Private Schools Have Become Truly Obscene
Elite schools breed entitlement, entrench inequality—and then pretend to be engines of social change.
Photo illustrations by Oliver Munday and Arsh Raziuddin; renderings by Justin Metz
This article was published online on March 11, 2021.
Updated at 7:42 p.m. ET on March 26, 2021.
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 re-opening 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 Princeton, 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.
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.
By the time their kids get to the upper grades, parents want teachers, coaches, and counselors entirely focused on helping them create a transcript that Harvard can’t resist. “This kind of parent has an idea of the outcome they want; in their work life they can get it,” Evans told me. “They’re surrounded by employees; they can delegate things to their staff.” In their eyes, teachers are staff. But the teachers don’t work for them.
Why do these parents need so much reassurance? They “are finding that it’s harder and harder to get their children through the eye of the needle”—admitted into the best programs, all the way from kindergarten to college. But it’s more than that. The parents have a sense that their kids will be emerging into a bleaker landscape than they did. The brutal, winner-take-all economy won’t come for them—they’ve been grandfathered in. But they fear that it’s coming for their children, and that even a good education might not secure them a professional-class career.
“Half of lawyers say their income doesn’t justify the tuition they spent on their degrees,” Evans told me. Getting into a top medical school has become shockingly difficult; in 2018, U.S. News & World Report found that the average admission rate among 118 ranked medical schools was 6.8 percent. For the very best ones? The rate is 2.4 percent.
Daniel Markovits, a professor at Yale Law School, coined the term meritocracy trap—a system that rewards an ever-growing share of society’s riches to an ever-shrinking pool of winners. “Today’s meritocrats still claim to get ahead through talent and effort, using means open to anyone,” he has written in these pages. “In practice, however, meritocracy now excludes everyone outside of a narrow elite.” This is a system that screws the poor, hollows out the middle class, and turns rich kids into exhausted, anxious, and maximally stressed-out adolescents who believe their future depends on getting into one of a very small group of colleges that routinely reject upwards of 90 percent of their applicants.
Pediatricians who see a lot of these kids tell me that they’re starting to crack, and that some parents try to help their kids keep it together by asking doctors for study drugs or even sleeping pills. The feeling that the child isn’t doing as well as she could—combined with the knowledge that with the requisite documentation, students can take their SATs and ACTs untimed—often has Mom calling her friends, locating the right educational psychologist, and subjecting the teenager to a battery of tests. The doctor almost always finds something.
The one thing the parents will not do is consider that perhaps this high-pressure school is itself the problem. The student must stay on track, take the drugs, inform her teachers of the disabilities that come “under her portfolio,” and keep her eyes on Stanford.
But the parents are also cracking up—and perhaps they, too, should be medicated. Two years ago, their anxieties led a group of them to rise up in an astonishing act of insurrection, storming a citadel of thwarted desire and presumed chicanery in Washington, D.C.: the college-counseling office of Sidwell Friends.
When a private school vaults over the rest of the pack, it is often because the school has attracted a famous parent, someone respected enough that the enrollment seems to be an endorsement. At Sidwell Friends, a Quaker school in Washington, D.C., there were four such parents: Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Barack and Michelle Obama. (Richard Nixon also sent his daughters to the school, inciting no stampede. But today he would provide a little diversity to the parent body: He was an actual Quaker.)
The school is now so flush that its campus is a sort of Saks Fifth Avenue of Quakerism. Forget having Meeting in the smelly old gym. Now there is a meetinghouse of sumptuous plainness, created out of materials so good and simple and repurposed and expensive that surely only virtue and mercy will follow its benefactors all the days of their lives. The building’s citation by the American Institute of Architects notes that the interior is lined with “oak from long-unused Maryland barns” and the exterior is “clad with black locust harvested from a single source in New Jersey.”
Like all Quaker schools, Sidwell aims to help children listen for and respond to the still, small voice of God. But it’s safe to say the contemporary Sidwell parent cares more about college admissions than about Quakerism. And if she tells you the two go hand in hand, then she doesn’t really understand college admissions (or, perhaps, Quakerism).
At this point there is no answer to the question “How do you get your kid into Sidwell?” Nobody knows. The best strategy might be to launch an improbable run for United States president and then—if successful—turn in the application and hope for the best.
