Tag: Education

Stop Telling Your Kids You’re Bad At Math

“How was skiing?” I asked my 14-year old daughter as she hauled her boot bag into the car. “Well, the ratio of snow to ground was definitely low,” she replied, adding that she had tried to figure the ratio of snow-to-ground during practice but had received only mystified looks. “Stop the math!” demanded a coach. “You are confusing us!”

Why do smart people enjoy saying that they are bad at math? Few people would consider proudly announcing that they are bad at writing or reading. Our country’s communal math hatred may seem rather innocuous, but a more critical factor is at stake: we are passing on from generation to generation the phobia for mathematics and with that are priming our children for mathematical anxiety. As a result, too many of us have lost the ability to examine a real-world problem, translate it into numbers, solve the problem and interpret the solution.

Mathematics surrounds us, yet we have become accustomed to avoiding numerical thinking at all costs. There is no doubt that bad high school teaching and confusing textbooks are partly to blame. But a more pernicious habit does the most damage. We are perpetuating damaging myths by telling ourselves a few untruths: math is inherently hard, only geniuses understand it, we never liked math in the first place and nobody needs math anyway.

Often adults are well-meaning when telling children about their own math phobia: after all, won’t it make the children feel better if they know that others feel that way as well? Research shows the answer is a resounding “no.”

Anxiety over mathematics has been recognized as a grade killer. The National Mathematics Advisory Panel of the U.S. Department of Education has found that anxious students perform lower than their abilities. What’s more, there is growing evidence that mathematical anxiety can be passed on like a virus from teachers to students as well as from parents to children.

Girls are especially affected when a teacher publicly announces math hatred before she picks up the chalk. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that female — but not male — mathematical achievement was diminished in response to a female teacher’s mathematical anxiety. The effect was correlated: the higher a teacher’s anxiety, the lower the scores.

Parents’ mathematical anxiety can have a similar effect on their children. Researchers observed that children who received math homework help from mathematically fearful parents showed weaker math achievements than their peers, which in turn resulted in increased math anxiety for the children themselves.

 What we need to do instead is encourage our children to persevere. In France, for example, math skills are appreciated and it is quite cool to be good at math. Teaching — especially math teaching — is a highly respected and well-paid profession, even at the preschool level and children there are trained early to appreciate the art of mathematics.

Working on mathematical skills is not unlike practicing a sport: neither can be learned by watching others perform the activity and both require encouragement and effort. In the words of Michael Jordan: “I’ve missed 3,000 shots. Twenty-six times the game-winning shot has been trusted to me, and I’ve missed. I’ve lost over 300 games. I’ve failed over and over and over again, and that is why I’ve succeeded.” (Notice the math in that statement?)

You do not need an innate mathematical ability in order to solve mathematical problems. Rather, what is required is perseverance, a willingness to take risks and feeling safe to make mistakes. The next time you help a student with homework, try to repress the “I hate math” instinct, which is even worse than making a few flubs.

Instead try to have fun and give reassurance that perseverance will yield results. Numbers are always simple, clean and beautiful — and nothing to be afraid of.

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*Originally posted on the Washington Post.

Black Boarding Schools Are Driving Academic Excellence

“The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.” – Anatole France

In the past decade, we have seen HBCUs in general attempt to increase their academic standards for admissions for a number of different reasons. Unfortunately, as is often the case it seems with HBCUs and African America in general this move is done in isolation and not in conjunction with the rest of the ecosystem. As a result we are seeing K-12 outcomes for many African Americans in this country getting progressively worse or stagnant in most of the country. If the pipeline that produces your core student demographic is not improving its academic outcomes, then how can HBCUs not expect student shortages that leave them with tuition revenue shortfalls. Of course some of this is being done as accreditation agencies squeeze HBCUs due to high default on student loans by former HBCU students and alumni. There are also those whose answer to “fixing” HBCUs is to gentrify them thereby diluting our institutional and cultural power. Where have we seen that playbook before? The real answer to the quality of student HBCUs are getting lies in HBCUs and their alumni investing back down the educational pipeline from which their core students come and strengthening it so that future HBCU students have strong academic prowess before they even get to our campuses.

