Dalton is one of the most selective private schools in Manhattan, in part because it knows the answer to an important question: What do hedge-funders want?
They want what no one else has. At Dalton, that means an “archaeologist in residence,” a teaching kitchen, a rooftop greenhouse, and a theater proscenium lovingly restored after it was “destroyed by a previous renovation.”
“Next it’ll be a heliport,” said a member of the local land-use committee after the school’s most recent remodel, which added two floors—and 12,000 square feet—to one of its four buildings, in order to better prepare students “for the exciting world they will inherit.” Today Dalton; tomorrow the world itself.
So it was a misstep when Jim Best, the head of school—relatively new, and with a salary of $700,000—said that Dalton parents couldn’t have something they wanted. The school would not hold in-person classes in the fall. This might have gone over better if the other elite Manhattan schools were doing the same. But Trinity was opening. Ditto the fearsome girls’ schools: Brearley, Nightingale- Bamford, Chapin, Spence.
How long could the Dalton parent— the $54,000-a-kid Dalton parent—watch her children slip behind their co-equals? More to the point, how long could she be expected to open The New York Times and see articles about one of the coronavirus pandemic’s most savage inequalities: that private schools were allowed to open when so many public schools were closed, their students withering in front of computer screens and suffering all manner of neglect?
The Dalton parent is not supposed to be on the wrong side of a savage inequality. She is supposed to care about savage inequalities; she is supposed to murmur sympathetically about savage inequalities while scanning the news, her gentle concern muffled by the jet-engine roar of her morning blowout. But she isn’t supposed to fall victim to one.
In early October, stern emails began arriving in Best’s inbox. A group of 20 physicians with children at the school wrote that they were “frustrated and confused and better hope to understand the school’s thought processes behind the virtual model it has adopted.” This was not a group with a high tolerance for frustration. “Please tell us what are the criteria for reopening fully in person,” they wrote. And they dropped heavy artillery: “From our understanding, several of our peer schools are not just surviving but thriving.”
Shortly after the physicians weighed in, more than 70 parents with children at the lower school signed a petition asking for the school to open. “Our children are sad, confused and isolated,” they wrote, as though describing the charges of a Victorian orphanage. They were questioning why “everyone around them gets to go to school when they do not.”
Parents at elite private schools sometimes grumble about taking nothing from public schools yet having to support them via their tax dollars. But the reverse proposition is a more compelling argument. Why should public-school parents—why should anyone— be expected to support private schools? Exeter has 1,100 students and a $1.3 billion endowment. Andover, which has 1,150 students, is on track to take in $400 million in its current capital campaign. And all of this cash, glorious cash, comes pouring into the countinghouse 100 percent tax-free.
These schools surround kids who have every possible advantage with a literal embarrassment of riches—and then their graduates hoover up spots in the best colleges. Less than 2 percent of the nation’s students attend so-called independent schools. But 24 percent of Yale’s class of 2024 attended an independent school. At Prince ton, that figure is 25 percent. At Brown and Dartmouth, it is higher still: 29 percent.
The numbers are even more astonishing when you consider that they’re not distributed evenly across the country’s more than 1,600 independent schools but are concentrated in the most exclusive ones—and these are our focus here. In the past five years, Dalton has sent about a third of its graduates to the Ivy League. Ditto the Spence School. Harvard- Westlake, in Los Angeles, sent 45 kids to Harvard alone. Noble and Greenough School, in Massachusetts, did even better: 50 kids went on to Harvard.
However unintentionally, these schools pass on the values of our ruling class— chiefly, that a certain cutthroat approach to life is rewarded. True, they salve their consciences with generous financial aid. Like Lord and Lady Bountiful, the administrators page through the applications of the nonwealthy, deciding whom to favor with an opportunity to slip through the golden doors and have their life change forever.
But what makes these schools truly ludicrous is their recent insistence that they are engines of equity and even “inclusivity.” A $50,000-a-year school can’t be anything but a very expensive consumer product for the rich. If these schools really care about equity, all they need to do is get a chain and a padlock and close up shop.
I’ve been following these schools for many years, in part because I once taught at one. Before I got that job, I had no idea this type of education existed.
In very small classes, we read very good books and pressed the students to think deeply about the words on the page. A lesson plan was not a list of points for the teacher to make; it was a set of questions. Even better: a single question. I always joked that the perfect lesson plan would have been to wait until the students had assembled in the classroom, throw in a copy of The Iliad, and go to lunch. By senior year, it might have actually worked. By then, they knew what we were teaching them to do. “The seventh grader says Macbeth is weird,” my department chair told me once. “The 12th grader says Macbeth is ambitious.” Once students could make discernments like that, it was time for college.
