Liz Willen

Liz Willen

Liz Willen is editor of the Hechinger Report, at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is a former senior writer focused on higher education at Bloomberg Markets magazine. Willen spent the bulk of her career covering the New York City public school system for Newsday. She has won numerous prizes for education coverage and shared the 2005 George Polk Award for health reporting with two Bloomberg colleagues. Willen is a graduate of Tufts University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and an active New York City public school parent.
Tuesday, 06 March 2012 10:25

High School Hustle: Prep for college NOW!

Students who are lucky enough to have actual high school choices can attend open houses this week, where they’ll have a chance to weigh commutes, clubs, classes, homework and social life. Students who haven’t been matched, will be concentrating on where they might get accepted in Round 2.

Others will be thinking about college. Or perhaps they should be.

Wait, Already? After all, most of us who have gone through that second full-time job also known as the hunt for middle and high school may feel entitled to a recovery process, as I noted in my last post.

No such luck. I got another reminder of why living in the moment is not going to fly in today’s crazed admissions landscape when I attended a breakfast last week for a hilarious new book, entitled “The Neurotic Parent’s Guide to College Admissions,” by J.D. Rothman, who provides a tongue-in-cheek look at what she calls “the most difficult time to get into college in the history of the world.”

Thursday, 26 January 2012 13:26

It's Regents Week...where's the party?

I have a modest proposal for the state and city officials responsible for placing Regents exams a week after finals: Could you please flip the schedule and schedule Regents before finals?

While not all city high school students take Regents exams in January, there are no classes at all in most New York City high schools during the state exams week. Yet nearly all take finals, or midterms in many of their classes a week before.

That means that last week, my two high schoolers had multiple midterm or final exams on the same day, nearly every day. They stayed up way too late studying – or, at least I think that's what they were doing. Their bedroom became a landfill of crumpled paper, flashcards, calculators and notebooks. Tired and cranky, they complained they didn't have adequate time to prepare.

Thursday, 19 January 2012 10:11

High School Hustle: From SHSAT to SAT

Warning to anyone who is awaiting results of the latest round of high school admissions: It's not going to be over soon.

You may wonder what that means. After all, if you've done the required homework, you've probably taken numerous tours of New York City High schools, endured tryout anxiety with your child, and possibly used vacation time for tours. Perhaps you've even shelled out hundreds of dollars on specialized test tutoring for the specialized high schools and discussed how to rank certain schools.

You've already calculated commute times and weighed the odds of admission in seemingly endless discussions with other parents, teachers and students.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011 11:57

HS Hustle: Can we simplify admissions?

After two New York City public high school searches in as many years, I've had lots of ideas about what might make the process a little easier on overtaxed parents: virtual tours, excuse letters for employers, more clear and transparent information from the schools.

I've recounted tales of falling asleep on tours, frustration and fear over tryouts, and concerns about preparing for the SHSAT exams that determine entrance into specialized high schools. I sought out advice from parents, and got an earful about similar frustrations.

I wondered whether anything had improved since my search last fall. When I read a father's plea in the New York Daily News for popular city high schools to do a better job accommodating parents, and his description of enormous lines and long waits for limited open houses, I realized it had not.

Monday, 31 October 2011 11:50

High School Hustle: Support for freshmen?

When I left that painful ordeal known as the New York City public school parent teacher conference (also known as, "Teacher Can You Spare Three Minutes,'') last week, I overheard a parent who had also just left the building admonishing a child.

I didn't want to eavesdrop, but the voice sounded furious and frantic, and the words were something akin to: "And I heard it from every single teacher!"

Has to be a freshman parent, I thought to myself, walking away with the wisdom that I've acquired as the parent of a junior who struggled through the beginning of his first year in a large high school, as so many do.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011 12:00

HS Hustle: How to survive admissions season

A group of friends, parents of students who are fearfully entering that parental rite of torture also known as the public high school search in New York City, wondered recently what it takes to get into the best high schools.

"Test prep!" said one, who was calculating the daunting costs and time commitment of preparing twins to take exams that determine entry into the eight highly-coveted specialized schools.

"Community service?" said another, whose older child had been shut out of his first choice high school when he admitted in an interview to having no time to volunteer.

"Perfect grades?’" offered another, but then quickly recounted tales of students with tremendous grades who were rejected from their top choice – and in some cases left without a match.

Monday, 03 October 2011 10:48

High School Hustle: "Nobody has a curfew!"

After his bruising first week of high school, I found my exhausted freshman son lying in a heap of books and papers, soccer cleats and uniform still on, furry cat purring next to him. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that it would be a little while still before I have to worry about what time he’s coming home at night, where he is, and what his curfew would be.