Boarding schools in this country have a long, rich history, and their current value today can not be understated. They tend to have an extremely competitive admissions process, tuition and faculty that would make more than a few colleges blush, and endowments that Historically Black Colleges & Universities dream about at night. The Forbes’ list of America’s top 20 boarding schools paints quite an amazing picture of what pipeline behavior is suppose to look like. The median percentage of these twenty elite boarding school graduates going into the Ivy League/MIT/Stanford pipeline is 30 percent. Three times the percentage HBCUs are getting from their core demographic. Their faculty has a median of 76 percent with advanced degrees. At Philips Exeter Academy almost 13 percent of their faculty have PhDs. Yes, a high school with PhDs teaching. Imagine for a moment the first time most African American students who come to HBCUs have encountered a PhD level professor. It is usually not until they have reached college and some may not see one until they have reached their major classes, whereas these students are coming out of high school with four years tutelage under PhDs in the core classes of english, history, math, and science. Lastly, the endowments among the top twenty (with 3 schools not reporting) have a median of $105 million, average of $204 million, and combined value of $3.5 billion. Seventeen prep schools have combined endowments valued at twice the size of 100 HBCUs. A startling revelation if ever there was one.

It has been noted that prior to desegregation, “there were nearly 100 black boarding schools in the U.S. before the 1960s, established by local blacks, religious organizations and philanthropists, when the local governments failed to provide schools for black children” and as it stands today, there are only four remaining. Over 50 years later while the number of black boarding schools have dwindled, African American education outcomes have also plummeted in parallel. Recent reports put the African American male high school graduation rate nationally at an abysmal 52 percent. It is clear that as we gave up control of our own education institutions that our ability to garner positive education outcomes became increasingly harder and harder to achieve.

The four remaining survivors Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina, Pine Forge Academy in Pennsylvania, Piney Woods in Mississippi, and Redemption Christian Academy located in New York. Their geography alone is both a gift and curse. It allows each to have a strong territory of its own, but makes it virtually impossible to engage in joint activities like athletics and the like given the cost of travel for institutions that are largely cash-strapped much like their higher education brethren. It is hard to imagine that if African Americans have not been proactive in the way of funding HBCUs, that AABSs will fare much better in recruiting high-quality or transformative donors. The reality though is not only does that investment need to be made, it needs to be made at a larger rate than we could even possibly make for HBCUs. It does not matter what we do at the collegiate level if we do not at some point fix the early childhood to secondary education institutional pipeline. We will continue to overburden our HBCUs with developmental students and be subject to calls for faux diversity that whitewashes our institutional power as we make our usual overabundance of concessions to make others feel welcomed. HBCU strategy must involve investments in the K-12 system either through pre-K programs on the campus and K-12 charter schools either run by the HBCUs themselves, HBCU alumni, or HBCU support organizations. To that last point, there are rumors that the HBCU Endowment Foundation and Center for HBCU Media Advocacy are in talks to form a partnership that would create a boarding school. This is in addition to the HBCU Endowment Foundation’s long-term plans to be involved in early childhood education in the form of an HBCU version of Head Start. It would not hurt at all if the five HBCU conferences (SWAC, MEAC, SIAC, CIAA, GCAC), Divine 9, UNCF, and Thurgood Marshall Fund joined and created their own schools also either independently or jointly.

For generations and then some, HBCUs have led the way to producing African American teachers and principals. It is time we go ever further and start to create a culturally relevant school system (pipeline) that is tailored to the needs of our children and communities there within. An earlier investment would pay significant dividends to building a rapport in our community’s psychology well before it is even time to choose a college. Currently, most of our kids’ see nothing but HWCU/PWIs throughout their childhood and do not come into contact with an HBCU until almost a last resort. That has to change and the quality of education that our children have not gotten since before desegregation has to change. We need to be on their mind from the moment parents are expecting their child as the place that will ensure the best education for that child from early childhood through college. HBCUs have been sculptors who for the past 50 years who have done the best with the clay they were given, but sometimes the sculptor must step back and create their own clay to make the beauty in their work fulfill its greatest potential.

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*Originally posted on HBCU Money.

READERS: Black History Fact of the Day – Meet Deputy Secretary of State, Dr. Clifton R. Wharton!

In December 1992, Clifton R. Wharton added another item to his extensive list of accomplishments when he was named Deputy Secretary of state by President Clinton. Wharton, born in 1926, was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, the first to be president of a major university that was predominantly white, the first to serve as chancellor of the State University of New York, the first to chair the board of a major foundation (the Rockefeller Foundation), and the first to head a Fortune 100 company. In 1987, he became chairman and chief executive officer of the country’s largest private pension system, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association and College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF). He kept that position until President Clinton appointed him deputy secretary of state.
Wharton, whose father, Clifton R. Wharton, Sr., was the country’s first African American career ambassador, earned his bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a master’s from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. He served as president of Michigan State from 1970-1978 and as chancellor of the State University of New York from 1978-1987.
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READERS: Black History Fact of the Day – Meet Maulana Karenga, The Founder Of Kwanzaa!

