The culture that is Manhattan James Heckman gone wild edition

A mad-as-heck Manhattan mom says her daughter’s Ivy League dreams have been all but dashed — and she’s only 4 years old.

Nicole Imprescia is suing the $19,000-a-year York Avenue Preschool, saying her daughter, Lucia, was forced to spend too much time with lesser-minded 2- and 3-year-olds when she should have been focusing on test preparation to get into an elite elementary school.

The suit, filed in Manhattan Supreme Court, notes that “getting a child into the Ivy League starts in nursery school” and says the Upper East Side school promised Imprescia it would “prepare her daughter for the ERB, an exam required for admission into nearly all the elite private elementary schools.”

But “it became obvious [those] promises were a complete fraud,” the suit says. “Indeed, the school proved not to be a school at all but just one big playroom.”

The miffed mom yanked her daughter after just three weeks — but the school is refusing to refund the $19,000 she had to pay up front, said her lawyer, Mathew Paulose.

The article is here.  For the pointer I thank Michael Rosenwald.


CPS should visit this woman's home.

What the deuce do they ask on the ERB exam? I'd love to see some questions.

It's the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence -- in other words, the standard IQ test. Everybody who is anybody in Manhattan has their 4-year-olds take this IQ test to try to get into an exclusive kindergarten.

But having a four year old who has never taken a test before take a high-stakes test is a dicey proposition, so preschools in Manhattan are turning into test prep centers. Except this one, evidently, where they just let the preschoolers play. The horror, the horror ...

I attended a rural public high school, and still had my pick of top-tier colleges (early acceptance at Caltech, MIT lobbying hard for me). If a child needs to start in pre-school to get into the Ivy League, that is a problem of the Upper East Side, not of education.

Someone should mention she has a better chance of getting into Harvard if she comes from a poor African country. 19k might be better spent relocating to Zimbabwe.

"If a child needs to start in pre-school to get into the Ivy League, that is a problem of the Upper East Side, not of education."

Some kids get into elite colleges by turning out really, really smart. But others get in via an 18-year grind -- leaving no stone unturned, checking every box, using every connection, and pursuing every possible advantage, however slight. This the latter approach.

Poor kid. This lawsuit will be the top Google result for her name for a long time.

If the parents were so easily able to deduce this 'one big playroom' theory after only three weeks, shouldn't they have been able to see this coming when they were doing their research prior to spending $19,000 to send the child there? Generally, when I am going to spend $19,000 on something, I do a little bit of due diligence. No other parents seem to be suing...

But in antique domain, this principle is not applicable. Big firms may guarantee the authenticity of grabs, small antique shop, nobody guarantee true and false, even plain code marks a price can do, see you his eyesight. Moreover, if the consumer protection law, the stock buyers requirements,

+1 to Slocum's point.

Personally, I am not at the point that this mother is as far as plotting my children's education. However, with a child in the 9th grade, a child in 3rd, and a child in 1st, let me share some things I have learned:

Tracking matters a great deal. It is easier to get into a top college from a top high school than from a non-top high school. It is easier to stay in a top high school than to move to one. It is easier to get into a top high school from a top middle school. Recurse and repeat, and I can easily see a high-net-worth individual paying $19,000 for a premium pre-school.

Some additional tips, some of which were learned the hard way:
a) Tracking matters within a school: It is easier to stay in an honors track than to move from non-honors to honors.
b) Plan with long-term goals in mind. Know what the courses are in high school as you look at middle school coursework. Your kid likes history? Taking the best Social Studies class senior year in high school may require Honors English in the 9th grade, which is easier to get into if your kid is taking Honors English in 8th grade.
c) Always consider overall GPA: Weigh the benefit of exposure to a significantly challenging course against the negative consequences of not getting into the preferred college OR preferred high school OR preferred middle school.

This is horrible.

In high school, I didn't care that much about overall GPA, in that I was willing to take a class I would only get a B+ in. (I also took Geology, which wasn't AP despite having a college-level test, over AP Biology, which was AP and so got a boost in GPA totals.) Effectively meaning I had no chance at being valedictorian. I still got into an elite college from a public school.

So did I -- good GPA but not near straight-A and 99th percentile SAT/ACT scores. I also had an after-school job and didn't pad my CV with extra-curricular activities. 30 years ago, that kind of record used to get you into the honors college of a public Ivy, but it doesn't any more -- GPA is much more heavily weighted and test scores less so.

