The good parents in central New Jersey’s West Windsor – Plainsboro Regional School District are embroiled in a conflict over best educational practices that has broken down along racial lines. On one side is Superintendent David Aderhold and the minority white community which favors relaxing homework requirements, ending high school final exams, and even easing up on the perfectionist ethos in the system’s elite music program. On the other side are Asian-Americans who comprise a majority of the parents in the school system.
They feel their value system which extols hard-work and achievement is being rejected. At a recent school board meeting, a first-generation Chinese mother claimed that lower school standards will “hold her and her children back.”
The evidence does suggest that the district is unusually competitive and many kids are feeling the strain. But, to the perplexity of the superintendent and many other whites, the Asian-American parents aren’t budging on their insistence that the school district continue to push kids to the limit. Author Jennifer Lee explains:
[W]hite middle-class parents do not always understand . . . how much pressure recent immigrants feel to boost their children into the middle class. ‘They don’t have the same chances to get their children internships or jobs at law firms. . . So what they believe is that their children must excel beyond their white peers in academic settings so they have the same chances to excel later.’
Obviously this is a battle without villains. Both sides are doing what they believe is best for their kids. My initial reaction is sympathy for overworked tweens and teens and an inclination to support proposals to alleviate their burdens. Still my sons attend a very competitive public high school in a district that isn’t so dissimilar from the one in the article. Yet neither they nor their friends appear to be overly stressed from excessive demands. Perhaps, the pressure on the high school students in West Windsor – Plainsboro isn’t as great as some are making it out to be.
In any case, the best solution is government programs to reduce wealth disparities and poverty. As Jennifer Lee suggests, the pressure to perform stems from Asian parents’ overwhelming desire to see their children solidly ensconced in middle-class comfort. In our winner-take-all economy, parents understandably fear that anything less than extraordinary scholastic performance may lead to life-long economic struggles. In 2011, 15% of Americans were impoverished with more than 1 in 9 Asians facing economic privation. The Wall Street Journal’s Marketwatch reported three days ago that “most Americans have less than $1,000 in savings.”
So the price in lifestyle and comfort that many Americans may pay for not achieving academically is a very steep one indeed. Moreover, even among those who attend a top college or university and go on to graduate school, the winnowing process is unusually harsh in America today with the super rich far outdistancing the merely rich. In this environment, it is perfectly understandable that some working and middle-class parents put extraordinary demands on their children and expect the school system to do the same.
What’s the answer? Flattening out wealth distribution comes immediately to mind. Reinstituting top marginal tax rates in the 70% or higher range; tightening up the safety net so nobody is homeless, hungry, or without health care; bringing good jobs back to America via wise trade policy; and imposing a living wage on employers are obvious remedies to the racial animus in central New Jersey.
Doesn’t it seem likely that with these remedies in place, the benefits of finishing first in one’s class, graduating from Harvard or Stanford Phi Beta Kappa, and taking a job at Goldman Sachs or Google won’t seem that much better than more prosaic alternatives? And, when this becomes the case parents will reduce the pressure on their kids to be spelling champion, first violin, a top mathlete, and ultimately valedictorian all wrapped up in one.