After meeting Malcolm X as a college student in the 1960s, Karenga became politicized and helped found the US organization, which among other things promoted a cultural revolution for African Americans. In 1966, Karenga created Kwanzaa, a holiday designed to celebrate and honor the values of ancient African cultures and inspire African Americans to greater pride in their heritage. Kwanzaa is based on the year-end harvest festivals that have taken place throughout Africa for thousands of years. The name comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits of the harvest.” Karenga chose a phrase from Swahili because the language is used by various peoples throughout Africa.

Karenga is a professor in the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach and is the director of the Kawaida Institute for Pan African Studies in Los Angeles.

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READERS: Black History Fact of the Day – Meet Edward Alexander Bouchet, The 1st African American to hold a Ph.D. Degree (and from Yale University nonetheless)!

Edward Alexander Bouchet was the first African American to graduate from Yale and also the first to earn a doctorate degree (Ph.D.) from an American university. 

Edward Alexander Bouchet was born in 1852 in New Haven, Connecticut.  His father, William Bouchet, had come to New Haven in 1824 as the valet of his former slave owner, who had freed him.    Edward Bouchet’s father worked at Yale College for a time, as a janitor, and was prominent in the African American community, serving as a deacon at the Temple Street Church, the oldest African American church in New Haven.   Edward Bouchet’s mother was Susan Cooley Bouchet.  

Edward Bouchet attended The New Haven High School from 1866 until 1868 and graduated from the Hopkins Grammar School in 1870.  He was the valedictorian of his graduating class.  In the fall of 1870, Bouchet entered Yale College along with the son of his father’s former employer. At Yale, he studied mathematics, physics, astronomy, mechanics, five languages including Greek and Latin, as well as Logic and Rhetoric; he graduated summa cum laude in 1874, ranked sixth in his class, and  was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.  

Bouchet continued his graduate studies at Yale, and earned his Ph.D., in Physics in 1876.  His dissertation was on Measuring Refractive Indices.  He was the first African American to earn a doctorate in any subject at any university in the United States.  

After graduation, Dr. Bouchet’s demonstrated brilliance and credentials did not afford him the opportunities (such as positions in research, or at top universities) typically available to people of his unusually high level of education.  He spent the rest of his life as a well-respected teacher. 

He taught chemistry and physics for many years at the Institute for Colored Youth, a Quaker institution in Philadelphia.  Later on, Dr. Bouchet taught at St. Paul’s Normal and Industrial School in Virginia, served as principal of Lincoln High School in Galipolis, Ohio, and was a professor at Bishop College in Marshall, Texas.  He also held the position of business manager for a hospital in St. Louis and worked for a short time as a U.S. Customs Service inspector.   He retired from college teaching  in 1916 and lived in New Haven for the last two years of his life.  

A former student of Dr. Bouchet’s described him this way:  “…He was a fine Christian gentleman , a consummate scholar, one who seemed very knowledgeable in all areas and yet was extremely modest and a person who set a wonderful example of politeness and graciousness for the community. …Certainly it is impossible to assess the far reaching influence of Dr. Bouchet upon the hundreds of persons whose lives he touched.”

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*This article was originally published in Gibbs Magazine.

“I Wish I Were Black”

‘I Wish I Were Black’ and Other Tales of Privilege
by Angela Onwuachi-Willig

“To be white is to not think about it,” a white legal scholar named Barbara Flagg wrote two decades ago.

After the University of Texas at Austin denied Abigail Fisher admission, she made several statements that revealed just how little she had ever had to think about her race. Fisher, the petitioner in the Supreme Court’s recently decided affirmative-action case, said in a videotaped interview made available by her lawyers: “There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference between us was the color of our skin.”

As decades of debates over affirmative action have revealed, many whites spend so little time having to think about, much less deal with, race and racism, that they understand race as nothing more than a plus factor in the admissions process. Like Fisher, they fail to see the many disadvantages that stem from simply existing as a person of color in this country—disadvantages that often hamper opportunities to achieve the badges that help students “win” in the admissions game. They fail to see how ignoring race and racial contexts, in which many students of color must work to achieve their successes, devalues those students’ accomplishments. And they fail to see how ignoring race is itself a form of racial discrimination.

Although I applied to college nearly 25 years ago, I, too, encountered my own “Abigail Fisher” in high school. During my senior year, a classmate who had the same SAT score as I did remarked, “I wish I was black!” after he learned about several scholarships I had received (only one of which was for minority students). I was stunned by his comment. After all, his implied statement about my lack of merit was factually wrong by all accounts. Although he viewed us as being the same (much as Fisher views herself as being superior to her classmates of color), it was clear that he knew nothing about me other than my race and our matching scores. Unlike him, I ranked academically among the top 10 students in my class. Indeed, I was ranked more than 20 spots ahead of him. I also held leadership positions in and engaged in more activities than nearly all of my other classmates, while he participated in just one activity. I had a job; he had none. The list could go on. Of course, at that time, I did not think to point those facts out to my classmate. Instead my initial reaction was to correct him: “I wish I were black,” I said. “And, no, you don’t.”

