal vested interest in making it seem so, so hard to get into college now, much harder than any of us experienced, and that's the reason their kids didn't get in wherever. Who knows?

Caitlin: I wonder about this too. What percentage of these young women will be in the workforce full-time in the high-powered capacities they would have imagined, 15 years from now? A few women of my acquaintance have opted out recently after years of training for such careers as cardiology, business, etc. They go through all the studying, then never get any of the pay-off. I do wonder about the thought process. Some is societal pressure (I'm expecting a baby five weeks from today, and I'm amazed how many people keep telling me "oh it's so good your work is so flexible." Sheesh- flexible in the sense that I work any 50 hours per week I choose!). Some is the realization among high-achieving girls that the working world is often not as exciting as school, and while men may be willing to go work at a law job they don't like, or do the same medical procedure over and over again because they feel that's what they should do to support their families, women may be more interested in finding meaning and balance in their work. These assumptions can limit both genders, really.

Anonymous said...

Could you please post a link to TIMSS thread. I can't find it.
Thanx, Ania

Chuckling said...

I read articles about gifted children and elite schools with great interest. My children were identified as gifted and got into one of the better independent schools. We did a lot of research on the schools, visited seven of them and applied to three. So I've spent a lot of time and energy in those environs.

And I, like everybody else apparently, worry about the harsh, competetive aspects of choosing and getting into a university. We are fortunate in having the best of both worlds. The kids do things like compare and contrast Frankl and the Aenid, but their school doesn't give grades and there's no discernable competition among students (though I hear junior year may be different).

Anyway, I'm to the point where I worry more that my daughter will be in a college where all of her classmates are neurotic strivers than whether or not she will be accepted to Harvard or Yale. Just passing through the Princeton and Harvard campuses made me think that I sure as hell wouldn't want to go to college in those places. But she'll make her own decisions.

But you couldn't be more right about "normal" education. My niece, who is every bit as gifted and talented as my daughter, is flunking out of a public high school where about half of the class time is spent watching Hollywood movies and the rest reportedly isn't as challenging. The suffering these children endure, and inflict upon themselves, is horrible. A challenging educational environment might not solve all their problems, but it would sure alleviate a lot of them.

Finally, I'm sorry but I just don't get the dismissive references to the supposed elite who religiously read the New York Times. If you consider these elite to be ivy and little ivy grads making big bucks in New York City, you might say that they read it irrelgiously every day, but I think that most people who take the elitism aspect of reading it too seriously are either the ones who write it or are terribly insecure. What would you rather they read? The Post?