American Disparate Education

The New York Times ran an interesting story on Saturday about ethnic divides and tensions over school policy in West Windsor Township, a well-to do suburb of New York. This is the kind of suburb where most parents are from the educated class and their children will also receive university and graduate educations. According to Wikipedia, median family income in the township is slightly north of 150,000 dollars.

The tension is over whether the school district’s academic program is creating students that are overburdened, stressed out, and on the verge of nervous breakdowns. One parent noted that her 4th grader was concerned about not amounting to anything in life because of the dearth of material for a resume. Other parents think that the school district’s concern over psychological health and well-being is going to make their kids unable to compete in the American and global economy. For these parents, the stress and overburdening are features, not bugs. The parents who want more psychological well-being in the school schedule tend to be white. The parents who worry that psychological well-being is a luxury that will hold their kids back tend to be Asian.

This is a fight that is happening all over the United States. Hanna Rosin reports on misery and suicide in well-to-do Silicon Valley high schools. Slate focused on self-segregation in Silicon Valley high schools based on race and how stressful people believed the academics of the schools should be.

The Asian-American parents tend to be immigrants or first-generation Americans. Their basic argument seems to be that psychological well-being and a humanities and arts educations are luxuries that they simply can’t afford. The white parents are older, more established, and have connections. The only way Asian-Americans can help their kids compete is by making sure that they have top grades, get into top universities, and get into top jobs.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to this because it is a basic immigrant technique for making the next generation successful and is basically correct. The issue is also relevant in emerging economies. My girlfriend is from Singapore, and a lot of her friends are expats from Singapore and Malaysia. One of her friends got to do a presentation before the Singaporean Minister for Education after her freshman year at college in the United States. The presentation was on how Singapore could benefit from a more creatively focused version of education instead of fitting students into boxes. The Singaporean Minister of Education largely dismissed that as being a luxury. The United States can afford to have people who spend their 20s in underpaid jobs and dreaming of art because the United States has a large population and can handle slack. Singapore is small and can’t handle any excess baggage. The Malaysian friends received an education that seems to consist of math and science, math and science, and more math and science.

There are very good points here. Recent immigrants might have good paying jobs but they probably lack social connections that can ensure those jobs without having earned stellar grades while still in school. What I wonder about is burnout. Maybe the academically intense model of parenting is good at getting children into top universities, leading to the kind of brass ring jobs that give 22 year olds six-figure salaries. But what good are these jobs if the kid burns out in five-to-ten years, and end up doing something with an easier pace or find themselves out of the job market entirely?

The big issues surrounding the American education system seem to arise because no one can agree on what the point or purpose of receiving an education is; everyone has different end goals. If the purpose of education is to make individuals and the country competitive in the national and global economies, education is going to be very utilitarian. People will be boxed into careers early and subjects will gravitate towards the merely functional. A more psychologically balanced or arts-oriented educated do benefit the rich, well-established, and connected, though. There are also good arguments for making sure that kids don’t slack through their twenties, which can delay everything from home-owenrship to parenting and saving for retirement. The problem is that a lot of American school districts are filled with roughly equal numbers of parents in both camps, and this is just going to produce more tensions and headaches down the line.

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21 thoughts on “American Disparate Education

  1. The idea of meandering twenties is both a luxury good of having an affluent society and a “smaller-case l” liberal good from individualistic cultures. The West always had a relatively latter marriage age than many other countries and something of a youth culture. There are complaints from the Middle Ages about university students and apprenticed youths, basically people in their teens and twenties, that match complaints about young people today. That they spend too much time drinking, fighting, and romancing rather than studying or working. Yet, there was always something of at least a passive tolerance and acceptance of this rather than an outright crackdown that exited in other cultures. What passed as an arranged marriage in the West was a lot more subtle than what existed in Europe.


  2. West Windsor is in NJ, not NY. I work there. Mercer County encompasses both Trenton and Princeton. West Windsor is middle-upper-middle, but it’s not as well to do as Princeton.


    • Interesting. I just looked through some of the data and it appears I low balled West Windsor’s affluence. I probably judged it by the neighborhoods I drive through and those of the bordering towns on the way to work. They are still nice. The closer one approaches the Princeton border, the nicer, it seems to me, the neighborhoods get. Goes to show how important neighborhoods can be.


