High Anxiety

February 01, 1999 41 min read
Some New Trier students carry calculators to compute their up-to-the minute GPAs. Is such pressure pushing kids over the edge?

Alfie Kohn was in enemy territory but not conceding an inch. The author of two books decrying the effects of competition in America, Kohn is widely considered to be the nation’s leading critic of competition--admittedly, a distinction for which there is little competition. Last winter, Kohn found himself at what is arguably ground zero of high school competitiveness in the country: New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois.

Since it opened in 1901, New Trier has won national renown for academic and athletic excellence. Today, more than half of the student body rank in the 90th percentile nationally on standardized math and reading tests. Put another way, an above-average student is below average at New Trier. Its sports teams have won 72 state championships--more than any other high school in Illinois.

Students here aren’t just supersmart--they’re also hyperambitious. They whip out calculators to compute their grade-point averages the minute teachers hand back tests. They obsess about class rank and its effect on college admission. They dissolve into tears over a B+. Competition is so embedded in the New Trier culture that the kinetic-wellness department--physical education on the rest of the planet--offers “competitive” classes for those who take their games seriously.

Clearly, New Trier is an odd setting for Kohn. But the Student Alliance, New Trier’s student government, having decided it was time to discuss competition candidly instead of griping about it or accepting it, invited Kohn to speak. “Students were stressed out and working too hard,” says senior Josh Wechter, one of the organizers. “We felt that everybody needed to take a step back and look at what was happening.”

For the school, Kohn’s appearance came at a difficult time. For months, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Pioneer Press had been chronicling the bitter public debate over the possible reopening of a second local high school, New Trier West in Northfield (or “New Trier Lite” as some call it), to accommodate burgeoning enrollment. There had also been some embarrassing articles about how local residents were renting out their driveways to faculty and students who hadn’t won a parking space through the school’s lottery system. Surely, a seminar on competition would only raise the volume of questions about what the school stood for.

But the New Trier administration backed the Student Alliance, as it had in previous years when the group organized seminars on gender issues and Christopher Columbus. Classes were suspended on February 4th so that students could attend Kohn’s presentation and participate in breakout sessions on related topics, including capitalism and stress management.

The night before the seminar, Kohn took his crusade to 500 parents in a provocative lecture, “The Case Against Competition: How All Our Kids Lose in the Race To Win.” “I was under no illusions that a great majority of the New Trier community shared my perspective,” he said later. “My take on competition is not the usual ‘How can we cope with this reality?’ but rather ‘How can we challenge something unnecessary and destructive?’ ”

For two hours, Kohn bounded across the auditorium stage railing against the evils of competition and what he called “Preparation H"--the near-singular focus of some school systems to groom students for admission to Harvard and other elite universities. In short, he was attacking the way of life in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs, where competition and the Ivy League are as natural as second homes in Aspen and spring breaks in Paris.

“Not everything that is bad in excess is OK in moderation,” said Kohn, a thin man with a mop of brown hair parted down the middle, owlish glasses, and a high-pitched voice. “Some things are problematic because of what they are. I would argue, with the support of several hundred studies, that competition is one of those things. By competition, I am talking about a situation of mutually exclusive goal attainment [in which] I can succeed only if you fail [or] I can succeed only if I make you fail.” In other words, Kohn loathes class rankings, grade-point averages, and grades--the standard measures of achievement.

To illustrate his point, Kohn cited studies that show how academic competition undermines psychological well-being, reduces the quality of learning, decreases interest in subjects, and poisons relationships. “Competition teaches the message, ‘I’m only good to the extent I beat other people,’ ” he argued as parents squirmed in their seats. “This is a recipe for neurosis.”

By the end of Kohn’s rant, many parents felt that they had been wrongly accused of raising hypercompetitive children and fostering the pressure cooker that is New Trier. That Kohn himself has an impressive pedigree--Brown University and the University of Chicago--made his arguments even harder for them to embrace.

As one father complained during the question-and-answer period, “You’re preaching to the wrong audience. It should be [an audience of] school administrators and faculty.”

The blame game had begun.

Without question, New Trier rates as one of the best public high schools in the country--if not the best. The school is extraordinary in every way, from its consistent excellence in academics and athletics to its state-of-the-art facilities and celebrated advisory system.

Located four blocks from Lake Michigan in a town where the average four-bedroom house costs $755,000 and property taxes exceed $10,000, New Trier has long enjoyed an embarrassment of riches and resources. Since its founding, the school has drawn wealthy, high-achieving families to the leafy communities of Wilmette, Winnetka, Kenilworth, Glencoe, Northfield, and portions of Glenview and Northbrook. In return, New Trier has produced successful graduates, and more than a handful have attained fame as tycoons (A. C. Nielsen Jr.), bestselling authors (Scott Turow), Olympians (Sarah Tueting), actors (Charlton Heston), rock stars (Liz Phair), and even an internationally renowned chef (Charlie Trotter).

