TBR: Kindergarten Wars/Ivy Chronicles

Today’s book review is a special two-for-one deal: two books on the crazy world of private elementary school admissions, one non-fiction, one fiction.

The nonfiction book is The Kindergarten Wars: The Battle to Get Into America’s Best Private Schools, by Alan Eisenstock. (Tip of the hat to Jennifer at MamaNoire who recommended it a while back.) Eisenstock was on the board of directors of his kids’ private school, and after years of watching the admissions process, decided to write a book about it. He interviewed a bunch of families across the country, and writes about the experiences of four composite families as they move through the process, from the first tours of the campuses until they receive the admissions letters and decide which schools to attend.

The main message of the book is that the process is nuts. The schools have far fewer slots than applicants. They can rule out some kids who are emotionally or mentally delayed (private schools are not required to accept children with disabilities or other special needs), but that still leaves them with far too many applicants. So, they wind up deciding based on arbitrary factors such as the gender breakdown of the kids who have sibling preference, and the characteristics of the parents. And because the only way to for the parents to justify the high cost of private school and the pain of the applications process is to fall in love with the schools that they’re applying to, they wind up convinced that their kids’ lives (or their own) will be notably diminished if they don’t get in.

Overall, Eisenstock sends a somewhat mixed message about the private schools. On the one hand, he seems to uncritically accept the parents’ claim that they have given their public school options a fair consideration and found them lacking. He even loads the dice by talking about Pastor Sweetie Williams, whose son, Eliezer, was the named plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the state of California for inadequate funding of public schools. (Williams appears for a few pages and then disappears from the book – I’d love to have heard more of his perspective on the applications process.) But then, in the end, Eisenstock suggests that the children who go through this process wind up burnt out and exhausted by the time they finish high school.

As it happened, while I was reading The Kindergarten Wars, I happened to notice The Ivy Chronicles, by Karen Quinn on the book swap shelf in my office. I picked it up, and finished it off in a few days worth of commutes. The heroine of the book, Ivy Ames (like Quinn herself) is a downsized corporate executive who reinvents herself as a private school admissions consultant. The back of the book proudly quotes a review from the New York Post that claims that The Ivy Chronicles "picks up where The Nanny Diaries left off." Well, this book makes the Nanny Chronicles look subtle and deeply characterized. Early in the book, Ivy needs to make herself a crib sheet to keep her clients apart with shorthand tags (the mobster, the lesbian couple with the adopted child in a wheelchair, the wall street mogul) and I found myself flipping back to that page with alarming frequency.

As you’d expect, the Ivy Chronicles ends with everyone getting what they deserve, including Ivy herself finding true love, while her most obnoxious client goes to jail for trying to bribe the FDA to approve a drug in order to influence kindergarten admissions. Over the top? Implausible? Yes. Except that we live in a world where Jack Grubman really did get an analyst at Saloman Smith Barney to change his rating of AT&T to get his kids into preschool. (As a writing teacher once told me, "In a world this strange, who needs fiction?")

In her comment, bj suggested that parents who aren’t going through the process are unlikely to read The Kindergarten Wars. I’m not sure that’s true. One audience for the book is certainly parents of pre-school aged children, who want to learn what to expect. But I also think there’s an audience of people who would never apply to private schools, and read the book so they can shake their heads at those goofy rich people. The scary thing is both audiences will find the Ivy Chronicles fills the purpose almost as well.

As for me, what I took away from the books is that no school is so good as to justify the pressure that some of these parents put on their children. No 5 year old should see that their parents’ happiness and self-esteem depends on how well they perform. I may yet someday apply to private school for my kids, but if I do, it will be knowing that the application process is a crapshoot and largely beyond my control. And that they’ll be just fine whether they get in or not.

8 Responses to “TBR: Kindergarten Wars/Ivy Chronicles”

  1. Angry Pregnant Lawyer Says:

    D’oh! Patience is a virtue, but it’s not one of mine. Sorry Typepad ate the post.

  2. bj Says:

    I was annoyed by kindergarten wars. I hate the journalistic trend of changing all details and still saying that the book is something other than fiction.
    We actually went through a process very similar to the ones described in the books (it’s amazing, really, how much energy people are willing to put into the process). To those who haven’t gone through it, the book might be an interesting revelation. But, people who aren’t going through are pretty unlikely to read the book, aren’t they.
    In a similar vein, I preferred the New York urban mama genre book “Admissions”, which is fiction, but captured the same info (about high school admissions instead), without pretending to journalistic accuracy. Well, and allowed for some funny over the top elements.

  3. Christine Says:

    I recently found out from a neighbor that since our public school district likes to keep class size small there are actually waiting lists for kindergarten. Basically, if the closest school is full a child can be sent to another elementary school within the district. This can mean the difference of traveling a few blocks to a few miles for a 5-year-old.