Quakerism provides a kind of seawall, protecting its followers from the corrupting tides of money and power. But like all seawalls, it can be breached. Two years ago, parents at Sidwell Friends finally slipped the surly bonds of decent behavior and went wild. Some parents of the class of 2019, feeling the pressure of the college-admissions cycle, initiated a campaign of intimidation, surveillance, lurking on campus, and sabotage that bubbled up into the press and revealed Sidwell for what it had become. The still, small voice of God is no match for the psychic scream of Bethesda.
“Get hold of yourselves,” a shaken Patrick Gallagher—then the director of the college-counseling office—wrote to the 12th-grade parents in a December email. You could tell what these people must have been up to by the new policies that Gallagher outlined. They included: not placing calls from blocked numbers or sending anonymous letters; not meeting with counselors to spread gossip about other students; not secretly recording counselors’ conversations.
The most astonishing of Gallagher’s admonitions was this: “While I often arrive at the office well before 8:00 a.m., that does not mean a parent should ever be waiting for me in the vestibule, parking lot, or outside my office door.” This is what prosecutors in murder cases call “lying in wait.”
Gallagher’s email made it clear that parents had been trying to thwart others’ college prospects in order to enhance their own children’s odds. He sent his missive shortly before winter break, which in private schools is the equivalent of a Friday news dump. It was the kind of school communication that simultaneously put bad actors on notice and reassured the other parents that evil was not triumphing. Inevitably, every parent in the senior class was freaked out that their own children might have been targeted.
After the break, the school’s head, Bryan Garman, sent a follow-up email reiterating the policies Gallagher had announced. He also reminded parents that the college counselors would not “respond to any inquiry for student records” for other people’s kids. The parents’ behavior, Garman said, had become “increasingly intense and inappropriate” and had included “the verbal assault of employees.” But these transgressions were placed within a therapeutic context of acceptance and nonjudgment. College admissions, he wrote, “can stretch the patience and emotional capacity of parents.” (If you want to know if you’re rich, try behaving badly and see if someone in authority will apologize for stretching your patience and emotional capacity.) By the end of the school year, two of Sidwell’s three college counselors had quit.
College admissions is one of the few situations in which rich people are forced to scramble for a scarce resource. What logic had led them to believe that it would help to antagonize the college counselors? Driven mad by the looming prospect of a Williams rejection, they had lost all reason.
Private schools regularly make decisions that parents don’t understand. Like ancient peoples, the parents try to make sense of the clues. They decide that college admissions must be the god of private school—wrong—or that the god must be AP scores, or sports, or institutional reputation. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.
The god of private school is money.
At an independent school, there are no tax dollars, no municipal bonds, no petitions demanding additional funding for the district. Everything seen and unseen was paid for with funds the school raised itself: every blade of grass, smartboard, academic building, office hour, soccer ball, school psychologist, new paint job, and historic chapel with stained-glass windows spilling colored light onto honeyed pews.
Tuition dollars typically cover some, but not all, of the school’s operating expenses. That’s what they tell you, anyway, and they always have a pie chart to prove it. No matter which school, where it is located, or how rich the clientele, the administrators are always chasing the dragon of this “shortfall.” Personally, I’ve come to doubt the whole premise. But it is apparently the best way to facilitate the shakedown called annual giving, the once-a-year fundraiser where new parents still gasping from the first payment on the $50,000 tuition find out that more is expected from them. The bread and butter of these schools is the two-career couple who care greatly about their children’s education and can afford it, but not easily.
The really big money comes in through the capital campaigns. These are fundraising events dedicated to financing a major school project: paving the locker rooms with gold coins, annexing Slovakia, putting out a hit on a rival headmaster. The campaign gets some cockamamie name—“Imagine the Future” or “Quid Pro Quo”—and lasts several years. There has never in history been a private-school family that slid in and out of the institution without overlapping with one of these campaigns.
Consider Choate Rosemary Hall, in Connecticut, which in 2006 announced the “public phase” of its capital campaign “An Opportunity to Lead.” The goal was $200 million—although when the campaign was grandly announced in November of that year, it turned out that the school had already earned more than $100 million during a two-year period of “silent,” preliminary fundraising. The gifts included $12 million from the Walton family; $20 million from Herbert V. Kohler Jr., of the plumbing dynasty; and $6 million from a woman who had graduated from Rosemary Hall in 1927.
Two years after the campaign began, the worldwide financial crisis hit. That didn’t slow down the campaign, which would eventually bring in $217 million. But—as a sign of sound stewardship—the school informed alumni and other concerned members of the community that it had decided to freeze faculty salaries. This was a high school with a total enrollment of 850 students and in seven years it had raised almost $260,000 per student. And still the school wants more. Currently Choate is in the silent phase of its next capital campaign; in 2019, the school stated that its goal was to raise $300 million.
