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Privilege + Expectations [should] Have No Place in Education

I was presenting at a conference last week in Quito, Ecuador where one of the participants kept shaking his head as I spoke. He was not happy. At one point he raised his hand. “Yes, but I have parents who because they send their child to my school expect that we will be sending their child to an elite university. So none of what you say speaks to me.” (I was presenting on the topic of schools implementing new programming in order to use the university application process as a change agent for families and students, as opposed to it being a source of stress, anxiety, pressure and terror all-around.)

Today a colleague sent several of us an article written by a former student of an “elite” New York City high school claiming that her high school was terrible. Her argument was, as far as I could understand, that her high school was not good because it incited a great deal of stress among its students for university admissions—and she presumably did not get admitted to a top one. Yet her argument was weak; she claimed elitist characteristics—attending said high school, speaking several languages “fluently”, “reading Aristotle”—and yet also claimed to have bowed out to being a participant (perhaps because she did not get in to an “elite” university) in the elitist race. To me it reeked of blame and taking no responsibility.

Both scenarios are unjust. And, not to the students. They are unjust because they assume “elitism” gives anyone within that realm an upper hand. And, with all of the fire and fury and madness that revolves around university admissions—anyone who reads me knows that I am steadfastly against the pressures we put on our families, students and the weight we put on few “top” universities as if they will be the end all be all for our young adults’ futures—we have to talk very directly about this issue of elitism and righteousness and very adroitly nip it in the bud.

The attendee at my talk in Quito—a leader at an international school—never came around to my argument and left unsatisfied. This didn’t bother me so much as the expectation—either his own or that placed upon him--that the buck cannot stop with a parent demanding the impossible because of his/her standing, because of being a card-carrying-elitist. (And, by elitist I mean privileged-with-expectations—privilege in the form of money, power, some sort of high social standing—and expectations because of that. Privilege is not the problem in and of itself. The issues foment when privilege is tied to expectations and favoritism and that the privileged expects certain favors, results and actions based on his/her wealth, power, social standing.) This educator—perhaps under serious pressure from the Board or other body—wanted answers less on how to help parents and students actually grow positively through the university admissions process (which would undoubtedly reduce these over-the-top expectations) and more on how to work with or satisfy these types of parents. And yet telling them the facts—that this is a merit-based process—was not going to cut it.

And so we have a problem.

Schools are very keen to show prospective families how successful they are in teaching and preparing their students by showing placement numbers and names for university where their students attend. We automatically associate this list of placements with the quality of education the school gives. Yet, it’s unrealistic and, if anything, a partial truth. Perhaps this attendee at my session was under great pressure to “deliver” to the “best” families. Ethically wrong and morally unconscionable. And, not to mention, quite irrelevant when speaking about a merit-based process like the university application one. If the child has terrible grades and a bad attitude, it will be tough to convince that reputable university to accept him. And yet the story with the student writer is similar. The expectations that she presumably had by attending an “elite” high school were tied to top placement and special treatment. But, that onus is on her, no one else.

The process needs to be explained and roles and responsibilities need to be clearly defined. This must come from the school. And, of course, the governing board must support this.

I sat in on a Director’s meeting at the same conference and one Head spoke of how his school very clearly defines itself as one based on fit. That mission then extends to university and post-secondary placement/advising. They are very open about not being test-driven, names-driven. He said there are several other international schools in his city that are just the opposite in terms of mission, and where elitism also plays a part. I asked him if he’s seen attrition due to that. “Just the opposite. We have had several families come to us from those schools who value our mission and know it’s better for them and their child in the short and long run.”

How are other schools handling this issue of elitism? Or is it a taboo subject? I have learned from my colleagues and seen that the best policy is the most direct and open. Such is the case with the Director mentioned above. Exacting responsibilities is critical in any community and continually reinforcing that through words, values and actions is what any educational community must do. It benefits not just the institution but clearly the parents and families as well. If you know how a system works and are supported in understanding it—even if you don’t agree with all of it—you can understand your place within it and draw up realistic expectations. This leads to mutual understanding, contentedness and readiness. The opposite—unrealistic expectations based on status—lead to suspicion, blame and unhappiness.

Elitism—privilege with benefits—has no place in education (or society, for that matter) and by recognizing it as educators perhaps we can help to shape expectations and create a fairer playing ground which would ultimately relieve stress on all sides and make for more time to educate instead of greasing the squeaky wheel.

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