Smartest Kids in the World: American Private School

Are you a rich American? Maybe you can buy your children a Finnish-style education by sending them to private school. Amanda Ripley explores this possibility in The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.

In 2011, I took a tour of a Washington, D.C., private school that was hard to get into and cost about $30,000 a year. Sunlight streamed through the skylights. As I walked down the hall, the sound of kids learning in different languages filtered out into the hallway. There were muffins in the principal’s office. It felt like a learning spa—a parent’s dream.

When the head of the school talked, nothing she said made sense to me. There was a lot of jargon about the curriculum and vague promises of wondrous field trips and holistic projects. All the visiting parents nodded;

Then a parent with three children at this school took us for a tour. We saw gleaming floors, bright, colorful walls, beautiful, framed art projects, and other seductive tokens. Finally, one visiting father asked a good question: “Every school has its weaknesses. What is this school’s weakness?” I lifted my head, straining to hear what our tour guide would say. “You know, I’d have to say the math program is weak.”

What did it mean if the math program was weak at a school that made small children take I.Q. tests before they were even accepted? That particular parent wrote a check each year for about $90,000 to this school to cover the tuition for her three children. Wouldn’t she demand decent math classes in exchange? But no one said anything.

Then the tour guide parent added one more thing: “Oh, and I wish the football program was stronger.” Suddenly, the parents perked up. “Really, what do you mean? Is there not a football team? What age does it start?”

Perhaps this explained why our most affluent kids scored eighteenth in math compared to affluent kids worldwide: Even wealthy American parents didn’t care about math as much as football.

Fortunately not every American private school has been ruined by football-crazed American parents:

At the Success Academy charter schools in New York City, students spend an hour and a half reading and discussing books each day. Then they spend another hour and a half writing. Kids start learning science every day in kindergarten. That’s what rigor looks like. In most New York City public schools, kids don’t learn science daily until middle school. That’s not all. Success Academy students also take music, art, and dance; they learn to play chess. They almost never skip recess, even in bad weather—a policy they share with Finland. They call their strategy “joyful rigor.” Does this work? All fourth graders at Success Academy schools are proficient in science, according to New York City’s test, and 95 percent perform at advanced levels. Success Academy Harlem I, where the mostly low-income students are randomly admitted by lottery, performs at the same level as gifted-and-talented schools across New York City.

At these schools, kindergarten teachers are forbidden from speaking to children in a singsong voice. It’s hard to respect children when you are talking down to them.

“It’s an insult to the scholars’ intelligence,” writes founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz and her co-author Arin Lavinia in their 2012 book, Mission Impossible. “What the teacher is saying should be so interesting that the kids are sitting on the edge of their seat, hanging on every word. It’s intellectual spark that holds and keeps their attention, not baby talk.” Parental involvement means something different at Success Academies; parents are not asked to bake cookies or sell gift wrap. Instead, they are asked to read to their kids six nights a week.


4 thoughts on “Smartest Kids in the World: American Private School

  1. re: ‘Success Academy Harlem I, where the mostly low-income students are randomly admitted by lottery, performs at the same level as gifted-and-talented schools across New York City.”

    This demonstrates that expectations and rigor matter. I think a lot of new age, everybody wins, classroom culture is thin cover for teachers, admin staff, and parents that are not up to high performance standards. The world is competitive.

    I’m surprised that obviously successful D.C. parents were not alarmed at a weak math program. Best guess, their success comes from the world of politics and/or lobbying. Not NASA.

  2. Amanda Ripley: “You know, I’d have to say the math program is weak.”…But no one said anything…Then the tour guide parent added one more thing: “Oh, and I wish the football program was stronger.” Suddenly, the parents perked up. “Really, what do you mean? Is there not a football team? What age does it start?”

    I call B.S. This conversation never happened. A $90K per year private school likely does not have a football program at all; moreover, a $90K per year private school likely has zero black students to field a football team.

    Or, maybe the tour guide actually meant, “I wish we had more black students so our football program would be stronger.”

  3. E: I’m not sure how carefully you read the original post. It was not a $90,000/year private school that Ripley toured, but a $30,000/year school. And I was not aware that football could be played only by people with a particular skin color. But in any case, a quick Google search for the ritziest private school in the D.C. area (where Barack Obama chooses to send his children while telling Americans that they should actually send their own children to public schools) brings up and indicates that Sidwell Friends plays football against the Maret School ($35,000/year plus textbooks and fees) and the Potomac School (a 90-acre campus! Tuition is $35,000 per year for grades 9-12).

  4. Americans are sports crazy but the teachers at my kids’ private schools were mostly very well qualified – lots of PhDs, etc., not a lot of state teachers college types, so they were more or less Finnish quality teachers. My kids went to (a supposedly good) public school for elementary school and it would drive my wife nuts when assignment sheets came home with spelling mistakes on them, the teacher would send out newsletters with grammatical mistakes, etc. That kind of stuff did not happen at the private schools.

    Another aspect of private schools is that you get to go to school with intellectual peers. In my daughter’s graduating class of 36, there were 6 National Merit semifinalists – the only other place where you would find that kind of ratio would be at a top magnet school like Stuyvesant. I would not dismiss private schooling so lightly. YMMV.

    Regarding Success Academy, note that these are primary schools. I would be more impressed if these kids were followed thru high school. The real problems in American education (and the hormones) kick in at the higher grades. Also, sometimes the way these schools get such good results is by cheating – having the teachers correct mistakes on standardized tests, etc. I have no evidence that is going on at Success Academies, but virtually every study ever conducted anywhere and any time has shown a correlation between parental income and school performance, so it would be truly miraculous if Success Academy was the one school on earth where this was not true.

    Here is a link that shows some skepticism. This is from the blog of Diane Ravitch, who is a well respected education expert.

    “Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News reports that Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter school celebrated its first graduation from middle school, with disappointing results. Although Moskowitz has boasted for years that her schools had overcome the achievement gap and that all her students are high performers, Gonzalez pointed out two inconvenient facts:

    1. The graduating class started with 73 students in 2006 but only 32 remained to graduate.

    2. Not one of the Success Academy graduates qualified to enter the city’s eight elite examination schools, such as Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Tech.

    Twenty-seven of the graduating class took the entrance exam for the elite schools but none scored high enough to gain admission.”

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