But my classmate’s delusions about his own record were just the tip of an iceberg. For one thing, he ignored the fact that he had simply not engaged in any work to obtain scholarships. Unlike me, he came from a rich family, while I, a future Pell Grant student, had spent weeks researching and applying for scholarships.

More than that, my classmate failed to think for even one moment about what being black may have meant for his life. He never considered what it would have meant to sit all day in classrooms where he was the only white student in a sea of black faces.

By failing to engage in this simple thought experiment, he discounted my achievements. He failed to consider the extra effort, drive, and patience that it took for me to remain focused and to excel in a school where many white students regularly used the N-word. He ignored the fortitude that it took to learn in an environment in which students and even some teachers found it acceptable to wear clothing depicting Confederate flags. He failed to see the extra skill, grit, and intelligence it took to be the first black to achieve a string of accomplishments in a high school where, like many schools in the South, tracking essentially segregated the racially diverse student body—I was almost always the only black student in my honors courses—and where some whites would react negatively, whether consciously or unconsciously, to any black success other than in sports.

My classmate ignored the extra work I had to perform because I did not have a parent with the “college knowledge” or cultural capital to guide me through the admissions process.

Had my classmate looked more broadly at the many disparities between blacks and whites in health, wealth, income, college attendance and graduation, life expectancy, and a host of other factors, he might never have found the nerve to wish he were black.

He might have even recognized his own privileges.

It is hard to read quotes by Abigail Fisher, as well as the briefs in Fisher v. Texas, and see the same lack of awareness—a sense of entitlement made worse when commingled with indifference to the facts—that I encountered many years ago. In interviews, Fisher has lamented that she was unable to follow a family tradition of attending Texas, and she has done so without any apparent sense of how a tradition of law, backed by blatant racism and white supremacy, kept blacks from gaining admission to the university until 1950. That year Heman Sweatt won a U.S. Supreme Court case challenging the Texas law school’s policy of racial segregation. (Sweatt went on to enroll in the law school, where he endured racial slurs and cross burnings; he left the program during his second year.)

By contrast, Fisher graduated from high school in the affluent Houston suburb of Sugar Land. In explaining why she thought she deserved to be admitted to the university, she said: “I took a ton of AP classes, I studied hard and did my homework—and I made the honor roll. … I was in extracurricular activities. I played the cello and was in the math club, and I volunteered. I put in the work I thought was necessary to get into UT.”

Yet she failed to recognize the great privileges that her comments revealed. Cello? That meant her family could afford private lessons. Or, if her school offered cello classes, that fact alone speaks volumes about its resources. Volunteering? That suggests she did not need a paying job to help support her family—and that she was not part of any group that frequently finds itself on the receiving end of volunteering. AP courses? That fact, too, reveals much about privilege, since so many schools in the United States, particularly majority-minority schools, are unable to offer such courses as part of their curricula.

It’s great that many high schools can offer orchestra lessons, AP courses, and other educational opportunities to their students, and those students should take advantage of them. What’s troubling is that many of them do not seem to realize that these are privileges not made available to everyone.

Nearly 25 years after my own high-school experience, we have not moved much beyond the ignorance reflected in my classmate’s remark about wishing to be black. It is heartbreaking to think that our world and our lives have become so racially segregated that many white students applying to college possess so little understanding of what it substantively means, regardless of socioeconomic status, to live the life of a black person in the United States. It is disappointing to think that students have learned so little about white privilege (and other identity privileges) that they still continue to wish that they were black.

Earlier this year, in an open letter to The Wall Street Journal, headlined “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me,” a high-school senior named Suzy Lee Weiss wrote: “If it were up to me, I would’ve been any of the diversities: Navajo, Pacific Islander, anything. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, I salute you and your 1/32 Cherokee heritage.”

I am still waiting for the day when, rather than wishing they were black, students like my high-school classmate instead think with all earnestness, “Imagine what more my minority peers could have done if they had had white privilege and access.”

Angela Onwuachi-Willig is a professor at the University of Iowa’s College of Law. She is the author of the new book According to Our Hearts: Rhinelander v. Rhinelander and the Law of the Multiracial Family (Yale University Press).

*This article was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education

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READERS: Black History Month Fact of the Day – The Peabody Fund For Black Education In The South Established

On February 8, 1867, the first meeting of the nation’s first foundation was called to order. One hundred forty five years later, its legacy remains embedded in American philanthropy.