But it’s coming. Parents of freshmen, who have endured an exhausting admissions season, may be taken aback by a new demand to go out on weekends and stay out ever later.

The new world of high school social life requires careful navigation for parents. Kids want to fit in, and for some, it’s the first time they develop a whole new life outside of the family and familiar friends. Because of high school choice, their friends may live in all five boroughs, making for some daunting transportation obstacles, late night commutes and a lot of sleepovers.

Thursday, 29 September 2011 11:49

High School Hustle: Cheating on the SAT

With thousands of New York City high school students taking the SATs this weekend, the news that a Long Island teenager was arrested and charged with fraudently taking the exam for six other teens, brings into focus yet again, the degree with which testing has become high-stakes at all levels.  

Insideschools' blogger Liz Willen, interviewed by NBC News for the story, says the cheating didn't surprise her. After all, New York City teachers have been accused of erasing wrong answers on Regents exams, and some wealthy parents pay big bucks to tutors and consultants to give their kids an advantage in admissions to top colleges. But, she writes, the headlines about the SAT scandal are overshadowing another, very real problem: the number of students who make it to college unprepared, and drop out.

Read her post: "We're asking the wrong questions in the latest SAT cheating scandal," on the Hechinger Report.

Thursday, 08 September 2011 09:50

High School Hustle: Waking up is hard to do

Shortly after noon one day this week, I called my household of young teenagers to inquire about progress on the summer reading assignments. (Why get them done early when you can wait till the very last moment?)

The phone rang endlessly, the texts went unanswered. A sleepy voice finally answered the call at about 2 p.m. and announced: “We just woke up!”

This morning, the first alarm bell went off some eight hours earlier -- shortly after 6 a.m. The ordeal that will follow from now on is one that defies the natural rhythm of teenagers, I dread it, and I imagine a similar struggle is unfolding in a city of long subway and bus commutes to school.

Liz Willen, editor of The Hechinger Report, writes High School Hustle. This is her final Middle School Muddle.

While preparing for middle school graduation this week, I was reminded of my older son’s orientation five years ago. Parents and children were separated, somewhat symbolically. We sat on the floor and listened as the principal described the enormous physical, emotional and academic changes that would transform our innocent fifth-graders forever.

He asked if we had any questions.

Stupidly, I raised my hand and asked if it was still okay to bring cupcakes to school to celebrate middle school birthdays. Wiser parents in the audience laughed. The principal shook his head and made it clear that not only were the cupcake days over, we very soon wouldn’t be taking our children to school or picking them up anymore.

“They are going to be riding the subway by themselves – get over it,’’ he said.

It seemed so harsh to me. No more hand-holding! No more chatting with parents at pick-up and drop-off.  Time to let go, little by little, as I explained recently to a new middle school parent, whose little girl clung to her side at a welcoming dinner.

Not that letting go was easy. My older son, now a high school sophomore, believes he was last in his class allowed to ride the subway alone. He may never forgive me for calling the Jamba Juice near his school one day and insisting his name be called out aloud so I could find out if he was there. He still resents my insistence that he could not have a Facebook page until eighth-grade, along with the outrageous embarrassment of lugging his mother’s very old and uncool cell phone around.

Such are the slings and arrows of middle school, also known as the Age of Embarrassment. Parents are not to be seen or heard, although they come in handy for cash, keys, Metrocards and the purchase of electronic devices.  Academic performance often slumps; educators have long argued over the best way to boost motivation.

Voices crack and change at the most awkward of times. Straight hair turns curly and curly hair turns straight. Growth spurts of eight inches a year or more are not unusual. Dreaded acne appears. The mirror becomes a friend and an enemy. Sweet girls become mean girls.  Old friends may become strangers, or even enemies.

Suddenly, there are secrets of all kinds. And sometimes, outright, unexplained misery.

“Nobody gets through middle school unscathed,’’ a wise middle school educator once told me, during a particularly painful moment.

Some of us retain middle school memories that still make us cringe.  The lucky leave buoyed by tremendous friendships and new self-confidence. Much depends on the chemistry of a particular class, or the sensitivity of teachers to the astonishing changes that take place during these crucial years.

Watching the eighth-graders at a pre-graduation event recently, I noticed some of the extreme height differences had started to even out. Some of the guys looked ready to shave. I was struck by the amount of time the soon-to-be graduates spent simply hugging one another.

“It’s what we do,’’ one young woman – for she could certainly no longer be called a little girl – said to me.

For a brief moment, it appeared she would get through unscathed.