Today, with an annual operating budget of $44 million, New Trier can afford to offer a curriculum that includes multivariable calculus, Japanese language, art history, and political science--courses typically found in college. It fields 90 teams in 28 sports and sponsors 100 clubs and organizations, including a 100-watt radio station and a group devoted to the cartoon series The Simpsons. It pays teachers princely sums--as much as $85,000 for senior faculty. And it can even afford to give superintendent Henry Bangser a $20,000 housing allowance--in addition to his $146,000 salary--so he can live in Winnetka and be part of the community he serves.

“People choose to live there because they think New Trier will make life better for their kids,” says one former insider. “But National Merit Scholars are made in bed, not in school. These are the children of highly intelligent, successful parents, children who have been given every advantage possible. Of course they’re going to do well.”

By everybody’s acknowledgment, New Trier also is incredibly competitive. More than half the student body attend summer school to get ahead in science and math; an estimated 40 percent of the student body hire private tutors to stay afloat in rigorous Advanced Placement classes, according to a survey in the school newspaper; and countless students skip lunch so they can squeeze in another course or activity to enhance their transcripts. “I often worry that students are spreading themselves so thin that they might not be enjoying themselves or have time to reflect on what they’re doing,” says the principal, Wesley Baumann.

But the results speak for themselves: The 760-member class of ’98 had 33 National Merit semifinalists, second in the state to the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. In 1997, the most recent year for which figures are available, 552 students took 1,231 AP exams, with 89 percent scoring at least a 3, the score historically required to receive college credit. While 95 percent of New Trier’s graduates go on to four-year colleges, every year the school sends several dozen to the most prestigious universities in the country, including the Ivy League, Stanford, Duke, and Michigan.

At other high schools, these would be stunning achievements. But at New Trier, they are expected. “There are parents who very strongly believe that if their children don’t go to a top school, then somebody has failed, whether it’s them as parents or their children or the school,” says another insider.

New Trier’s size makes the competition particularly intense--and potentially disastrous for an average child who is hopelessly adrift in the middle. “You’re not recognized unless you’re very talented academically,” says a recent graduate, Rebecca Friedman of Wilmette. The competition promises to become even more grueling now that a real estate boom on the North Shore is fueling an enrollment explosion. New Trier’s student body of 3,300 is expected to swell to 3,800 by the 2002-03 school year; in November, the community passed a bond referendum to finance renovations at the current campus and the reopening of New Trier West, which closed in 1985 due to declining enrollment, as a freshmen-only school.

Thanks to the tyranny of numbers and talent, there simply aren’t enough spots at New Trier for everyone who wants to perform in a musical, play sports, or hold leadership positions. In fact, it’s not uncommon for students to brag that they would be the starting forward on the basketball team or editor of the yearbook if they attended a smaller school. “From the first day of freshman year, you learn how to deal with disappointment,” says Wechter, one of the seminar organizers. “It’s a hard lesson that can really demoralize kids.”

Students aren’t the only ones concerned about competition. Last fall, before the Student Alliance dreamed up the seminar, the faculty decided to take a look at competition as part of its own yearlong examination of the “school climate.” And, when the New Trier Parents Association made it the subject of two discussion sessions, 120 parents showed up--a huge turnout considering that the programs took place in the afternoon. There is ambivalence about the competition; while most students are uneasy about it and freely admit that it causes health problems, they also thrive on it. Even now, many months after Alfie Kohn criticized the New Trier culture, students haven’t changed their minds about the inevitability of competition--or about Kohn.

“Everyone said that he was the kid who got cut from the school teams,” explains Sonia Cohen of Kenilworth, a past secretary of the Student Alliance and now a freshman at Johns Hopkins University.

And everyone is still asking the same questions: What’s causing the fierce competition in the first place? Does New Trier set it up somehow? Are parents pushing their children to the brink? Are the students themselves part of the problem? Or does the college admission process shoulder any of the blame? Put those questions to the New Trier community, and what you get is a finger-pointing contest. Everybody is blaming everybody else. And everybody is right.

‘There isn’t any other school in the country like New Trier,” says Jay Mathews, an education writer for the Washington Post and the author of the new book Class Struggle: What’s Wrong (and Right) With America’s Best Public High Schools. That uniqueness comes from ranking courses in each subject by toughness, from 5 for AP classes all the way down to 1 for remedial work. This so-called “level system” has been the centerpiece of the New Trier education for nearly 40 years, and it is widely held to be a source of much of the pressure and competition that students endure.

Other schools also group students by ability, but Mathews, who visited 75 schools nationwide and reviewed profiles of several thousand more while researching Class Struggle, knows of no other high school that sorts its students to the extent that New Trier does. “It’s the most rigorous attempt I’ve ever seen to place students in courses on the basis of perceived achievement,” says Mathews. “It’s almost as if when you arrive at New Trier as a 9th grader, a number is stamped on your forehead, telling you which classes you’re going to take and which you’re not. New Trier wallows in the notion that it can slice up its student body like a layer cake and make everybody happy.”