  3. I think the last paragraph really gets at the root of the issue.

    Do we educate people to compete in the economy? If so, we’re going to make certain educational choices, disparaging other outcomes.

    Do we educate people to create an economy that can compete with other economies? Maybe the same result as above, but probably different priorities.

    So too with educating people with the goal of making them be happy. Or educating them to be good citizens. Or educating them to be good consumers. Or educating them to indoctrinate them into conventional social norms. Or not so much educating them as simply keeping them alive and physically well for a period of time while their parents are usefully employed elsewhere.

    All of these things are actually in the stew. And it’s difficult to tease out one taste from among many in a stew, so it’s difficult to tease out one objective as paramount from among the many that are in play.

    Consequently, prioritizing is going to never be uniform as we move from one set of decision-makers to another. In the United States, for the most part, we have highly decentralized decision-making for education, particularly at lower levels. I think 48 out of the 50 states have schools governed by locally-elected district representatives playing critical roles in allocating resources, and 50 states setting standards for education.

    Compare with western European or Asian nations with national standards and controls set uniformly and virtually no discretion given to local actors, whether administrative or political.


    • I think there is still a difference though between
      1) focusing on a “utilitarian” education and trying to produce as many doctors, engineers, scientists and accountants as possible and
      2) stressing kids out with (what amounts to) 70-hour work weeks from middle school on out.

      I’m not necessarily recommending the first one, but it’s understandable why some people would nudge their children into these paths (or why some countries would craft public policies to that end.)
      The second one though, is (most of the time) about the pretty much zero-sum game of who manages to get into an Ivy-League college or similar. Who can craft the best-looking résumé.
      I don’t think the kids are actually learning anything more from this than if they had a more sane work week. You can still pay attention in school and work hard on homework without becoming a workaholic as a child.
      Society overall does not gain anything here and therefore public policy probably shouldn’t support it. You can’t ban parents from doing it, but schools shouldn’t support it by assigning 3 hours of homework every day.


    • We really don’t know why we educate people because education has many different functions. The basic reason for education is tho give children the knowledge and skills they need to live as adults. In a representative democracy that means being a good citizen but one person’s good citizen is another person’s bad citizen depending on your politics. Giving children the skills or knowledge they need to function as an adult also means making sure they could hold down a job of some sort. The problem with a strictly job or economic focused education is that figuring out where the economy is going to be when the kids are old enough to hold down a job isn’t easy or even possible. At best you can make an educated guess. Even in job focused education, general is usually better than specific.


  4. I wonder how much of the parental stress is a result of the “winner take all” economy where the slight difference at age 16 amounts to radically different social class at 30.


      • Since I was born at the tale end of Generation X, I was born in a bit of a Baby bust. This made it relatively easy for me to get into a reach school when applying to college in 1998.

        If I was born 3-5 years later, It would not have been so easy.


  5. The big issues surrounding the American education system seem to arise because no one can agree on what the point or purpose of receiving an education is; everyone has different end goals.

    Why is this a problem exactly? In fact, everyone does have different end goals. Some people want to get into a top tier school, so they can spend 90 hours a week working for Goldman or McKinsey. Good for them. Other people want to skip university and pursue a trade, because they like working with their hands and want to have their own business one day. Good for them, as well.

    There is more than one valid pedagogy. We can have a minimum level of standards and let students and their parents decide how and by how much to exceed those standards. What exactly is wrong with letting a thousand flowers bloom?


    • The problem is what to do for public schools. If one massive segment of society is forced by financial constraints to send their kids to public schools, and public schools only offer the minimum, those people are only going to get that minimum. If getting a high paying job is one significant avenue of social mobility, then this severely restricts that. Add to that the further curious fact that private supplementary education (i.e. private tuition centres or cram schools) seem non-existent in the US and this seems like something that is going to heavily curtail social mobility.

      One might wish that ideally, public schools provided enough education for a student (who appropriately applied him or herself) to have a serious chance at getting a good job.


      • When I say minimum standards, I don’t mean it in the sense of minimum quality. I mean that there is certain agreed-upon core curriculum, in which every student must gain proficiency, but beyond that students can specialize in different subject areas or learn under different pedagogic systems or attend different kinds of schools.

        Add to that the further curious fact that private supplementary education (i.e. private tuition centres or cram schools) seem non-existent in the US and this seems like something that is going to heavily curtail social mobility.