That sucks.

In some ways. A single test score is an awful way to rate someone whereas GPA should reflect all test scores. Of course if you are like me you took all the high school honors courses available and finished out with a 3.92 GPA. However, considering that 7 of 9 valedictorians took 0 honors courses their senior year, I would have been a much more appealing college student if I had not taken the English Honors classes that "killed" my GPA.

"A single test score is an awful way to rate someone whereas GPA should reflect all test scores."

Except that you pointed out why it doesn't -- high schools differ substantially in their difficulty, and so do courses within a high school. My understanding is the trend toward de-emphasizing test-scores came because males outscored females and minorities did particularly poorly which was considered evidence that SATs were unfair. Now that the GPA is the dominant factor, the undergrad student body is approaching a 60:40 female-to-male ratio (which is, of course, not evidence that high-school grading is unfair). Going back to putting more weight to test scores would bring back more gender balance since males still outscore females -- even on the verbal portion of the test). But on the other hand, GPA is a better of conscientiousness and willingness to comply with rules and authority, so it depends upon what you value.

Might be rational; but is still scary. Poor kids.

This mother does sound fanatical. Her daughter could grow up to be a rebellious strumpet or slit her wrists because of mommy issues. I think the outcome would be very similar even if the child was raised by a total crack whore.

Do you remember the "Chinese mothers are superior thing?" Even though we didn't like what the crazy Chinese lady said, all sides of the political spectrum seemed to say, "Yeah, she kinda has a point." American parents are doing such a great job that we now have to give certain people extra points, out of "fairness", on tests because they are simply too stupid to become police officers. Lets give ourselves a collective pat on the back because Colleges now penalize Asians with higher admission standards than the rest of our idiot population.

We knit-pick how some engaged parents raise their children but we seem to ignore the expanding regions of our population where "parents" expect someone else--the government--to raise their kids. I'm just sayin'.

I don't mean to nit-pick, but the word is not knit-pick. Nicely recursive.

What's the marginal return on primary-through-secondary education track? (All margins, not just income or prestige.)

From where I stand, that marginal return isn't worth sapping a person's childhood to "leave no stone unturned, check every box, use every connection, and pursue every possible advantage, however slight."

(PS- Economists should stop saying "marginal return on" and start saying "partial derivative with respect to,")

Agreed! Why do economists insist on having their own vocabulary for everything?

This mentality, though usually not so extreme, is very noticeable in many of the people I've met from the Northeast US. I grew up and live "out west," so this always jumps out at me as a major regional difference. "Brand name" colleges are essentially worshipped in some circles, and admission is possibly life's highest end.

I'm all for education, but this mentality is grotesque.

One nit-pick: "nit-pick"

The return to education should not be a ticket to the next rung. Maybe kindergarten needs more washouts.

19 grand is not that big a deal to a lot of Manhattanites. It seems that people here are mostly upset that someone thinks public schools suck enough to pay money to avoid it. Cheap private schools are not as common in the NorthEast as they are in other parts of the country. Public schools have gotten worse since the 80's...standardization is bigger than ever..."no child gets ahead" is the national theme.

Read the big honcho education officials and it is clear that the services for the top 25% of IQ kids are being culled in order to throw more money at the bottom 25% of IQ kids....or at least to throw money at promotions that are supposedly for the bottom kids.

I've seen it first hand with my 7 year old... kids who read are told to sit in the who can'tread get the teacher attention for months straight in prep for the BIG TEST.

needless to say, we fled to private school.

Public schools in the US are very reminiscent of a lemon-market at times.

Rahul asks: "What the deuce do they ask on the ERB exam? "

The ERB exam required for admission to most prestigious kindergartens in Manhattan and the better part of Brooklyn is the Wechsler IQ test. From New York Magazine

"Though the exam is colloquially known as the ERB, the Educational Records Bureau is simply the organization that administers it. The actual exam is the revised Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence -- the wppsi for short. It is composed of verbal and performance subtests designed to explore everything from a child's vocabulary to his ability to perform fine motor skills and solve math problems. The test usually runs between 45 minutes and one hour in length.