What forms of payment will these schools accept? You name it. No matter what your assets, they’ll find a way to cash them out for you. The Spence School, in New York City, notes that you can make a donation by credit card, by check, or by a gift of securities—shares of stocks or mutual funds. You can designate money for the school in your will, or donate funds from your retirement plan, or make the school a beneficiary of your life-insurance plan, or form a charitable trust.
The inescapable truth is that money guides all sorts of decisions at these schools. Michael Thompson has observed that schools are investing more and more in the “parent-school relationship,” which is excellent from the standpoint of fundraising but not necessarily from that of schooling.
Over the years, I’ve talked with many private-school kids who feel that there is a separate set of rules for the children of huge donors. And in my opinion, they’re absolutely right. Private-school donations are the result of carefully developed personal relationships between the top employees at the school and individual donors. It’s not unreasonable for a big donor to expect preferential treatment for his or her child. And it’s not unusual for him to get it.
Last summer I spoke with a graduate of Princeton’s class of 2020, Liam O’Connor, who had come to Princeton from a public school in the town of Wyoming, Delaware. He chose the prestigious college because, “out of all of the places I applied to, it came out as the cheapest one.” Cheaper, even, than the University of Delaware, to which he would have paid in-state tuition.
In high school, O’Connor had spent two summers fulfilling his state-mandated physical-education requirement so that he could squeeze in more science classes during the school year. Even so, when he got to Princeton he found that he was not nearly as prepared as the private-school kids, as well as those who had come from a select group of admissions-based public high schools. “It was like I was given a pair of binoculars, and I could see that there were many people far ahead of me,” he told me.
O’Connor wrote a series of articles in The Daily Princetonian about the advantages that these students have at the university. Whereas the math curriculum at most American high schools tops out at Calculus I, he reported, “multivariable calculus and linear algebra—subjects normally reserved for college sophomores or juniors—are widespread among moneyed high schools.” Andover offers organic chemistry, as do several other top private schools.
All of this preparation doesn’t just help private-school kids get into elite colleges; it allows them to dominate once they get there. Over the past decade, O’Connor reported, two-thirds of Princeton’s Rhodes Scholars (excluding international students) came from private schools. So did more than half of the winners of the prestigious Sachs Scholarship, which provides two graduating students the opportunity to work, study, or travel abroad.* Forty-seven percent of the winners of “class legacy prizes”—academic awards given to students in each class—attended private schools. This is why wealthy parents think it’s life-and-death to get their kids into the right prep school—because they know that the winners keep winning.
Parents are obsessed with finding out which are the feeder schools to the best colleges. College counselors tell parents that times have changed and there are no longer schools that lead directly to one elite college or another. But they aren’t being fully honest about that.
As a high-school senior, Sai To Yeung hadn’t known many students who had gone on to highly competitive colleges, but he decided to “dream big” and was thrilled when he got into Harvard. He felt that the admissions process needed to be demystified. He told me that he’d decided to bring “order out of chaos” and tracked down information on which schools had sent students to three colleges: Harvard, Princeton, and MIT. I asked him how he had obtained it; he said he couldn’t reveal his method. Liam O’Connor double-checked much of Yeung’s data for Princeton and found that, except for “a few mistakes,” the information was correct.
The result of Yeung’s research is a website called PolarisList. Looking over the data for Princeton’s classes of 2015 through 2018 is bracing. The list of sending schools is dominated by highly selective magnet schools, public schools in wealthy areas, and famous prep schools: the Lawrenceville School, Exeter, Delbarton, Andover, Deerfield Academy. Among the top 25 feeders to Princeton, only three are public schools where 15 percent or more of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
If you went to Lawrenceville, a boarding school not far from Princeton and the university’s top sending school, your chances of going to Princeton were almost seven times greater than if you went to Stuyvesant High School, an ultra-selective public school in New York City and itself a top Princeton feeder, where 45 percent of the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. But compared with an average American public school? You don’t want to know.
Here is another big number that really needs to be investigated: More than 50 percent of the low-income Black students at elite colleges attended top private schools, according to Anthony Abraham Jack, the author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students. This means that these schools, which collectively educate a tiny proportion of Black teenagers, have a huge influence on which of these kids get to attend the best colleges. To some in education, this is a cause for celebration—the old route to social and professional success has within it some dedicated lanes for Black children from low-income families. To others, it is a cause for concern—if these children want to attend an elite college, their best bet by far is to spend their adolescence in a school where the experience of being Black is, for many, a painful one.
