Monday, January 27, 2014

Crazy U by Andrew Ferguson

Ferguson tells a comic tale of his quest to get his son into a good college, and like a good reporter, makes good use of the experience to enlighten and inform the rest of us. He doesn't appear to take himself too seriously, either. After taking a career aptitude test in high school,

"'You must understand,' my career counselor said, glancing through the papers, 'that you have no marketable skills whatsoever.'
So, I became a journalist."

First up in his quest, he attends a seminar held by a professional independent college admissions counselor, known as Kat, as well as a personal interview. The main takeaway from the visit is that Ferguson learns that college admissions committees at selective schools (as opposed to state universities where folks like you and I send our children) use a "holistic" method to evaluate applicants. The holistic method "involves weighing a dozen intangible factors along with hard data like SAT scores and grade-point averages in deciding whom to admit." E.G., "Joe...raised money for a Native American school...Kim recorded concertos with the local symphony orchestra...Teresa single handedly kept a nearby Hispanic grade school afloat."

This almost takes us back to the turn of the century method of college admissions, which Ferguson discusses in a later section, when a personal interview which measured less obvious qualities than academic ability was used to make sure only "the right sort" of people attended Harvard, Yale, etc.

Got a chuckle out of a section on high school "leadership programs". For a fee, they invite students to Washington, D.C. or a state capitol for summer internships and seminars.

"Another mom was objecting.
'He was invited to do this,' she said. 'He got so much out of it, learning leadership skills.'
'The invitation came in the mail, I guess,' Kat said. 'It said he was "selected." Do you know why he was selected? Your zip code. Because of your zip code, they knew you could pay.'"

Remember "Who's Who in American High Schools"? I was so honored 40 years ago to be "selected". Ah, my youthful illusions shattered at last.

Kat was having her own experience with the admissions process for her daughter, getting her into an exclusive DAY CARE!

"this day-care center fed into equally exclusive pre-Ks, which fed into prestigious kindergartens, which fed into even more exclusive grade schools, and then prep schools, and then, perhaps eighteen years from now, the kid would be in a position to be crowned with admission to Princeton or Wellesley or Brown. One misstep at the beginning could doom the whole process."

I wonder how my neighbor's brother from Borah High in Boise, Idaho ever made it into Yale, with his lack of the proper pedigreed kindergarten.

I was surprised to see how many of the venerable old schools were founded by Christian sects. Anglicans - The College of William and Mary, Presbyterians - Princeton, Congregationalists - Dartmouth, and Old School Baptists - Brown.

Ferguson devotes considerable time on the history of U.S. News annual college rankings, how they are determined, how they are marketed to a new crop of prospects every year, and how they are gamed by the colleges themselves, while the college presidents decry the validity of the rankings.

Of course, if you can't afford the pros, you end up in the DIY section. Ferguson describes buying a huge pile of college guides, test prep books, combing the internet, and picking friends' brains for more information. This sounds familiar, in fact, a family tradition - my mother did it for me - I did it for my children - in sixteen years or so the cycle will lather, rinse, repeat. One of the amusing things Ferguson mentions here is "the law of constant contradiction". For every piece of advice in a book, online, or a hot tip from a friend, there exists a perfectly legitimate bit of wisdom that states the exact opposite.

Students should prepare a professional looking education resume.
Admissions officers are tire of seeing too many glossy, perfect professional resumes.

Parents should get involved - don't be afraid to call or email admissions offices.
Too many calls and emails alienate an admissions officer.

If a teach provides a recommendation, they should receive a nice gift from the student.
Gifts might be regarded as bribery, and could offend the teacher.

Another subject that gets a lot of play in the book is SAT tests and scoring. The SATs were created in the early twentieth century to eliminate the discrimination by Harvard and other Ivy League schools found in their less data-driven admissions practices, and became the go-to criteria for academic aptitude for a long time. Now, however, after outcries from activists who believe that the SAT is biased towards rich, white folks, a number of more "progressive" universities are de-emphasizing the SAT - ironically, since it was "progressives" who created it in the first place.

Without getting deeply into the issue of why it's a good thing to go to college, and why politicians of any stripe are promoting universal university access (hint - "access" means someone else pays for it) for every student. It makes a great sound bite to support education - don't we all? - and makes the sheep believe you actually care about them more than just at shearing time (April 15), it's a well known fact that a college degree is the ticket to admission to leadership in business, politics, engineering and the sciences. It's also been obvious for about as long as higher education has existed in this country that poor people probably aren't as well prepared for college as rich people. Duh. However, the folks with FairTest (is that like Fair Tax?) have pulled out all the stops to remove all hints of bias, condescension, and exclusivity from the SAT as now being presented. I think they may have actually surgically removed its utility as a collegiate yardstick, as well.

Patterns in SAT result data have indicated for quite a while now that Asians outperform whites, Whites outperform Hispanics, Hispanics outperform blacks, rich outperform poor, and men do better than women on some sections, while women do better on others than men. True to form, eh?

"You could react to this pattern in one of three ways. Option one is to ask what relevance group numbers had in a country, and an educational system, where merit is supposed to attach to individuals, not groups. Option two is to note that the data reveal that some test takes - owing to their schools, their family lives, their neighborhoods, the social services they were provided, the expectations of parents and friends - had been less prepared for college than other test takers and, as a result, had a slimmer chance of doing well in some colleges than in other colleges. Option three is to insist that something is wrong with the test.

The activists chose number three."

I liked the passage about the new "allowance" made for students who claim to be learning disabled by ADHD. They get to take an extra hour on the test. As soon as this option was made available, a huge number of students claimed to be ADHD, and their scores on the test went through the roof - better than "normals". As Gomer Pyle would say, "Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!"

Also, when the mean score on SATs fell between 1941 and 1995 in both the verbal and mathematics sections - which to me indicates that there's a problem with how well our public schools are preparing children (an entire wild and crazy topic in and of itself) - the solution was to "re-center" the test, adjusting all the scores so that a 425 on the old scale becomes a 501 on the new. Un-ummm-believable.

The facts are that, if you average together (in general over a large enough statistical sample) a student's grade-point average in high school and their SAT scores, it is a very strong predictor of what sort of grades they will get their first semester in college. In response to critics like Lani Guinier (wasn't she a Clinton advisor?) who say that the SAT should be called a "wealth test", UCSB education professor Rebecca Swick writes, "it's impossible to find a measure of academic achievement that is unrelated to family income." Every other way of putting a metric on academics correlates strongly with family income. Which provides even more evidence to my long-held hypothesis that the prime factor in scholastic achievement is the parents of the student.

It's not saying that poor children cannot do well, or that they are necessarily less intelligent, but perhaps has something to do with priorities. When you are struggling just to survive daily life, it's hard to sit down with the kids and help with homework, to provide extracurricular supplementary activities on your own or to pay for school-sponsored one, or even to make sure that there is enough appropriate reading material in the house, and that reading, writing and math skills are seen as highly valued by the family.

Reading about colleges marketing themselves, the cynic in me wonders if the constant political rhetoric about "everyone must go to college" is the result of colleges lobbying their pet congresscritters in order to ensure a steady plentiful stream of "customers", and especially customers who will spend money in the first year or two, then drop out, so that the college won't actually have to part with its precious "product", the baccalaureate.

I have a ton more I could say about Ferguson's book, and Ferguson has a ton more to say about the insanity involved in getting into a college to obtain the all-important degree these days. But I've already run way too long. Read the book!

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