The Peabody Education Fund, established with a $2 million gift from philanthropist George Peabody, was created for the purpose of encouraging education in the post-Civil War American south. During the fund’s existence, its trustees distributed more than $3.5 million in southern states. Liquidated in the 1890s, the majority of the fund was used to establish what is now Vanderbilt University’s George Peabody College for Teachers.

The indirect legacy of the Peabody Educational Fund is equally notable. The original Board of Trustees, selected by George Peabody himself, was comprised of Governors from the north and the south, marking one of the first collaborative efforts since the onset of the Civil War. The first educational philanthropy, the fund also served as a model for future efforts to improve education in America.

George Peabody is said to have influenced his friends, Johns Hopkins and Enoch Pratt, to establish the famed institutions still in existence that bear their respective names. Other American philanthropists through time, including Rockefeller, Carnegie and Gates, have also cited Peabody and his model for charitable giving as inspiration for their own giving. George Peabody is considered to be the father of modern philanthropy. His aims were to improve society, promote education, and provide the poor with the means to help themselves.

The Peabody Education Fund organized to establish a permanent system of public education on the South and to enlarge the number of qualified teachers in the region. The Peabody Fund allocated millions of dollars in support of African American schools, as well as to support the growth of public schools for Blacks and Whites across the South.

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Ethical Parenting – Does It Exist? (from New York magazine)

I read this article after someone forwarded it to me from the NY magazine & thought it was quite interesting. Although I don’t have any children, I can definitely remember the competitiveness of studying for the SAT’s & getting into a good college. I think nowadays it’s even worse and I can’t begin to imagine what it will be like when my kids are college age.

But how do parents do it? How do you justify paying thousands of dollars for SAT prep courses but get upset when their children don’t make passing grades once they get into college? Your kid wasn’t motivated to begin with. Why is it okay to fudge qualifications on your own resume but insist your child be forthcoming about their own involvement in school activities? Why is it okay to pay for an overpriced tutor in college, but get angry when your child takes mind-altering drugs to help them stay up for the test that you paid for them to pass?

The article below speaks to issues like this & makes some very interesting points. Read below –

Ethical Parenting by Lisa Miller

Imagine this ­scenario: It’s a Tuesday evening and you’re just home from work, still panting from the subway ride, when you determine without doubt that your fourth-grader has lice. The teeny pale eggs, they could be dandruff, but they’re not; ugh, dozens of them, everywhere, clinging to the silky hairs, and all you can think is, Not tonight.

Having been through this before, you know that the only way to help arrest a schoolwide epidemic is to spend hours, three at least, dealing with the vermin right now—combing, vacuuming, washing, drying—not including the inter-spousal fighting and the hysterical kid meltdown that invariably accompanies such an outbreak. Which puts bedtime conservatively somewhere around 11 p.m.

And tonight, of all nights, you just can’t afford the drama. You can’t. Because tomorrow is the ELA, the statewide ­reading-and-writing test whose scores in this crucial year will help to determine your kid’s middle-school placement, and sending her into the exam emotionally wrung out and insufficiently rested is not an option. It is not.

So here is what you do. You pretend that you didn’t see what you saw, that the lice don’t exist. You fill your child’s mind with calm, positive, and confident test-taking thoughts as you put her to bed early. That you are potentially contaminating 26 other children in her class—costing their families untold hours of anguish and lost work, and thousands of dollars in dry cleaning—by sending your lice-ridden kid to school creates a gnawing sensation in your gut, but this is not a sufficient deterrent. The lice can wait, and the test cannot; in a contest between your kid’s near-term success and her classmates’ longer-term (and let’s face it, uncertain) pain, your kid wins. Besides, you tell yourself, layering rationale upon rationale, one of them gave it to her.

But your child is no fool. She knows she has lice, and she knows what tomorrow is. For her, the takeaway goes something like this: Always be kind and considerate of others, except in those cases where consideration impedes your own self-interest or convenience. Then, take care of yourself.

Parenthood, like war, is a state in which it’s impossible to be moral. Worse, the moral weakness of parents is always on display, for children bear witness to their incessant ethical hairsplitting. It may be delicious fun to tut-tut over the corrupt child-rearing customs (and to pity the progeny) of the aggressively rising class: the mother who, according to Urban Baby legend, slept with the admissions officer (with her husband’s consent!) to get her child into the Ivy League, or the one who sued an Upper East Side preschool for ­insufficiently preparing her 4-year-old for a ­private-school test. But such Schadenfreude elides a more difficult existential truth, which is that ever since Noah installed his own three sons upon the ark and left the rest of the world to drown, protecting and privileging one’s own kids at the expense of other people has been the name of the game. It’s what parents do.