As part of last summer’s protests, Black students and alumni of certain private schools began a powerful Instagram campaign in which they anonymously described racist encounters. Most of the posts detail recent experiences, but the older ones are often the most haunting. One post, by a man who graduated from Exeter in 1984, caught my attention. “I remember just minding my own business, a Black boy strolling through the gym on a Saturday afternoon. A gymnast was performing, and I could see her gracefully leap through the air, doing all kinds of motions I found very curious.” A white woman came up to him and told him to mind his own business. “She implied that I was not appreciating an athletic feat, but simply ogling at a young white girl.
“To this day,” he wrote, “I think of her shrill, demeaning voice when I see a gymnast perform on TV, even if that gymnast is Simone Biles.”
Among the posts from more recent students, what’s striking is that several kinds of experiences were related over and over: the expectation that Black kids would be excellent athletes (and possibly weaker students); insulting assumptions about Black students’ family backgrounds; teachers repeatedly confusing the names of Black students; other students constantly reaching out and touching Black girls’ hair; and non-Black students using the N‑word. Read collectively, these posts are a damning statement about the schools.
Last summer, I spoke with Saidah Belo-Osagie, a graduate of Spence’s class of 2014, who is Black. The school had put her on a straight path to the things she wants most in life: She went to Penn, where she realized she had a passion for television and movies. Now that is her field. In 2018, she worked on When They See Us, and got to watch Ava DuVernay direct a scene—someone who is telling exactly the kinds of stories she wants to tell, and doing it at the highest level.
We talked for more than an hour, and Belo-Osagie spoke fondly of friends she’d made at Spence and teachers who’d inspired her. But toward the end of the interview, I asked if there had been any negative aspects to the experience. She said that in all the prep-school diversity-and-inclusion programs, “there’s always this preface of ‘Okay, we’re now welcoming you to the majority, where you should be’—with the white people, so to speak.” But “inherently within that, you are sacrificing who you are as a person—and it’s not like that would ever happen on the opposite end.” There had been costs to going to Spence. One of those, she now realizes, was “sacrificing my Blackness.”
Dalton has always considered itself progressive in every sense of the word, and it has long been regarded as a leader among private schools in addressing the concerns of its Black students. But the complaints expressed on the Black at Dalton Instagram account could not have been a surprise.
Over the summer, Jim Best, the school head, announced that he had “committed Dalton to becoming a visibly, vocally, structurally anti-racist institution.” He issued plans for making this transformation. But the teachers had their own ideas.
In December, a document that 120 faculty and staff members had signed over the summer became public. It outlined a list of proposals: Half of all donations would have to be contributed to New York public schools if Dalton’s demographics did not match the city’s by 2025; the school would have to employ a total of 12 diversity officers (roughly one for every 100 students); all students would be required to take classes on Black liberation; and all adults at the school, including parent volunteers, would be required to complete annual anti-racist training. Tracked courses would have to be eliminated if Black students did not reach full parity by 2023.
Private-school parents have become so terrified of being called out as racists that they will say nothing on the record about their feelings regarding their schools’ sudden embrace of new practices. They have chosen, instead, anonymous letters and press leaks. In December, someone from the Dalton community leaked the teachers’ list to Scott Johnston, who writes often about elite education. He published it on his website, The Naked Dollar, where it got enormous traction. The Wall Street Journal asked him to write an opinion piece, and he did—it ran under the attention-grabbing headline “Revolution Consumes New York’s Elite Dalton School.”
Best wrote to parents saying that the list was not of demands but of “conversation starters.” However, a few weeks later, a group of anonymous parents—it’s unclear how many—wrote a long, plaintive letter, which was also leaked, complaining about changes that had already taken place.
It’s quite clear that over the summer, when schools across the country were thinking deeply about how to reopen and teach students, the Dalton administration was on a crusade to radically transform the school’s curriculum and pedagogy.
According to the letter, in science class there have been “racist cop” reenactments, art class has focused on “decentering whiteness,” and health class has examined white supremacy. “Love of learning and teaching is now being abandoned in favor of an ‘anti-racist curriculum,’ ” the parents wrote. “Every class this year has had an obsessive focus on race and identity.”
The tensions at Dalton are fascinating: Are there enough wealthy white parents willing to pay $54,000 a year to have their kid play the part of Racist Cop in science class (or—the final insult—to have him cast as Racist Cop No. 2)?
The parents had demands of their own, including an immediate halt to curriculum changes. According to Scott Johnston, some board members feel the letter itself is racist, and the school has taken the extraordinary step of scrubbing the names of board members from its website.
