Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Life Raft Strategy

I had the great privilege of attending the annual Prep for Prep "Lilac Ball" last night at the Waldorf-Astoria here in New York. This ball doubles as the graduation for students in the Prep for Prep program, a 30-year-old campaign to prepare the brightest minority students in New York City for admission to independent prep schools (day or boarding). Prep for Prep continues to monitor their students' progress while they attend Andover, Choate, Dalton, etc., with the hope that these students will attend elite colleges.

It seems to be working. Among the roughly 150 high school seniors walking across the stage last night, a dozen are going to Yale, eight (I counted) are going to Harvard, and many others to Princeton, Columbia, Duke, MIT, Stanford, etc. I got a little teary when Learah Lockhart, the daughter of a single mom, talked about how she had been working until 2AM as a 7th grader getting ready to go to Choate. She didn't want to leave her mother to go to boarding school, but her mother insisted. Her mom always kept her school papers with good grades in a box by her bed. As Learah said, in April, she got something that was definitely box-worthy. At this point, she read us the letter offering her admission to Harvard.

(Of course, knowing how hard this young lady worked to get to where she is in life, it kind of ticked me off to know -- according to Daniel Golden's book The Price of Admission -- that Albert Gore III got into Harvard despite being suspended in 8th grade for smoking marijuana, being cited during high school for driving 100mph, and not getting particularly good grades or test scores. While a student at Harvard, he was ticketed for driving under the influence, and was also later charged with marijuana possession. But I digress).

Children are chosen for admission to the Prep for Prep program based, initially, on having test scores above the 90th percentile. From my discussions with people in the program, this seems to be a pretty hard fast line. Then once they make this initial cut, they give these children (drum roll please)... an IQ test! Yes, people are chosen for Prep for Prep based on their scores on the WISC. The selected children are then put through their paces being brought up to speed academically so they will enter their prep schools on par with the more privileged children who usually attend such schools.

As far as I know, the Prep for Prep program is not particularly controversial. It's funded with private money (and often the independent schools themselves give scholarships and financial aid to the young people who gain admission). You would need to have a pretty big chip on your shoulder to begrudge giving brilliant kids from modest circumstances the opportunity to attempt the kind of rigorous education that will give them a shot at being admitted to elite colleges (I might quibble with the fact that Prep for Prep does not seem to be open to white children, many of whom also come from modest circumstances, but a fair number of the graduates were Asian children, so at least it does seem to be open to all minority children).

Yet when we refuse to create self-contained gifted classes or schools in inner cities, this is exactly what we do. I think of Jonathan Kozol's complaints about New York City's selective public schools (which some Prep for Prep kids wind up attending). "The better schools function, effectively, as siphons which draw off not only the most high-achieving and the best-connected students but their parents too," he wrote in Savage Inequalities. "This, in turn, leads to a rather cruel, if easily predictable, scenario: Once these students win admission....there is no incentive for their parents to be vocal on the issues that concern the students who have been excluded...The political effectiveness of those who have been left behind is thus depleted...public schools in a democracy should not be allowed to fill this role."

There are plenty of people who think that schools for the gifted wind up being politically unacceptable life rafts. They concentrate limited resources on the brightest children, rather than the lowest achieving, or some other metric.

This is, of course, exactly what Prep for Prep does. The program amounts to a private gifted education program. The idea is to get the brightest kids out of bad schools, and put them in good schools where they will be challenged.

I -- like most people -- have no problem with that using private money. In an ideal world, sure, all schools would be great. But we don't live in that world. So I don't believe in holding bright children hostage until they and their parents revolt. If Goldman Sachs and BlackRock are willing to cough up money to buy tables at an event to support that, all the better.

But I do find it interesting that such a program has to be private to be politically palatable. Wouldn't it be great if any highly gifted kid across the country whose needs could not be met locally could attend an elite boarding school without worrying about the cost? Wouldn't it be great if we identified all the brightest kids (perhaps partially using the WISC!) and then monitored their progress and made sure their needs were being met? Alas, this does not seem to be a public education priority. A private life raft is better than no life raft. But I'd like a few more public life rafts around the country as well.


Anonymous said...

I don't mean to be a wet blanket. I'm a liberal, passionate about human rights.

But when it comes to gifted talk, and I've said as much before, there is one group that is very much left behind. 2e Newsletter conducted a major survey two years ago to assess the level of care and support 2e children were receiving and the unanimous conclusion was...NOT MUCH. The results were so discouraging that
2e Newsletter dubbed this population of learners the Children who are TRULY Left Behind.

So what does this have to do with finding the best minority talent and stroking it? This is such a hot subject. In my county, which has gifted/talented centers, an enormous amount of time, money and research is devoted to minority achievement, finding those diamonds in the rough.

I'd be more magnanimous if the same had been done for 2e children. It isn't. If you are the parent of such a child, ask yourself, why? Why don't parents lobby more?

As long as twice exceptional children are ignored or worse, bullied (often the teachers are the worst bullyers), I won't get very excited when other groups are courted, nurtured, and watered so they bloom.

