How a Kid Is Like an IPO

Novelists Andy Trees and Eliot Schrefer.Photo: Eric McNatt for New York Magazine

While Andy Trees was teaching American history at Horace Mann, Eliot Schrefer was SAT-prepping many of the same Ivy-hungry kids at Advantage Testing. Each has written a roman à clef—Trees’s is called Academy X and Schrefer’s, Glamorous Disasters—set in a private-school culture so obsessed with college admissions that it has turned education into a customer-service business. They got together over coffee with Alexandra Wolfe to compare notes.

How many of these private-school students have SAT tutors on the side?
Eliot: At a school like Horace Mann, I’d say at least 50 percent.
Andy: It’s more that new money will really crank up the college insanity. There’s greater desperation. Kids become proxies for the parents to carry on their status wars.

But the kids must absorb this stress.
E: They’re worried about losing what they grew up with. They’re caught between fear and ambition.

Are the stakes higher now that it’s even harder to get into college?
A: Today they take a business-consulting model and apply it to education. It’s like putting together an IPO.
E: The accountability has shifted from the student to the provider. You do some teaching, but you’re also playing a numbers game with finances. It’s a very specific objective. It’s not increasing knowledge. Parents want their child to get into a certain school and have a certain amount of wealth and power afterward. So they bring in the consultant to best achieve that goal. I would analyze the situation, come up with a plan, and we would go ahead and map it out. We’d be like, the verbal has to go up x amount, the math x amount. You feel as though you should have a PowerPoint display behind you.

Are the schools supposed to be a part of this plan?
A: Yes, and the parents don’t help. A friend who teaches at another private school told me that a teacher there received a letter on a parent’s legal stationery from his law firm after his son got a bad grade in the class.

In your book, a mother tries to pay the protagonist to take the SAT for her child. Did that ever happen to you?
E: Not directly, but I did find out about a student who was paid $5,000 a pop to take the SAT for other students, and he took it month after month. It’s remarkably easy to do. You just get a fake ID. If it’s good enough to get you into a club, it’s probably good enough to get past a proctor for the SAT.

Are things just going to just get worse?
A: They’ll just keep drawing more and more students into the same mold, and the numbers of applicants to the Ivy League schools will keep growing. Right now, parents are much better off moving to Montana and pretending their child is homeschooled.

How are city kids different?
E: I had a student in seventh grade working on analogies for the SSAT you take to get into high school. One said, “Chicken is to coop … ,” and she was struggling with it, so I said, “Try to make a sentence linking the words.” She said, “If you live in a co-op, you can’t own chickens.” She’d never heard of a coop, but she knew all about co-ops. Another one had a poster of Josh Hartnett in a gilt eighteenth-century frame. Next: A Vegetarian Refuge for Randians

How a Kid Is Like an IPO