Every hour, it seems, a parent is given the opportunity to choose between her child and a greater good, and in those moments the primal parental impulse can be overpowering. “If some science-fiction sorcerer came to me with a button,” writes the philosopher Stephen Asma in his 2012 book Against Fairness, “and said I could save my son’s life by pressing it but then (cue the dissonant music) ten strangers would die somewhere … I’d have my finger down on it before he finished his cryptic challenge.”

So while the kiddie race to the top among the most competitive people may elicit the most grotesque behaviors, the fact is that all kinds of parents seize advantage for their kids when they can. (Jeff Zucker’s 15-year-old son somehow found his way onto the advisory board of Cory Booker’s tech start-up. If you could rustle up something similarly high-flying for your kid, wouldn’t you be tempted?) In fact, the very state of being a parent obscures clear ethical reasoning, creating blinders, explains the Duke University dishonesty expert Dan Ariely, “as to what’s moral and not moral.” The same person who would never lie on his own résumé may lie on his kid’s school application and feel that “they’re doing something for a good cause, that they’re actually being altruistic.”

Why else would an otherwise conscientious couple decide to hold their perfectly normal kid back a year, except that she’ll be that much older than the other kids in the class and thus that much better at sitting still during tests? Why else does a father volunteer to coach Little League and then put his son in the cleanup spot? Why else do parents do their children’s homework night after night, except that they fear that without the “help,” the kids would fail or falter or fall behind? Parents instruct their children to “get what they get and don’t get upset”—and then they beg and bribe the adults in their children’s lives, haranguing teachers for better grades and theater directors for bigger parts and clergy for “the best” assignment in the soup kitchen, and they curry favor (they hope) with foil-wrapped bottles or hard-to-get tickets at Christmastime. In the interest of giving kids “a leg up,” ­parents will do almost anything: They’ll call friends on the board; they’ll pull strings to procure internships; they’ll invite the coach over for dinner; they’ll claim strong adherence to a religion or an ethnic identity that is, in fact, weak; they’ll fake recommendation letters; they’ll neutralize their child’s competition for a spot on the hockey team by whispering something about someone’s alcohol use; and they’ll administer the occasional misbegotten tablet of Adderall. The ­ultimate litmus test in New York City is this one: How many good people do you know who have lied about their address to get their kids into the better public school? And are you more or less sympathetic if that person is a hedge-fund manager or his nanny?

Parenthood means you cannot possibly behave as though society’s rules and norms apply equally to all. Anthony Gray, who runs the Institute for Global Ethics in Maine, says the most difficult moral choices are those in which a person is faced with “two or more legitimate rights in dynamic tension.” On the one hand, there are your child’s health, résumé, self-esteem, and future opportunity, and on the other, there are other people’s children, the rules of a community, and the need for your own child to learn hard lessons about self-sufficiency, responsibility, struggle, honesty, and failure. “It is good, it is right, to want your child to do well in school and to get into a competitive college and launch their life into adulthood. It’s right to help your kids with homework,” explains Gray, parsing the dilemma. “It’s also right to teach your child the importance of truthfulness. And to avoid direct conflicts of interest.” A decision-making process is taught at the institute that Gray calls “reflective reasoning,” which religious people might call “discernment,” a tuning in to one’s conscience to discover the higher right and then summoning what he calls moral courage to act accordingly. But when an entire culture is clamoring to get theirs, that clear, small voice can be difficult to hear.

 “It’s the opposite of the free-rider problem,” the Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz explains: If everybody recycles, then you can be the one person who doesn’t, and you still benefit from all the recycling that goes on. But if everybody is occupied full time making sure their kid wins and other kids lose, then taking the high road doesn’t serve you at all. “It’s a corrupt system, and your opting out won’t change it. You gain nothing, and you lose a lot.”

Though invariably proud of their children, parents are not always so proud of themselves. I know a man who does SAT tutoring for the children of Manhattan’s private-school elite, charging families $22,000 per child per year, and every time he meets a new client, he says, the mother sheepishly pulls him aside in the foyer and says, “We’re not like this.” We’re not the kind of people who spend tens of thousands of dollars on tutoring, except here we are doing it. (Because of rampant prepping, the Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York recently announced it was ceasing to recommend the ERB, the standardized test, as a valid measure of preparedness for kindergarten.)

