Leaders in Moral Courage: The Calhoun School and The Mandell School

by Shamir A. Khan, Ph.D. on May 8, 2010

NYC PsychologistAs reported in Jenny Anderson’s NY Times article, The Calhoun School and the The Mandell School will drop the E.R.B. admissions requirement in Fall 2010.

Not only do I highlight, but I celebrate the moral courage of these two Upper West Side schools and their leaders, Gabriella Rowe and Steve Nelson:

“The reality is that none of us can truly trust the E.R.B. results because the prepping materials are so accessible,” said Gabriella Rowe, head of the Mandell School.

Steven J. Nelson, head of Calhoun, considered one of the city’s more progressive schools, said he was skeptical that a test could accurately measure a 4-year-old’s intelligence. “Even worse is the emphasis that is placed on the test that creates a culture of frenetic overachievement,” he said.

Given the amount of public information that is available about this test and the amount of prepping that goes on for it, I’m surprised that it has taken this long for schools to finally take a stand. For many NYC parents (who are willing to pay over $30,000 per year per child), the old sentiment was prepping for ERBs was seen as an advantage. Now, the culture is, if you don’t prep, you are putting your child at a disadvantage — you must be an incompetent, uninformed, uncaring parent.

As a clinical psychologist who has administered many of these psychological assessments, I believe they can, in and of themselves, provide valuable information, when used in an appropriate and novel environment. They are standardized, scored on a developmental scale, and normed using a national population. The current corrosion of some of these standardized tests (e.g., WPPSI, WISC, Stanford-Binet, OLSAT) across the NYC kindergarten admissions system is troubling (for examples see: Bright Kids NYC, Urban Baby post 1, Urban Baby post 2, KTSS, How to Ace the ERB, Urban Baby search).

Every ISAAGNY school faces the same dilemma: given the volume of applications, how do they manage their admissions process in an ethical and efficient manner? It takes chutzpah for ISAAGNY member schools to now reject the ERBs and no longer subject their parents, staff, and children to it.

In mulling over the Calhoun and Mandell decision, I was reminded of Irshad Manji, the founder of the Moral Courage Project, housed at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service:

Ms. Manji is fond of this quote from Robert F. Kennedy (from his speech to students at the University of Cape Town): “Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet is it the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.”

Ms. Rowe and Mr. Nelson seem to understand the issues presented in the film, Race to Nowhere, which Mr. Nelson alludes to in his quote:

Ms. Rowe and Mr. Nelson, in your leadership and each of your school’s courage, you have provided your students with role models of what it means to take a stand, what it means to be an innovator, and what it takes to make difficult choices.

Our system is broken. It is time to acknowledge it and pull our heads out of the sand. We must begin to come up with solutions. To that end, the Educational Records Bureau will be trying an electronic version this Fall. We look forward to seeing the solutions that The Calhoun School and The Mandell School use to handle this tension between ethics and efficiency as they navigate the process in the Fall.

The revolution has now begun. I wonder which NYC Private Schools will be a part of it and which will remain stuck as passive bystanders. The eyes of the next generation of leaders are watching.

About the Author: Shamir A. Khan, Ph.D., is the Founder & Publisher of the NYC Private Schools Blog.

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