  4. pink Says:

    I picked up The Ivy Chronicles as a quick read and definitely fall into your second category of people who will never send their kids to private school and I often find myself shaking my head at the goofy, rich people. When we moved to Cleveland last year, we only targeted suburbs with excellent school districts. As a result, in Shaker Heights we pay the highest taxes in the state, but have outstanding schools. I’d rather pay my money in taxes and have my child go to school in our neighborhood than pay tuition and have her with a “select” group of students. (Of course, the absurb thing right now is that we’re paying almost $10K/yr to the JCC for preschool/daycare. I can’t wait until she’s in kindergarten!)

  5. momzom Says:

    I mean no disrespect, but I’m not sure there’s an enormous difference between selecting a school district with high taxes and excellent schools and selecting a private school, in terms of the student body. I went to (nominally) public school in a high-tax suburb, and I must say, we were a pretty “select” group of kids. There was next to no racial or religious diversity, and this was a suburb of a university town in a state where one would expect much more of a mix. True, we weren’t skills or IQ tested to enroll in school, although there was a pretty unsubtle tracking program in middle school and honors classes in high school, but there was most certainly a means test thanks to high housing prices.
    Also, some people are ardent about private schools and in a tizzy over admissions not because they are plotting the path to the Ivy League and sterling life prospects for their child, but because they want their child to have a particular, religious education. That’s probably a tiny sliver of people jockeying for private school entrance, I know, but we aren’t all goofy, rich people. I mean, I’m certainly goofy, and by all statistical measures we’re rich, but that’s not the motivation for private school for us.

  6. pink Says:

    Not to highjack the comments, but to respond to momzom, in our case, Shaker Heights is incredibly diverse–and on purpose. When founded in the late teens, it was a very white suburb and eventually had laws on the books keeping it that way. By the 60s, however, not only were the laws stricken, but financial programs were put in place–that continue to today–that give grants to families of color buying houses in predominantly white neighborhoods and to white families buying houses in predominately African-American neighborhoods. The commitment to diversity is another part of why we bought here. (Moving to a much smaller city from DC, we didn’t want our child growing up in all-white suburbia.)
    BTW, my husband and I are both products of private schools–in his case 12 years worth. For his parents, it was about Catholic education; for mine, my brothers had gone to the public high school and gotten into drugs, my mom didn’t want that for me–I guess she didn’t think that I would be able to resist. 😉 I agree that a lot of parents choose private schools for religious reasons, but I don’t think anyone on the outside is thinking of those families when shaking their heads at the goofy rich folk.

  7. LoryKC Says:

    Our kids attend Catholic school in the Midwest. Hubbie went to Catholic school almost all of his life; I did not until Catholic college.
    We’re lucky here…no ridiculous admission tests and tuition is the most reasonable I’ve seen. Our decision is purely for the religious aspect…the public school system here is excellent as is the private. Living in a college town–it seems to be required.
    What has astounded me since moving here is that it is a college town with very highly ranked public schools and private schools but there is a huge home-schooling population.
    However, after all this rambling, I haven’t read the above mentioned books so I’ll get on that soon!

  8. Lisa O Says:

    “But I also think there’s an audience of people who would never apply to private schools, and read the book so they can shake their heads at those goofy rich people.” You forgot the potential audience that includes me. I am – by most measures (tax bracket, AGI, value of our home) – a rich person. But I am one who will not be applying to private schools, and may read the book so I can shake my head at the goofy rich people who will because they think it will really make that big a difference or because (here I go … I’m about to say it … watch out) they are anxious about having their kids in a school with a mostly non-white or non-affluent population.
    I know this is an incendiary comment. But lately I get so worked up about education and the assumptions of parents in my cohort (I have a four-year-old who will start K fall of 2007) … I have decided to be outspoken about my belief that our kids will be fine where ever they go to school BECAUSE THEY ARE OUR KIDS (e.g. the products of upper-middle-class, college-educated white folks) and that being educated in a culturally and socio-economically diverse environment is more important that having French lessons in Kindergarten and 15 instead of 20 kids in a class. Probably I’ll just end up offending a lot of people. But maybe someone who was on the fence will hear me and at least tour a public school and wind up being surprised by how much good learning is going on.
    We could afford to send our kid to an elite private school, but I don’t see the value. And, we have a choice of dozens of public schools (Seattle School District) but my daughter is going to her neighborhood school. (This is a neighborhood of extremes, mind you: $3 million dollar homes within 10 blocks of subsidized housing.) The school that my daughter will attend is about 85% non-white and 65% free or reduced price lunch. And (but?) it has decent test scores (which doesn’t matter so much to me – my kid will pass the state standardized tests if she is in a school with a 20% pass rate or in one with a 90% pass rate, the crucial metric about these things being parent involvement, after all), a phenomenal principal, committed teachers, computers in every classroom, art, PE, library, a brand new (grant-built) playground and an active PTA. Why oh why would I pay $10,000 or more to send her any where else? Why would I pluck my kid out of a diverse neighborhood to send her to a homogenous school? Sorry to go on – obviously I have some, um, feelings about this.

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