Here’s how the level system works: Incoming freshmen take a battery of standardized tests to assess their abilities. Then New Trier uses those test results--along with students’ self-evaluations, feedback from teachers, and the intuition of the department chairs--to recommend appropriate placement in each subject. Classifications are clearly spelled out in the course catalog. For example, while level 4 is for “very capable students” who can handle a fast pace, level 3 is designed for those who perform “at an above-average pace and level of difficulty.” Level 2 courses are for students who “learn best at an average pace and level of difficulty.”

Theoretically, students could take classes at different levels; however, most stay with their original classification. If a parent or student wants the student in a higher level, New Trier will move him or her but only after making the parent sign a form acknowledging the disagreement. “We have more up-level requests for freshman year than other years,” says Bangser, the superintendent. “Some parents have the attitude of ‘Let’s just try it.’ Before the end of first quarter, there will be requests to move students back.”

Not surprisingly, being in upper level courses is a status symbol, and parents aren’t immune to its perceived cachet. “At our discussion sessions on competition, parents introduced themselves by saying, ‘I’m a parent of a 4-level student,’ ” recalls Carol Duffy, a past co-president of the New Trier Parents Association. “Some people define themselves based on how well their child is doing.”

One-third of New Trier’s student body is enrolled in level 4 and 5 courses; 50 percent is in level 3; and 20 percent is in level 2. Of course, students have their own definition of the categories: Level 5 is for geniuses; 4 is for smart kids; 3 is for average kids; and 2 is for dummies.

Small wonder that there is a stigma attached to lower-level courses. “I don’t think people look down on the level 2s as much as the level 2s look down on themselves,” says Matt Berk, a past president of the Student Alliance who is now attending a Maine prep school for a year of postgrad study. “They’re uncomfortable, so they’ll make fun of themselves, saying things like ‘I’m stupid. I’m in level 2.’ That’s not healthy.” Baumann, the principal, agrees that stigmatizing is a serious issue: “We need to constantly remind people that students in what we call ‘low level classes’ perform at the national average,” he says.

For some students, concern about the level system begins long before they ever set foot in New Trier, according to Dr. Michael Feld, a child psychiatrist in Wilmette. “I see kids who are stressed out about being in the right math track in junior high, because they want to be able to take the upper-level math classes at New Trier,” says Feld, who graduated from West in 1977. “In some cases, the anxiety can lead to physical symptoms, such as headaches and gastrointestinal problems.”

In recent years, New Trier’s level system has come under attack from faculty and administrators, who argue that it fosters unhealthy competition, limits opportunities, and hampers self-esteem. In the early 1990s, the system’s chief critic was Dianna Lindsay, who served as New Trier’s principal from 1987 to 1995. “In order to be successful, a school must change with the research available,” says Lindsay, who now runs a new high school outside Columbus, Ohio. “Research shows that the more we sort and sift and select children by artificial boundaries, the less likely they are to meet their potential. They won’t have the confidence to try new things and learn.”

Lindsay never expected to abolish the level system--parents simply wouldn’t stand for it--but she did hope to give lower-level students greater access to academic superstars. “When you’re around people who have a sophisticated vocabulary or think on a different plane, it causes you to improve,” Lindsay says. “It’s not good when students say, ‘That stuff is too hard. You can’t expect that of us because we’re only level 2.’ ”

In 1992, Lindsay found support from the North Central Association, a regional accrediting group. Though New Trier was due for its regular evaluation, according to Class Struggle, Lindsay and Bangser “organized the equivalent of the D-Day invasion, an assessment scheme of greater size, prominence, and intensity than had ever been attempted, as far as the participants knew, at any American high school.” At a total cost of $40,000, New Trier invited 117 educators from across the country for a three-day visit. While their findings were overwhelmingly positive, the evaluators attacked the level system. "[It] encourages the perception that the solution to instructional problems is to change the level of the student rather than modifying curriculum and instruction,” they wrote in their summary report.

Evaluators reserved their sharpest criticism for the mathematics department, where they found the level system to be “out of control” and did “more to serve the status needs of parents and to perform a sorting of students for college entrance than to provide for individual differences.” The North Central Association also criticized a facet of the level system that has been frustrating students for decades: grade weighting. An A in a level 2 course was worth the standard 4 points but counted for 4.8 points in level 3, 6 points in level 4, and 7.2 points in level 5. A student who received a B in a level 4 class earned 4.5 points--more than an A in level 2. "[The system gives] a double bonus to 4-level students and double penalty to 2-level students,” the evaluators concluded. “This is unfair. It is discouraging to many students.”