        I don’t find this so curious. The SAT is important, but it is not at the same level of importance that entrance exams in other countries are.


        • If we agreed that everyone needs to be taught Biology and Physics and Chemistry, I’d be a HELL of a lot less paranoid about school vouchers.

          As it is, the rich don’t see much need for even basic public schooling. And why should they? They’ll just send their kids to private schools.


      • We actually do have private tuition centers in the United States. At least we do in the New York City area. There was one in my hometown, one I pass to on the way to the subway from my apartment, and one I pass to on the way to work. They all seemed aimed at elementary school aged kids and more prominent in areas with big Asian populations. though. There are also independent study programs for the various standardized tests like the SATs that many high school students take. These programs tend to run on the expensive side so if your family doesn’t have money, your screwed. We don’t have Asian style cram schools because we don’t have university entrance examinations.


    • I agree — and have actually advocated — for this very approach, but I’m not sure it is feasible in all areas. In a city like NYC, you can have specialty public high schools like Laguardia for the arts and others that students can apply in to and pursue particular interests beyond the core. You also have G&T and other more traditionally academically oriented schools that students who want to pursue a more rigorous can apply for.

      But what do you do in rural Montana where an entire district might only have a couple hundred students? You can’t staff four different schools. Hell, you might not be able to staff four different English classes for high school seniors.

      There are other issues, largely with the fact that children are often at the mercy of their parents when it comes to schooling decisions and under informed or under involved parents can be the death knell for a kid. I don’t know how to work around this.

      Ultimately, for a host of reasons — be it isolated school districts or parental issues or something else — you’d have a wide swath of kids who wouldn’t be able to take advantage of such a system. On the one hand, that seems like the wrong reason to deny the system to those who can take advantage of it. On the other hand, exacerbating inequality in the system can have very real negative effects on those kids who can’t access the system. This is where determining if our society is zero-sum or positive sum in practice.


  6. The big issues surrounding the American education system seem to arise because no one can agree on what the point or purpose of receiving an education is

    Perhaps the issue exists at a more fundamental level; no one can agree on what the point or purpose of an individual’s existence is. Personal fulfillment? Economic success? Advancing in social class? Contribution to a growing economy? Establishment of deep and meaningful relationships? Extending the knowledge of mankind?

    Now a society can’t function if the average individual can’t at least feed, clothe and house himself. So educating its citizens to the level where they can at least get minimum wage employment is a sensible minimum goal for goventment education that I guess everyone could agree on.

    But I think the arguments for what the “point or purpose” of education should be beyond that level are motivated from very personal value systems.

    In a science blog I frequent, one commentator recently expressed deep disappointment that his six year old daughter seems interested only in the sort of things normal six year old girls are interested in, and not in anything sciency. One gets the impression he wishes he and his wife could have another go at the genetic dice, as between them they really should be able to do better than producing just a normal child.

    This man’s ideas of what his child’s education should provide will be informed by his basic belief of why he brought a child into the world in the first place.


  7. The model of motivation that I use has three factors: autonomy, mastery, and (socially-relevant) meaning or purpose.

    My daughter, who is mid-20s, said to me that it was the most powerful thing to watch Big Hero 6 at the moment where Hiro’s brother says to the video camera “People need you”. She said her generation hadn’t heard that.

    I have many other stories like this. I think 20 somethings are getting a message from the economy that they aren’t needed or wanted. They have to scramble over each other to compete for jobs that don’t seem very meaningful. I think this is partly demographic, and partly the result of the Great Recession. I think things could be quite different in as little as 5 years.

    Meanwhile the immigrant children give up a huge amount of autonomy to be able to compete for the meager slots of jobs which do seem meaningful.


  8. …whether the school district’s academic program is creating students that are overburdened, stressed out, and on the verge of nervous breakdowns…


    …think that the school district’s concern over psychological health and well-being is going to make their kids unable to compete in the American and global economy…


    …psychological well-being and a humanities and arts educations…



    • I’m now going to reply more substantively. The OP is focused exclusively on college bound students, so I will do the same. For the purposes of my comment, at least “an education” school from the beginning of elementary school to the receipt of a bachelors or higher degree (or extra classes or whatever). That said, my thoughts on these issues generally don’t concern elementary school much. My elementary school experience was unusual, and I don’t know what usual looks like. My middle and high school experience was I think fairly straightforward large-tracked-school stuff, so I feel comfortable commenting on it.