Jason Stephens is an associate professor of educational psychology at the ­University of Connecticut who studies cheating among adolescents and is interested in what he calls the “judgment-action gap”: why high-school students cheat, even when they know it’s wrong. Parents, he says, are displaying a similar disconnect, seizing advantage for their children while discounting the gnawing feeling in their gut. It’s like a drug addiction, Stephens says. Each infraction may, in itself, be relatively small, but the effects are cumulative. “It’s a culture,” says Stephens. “It’s not hard to see how parents can justify this behavior—they’re just prioritizing other values and goals, the child’s well-being over the greater good. It means more to me that they get the leg up than if I have to lie a little bit. Now that I’ve done the wrong thing, I have to not feel guilty. I don’t want to run around feeling like a shmuck. I rationalize it, I justify it, I diffuse my responsibility. Hey, it’s not my fault, this is a cultural thing.” As when watching a parent drink three glasses of wine at dinner, a child begins to regard this behavior as ordinary, and then, Stephens says, “it comes to define who they are.”

Most parents don’t think of themselves as the kind of people who prize winning above all. Most hope to teach their kids what used to be called “good values,” which a previous generation learned in scouts or church: kindness and compassion, respect and responsibility, to “do unto others” and be grateful for small things. But how are children supposed to learn honesty and fairness when the parents are yelling at the coach to give Johnny more playing time? Or wrangling behind the scenes to get Susie into a particular day care? Put another way: By advantaging kids at every turn, are parents, in fact, laming them? Are they (we, for I have a 9-year-old daughter) raising children they may not ultimately want as colleagues, neighbors, or friends? “You can preach and you can preach,” says Audrey Kindred, director of family programming at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, “you can tell and you can tell, but we all learn primarily by example. There is something about what we’re not intending that seeps through much stronger than what we are intending.” My father told me not to smoke, and then he stole my cigarettes and smoked them himself: I was a smoker for nearly 25 years.

Meet Anna Blum, 18 years old and every parent’s fantasy. In conversation, she is earnest, thoughtful, articulate, conscientious. She just graduated from Fieldston with honors grades and is now at Vassar, where she hopes to major in film studies. While in high school, she co-edited the Fieldston News, scored high on her SATs, and spent the summer interning at a nonprofit. Anna has her own website, where she posts the films she’s made and the poems she’s written and where she cites as role models Andy Warhol—and her own mother.

But Anna worries that she and her peers are a little bit lost when it comes to sorting right from wrong. When a friend told her, for example, that she took Adderall to enhance her performance on the SATs, she was, initially, shocked. “I’ll say, ‘That’s really wrong.’ And then I think, I had a very expensive SAT tutor. I haven’t done Adderall, but it’s sort of hard to see where the line is.”

The parents of her peers have one main goal, says Anna, which is to get their kids into a good college. And the two-track ethical system they teach follows from there. “The culture among parents is they say this is right and this is wrong,” Anna explains, but at the same time the parents always defend their own behavior as right.

Anna frets about what she and her friends will do when college is over and they’re forced to navigate real life. Everyone says you can’t get through medical school without using prescription drugs to stay awake. Everyone says a liberal-arts degree will make you unemployable unless you pull strings. “Once that becomes normal, baseline, that’s a shift we should be avoiding at all costs. If you weren’t raised a certain way, you have zero chance of making this work. To know that there’s one specific route to go down and it’s a really upsetting route, it’s very frightening to me.”

All the data show a generation far less ethical than their parents. According to a 2009 survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, 51 percent of people age 17 or under agree that to get ahead, a person must lie or cheat, compared with 18 ­percent of people ages 25 to 40. Two years later, in another ­Josephson survey, 57 ­percent of ­high-schoolers agreed that “in the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating.” Younger people are likelier than their elders to lie to parents, spouses, and bosses and to keep the change if a cashier makes an error in their favor.

But what Anna’s talking about is something slipperier than blatant cheating, a cut below sneaking answers into an exam, a hazy space where right and wrong seem porous. According to research by Denise Pope at Challenge Success, a nonprofit founded at Stanford, 95 percent of ­eleventh- and twelfth-graders say they have cheated in the past year, and a huge percentage of high-schoolers think that certain kinds of cheating are no big deal. Sixty-six percent, for example, say that receiving unpermitted help on an assignment is either not cheating or is cheating so unimportant that it barely counts. (Could this be payback for all those nights when you caved and helped your kid fill in the blanks on her math-facts drills?) Fifty-two percent say that copying a couple of sentences from someone else’s work is a trivial thing.

There’s lots of room to wiggle here. Especially when the transgressions get you where you want to be. Justifications are easier when the result of questionable behavior is the yearned-for A or the starring role or field position. “I don’t think they see their parents’ maneuvering as wrong. They assume that’s what it means to be in school,” a private-middle-school teacher told me. Watching their parents pull strings and bend rules on their behalf can prepare the kids for a vision of success in which winning is a zero-sum game, she says. “They learn how you do backdoor deals. How you do the meeting before the meeting and the meeting after the meeting.” They are invested in the way things are, an unequal system in which they are on top.