We know that in the PG population, a staggering number are twice exceptional. Some marvel at this oddity; to me it makes sense, when you stop to ponder it.

I don't have an Einstein. But I do have a child whose IQ puts her in the low PG range. With ADD, anxiety, very introverted and perhaps a hidden learning disability we are exploring because we know this population masks and compensates well.

This is a child who as a baby, toddler and preschooler loved to learn. Her curiosity and inquisitiveness were boundless. Then she started school. I could recite here chapter and verse all sorts of things that were done to squelch her creativity, to make her afraid, to make her timid, to make her feel ashamed. It's my fault really. I should have homeschooled. I finally did, in
8th grade. One little blissful year. That's all we got.

As long as such short shrift is given to this population, I'm not going to cheer when the message is, we don't have the resources or energy to help these kids at the top, these children with extraordinatory minds and talent, but we have plenty resources to do the PC thing. Not much of a headline grabber, is it, when we announce that we are going to help the above-grade-level student who is getting B's. But kids like mine evoke what a friend calls the duck paddling analogy. The duck is moving on the water and the water is calm and the duck is graceful. What you cannot see is the duck is paddling furiously beneath the water, just out of your sight. He is barely keeping his head afloat.

We aren't going to bother, is the message. Why we don't bother escapes me. But we don't. Many of these kids languish in base high schools, their creativity and perception crushed. We allow this talent to go wasted and we do nothing to stem the loss.


Anonymous said...

Great commentary. I'd add a few thoughts:

I know many people who have had their children apply to or go through the Prep for Prep program. In its admissions process, it also interviews children and families and makes them sit through its own 2+ hour multiple choice exam for further vetting. The selection process is rather thorough.

Also, while I applaud the growth of legitimate, intellectual rhetorical public discourse of race, class, gender, affirmative action and related issues, I think we still dance around the very basic premise here: broadly speaking, programs like Prep for Prep exist to address social and institutional racial discrimination primarily, and class discrimination secondarily.

So one may ask, "Why that order of priority?" Forgive me if I state the obvious, but because racial discrmination, particularly against Afro-centric races, is the greates common denominator of all prejudices, biases, ignorance, bigotry and every type of -ism that we have identified. The very term "black" and its ubiquitous use speaks volumes in defense of my point - there are scores of social identifiers by which a person of European descent can be grouped (religion, sect, country of origin, culture, creed, language, dialect, and so on). On the other hand, any person who possesses any noticeable African phenotypic characteristic or has any sliver of African lineage is conclusively grouped as "black" and dealt with accordingly in American society, regardless of any of the above enumerated other identifiers. It is always worse to be a black woman than a woman, a black muslim than a muslim, a black immigrant than an immigrant, and a black urban youth than an urban youth.

So while I couldn't fundamentally agree with you more that there need to be vast institutional, governmental and cultural changes to eradicate class discrimination (which I agree is the bigger culprite in growing social inequalities), programs like Prep were chartered to address the most poignant, and evidently the most effective and pervasive, of all forms of American discrimination.

That said, I too couldn't support more the inclusion of all 'minority' groups under the organization's mission because those groups too bear substantially similar social burdens to varying degrees. However, to define the objective by more broad terms becomes a slippery slope and is in my view a broader war within which this one battle is being fought.

So my biggest point here is this: I recognize the arguments for 'reverse discrimination' and the inadvertent harms of the 'life raft strategy' on remaining students, schools, parents etc. However, I think to say that the goal is only to give support for those who come from 'modest circumstances' oversimplifies and minimizes the real issue here of racial discrimination, which, as we've seen with this most recent Democratic primary, is something that Americans generally don't like to, don't want to, or don't know how to discuss. On the life raft concern, I think it pains most sensible people to consider the potential negative impact of extracting these parents and students from public schools, leaving others without the support and company of some of their better students and parents, but one should consider, from a long-term/big picture perspective, whether it is better to apply one's own oxygen mask before helping others, lest both people asphyxiate.

It's the program's ultimate long term strategy to increase leadership of underrepresented minority groups in prominent places in society, therby increasing more effective advocacy and resources to address some of these problems, and ultimately rendering itself obsolte. By all measures, it seems that the program has been notably successful in beginning to do just that. Yet, this is only the very beginning and the mission is still a fledgling one. In another 30 years it would be great to see Prep for Prep students, and those of similar sibling organizations (such as the Albert G. Oliver and A Better Chance organizations) leading the Boards and Departments of Education, sitting in government office, (re-)writing legislation and funding initiatives that go to the very heart of the broader movement that you note needs more support.

Indeed, it was also said that a significant portion (40% or so if my memory serves me well) of Prep for Prep graduates go into education/academia including the New York City Board of Education - the same troubled institution that was the genesis of the Prep for Prep mission. It could be said then that in this way, supplying the institution with well-educated teachers is one clear sign of success - it's almost storybook; that people who, given the opportunity to attend the world's foremost academic institutions against great odds, returned to the very battleground from which they were delivered, in order to help others and to fight the fight. They could all have just as easily (or more easily) chased the fortune and prestige of wall street or corporate law or medicine.