So there’s a picture in the Times this morning of Allison Snyder, for whose Bat Mitzvah I recently journeyed to New York City for, all Ethel Merman-esque, arms extended, belting out a song in an audition for a high school for the performing arts. The article is about Allison’s efforts to get into high school, and the challenges she is facing in choosing the right school. The point of the article is that Allison’s mom, my good friend Clara Hemphill, as the author of numerous books on rating and evaluating the city’s best and worst public schools, has in many ways the same problems as any other parent; a bewildering array of choices, deadlines, essays, interviews, and hoops through which to jump on the way to making a high school decision for Allison. As Clara says, they made a conscious decision first to get crazy about the Bat Mitzvah (at which, as I have already noted in a previous post, Allison, ever the experienced trooper, just wowed ‘em) and then get crazy over high school.
I suppose the article conveys the gift of a bit of Christmastime schadenfreude to parents in similar situations. If Clara Hemphill, the reigning deity of picking the best high schools, is frustrated, I guess its okay that little mortal me is having similar problems. (I know all parents like this dreamed they could be like Michelle Obama who had the administrators of Washington’s best private schools falling over themselves to admit Sasha and Malia, rather than telling her “we’re very sorry but you missed the deadline and we don’t accept transfers during the school year.")
But the underlying point of the article is that the high school application process in NYC has become such a meritocratic muddle that few parents can figure it out, or can afford the time to maximize the options of their children, which means that the best positions often go to those who do have the time and money to figure it out, the children of the well-heeled and well-connected. Nothing has been more oversold in the three decade reign of the free market than the importance of “choice,” and whether the abundance of choice in education has been a good thing or a bad thing seems to me something very open to debate. (The answer, unsurprisingly, is some of both. Some choice is better than no choice when the only available option is unsatisfactory, but too much choice creates a perpetual game of musical chairs when parents are forever running after a limited number of desirable seats. Choice is good when it leads to fundamental changes in the underlying product, but all too often all that changes is the complexity of choosing.)
I hope Allison, a very talented performer, gets into the school that most enhances her artistic and academic potential. And I hope that Clara continues to produce her first rates guides to what has become the teeming complexity of the high school application process. The need is there, and there can be no better cicerone than Clara. But there is a part of me that feels, to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht on heroes, while guides to high school education serve an important purpose, unhappy the land that needs guides to high school education.