Did your child not get accepted to the elite college of his or her choice earlier this month? Are you freaking out because now you think he or she will have to go to a lower-ranked school? A lot of educational, economic, and social experts have written a lot of good things about how this needn't be a terrible blow to your child's future. And I'd like to add to that wisdom, but not by focusing on college. Because if you're looking to give your kids a better education and a better path to financial and career success, college is not the place to start.
Just about everyone agrees that a superior education is still the best bet to make it in this country. Count me among that group, but with some important disclaimers. First, I don't believe a great education necessarily means going to a highly-ranked college, even if that college is an Ivy League school. And second, it's entirely ridiculous for parents and kids to freak out over the college application process. Great educations, to be truly called that, have to begin earlier. I would argue that means the parents have to start properly educating their children themselves right from birth. But it also means the focus should be on the middle school to high school years at the very latest.
But how do you know which school is best when it comes to measuring your child's chances for success in adult life? It's not as easy a question to answer as you might think, because the best middle and secondary schools in America measured by curricula, faculty and test scores aren't necessarily the best when you check back with the graduates of those schools 10, 20 or 30 years later. Based on what I've seen from my own educational path, I've come to realize that the geography and community surrounding a school are probably more important when it comes to measuring its alumni success.
I don't put too much emphasis on luck, but I do try to acknowledge where I've been fortunate. And I was truly fortunate to have been born into a two-parent home with a mom and dad who placed my and my sister's education on the top of their priorities. That remained true regardless of where we lived. And that's why the two best schools I ever attended were in totally different parts of the country and didn't resemble each other very much in any other way either. The one common denominator was that my parents carefully decided to send me to them.
In my elementary school years, they sent me briefly to Norfolk Academy in the Tidewater region of Virginia. While it was not a boarding school, it had many of the same trappings. It was founded in 1728, (not a typo, and yes that is four years before George Washington was born), had a rigorous admission exam, sit-down meals served at lunch family style, a full slate of foreign language, fine arts, and athletics requirements, etc. I was just a pre-teen when I went to Norfolk Academy, but it remains the most rigorous academic challenge I ever faced in my life and that includes my four years at an Ivy League college. The only reason why I didn't spend more years at Norfolk Academy was because my family moved to New York in 1981. But what I learned there both academically and socially plays a profound role in my decisions and thought processes to this day.
The other school that influenced me the most was extremely different. It was my all-Jewish, Modern Orthodox high school called the Yeshivah of Flatbush located on the very urban streets of the Midwood section of Brooklyn. Flatbush was a tough school too, particularly because failure to learn Hebrew fluently basically meant you weren't going to graduate. But the priorities there were different. Superior college admissions were somewhat important to both the parents and the administration at my high school, but not the top priority by a long shot. Our teachers there wanted to make sure we grew up to be productive and valuable members of the Jewish community. Part of that was religious instruction, but Flatbush was and is unique for its extensive Zionism education that included a historic, political and cultural immersion into all things Israel. That emphasis naturally led to school-sponsored activism, not only for the State of Israel but also, (in my high school years of the 1980s), Soviet Jewry and the plight of the remaining Jews trapped in Arab lands. Norfolk Academy focused on the whole student as well, particularly by requiring a complete set of extracurricular activities with a special emphasis on the arts. Athletics were also a major part of life at the Academy, something that was barely on the radar at Flatbush. To be frank, Norfolk Academy did and does a better job providing its students every skill that you'd think would give a young person a better chance at succeeding in the secular business or political world as an adult.
But consider this: while Norfolk Academy had a superior secular curriculum, a more prestigious faculty, and a better path to elite college acceptance, the funny thing is the graduates of my Jewish high school in Brooklyn are more successful when strictly measured by the criteria of career success, aggregate wealth, and even political prominence. And this is true of an entire era of graduates from the years 1960-2000. It's the Yeshivah of Flatbush, and not Norfolk Academy, that has two Nobel Prize winners among its alumni. It's the Yeshivah of Flatbush that has Pulitzer winners. It's Yeshivah of Flatbush alumni who you're more likely to find at the highest levels of government and in the private sector.
Diversity of career choices and gender disparity also present a stark contrast. Grab five graduates from Norfolk Academy from the classes of 1960-2000 and you'd be hard pressed to find three of them who don' t have the same job. Grab five graduates from Yeshivah of Flatbush from the classes of 1960-2000 and you'd be hard-pressed to find three people who DO have the same job.