Educational Equity vs. Exceptionalism

First, some personal news: I’ve recently started a new job as the VP of Engineering at Kiddom! Upon leaving my previous role at Mystery, I found myself still intrigued by the educational space and how it intersects—or doesn’t intersect—with technology, and my fascination has led me to join this team building out a platform for teaching core curriculum to K–12 students, i.e., English and Math and Science. It’s cool to be able to impact kids’ lives, and to do so by leveraging modern software.

Anyway, my focus has me more attuned than before about news in the education sector, which is how I came across this:

Controversy Rages as California Follows SF’s Lead With New Approach to Teaching Math

The gist is that California is looking to rejigger its math standards and curriculum to deemphasize calculus, push back the first Algebra lessons, as well as pay more attention to social justice principles within math lessons. As you can imagine, there’s a furor among parents in competitive school districts who decry the initiative as dumbing down an important school subject, while advocates are looking at this as a mechanism to raise up students who have lagged behind in math. The social justice clause injects, unhelpfully, the entire weight of the culture and race wars1 which were already turning school board meetings into political battlegrounds.

I’ve written about the idea of frameworks optimizing for either the ceiling or the floor, and how in something like education, the two are incontrovertibly linked; focusing on raising the floor inevitably will cap the ceiling from paying more attention to those left behind. This dynamic plays out time and time again when schools try to make changes with a nod towards educational equity, but in doing so gives up some of its cachet and presumably quality—which itself is partially derived from that exclusivity. San Francisco has been on the forefront of these reforms; folks we know who went to school in the city were perturbed by the resolution earlier this year to shift away from merit-based admissions processes for one of the best high schools in the country2.

As an Asian American whose kids are working their way through the California public school system, the stance I’m supposed to take is to fight for my kids’ rights to take advanced math classes. It’s a deeply ingrained cultural norm: my parents and pretty much all my relatives stress on the importance of a quality education en route to a respectable career3. Standing above others in the educational arena in turn provides a definite lifetime floor, a guaranteed ticket into the middle class. Even now, our parents will talk to their grandkids and, once in a while, try to motivate them by scaring them on a future stuck doing blue collar work if they don’t take their grades seriously4.

But I’m less dogmatic about schools just catering to their exceptional students. Maybe it’s my own experience having attended subpar public schools, in both Canada and the US, and turning out fine. Maybe it’s that I’ve been acclimating to American culture and feel less enthused for my kids to participate in the rote memorization found in most Asian education systems. Maybe I just happen to know a few people who did survive that educational gauntlet, attained those cumulative educational advantages via elite schooling, and aren’t enjoying a stratospheric career implicitly promised.

That’s not to simply romanticize the high school/college dropout. All things being equal, of course I’d prefer that my kids do well in school and would want to give them whatever advantage I can to help them succeed in life. At the end of the day, though, I wonder just how much of an elite education guarantees lifelong success, considering the costs that the kids would have to pay—in time, energy, frustration—along the way.

  1. The article interviews an underrepresented Math major who’s black, and a pissed parent who’s Asian. Of course it did.

  2. A judge seems to have overturned the resolution, for now.

  3. But only as a doctor, lawyer, or engineer.

  4. Note that our oldest kid is only in third grade.

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