Not only discouraging but also detrimental to the GPA--a crucial piece of the college- admission puzzle. The system rewards students who play the so-called level game, in which they push themselves in AP and honors classes, often settling for lower grades while still earning higher GPAs than those in level 2 or 3. “It’s unfortunate, but some kids don’t take certain courses that aren’t offered at the highest level because it would hurt their GPAs,” Baumann concedes.

New Trier isn’t alone in weighting GPAs, but it has been unique in carrying the rankings out to the fourth decimal point. It is interesting to note that for all the talk of GPAs, New Trier does not sponsor a chapter of the National Honor Society, because, as Baumann says, it does not want to pass judgment on students’ character--one of the requirements for admission to the NHS. Also, because the school does not select valedictorians, the president of the senior class speaks at commencement.

Bangser took the criticism of the North Central Association evaluators seriously and recruited a strategic planning committee to address their concerns. It was another Herculean effort: More than 200 educators, students, and parents served on eight task forces; the school board held 15 public hearings for feedback on some of the more controversial issues, including the level system.

But in the committee’s 190-page final report, released in May 1995, the level system survived--albeit with changes designed to reduce competition. Beginning with the class of 2000, there is intermediate grading (pluses and minuses) to better reflect performance. The grade weighting system has been modified, so that an A in an AP class is worth 5.67; the values were adjusted accordingly down the line, with the end result being less incentive to take advanced courses. Finally, New Trier is eliminating student-by-student ranking and replacing it with a decile rank--the top 10 percent, top 20 percent, top 30 percent, et cetera--that will be reported to colleges.

Though these changes were widely applauded, some parents and students want New Trier to offer both weighted and nonweighted GPAs--and then let students choose which one appears on their transcript. “If you’re in level 2 classes,” says Berk, one of the organizers of the competition seminar, “but getting high grades, aren’t you accomplishing the same thing, in terms of learning, as the person who’s getting high grades in honors?”

That point wasn’t lost on administrators, who are now considering whether to give the class of 2000 the option of reporting either a weighted or an unweighted decile. “Clearly, this would benefit students who want to go to the University of Illinois, which selects applicants strictly on class rank and test scores,” says Baumann. “After all, it isn’t as though they’re getting an elementary education in level 2. Students in level 2 may not feel good about themselves [while at New Trier], but when they compare themselves to their college classmates, they realize that things aren’t so bad.”

At New Trier, though, life in level 2 can look pretty bleak. Not only do some of the students themselves feel inadequate, but they also feel that the competition is oppressive. One father says that his son became so overwhelmed by the pressure that he literally gave up by the second semester of his sophomore year and settled for D’s and C’s in mostly level 2 courses. “He didn’t like the place--period,” says the father, who asked not to be identified. “He stopped caring, and he stopped trying. I think that he felt forgotten.”

The man’s son, now a freshman at a college in another state, admits that he felt lost at New Trier and self-conscious about his abilities. Although his scores on standardized tests put him in the 82nd percentile nationally, they were only good enough to rank in the 47th percentile at New Trier--or slightly below average. “You’re looked down upon if you’re in a level 2 course,” he says. “You don’t get any respect, so the topic [of levels] was avoided. It’s a really tough atmosphere if you’re not the best because that’s the goal at New Trier. You’re pushed by your peers, you’re pushed by teachers, you’re pushed by your parents--everybody wants you to be the best.”

For some, that pressure can extinguish motivation. As Mathews wrote in Class Struggle, “The lower levels had so many unmotivated students that it was a struggle each day to win their attention and enthusiasm.” Students in levels 2 and 3 say it is hard to stay upbeat when success is so elusive and attention is lavished on the superachievers--both inside and outside the classroom. “The whole school is filled with huge egos,” says a junior from Northfield. “It’s easy to get frustrated. If you’re not the best, then no one pays attention to you.”

One insider sums up the problem this way: “Kids do believe that the kids in level 2 are stupid. So what do the level 2s believe about themselves? New Trier is setting up another caste system--and it’s sick. The level 2s are average kids who will still get into college and lead productive lives. What is the matter with being average?”

What, exactly, does competition look like at New Trier? After the competition seminar, the award-winning student paper New Trier News did a good job of explaining what it doesn’t look like: “The stories that arise from time to time in other high schools and colleges about students refusing to study in groups for fear of helping a competitor or sabotaging lab experiments are virtually unheard of at New Trier,” said the editorial. “When students worry about class rank, they generally do not long for someone else to screw up but long to improve themselves. It’s not a question of someone else dropping; it’s a question of elevating oneself. New Trier can be considered a fraternity of hard-working students bound together by stress and work, not torn apart.”

Josh Wechter agrees. “It’s not like kids walk down the hall and spit on each other’s shoes,” he says. “They walk down the hall with determination on their faces. Time is of the essence. Every moment of the day is spent doing something--sports practices, rehearsals, volunteer activities, homework. They’re busy trying to be the well-rounded students they think colleges want them to be.”

