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Two Versions of Educational Reality

The system really is fixed, and if that's all you believe, then your kids will never beat it

Photo: David Croxford

Inside this issue, we explain how public school teachers, principals and administrators are evaluated and held accountable for their on-the-job performance. You already know that students are held accountable every time they hand in an assignment for grading or take a test.

Sadly, it may be impossible to hold accountable the most important players in education: parents. Why do some parents not care what their children do in school and others are passionate about it? That divergence partly arises from two opposite worldviews:

  • In one version of reality, the system is fixed. Children whose affluent and connected parents send them to Punahou, Iolani or other high-priced private schools get all the breaks. After they graduate from a private college, without debt and without having to work two jobs on the side, their parents and parents’ friends make the introductions that help them get great jobs and then grease the road to the top.
  • In the opposite version of reality, hard work and ingenuity can lift any child from the working class to success. Yes, you have to work nights and weekends to pay your way, but that increases your motivation and teaches discipline. You must make your own connections, but people recognize your grit and reward it with opportunities.

Which version of reality is true? Both are, of course. The deck is stacked against the kids from the wrong side of the tracks, and most will not cross over. But the odds can be beaten. Yes, you have to work harder and make fewer mistakes, but, what’s ironic, is that your working-class-with-no-connections parents are just as important to your success as those whose parents each have graduate degrees.

Here’s how that works: Do your parents insist that school comes first, before sports and TV? Do they create a quiet place in a small or crowded house so you can finish your homework? Do they celebrate a report card with As and insist you work harder if you get Cs? Do they work with teachers and others to get you the extra help you need?

Is that a level playing field? Hell, no! In fact, there is even less social mobility in America than there was a few generations ago. In other words, life has never been fair, but it’s even less fair than before.

Let’s try to reverse that diminished mobility, but, in the meantime, here’s a ray of hope: Many Jews in America, despite widespread anti-Semitism, gained admission to elite colleges during the 20th Century and made it to the top of the business world largely because of ethnic and family cultures that stressed education and hard work. Despite a stacked deck, the number of Jews in the business elite grew out of proportion to their share of America’s population. Japanese Americans in Hawaii made similar gains in the second half of the 20th Century against equally daunting odds.

Nationally, today’s Jews are Asian Americans, who are gaining access to elite colleges out of proportion to their share of the population. That’s not because Asian Americans are smarter than other Americans, but that their ethnic and family cultures and personal choices tend to value education and hard work more.

Not Jewish or Asian? That doesn’t mean you and your family can’t mimic the same values and make the same personal choices. Either that or you can insist that the system is designed to make your kids fail and you will ensure it happens.

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