The parent letter was gleefully mocked. But these aren’t parents in the public-school system; they are consumers of a luxury product. If they are unhappy, they won’t just write anonymous letters. They’ll let the school know the old-fashioned way: by cutting down on their donations. Money is how rich people express their deepest feelings.
Over the summer, once Manhattan’s private-school families had fled the city for their houses in the Hamptons—after they had called Citarella for a delivery, and told the gardeners to open up the pool and the cleaning women to air out the bedrooms—many of them settled down to read White Fragility (or at least to read about White Fragility). But it’s one thing to feel chastened in the Hamptons; it’s another to come back to the city and have your child casually ask if you’re a white supremacist.
At Harvard-Westlake School—where I taught so long ago and from which one of my sons graduated—some faculty members have adopted a practice that has become common in colleges: acknowledging that the campus sits on Native lands. As one middle-school English teacher wrote on her syllabus: “We recognize the Kizh, Tongva, Chumash, Tataviam, Serrano, Cahuilla, Luiseño and other Native peoples as past, present, and future caretakers and stewards of this land. We honor them by also building a relationship with Mother Earth.”
An Instagram account called Woke at Harvard-Westlake was created in response to the school’s new anti-racist initiatives. One of its posts opines on the fraudulence of these pious acknowledgments, given that the school has pulled yet another fast one on Mother Earth. It has purchased even more presumably Native land, for $40 million—and is now shaking down parents to help refurbish the acquisition, a private tennis club located a mile from the upper-school campus.
Writes the administrator of the account:
On the one hand we can laugh at this latest example of HW’s comical embrace of Radical Chic. But on the other, our kids are being taught terrible values: that hypocrisy and dishonesty are fine so long as you virtue-signal the right fashionable politics. And that those fashionable politics are basically meaningless—they are just for show, a way to make being privileged and wealthy truly guilt-free.
The problems at these schools are endemic to their business model. Their existence depends on an unseemly closeness between the wealthiest parents and the most powerful administrators. The current system is devoted to excess—bigger, better, more. The schools compete with one another over programs and campuses; many have such luxurious facilities that they’re almost revolting.
The kind of changes that would solve their problems would involve not only limiting the amount of money that individual parents can give, but also accepting that schools don’t need to be showplaces. In order to become more equitable, they would have to become less opulent—and risk missing out on a few rich parents. But in their typical way, they want the tennis club and to be regarded as hubs of social change.
In a just society, there wouldn’t be a need for these expensive schools, or for private wealth to subsidize something as fundamental as an education. We wouldn’t give rich kids and a tiny number of lottery winners an outstanding education while so many poor kids attend failing schools. In a just society, an education wouldn’t be a luxury item.
We have become a country with vanishingly few paths out of poverty, or even out of the working class. We’ve allowed the majority of our public schools to founder, while expensive private schools play an outsize role in determining who gets to claim a coveted spot in the winners’ circle. Many schools for the richest American kids have gates and security guards; the message is you are precious to us. Many schools for the poorest kids have metal detectors and police officers; the message is you are a threat to us.
Public-school education—the specific force that has helped generations of Americans transcend the circumstances of their birth—is profoundly, perhaps irreparably, broken. In my own state of California, only half of public-school students are at grade level in reading, and even fewer are in math. When a crisis goes on long enough, it no longer seems like a crisis. It is merely a fact.
Shouldn’t the schools that serve poor children be the very best schools we have?
When I started teaching at Harvard School, it had not yet become the world-conquering Harvard-Westlake, with a second campus in the heart of Bel Air. I arrived in 1988 at age 26. There was wealth, but it wasn’t as visible. The campus was still a bit ramshackle, with outbuildings tucked into the hillside, some of them left to molder. An academic building leaked so badly during heavy rains that for a week or so we’d all have to squelch down the soaked industrial carpeting in the hallways, leaving wet footprints on the linoleum floors of the classrooms.
I could not have cared less.
In those innocent days, I thought of schools as places of actual transformation. You came in as one person and left as another. In the fall, the Valley heat was intense, and Macbeth was weird. In the spring, the jacaranda trees burst into flower and Macbeth was ambitious. And after that, it was time for the boys to leave. We didn’t have anything else to give them.
This article appears in the April 2021 print edition with the headline “Private Schools Are Indefensible.”
* This article originally stated that two-thirds of the winners of the Sachs Scholarship over the past decade came from private schools. In fact, more than half did.
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