As a group, the students and recent graduates interviewed for this story were polite, articulate, and thoughtful. Their views on New Trier and competition were strikingly similar, even though they represented a cross section of the student body, in terms of levels and interests. They are unabashedly proud of New Trier’s tradition of excellence--and they are confident that the school is preparing them for successful lives. “Alums say that their senior year at New Trier was more intense than their freshman year at college,” says Justin Nyweide, who was recruited to play baseball and swim at Harvard. “I’ve talked to students who go to top schools, and it was a common theme. It just shows what a great job New Trier does.”

Students love New Trier for its size and wealth of opportunities, echoing a poll that found the majority preferred the one-school option, even though splitting into two four-year campuses would reduce competition. They love the way New Trier treats them like college students, allowing them to choose courses and set their own schedules. They praise teachers for making them care about deadly dull subjects, such as Latin and physics. And they give high marks to New Trier’s 70-year-old advisory system, in which single-sex groups of 25 students are assigned to a “teacher-adviser” for four years of support. The adviser serves as an advocate for students and as parents’ first point of contact with the school; the advisory, which meets every morning for 25 minutes, breaks the school into small communities. “It’s a great system,” Nyweide says. “It went beyond academic advising to social advising and college advising. In that sense, it was very nurturing.”

Even so, students insist that competition is so fierce that it often detracts from learning. “The whole point is class rank,” Wechter says. “That’s what breeds the tension. You want to be in the top 5 or 10 percent of your class, and you need an A in the class [to get there]. So you’re only looking for the grade. You give the teacher what she wants--especially once you figure out what the teacher wants.”

Junior Meghan O’Halloran, whose family moved from Evanston to Kenilworth so that she could attend New Trier, loathes the way her classmates pester each other to divulge grades.

Junior Meghan O’Halloran, whose family moved from Evanston to Kenilworth so that she could attend New Trier, loathes the way her classmates pester each other to divulge grades. “All the time, you hear people say, ‘What did you get? What did you get?’ ” she says. “I like to watch my results, not other people’s. But it puts you in a weird position. You don’t want to be rude and say, ‘Mind your own business.’ ”

Where does the pressure come from? Some students admit to being type-A personalities who push themselves despite the physical and emotional consequences. “When I get stressed out, I don’t sleep, and I have stomach problems,” says a junior, who takes level 4 courses and participates in three extracurricular activities. Her friend, also a junior, says she has suffered migraines and nausea because of the intensity in level 4 courses. “I studied for 13 hours for my math final, and I still struggled,” she recalls bitterly. “After the test, eight of us left the room crying. We ran down the hall to call our parents. It was really emotional.”

Still other students are quick to blame parents (though not their own) for causing pressure. “Eighty percent of the time, it comes from the parents,” Matt Berk insists. “Kids want to do well because their parents tell them they need to do well. The attitude is, I’m successful; you should be, too. It’s another thing that Daddy can brag about at the country club.” Adds Wechter: “There is as much competition among New Trier parents as there is among the students.”

Carol Duffy saw that competition firsthand during the discussion sessions she organized for the New Trier Parents Association. At one meeting, she recalls, parents complained about the unfairness of group projects in which every participant received the same grade regardless of his individual contribution. “People argued back and forth that their child, who always does all the work, is being penalized by a cooperative-learning situation,” Duffy says. “When you’re sitting there listening to this, you can see why the kids get crazed about competition. Some of the parents are nutty.”

One thing students and parents agree on: Some teachers exacerbate pressure. Gayle Geldermann, whose daughter has struggled in honors classes when teachers either moved too quickly or expected students to learn independently, thinks New Trier should reassess its teaching philosophy in light of the concerns about competition. “I don’t think they ever addressed the pressure that they create,” Geldermann says. “Are they patting themselves on the back for teaching at the college level? Do honors students need to perform at the college level? Are students losing a basic foundation for critical thinking skills as an adult? Or are [the teachers] expecting certain critical thinking skills that might be developmentally inappropriate and not possible at this age?”

Another common complaint is that teachers pit students against one another. For example, one English teacher is known for asking students to read their classmates’ creative writing and vote for the best one; the winner then receives extra credit. A biology teacher awards candy to the first students who can answer extra-credit questions on the chalkboard. Every week, some teachers even post updated grade lists on the classroom wall. “Teachers act like no one knows who got what grade because it’s done by I.D. code, not by name,” Berk says. “But the list is alphabetical, so kids can figure it out. Some kids loved knowing exactly where they stood. It certainly bred competition.”

Perhaps the most outrageous example occurred several years ago, when a history teacher offered to give extra credit to the first two students who arrived at her office the next morning with the right answer to a question. Duffy’s son showed up at 6 a.m.--an hour before school started--but he was too late. Duffy called to complain, and the teacher apologized. “Unfortunately,” Duffy says, “some teachers get caught up in this whole competitive thing.”