""The ERB test has been described as shooting flies with a bazooka," says John Dexter, the head of the Trevor Day School. "It's a full-battery IQ test.

The irony is that when you read Manhattan media types denouncing the entire concept of IQ testing as "discredited," you should keep in mind that most of them have paid hundreds of dollars to have their children's IQs tested -- at age 4! -- so they can win admission to exclusive kindergartens.

Thanks Steve!

It was interesting to read that one of the factors causing the unreliability of the Wechsler Intelligence Test was "retesting, practice and familiarization". Now we know what preschool does.

The big problem about canned IQ tests (even for adults) is that they can be gamed by suitable practice.

The idea of testing four year olds is pretty dubious in general. Presumably, intensive test prep is more likely to have a big effect on the test scores of 4-year-olds than on 14-year-olds because 14-year-olds have taken a lot of other tests before. On the other hand, without test prep, the 4-year-old might never have taken a test before the Wechsler, and thus is in danger of totally spacing out on the whole concept of what is expected, as lots of anecdotes suggest.

The point of the mom's complaint is that age four is such a marginal age to test IQ that the ERB exam might be substantially prepable if the preschool would drill the children on the stuff on the test instead of letting them play.

It's all very Tom Wolfe-worthy.

Suing the private pre-school for a tuition refund does not seem like the best strategy to gain admittance to a private elementary school.

Can't she just use some more money into .....ummm....tempting one of those "elite private elementary schools" to bypass the ERB tests for her kid? There ought to be a sliding scale where money compensates for a lower score.

Nursery University, a brilliant documentary on this phenomenon

I am very surprised that people are focusing on the $19,000/year number. I live in a modest-to-working class suburb of a major city, and full-time pre-school (a step above daycare, but not academically rigorous) costs $15,000/year. $19k for Manhattan for something that bills itself as educationally rigorous sounds like a positive steal.

This hits home, as we have a daughter who is not quite two yet, and we are already caught up in trying to figure out how to steer through this process. Apparently, we've missed "key deadlines" for getting into the right sort of "feeder programs" for the sort of preschool at issue here. So we've hired a school consultant, a move that two years ago I would have viewed as utterly insane.

To further complicate things, we are hearing from other parents and our school consultant that the trend is now moving away from explicit coaching, as many of the programs are doing independent screening for signs of coaching to the test. This may be one explanation why this particular program has shifted in emphasis. Not sure how effective this is, but it certainly adds to the overall anxiety and confusion as to how to proceed.

Several things have struck me as unusual about this woman's decision to sue. First of all, since getting into the "good" preschools and kindergartens is extremely competitive, the absolute last thing anyone would want to do is become known as being the sort of person who would file this sort of lawsuit. It's not clear to me that any even moderately competitive program would even consider admitting someone who would pull a stunt like this. One of the first thoughts I had on reading this -- again, admittedly crazy if I put on my two-years-ago hat -- was "well, of course they'll have to move."

My broader take on the situation here is that this process is clearly not a rationally maximizing effort focused on getting one's children into the right college or being "successful" by traditional measures. (Setting aside more nebulous value functions like being "happy" or "well adjusted"). As an earlier poster mentioned, you might be better off moving to Zimbabwe, or at least Wyoming. When people say it's "easier" to get into a top college from a 'top high school", etc., this is based on percentages, at schools where everyone's goal is to get into an ivy league school, vs. schools where ivy league schools aren't even on the radar for most kids. If you took the same kid / family / expectations / etc. and plopped them into a low-sending zip code, kids would quite likely have better odds. I periodically suggest moving to Idaho, but this has not been well received.

Sending children to these schools, along with all the attendant drama, is one of the key acts of performative consumption required to be a part of a certain subculture in this city. And, like many cultural issues, it's hard to step back and objectively analyze the reasonableness of values and expectations that have accreted over time from friends, co-workers, neighbors, etc. I have a certain amount of sympathy for this woman, both despite and because of the clear madness and futility of her decision to sue the school.

Salguod, that is utterly insane. Rational for the current system, but that just means the system is insane.

Which makes me think about how much of this is tied in with the winner-takes-all paradigm our country seems to be racing towards.

starts in nursery school” and says the Upper East Side school promised Imprescia it would “prepare her daughter for the ERB, an exam required for admission into nearly all the elite private elementary schools.”

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