Dick Hubert’s Worldview: Blind Brook’s, and the Nation’s, ‘504’ problem: A national cheating scandal
May 30, 2019 at 6:55 a.m.
Blind Brook parents. You have a problem. And you are not alone. In upper income school districts across the country, parents are exerting a form of privilege which is hurting their children and complicating the perceived American dream of a meritocracy—that the smartest and best students, regardless of background, rise to the top.
Last week on the front page of the Rye Brook edition of this newspaper and the back page of the Port Chester edition, an in-depth report by Sarah Wolpoff detailed the coverup of a cheating scandal at Blind Brook High School. Unmentioned was the potential role of so-called “snowplow parents”—the kind who will tolerate no opposition to getting their offspring into the college of their choice and thus bulldoze their way with threats to administrators and faculty when an obstacle like a bad grade shows up.
But it is small change compared to the overall cheating scandal involving the abuse of the so-named “504” privilege of mentally challenged students being allowed extra time to take the SAT’s and ACT’s. That was the subject of a Wall Street Journal story of national scope which, unfortunately for Westchester County, featured our most “elite” school districts, including Blind Brook.
The Journal published a chart with the “504 rate” of high schools in Westchester County. Bronxville led the list with 15% of students in that category. Neighboring Rye came in at 10%, Scarsdale at 9.5%, and Blind Brook at 9.4%—although Blind Brook Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Ross tells me it is actually 8.6%.
Regardless, as Newton High School (Massachusetts) Superintendent David Fleishman confessed to the Journal: “Do I think that more than 30% of our students have a disability? No. We have a history of over identification (as learning challenged) that is certainly an issue in the district.”
And to put it in a national perspective, the Journal said it found that students in affluent areas “are more likely than students elsewhere to get the fastest growing type of these special allowances, known as “504” designations.” That Journal analysis was based on data from 9,000 public schools.
On May 21, the famed Mike Allen, whose Axios newsletters are a must read in the leadership community across the country, led his daily national news highlight with the headline: “ #1 big thing: Varsity Blues is the tip of the iceberg.”
(For those unfamiliar with the term “Varsity Blues,” that’s the code name for the FBI investigation that caught prominent parents paying bribes to college officials to get their offspring admitted in special categories (like being an expert in sailing), or paying professionals to take the SAT’s on behalf of their children.)
As Mike Allen wrote, and I’m quoting him here at length because it is the best summation of this national scandal I have seen:
“It's not just cheaters: From legacy privileges to special testing exemptions to private tutors and other professional services, it's increasingly clear that America's selective college admissions system has a problem.
Why it matters: These are assaults on equality of opportunity, which American politicians have preached for generations.
4.2% of students at wealthier public schools have designations for extra time during tests, the WSJ reported today.
At poorer schools, it's only 1.6%.
White students disproportionately benefit: 64% of special designations go to them, while they're less than half of public school enrollment.
The big picture: College admissions have become ruthlessly competitive, and the existing rules allow people to buy advantages without breaking a single rule.
(Allen quotes the WSJ here:)
“Public high schools decide which students get a special designation like a 504 that puts them in line for more time."
"Typically, a medical professional must assess a student and decide he or she has some condition such as anxiety or attention problems."
"In affluent communities, parents are more likely to know this option exists, and can pay for an outside evaluation if the school won’t."
"Many poorer families can’t afford such testing even if they are aware of the process."
And Allen continues:
“What's next: The College Board is rolling out an "adversity score" to give socioeconomic and environmental context for test scores.
And Operation Varsity Blues is still unfolding, showcasing the number of elite parents willing to pay to get their kids through the side door.
The bottom line: Nothing will, or should, prevent a parent from doing the absolute best for their child.
But it's increasingly hard to square the idea of meritocracy with a system that consistently conveys structural advantages on those born into wealth and social connections.”
You are all aware, by now, of the College Board “adversity score” — a development so despised by upper income parents of all political persuasions that for the first time in my memory, the comments sections on the story in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times were nearly identical.
No longer was it enough to be the smartest, to have the best scores, the right extracurricular activities, the best sports record, the most unusual talent, or to be a non-white or from a racially mixed family. If both parents were well off economically, and lived in an upper income district, that could very well be a handicap. All this of course was a very official attempt to right the balance that Allen describes so succinctly and to give poor children with no money but great intellectual talent a shot at the American dream.
Of course, the majority of parents both here, in Westchester, and across the country, try to play by and not bend the rules that exist today. But as a careful study of 2019 college admissions here and in similar school districts across the country will undoubtedly show, to quote Bob Dylan, “the times they are a changin.”
Addendum to my Venezuelan story last week
Carolina Azuaje of Rye Brook has shared with me since last week’s issue photos of how aid to the orphanage in San Cristobal in Western Venezuela gets through. Since President Maduro of Venezuela has closed all borders, aid to the orphanage is now shipped to a village in Colombia. From there, volunteers carry it on backpacks on secret trails to a spot on a river between Colombia and Venezuela where locals load the aid into canoes, paddle to the Venezuelan side of the river, and then carry the bundles on their backs on equally secret trails to the orphanage. The accompanying photo of an orphan shows they appreciate the effort.