Still, there’s usually a backlash against teachers who try to diminish competition. That’s what happened when Berk’s English teacher gave students detailed feedback on their papers and waited until the end of the semester to assign grades. “She wanted us to pay attention to the writing process,” he says. “So we had to revise and revise and revise. Most kids didn’t like it. If the paper didn’t have a grade on it, they didn’t know how well they were doing.” Sonia Cohen remembers a similar situation in her English class: “It drove kids nuts.”

That teachers have the autonomy to at times eschew grades (and tests and textbooks, for that matter) is the result of another hallmark of New Trier--a decentralized structure where power has been delegated down to department chairs, who are said to run their departments like fiefdoms. There is no official “teachers’ manual,” and as Baumann notes, “Our teachers have a fair amount of freedom. They all must follow the curriculum, but they don’t all have to cover the material the same way.”

New Trier’s teachers earn an average salary of $67,018-highest in Illinois. They also have enjoyed a merit-pay system for 30 years-something virtually unheard of in public education.

The faculty is unique in several other ways: An impressive 75 percent hold advanced degrees, and nearly 50 percent are graduates of gold-plated universities. Not only are New Trier’s teachers among the highest paid in Illinois, earning an average salary of $67,018, but they have also enjoyed a merit-pay system for 30 years--something that is virtually unheard of in public education. Just as students are assigned to levels according to their abilities, teachers are assigned to levels from 1 to 5 and corresponding base pay according to their own academic credentials, years of experience, and accomplishments. For example, a novice teacher would qualify for level 1, but one who holds a master’s degree automatically qualifies for level 2. After ten years, a teacher can apply to become a “master teacher” (level 4); after 15, a “leader teacher” (level 5). It’s a complicated process that involves writing a self-evaluation and procuring recommendations from a department head and colleagues; the final decision rests with Baumann and a panel of four faculty members. Teachers seek advancement not only for financial gain but also for the status. “Of course it’s competitive,” says Doug Springer, one of the coaches of New Trier’s nationally renowned speech and debate team. “But we don’t wear a lapel pin that indicates [a teacher’s level].”

‘We don’t want you to infer that we’re parent-bashing,” Hank Bang-ser says slowly, choosing his words carefully during a roundtable discussion for this article with several faculty members and administrators. “By far, the highest percentage of parent interaction is positive--more positive than any place I’ve ever known. It’s easy to say, ‘They’re pushing the kids.’” “

Bangser, 49, has the smooth baritone of a TV anchorman, the penetrating stare of a prosecutor, and the instinctual wariness of a politician who must measure the impact of his every word. He is the consummate New Trier insider, having been a history teacher, adviser, assistant varsity football coach, and assistant principal at New Trier East in the 1970s. In 1979, Bangser left to become the principal at Lake Forest East High School and later served as superintendent in suburban New York and St. Charles, Illinois. For nine years, Bangser has been at the helm of the New Trier district, and the school board was pleased enough with his performance to renew his contract through 2000.

Bangser won’t say that New Trier parents are as competitive as their children, if not more competitive. But he and the other administrators and teachers he convened for the group interview all agreed that smart, aggressive, successful parents beget smart, aggressive, successful children. Phil Smith, chairman of the music department, articulated the group view when he said, “This generation may not be as successful as their parents. I think that breeds some competition. Or some anxiety.”

There is no denying that New Trier students are eager to please their parents and emulate their achievements. If they get into a top college--the ultimate goal of the New Trier experience--they’ll do both. But that’s easier said than done, even for students in the top 20 percent. By all accounts, it’s harder to get into elite schools today than it was in the mid-1980s. First, 90 percent of the nation’s best students are applying to the same two dozen schools. Brown received nearly 16,000 applications for its class of 2002--and accepted just 17 percent, including 3 of the 40 applicants from New Trier. Stanford, another perennial favorite, received a record 18,888 applications last year and accepted only 13 percent, including 12 of the 36 applicants from New Trier. Second, these schools now put a premium on diversity. “At one time, [Ivy League schools] used to be wall-to-wall with Waspy kids,” says Jim Conroy, chairman of New Trier’s post-high school counseling department. “But they’re investing a lot of time and money into recruiting minorities and kids from rural areas. Who is getting blocked out? Kids from New Trier.”

Anxiety about college clearly has heightened competition at New Trier. It drives everything from enrollment for summer school to the growing demand for “Early Bird” courses--physics, chemistry, and biology classes that start at 7 a.m., allowing students to squeeze in a performing arts course during the regular school day and freeing up lab space for everyone who wants to take science. In fact, Early Bird has become so popular since its inception in 1992 that students are selected by a lottery system--yet another manifestation of competition. Anxiety about college certainly drives enrollment in upper-level courses. The truth is, without AP and honors classes on their transcript, students don’t have a prayer of going to an Ivy. And dropping down a level in just one subject is perceived to be enough to keep a student out of a top-tier school.