In each department, there was one old black clunker of a phone, but it hardly ever rang. Very rarely, a mother might call to fret about her kid a bit, and you’d lean against the file cabinet muttering encouragement while looking at your colleagues with an expression that said, Can you believe this shit? It was then an all-boys school. We didn’t have feelings and mothers. We had hard work and athletics. The idea was: Cut the cord! The idea was: We’ll take it from here.
But my very first year, I came into the crosshairs of a mother who still flashes through my nightmares. Her kid was a strong student—a solid, thorough student— but he was also aggressive and mean. Furthermore, I felt that his concerns did not lie with the muses and poets.
One day I gave him an A– on a creative-writing assignment. Soon after, the mom called, and she was pissed. I explained that this grade wouldn’t lower his average, but she didn’t care. She wanted to come to the school with her husband and meet with me. I assumed that I wouldn’t have to agree to such a preposterous request but it turned out that I did. For 45 horrible minutes I sat in a borrowed office with the father (clearly mortified) and the mother (rageful) discussing the merits of this 10th grader’s poem, each of us locked into the same kind of intractable positions (they wanted me to change the grade; I wanted them to drop dead) that led to the fall of Saigon. They were coming in with force, and I wouldn’t budge.
The next year, I returned to school, took my class lists out of my mailbox, and discovered that I had the kid again. I raced to the division head and asked if I could move him to another section (something his parents were surely trying to do themselves), but no-go. Day after day, he sat solidly in his seat, pumping out his excellent close readings and in-class writing. One day, however, he didn’t meet the mark, and earned another A–. I handed back the essays, and headed to the English- department office for some R&R. Not 10 minutes later the phone rang—it was the mother! Complaining about the grade! How was this possible? I'd just handed him the essay. As she carped away, an image materialized before me: the campus payphone, which was bolted to the side of an academic building, and rarely used. I hurried off the call.
“That little fucker called his mother from the payphone!” I said to my friend.
“What a loser !” she said supportively. (There were older teachers who mentored us, and who never called their students “fuckers” or “losers.” But their lessons took a few years to sink in.)
Yet again I had to meet with the parents. Back to the borrowed office, back to the miserable dad and the steaming mother. But I knew I had graded the paper fairly. Once again they left unhappy.
THINGS WERE SHIFTING IN THE WORLD OF PRIVATE SCHOOLS. PARENTS WERE GAINING AN UGLY NEW SENSE OF POWER.
Here’s how you know that this private-school story is a quarter-century old: The school had my back. When I talk to today’s private-school teachers, they no longer feel so unilaterally supported. Many schools have administrators whose job it is to soothe parents—but who often suggest to teachers how they can help with that task. If the mom had called the brass (which I’m sure she did), no one told me about it. Nor did anyone at the school inform me that these parents were major donors. In those days there was an understanding that the teachers kept the kids in line, and the administrators kept the parents in line.
But the meeting was also notable because of how unusual it was for parents to argue about grades. Back then parents still trusted schools like ours. They understood that—with some rare exceptions (see above)—we had a deep affection for these boys, cut them a break when they needed one, and found ways to nudge their grades upward at the end of each year, so that their work was rewarded. There was no better feeling than writing a college recommendation for a kid and a few months later having him burst into your office with the magic words: “I got in!”
I left the school in the mid- 1990s, and in my final weeks, another strange thing happened, but to a different teacher. A father was so angry about his son’s French grade that he demanded an audit, with the teacher reading out the boy’s marks from her grade book while Dad angrily punched the numbers into his son’s graphing calculator. That also seemed like something she should not have had to do, but things were shifting in the world of private schools. Parents were gaining an ugly new sense of power.
It was much easier to laugh at private-school parents before I became one. After teaching for seven years, I had seen what was possible at the secondary- school level, and I was determined to get that kind of education for my own children, whatever the cost. But it wasn’t until I changed teams—from private-school teacher to private-school parent—that I really appreciated how overwrought these places were.
Michael Thompson’s 2005 book, Understanding Independent School Parents (co-written with Alison Fox Mazzola), gave me a clearer insight into the many dynamics of private schooling. Thompson, a psychologist, has visited or consulted at some 800 of these schools. In his view, high-powered parents don’t realize that they’re coming in like a ton of bricks, expecting to talk to a fifth-grade teacher the same way they talk to their own junior employees.
“The relationship between independent school parents and their children’s teachers has only grown more intense,” Thompson wrote in the introduction. “Administrators and teachers are spending more time focused on the demands and concerns of parents than they ever did in the past.”
A decade and a half later, the problem has gotten worse—so much so that Thompson is writing a new book, this time with Robert Evans, another psychologist. “What’s changed in the last few years is the relentlessness of parents,” Evans told me. “For the most part, they’re not abusive; it’s that they just won’t let up. Many of them cannot let go of their fears that somehow their child is being left behind.” They want constant reassurance.
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