Social psychologists have demonstrated that rich people are likelier than poorer ones to lie, cheat, and disregard traffic rules and, more recently, that they are likelier to believe that social status is a matter of merit. (A study published in August in the Personality and Social Psychology bulletin showed that the wealthier a person is, the more he or she will agree with the following statement: “I honestly feel I’m just more deserving than other people.”) So while all parents may ruthlessly put their children ahead of others, the children of affluent parents may be likelier to believe that ends justify means. A Harvard grad who was implicated in the university’s 2012 cheating scandal (in which scores of students submitted similar or verbatim answers on a take-home final) complained to Businessweek about the inconvenience of having to cooperate with the university’s ongoing investigation. “Dragging us into this … now, when we have financial obligations and jobs, seems very unfair.”

I spoke at length to an administrator at a prestigious private school who talked about the damage done to children’s sense of self when their parents (overtly or covertly) contradict a school’s purpose and values. At good schools, for example, the college counselors know the kids. They know the colleges. They compile lists of prospective schools with the kids’ best interests at heart. But the parents, unsatisfied, hire a private college counselor, who makes a different list of schools—along with different things the kid needs to do to get in. And the child is put in an impossible position of having to pretend to want both things. “You’re asking the child not to passively accept this, but to actively talk out of two sides of his mouth. This goes to a kid’s core identity. Who am I? How am I representing myself?,” this administrator says. “And the result is a kind of cynicism. There’s nothing like cynicism to prevent an authentic development of self. It’s the ultimate defense against meaning and purpose.”

But the kids who learn the lesson of cynicism may in fact suffer less than those who don’t. What parents are really telling children with their constant intervening is that there’s no way for them to succeed on their own, says Harold Koplewicz, a founder of the Child Mind Institute. “The message to the kid is, You aren’t good enough.” He compares these parents to “fixers,” who illicitly manipulate outcomes for their clients. In their effort to build their children’s success, parents may actually be short-circuiting their self-esteem, and stunting their self-efficacy, making them unable to tell the difference between the things they can accomplish in the world, with the application of hard work and native ability, and the things they cannot. Jason Stevens is somewhat blunter. A fixing parent can make a child, he says, “crippled. Or entitled. Or both.”

Here’s my excuse, and I presume it’s yours, too. It’s tough out there. The future is uncertain, and no one knows what skills kids will need to get by in war or warming or economic collapse. The accoutrements of middle-class stability and comfort feel like they’re slipping away, even to those of us living smack in the middle of them.

The urge to ferociously protect kids in an environment of scarce resources is not a modern impulse but an animal one. Bonobos are some of the most openhearted creatures on Earth. They care for one another’s children; they have sex all the time. But chimpanzees, to whom bonobos are closely related, are venal: They’re hierarchical, aggressive, and mean. A chimp mother will, when it suits her, kill another mother’s child. The difference is scarcity. Bonobos live in a region of the Congo where there’s always enough to eat. Chimps live in regions where food is seasonal, and competition for it is fierce. Humans are primates, too.

But in unexpected places, a countermovement may be gathering strength, led by people who understand that humans can—and do—rise above their animal instincts. And the agents of this backlash are most often not brave parents but their more stubbornly idealistic children. “I know kids,” says Pope, “who are absolutely mortified when their parents cheat the system. They’re embarrassed and ashamed.”

I know a young man who, on moral grounds, steadfastly refused to enlist the help of an SAT tutor or indeed do any test prep during his overheated senior fall at a private school whose name you know. The college-application system is broken and corrupt, the kid said. “I could sense around me this horrible stress and this defeated feeling,” he told me. “The more prep you take, the more tutoring you do, the better your scores. It seemed like a gross system. I didn’t want what I was doing to be determined by it. I didn’t want to play their game. I wanted to play my game.”

For a season, his parents walked a tightrope strung between loving support of their son’s moral stance and perpetual anxiety that he was throwing his life away. At least, the father advised, make a virtue of your stand and explain to the admissions officers your objections to this ­process. “He said if I have a better way of doing it, I better damn well show that I do.” But the kid refused to do that, too. “My parents are wonderful people, and they knew that this was a big moment in my life,” he recalls. “They were honest about their anxiety and the situation we were all in together.”

Does this story have a happy ending? The kid didn’t get into any college and lived at home, working, until it was time to apply again. (At which point he still blew off SAT prep, feeling that the test he’d already taken was preparation enough.) But he learned something about himself, which was that he really did want to go to college, and now he’s happily studying classics at a school not in the U.S. News top 50, composing electronic music that would blow your mind.

nymag