Junior Bailey Geldermann thinks she has hurt her chances of going to Dartmouth because she switched to level 3 precalculus after struggling in level 4 Honors Algebra II as a sophomore. No matter that she has no interest in ever pursuing a math- related career. Or that she excels in all her other level 4 classes by putting in up to five hours on homework every night. Or that she has a sterling extracurricular record. Geldermann serves on the board of the Girls Club, an organization that raises money for scholarships; she also performs in the school musical, plays the piano, and teaches Sunday school. “You can be bright and work really hard, but with so many kids taking all AP and honors courses, it’s next to impossible to get into the best schools,” Geldermann says ruefully.

She isn’t far off the mark. “Schools like Dartmouth are looking for excuses as to why they shouldn’t admit a student,” Jim Conroy explains. “Moving down one level in one course shouldn’t close the door, as long as you have other things to compensate for it. But you don’t want to move down in other subjects because Dartmouth accepts students who have taken the strongest high school program available.”

Jon Reider, a senior associate director of admission at Stanford, agrees. He is quick to point out that admission officers aren’t as obsessed with AP courses as students may think. “I do not count the number of AP classes on a high school transcript,” Reider says emphatically. “In fact, I think the proliferation of AP courses has gotten out of hand. For example, I don’t know why high school students need AP courses in statistics, comparative government, and economics. What we look for is a rigorous academic program, including a reasonable number of AP courses, and what we call an ‘intellectual vitality.’ Is the student a thinker? Real education isn’t about scoring well on tests. It’s about thinking.” That said, Reider also acknowledges that the admission officers are looking for “that something extra” because the applicants themselves are looking increasingly identical--at least numerically. Fifty-four percent of all Stanford applicants score 700 (out of a possible 800) on the math portion of the SAT, and 40 percent score 700 on the verbal portion; nationally, only 6 percent and 5 percent of high school seniors perform that well. “We turn down half the kids who have 1600 SAT scores,” Reider says.

From the start, New Trier makes sure that everyone knows the rules of the college game. As freshmen, students get a sheet that lists various types of schools--Big Ten, private liberal arts college, selective private university--and the requirements for admission at each one. Matt Berk’s older sister, Jill, recalls with enthusiasm how she mapped out a “four-year plan,” listing the courses that she would need to take each semester to achieve her goal. “As disturbing as it may be, you can’t not take science for your first two years of high school and expect to go to [an Ivy League school],” says Jill Berk, now a junior at Brown. “New Trier does the best it can to prepare students for the realities of the admission process.”

By junior year, each student is assigned to a post-high school counselor, who discusses college options and helps the family make realistic choices. “The hardest thing is to open their minds to places that aren’t on their lists,” Conroy says. “Kids will say, ‘I’ve always wanted to go to Duke. I know it will be a reach.’ Well, I can’t say, ‘You won’t get into Duke with a class rank of 250.’ I have to say, ‘Go for it,’ but also suggest alternatives. I can’t have them apply to seven Dukes and get seven rejections.”

A major part of the counselor’s job is to manage parents’ stratospheric expectations and paranoia. “New Trier parents are crazed by this process,” Conroy says. “They know what kids’ grade-point averages are, who’s a legacy at what school, who’s applying where. At certain times of the year, I’ll stand in the checkout line at Jewel, and everybody will be talking about college stuff. They can’t get enough of it. Then they’ll call me with rumors like ‘I’ve heard it’s easier to get into the nursing program at Georgetown than it is to get into other programs.’ Well, nursing took 68 percent of its applicants, and the other schools at Georgetown took 17 percent. But does your kid want to be a nurse?”

For some families, this individual attention isn’t enough. The desire for even more assistance has spawned a cottage industry of private “educational consultants"--usually former teachers and guidance counselors who charge fees to hold students’ hands through the process, from choosing where to apply to filling out the application. Nancy Marcus has a triple New Trier pedigree that makes her a magnet for New Trier students: A former English teacher, Marcus is also a graduate of the class of ’63 and the mother of two successful alums--a Stanford-educated State Department employee and a junior at Stanford. Over the past 23 years, her business has grown as families have become desperate enough to pay for yet another competitive edge beyond the private tutoring and SAT review courses that are de rigueur. Marcus charges $800 for three two-hour meetings or $1,500 for unlimited sessions; the earlier students sign up, the more they will get for their money. “Students’ panic reflects their parents’ panic,” says Marcus, who also has clients from other North Shore high schools, as well as from the University of Chicago Laboratory School. “On the other hand, the academic demands on students have mushroomed in the past 20 years. AP offerings alone have quadrupled since the 1980s. Now you have kids taking college-level courses, sometimes as sophomores and juniors. For many of them, it’s really pushing the envelope.”

Marcus has heard students complain not just about the crushing competition but also about lives packed so full with activities that they had no time to relax. “One of the questions should be, ‘Is competition inhibiting personal growth?’ ” she says. “If a student has no time for friendships, no time for fun, no time to do nothing, I think that’s pretty detrimental. How do you learn how to be a friend if you never have time to be with your friends? How do you learn to sit down and share with your parents if there’s no free time to talk? You can’t always have time to do. You need time to be.”

