- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 16, 2001

Right now, scores of high-achieving Washington-area children are struggling to determine which top college to get into. But is there is a secret to the college admissions game? As Rachel Toor shows in her excellent book, Admissions Confidential: An Insider's Account of the Elite College Process (St. Martin's, $23.95, 256 pages), there are indeed a few simple rules that smart teenagers can follow to give themselves a competitive edge.
The author served as an admissions officer for Duke University between 1997-2000. She is a political liberal who spices the text with embarrassing personal revelations, such as that she is "ashamed of her whiteness." But whenever she acts as a reporter and not as a memoirist, she is a highly entertaining and effective writer who takes us inside a secret world that has never been chronicled before.
Every year, the writer reports, thousands of students apply to get into Duke. Most are interchangeable students with very good grades, SAT scores above 1480, and active involvement in high school clubs. Most of these teens get past the first round. But when it comes to selection, admissions officers call these students "BWRKs" "bright, well-rounded kids" and then toss their applications out.
If you want to get into a top school, according to the author, you should not buy their admissions essay from a net-based diploma mill; most admissions officers have already read these. Above all, don't hire a private "independent admissions counselor" to help on your application. Anyone can call themselves a "counselor," and some charge a fortune. But their advice does not help students and can hurt them if they call admissions offices and nag too much.
What does help, the author believes, is for students to excel in something besides school. Of course athletes have their scholarships, but even archers and skaters get points for their passions. If a student has worked in a political campaign, written publishable fiction, or done other interesting things, admissions officers notice and sometimes let students into a school with less-than-stellar grades if they achieve excellence outside the classroom.
"Admissions Confidential" is a funny and revealing look inside the closed door of the college admissions office.

According to a recent report from the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, there are at least 850,000 home-schooled children in America. While there are increasing reports of home-schooling, most people don't know how home-schooling started or what home-schoolers are like. In Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement (Princeton University Press, $24.95, 198 pages) Mitchell L. Stevens explains the origins of American home-schooling.
For his dissertation, Mr. Stevens, a Hamilton College sociologist, spent several years in the early 1990s interviewing parents who home-schooled. He also attended home-schooling conventions and collected as much material as he could find about the home-schooling movement.
Mr. Stevens does make some pertinent points. He is good at explaining the differences between Christian home-schoolers and secular ones, showing how, at least during the first half of the 1990s, Christian home-schoolers grew stronger and secular ones became weaker. He is also persuasive in showing why home-schooling is dominated by women who use home-schooling as a feminist means of self-expression. The major problem with the book is due to academic publishing. Mr. Stevens did good research when he was a graduate student, but much of his reporting is a decade old.
This would have been a more timely book had it been published in 1996. Moreover, Mr. Stevens may be ignoring many parents who want a classical, but secular, education for their children. He dismisses Baltimore's Calvert School, for example, in one uninformed sentence, even though Calvert School has been providing a sound, moral, but not explicitly Christian home-school curriculum for nearly a century.
While "Kingdom of Children" does provide insights into the origins of home-schooling, readers who expect to learn what home-schoolers are like in the 21st century will find most of Mr. Stevens' book very old news.

Come election time, politicians who want to "do something" to improve the schools will call for massive funding for computers and other high-tech devices. But Larry Cuban, in Oversold & Underused: Computers in the Classroom (Harvard University Press, $27.95, 250 pages) shows that most investments in computers in the schools provide very poor returns.
Mr. Cuban, a Stanford University education professor (and onetime Fairfax County, Va., school superintendent) is an expert in how technology is used in schools. For his latest book, Mr. Cuban and his associates studied some Silicon Valley elementary and high schools, and also looked at how many Stanford professors were using computers.
It was found that a majority of college professors, and nearly 90 percent of elementary and secondary teachers, still give lectures the old-fashioned way. A few find computers difficult-to-use devices that break down frequently. Moreover, most teachers are already overburdened, and don't have the time to learn high-tech skills. So most computers in schools are banished to laboratories, and are primarily used for Internet searches and for word processing.
"Computers in the classroom," Mr. Cuban concludes, "have been oversold by promoters and policy makers and underused by teachers and students." Far better, he argues in his persuasive little book, for schools to spend the money they would spend for computers on keeping school buildings maintained and on hiring good teachers skilled in getting children to learn to read, write and count.

Martin Morse Wooster is an associate editor of the American Enterprise and the author of "Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds."


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