      A more psychologically balanced or arts-oriented educated do benefit the rich, well-established, and connected, though.

      So, first: “psychologically balanced” and “arts-oriented” are orthogonal issues, and that stupid thing I posted above was mostly an attempt to call you out on gluing them together like you did. You can have obscene, ludicrous standards of volume and/or quality in an art class, a math class, a lit class, a science class, a history class; you can have it anywhere and it’s terrible everywhere.

      American curricula are weak content-wise and our teaching methods are not particularly effective; we tend to make up for it by testing students on their work ethic, as though their willingness to jump through hoops for a grade is indicative of their effort to learn material. These are my constant complaints about education. Irrespective of what we want our education system to do, it’s not particularly good at doing things for us, or at least it’s not as good as it needs to be if we ever manage to come up with a coherent set of goals.

      Now on to the arts vs science thing.

      It’s certainly true that a more arts-oriented education would “benefit the rich, well-established, and connected” (to an outsized degree, of course; there’s no problem with being rich and well-connected). That said … we can’t teach everything. There is too much art, science, math, history, literature, philosophy in the world for one student to learn all of it in five lifetimes, much less one, much less a fifth-to-a-third of one. So someone has to decide what the students learn. It seems like a reasonably good idea that the students themselves be the ones deciding; it turns out in practice that, where possible, this actually is a good idea and it’s called college. Unfortunately, in order for it to function, the students need to be exposed to some subset of the stuff they’re going to be choosing from, if they’re to have any hope of finding something they actually like to do or at least learn about.

      So we’re back to the original problem: what do we teach students? Only this time we’ve got a goal: we want to expose them to a broad menu of things they might like, so that they can go and pick one or two or five of them and study those things. So we subdivide: we have these very different kinds of things, usually math, science, literature/writing, and history. First thing of note: there are some subjects missing from those categories. This gets back to the point above about weak curricula. Second, and more importantly: those categories have very different subcategories! Topology is not like combinatorics, and both are distinct from complex analysis, which of course should never be mistaken for nonstandard analysis, and so on and so forth. English literature, similarly, has existed for something more than 1000 years, and by specifying “English” back there I just threw out the vast majority of literary traditions and forms humans have created. There are, of course, a dozen or more “major scientific fields”, each with its own subdisciplines, and the only reason that each combination of four disciplines is not its own subfield is that we haven’t yet run out of sets of three. I could go on. Our subdivisions, though they are, as is said, “good enough for government work”, they aren’t good enough for us to figure out what to teach.

      So now, we get to use my favorite problem solving hack: we go find someone else who’s solving it for us. Turns out, a bunch of this stuff is out there already, and we can expect people to be exposed to it! Vibrant popular literature, music, and other artistic communities exist out in the world, on and off the internet. There’s even a pretty strong literary criticism community, complete with its own ludicrous schisms*. Turns out we can offload a whole bunch of lit and art learning on broader culture. This won’t work for everyone, but it will work well enough that we can afford to pare down our lit curriculum (or perhaps more accurately fail to expand it) and trust that those who are interested will come.

      Trouble is, this doesn’t work for math or science, or history for that matter. Like it or not (I can’t say I’m particularly happy about it), school is where these fields live. The only way to get a glimpse of all the different kinds of science there are is to go to a bunch of school. Same with math. Same with history. Academic literature and academic arts are often accused** of being excessively or unnecessarily narrow in their interests. Right now I’m wondering if that is just because they don’t need to be the entirety of what they are.

      Anyway, philosophical musings aside: one reason for all the focus on STEM education in middle and high school students, and the limitted attention that advocates are willing to pay to pure art/lit courses, is that school is very nearly the only shot that we, as a society, have to show this stuff to people who might like it. That’s changing, a little bit and for some things, with the rise of computer power user culture, but that rise has not quite broken into mainstream culture yet in the way that, say, book culture or music culture has.

      That’s my page and a half.

      *I feel the need to appologizing for linking to TvTropes and both of its forks. I don’t know if it makes it better that I only linked to the main pages.

      ** By me, for example :p


      • History, just like Physics and Math, is being taught exceptionally wrong.
        Unlike Physics and Math, I’m not entirely certain history realizes its being taught wrong.


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