A s a student at New Trier, Jill Berk knew that she was in the middle of a competitive environment. But for her, it didn’t feel too competitive. Nor did she feel crushing pressure, even though she took six majors during her senior year, competed in two national debate tournaments, and served as the managing editor of the school paper. It wasn’t until she arrived at Brown that Berk realized how uniquely competitive New Trier is. “The farther I get away from New Trier, the more I understand why people think it’s too competitive,” she says. “Anytime I told my friends at Brown about Early Bird or summer school or how students take seven academic majors, they couldn’t believe it. They said it was ridiculous.” For that reason, Berk was glad that her brother Matt and the other Student Alliance officers decided to organize the competition seminar. “It’s important for people to realize that even if they don’t feel pressure, others do,” she says. “Their actions may cause others to feel pressure. I thought that having a frank discussion could really improve the general atmosphere in the school.”

At first, the student organizers wondered whether their efforts would be wasted: As soon as New Trier announced the seminar, parents called to complain about classes being canceled and threatened to keep their children home in protest. But about 90 percent of the student body showed up--around the same number as on any school day--and reaction was overwhelmingly positive for the concept. In addition to Alfie Kohn, students heard from college admissions officers, psychologists, sportswriters, business leaders, and alumni. “I was impressed that our Student Alliance could put on such an interesting program,"says Rebecca Friedman, a former leader of the Student Alliance for Drug and Alcohol Awareness and now a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “It gave me a bigger scope on the issue and how it affected me.” A survey taken by the New Trier News after the seminar found that 70 percent of 191 students thought it would enhance their ability to cope with competition.

As expected, Alfie Kohn’s radical position generated headlines in the newspapers and debate in the hallways. In his speech to students, Kohn challenged them to reassess their competitive behavior. “I asked them to think about the treadmill on which high-power high schoolers find themselves and the cost of devoting their lives to preparing themselves for the next stage of life,” Kohn recalls. “If you’re desperately grasping for rewards, prizes, grades, and money, you’re making a bargain with the devil, and you don’t get your soul back when you get to college.” To faculty and administrators, Kohn was equally blunt: “Schools around the country that are thinking about becoming places of learning instead of places of triumph--by replacing letter grades with more constructive forms of assessment, such as student portfolios and teacher-written narratives--are waiting for [a school like] New Trier to take the lead.”

Kohn succeeded in offending virtually the entire New Trier community. In fact, people are still bashing his arguments. “What I heard was a message that I just don’t agree with--that students have to be protected from competition and failure,” says Eva Sorock, class of ’64 and mother of a New Trier sophomore and a ’98 graduate. “Both of those things are a natural part of life. What better time to practice than in school?” Adds Bailey Geldermann: "[Kohn] seemed like he fell through the cracks in high school and is still angry about it. At one point, he said you shouldn’t teach children to play musical chairs because it makes them competitive. That’s ridiculous.”

Bangser wasn’t surprised by the reaction. "[Kohn] was almost universally negative from the time he started until the time he stopped,” he says. “There was absolutely nothing about anything involving competition that was worthwhile--and therefore, any place that was competitive [such as] New Trier. So the kids felt put down. If his point is to keep getting hired, then he’s done a wonderful job. But if his mission is to cause people to change behaviors, then I think he’s a woeful failure. Because not only is he too radical, but he offers no action plan--except to eliminate whatever you do that’s competitive.”

Since the seminar, not much has changed at New Trier. A few teachers have banned calculators to keep students from computing their cumulative grades after every assignment. And the English teacher has suspended the creative-writing contests that “made all the losers feel lousy,” according to one student. Perhaps debate coach Doug Springer speaks for the majority when he says, “I came away from the competition seminar thinking that the way we do it at New Trier is exactly right. Rather than causing us to say, ‘Oh, we’re far too competitive, and we should change our ways,’ it was a validating experience. The value of competition is that it provides an arena for struggle. It’s during that struggle that we find ourselves and we learn more about who we are.”

As for the students themselves, they’re still convinced that competition is as natural as it is inevitable. And while they still believe that the competition at New Trier can be debilitating, when asked if they would send their children there, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” For an alumna such as Jill Berk, putting a few years’ distance on her New Trier experience has only reinforced her belief in the system. “At Brown, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about their experiences at small, elite private schools, public magnet schools, and charter schools,” she says. “I’ve also taken an education class, where we’ve discussed successful schools. After all that, I’m 100 percent sure that New Trier was the best place for me.”

So there you have it: On the eve of its centennial, New Trier is right where its founders always hoped it would be--an academic powerhouse that rivals Eastern prep schools. New Trier will never change because the community loves it just the way it is--competitive to a fault.

Cynthia Hanson is a contributing editor of Chicago magazine. This article is reprinted from the November issue of that magazine.