Inequity in optimism distribution

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Some books make my rational side happy. Some books make my emotional side happy. Some books make neither side happy. And then there’s Paul Tough’s lastest book, Helping Children Succeed, a compilation of the latest neuroscience research on 1) why certain students who grow up with hardships succeed and 2) how those findings can be used to improve education for all at-risk children.

The entire book is available online for free. Here’s an excerpt:

Farrington concluded from the research that the key factor behind academic perseverance was students’ academic mindset — the attitudes and self-perceptions that each child and adolescent possessed. She distilled the voluminous research on student mindset into four key beliefs that contribute most significantly to students’ tendency to persevere in the classroom:

  1. I belong in this academic community;
  2. My ability and competence grow with my effort;
  3. I can succeed at this; and
  4. This work has value for me.

If students hold these beliefs in mind as they are sitting in math class, Farrington wrote, they are more likely to persevere through the challenges and failures they encounter there. And if they don’t, they are more likely to give up at the first sign of trouble.

The complication, of course, is that students who grow up in conditions of adversity are primed, in all sorts of ways, not to believe any of Farrington’s four statements when they’re sitting in math class.

Those 4 messages match the narrative that students have been constructing for years about school. They address complaints, from “we’re never going to use this in real life” to “I’m just not good at this” to “the school doesn’t care about us beyond our test scores” to “my teachers don’t have time to know about me as an individual”. This confluence of neuroscience with the true, real experiences of students, if anything, shows the importance of students sharing their stories.

And maybe that the most damning inequity in education isn’t necessarily one of resources -counselors, social workers, quality teachers, Pre-K programs, extracurriculars-  but instead one of hope, of belief- that less privileged students don’t have.  I’m constantly reminded of this Atlantic article about the stories we craft about our lives:

The redemption story is American optimism—things will get better!—and American exceptionalism—I can make things better!—and it’s in the water, in the air, and in our heads. This is actually a good thing a lot of the time. Studies have shown that finding a positive meaning in negative events is linked to a more complex sense of self and greater life satisfaction.

[…]

The trouble comes when redemption isn’t possible. The redemptive American tale is one of privilege, and for those who can’t control their circumstances, and have little reason to believe things will get better, it can be an illogical and unattainable choice. There are things that happen to people that cannot be redeemed.

Life’s Stories

And this same sentiment in a blog post:

It is gratifying to believe that we are the sole operating agents of our own lives. It is uplifting to believe in stories of redemption, wherein those with nothing make the independent choice to strive and turn their lives around. It is unsettling to imagine the great fortune we have in a confluence of circumstances that is entirely outside of our control. It undermines the distinction between us and those less fortunate.

The Narrative of Privilege

I’ve been force-fed the narrative that I can achieve anything if I put my mind to it. And I’d love to believe that it’s true, as it motivates me and gives me faith in the world. But more and more, I’ve become aware that this optimism in and of itself is a manifestation of privilege.

Before my high school graduation, I was talking with some of the first people I met in high school and some of the last people I would talk to: the people alphabetically next to me.

Among the red itchy fabric, (almost) all 800 graduating seniors in a high ceilinged concrete hall with dampened lights and poor ventilation, behind the scenes at one of the district’s largest graduations in Houston’s football stadium, one girl asked me: “Would you do high school the same again?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you were to do it all over, would you work this hard again?”

I pause before I say: “You definitely won’t believe me when I say this, but I probably didn’t work as hard as you think.”

“Bullshit, you worked your ass off for this. Don’t tell me that you going to college for free ranked in the top 1% and that you didn’t work hard.”

And somehow, I managed to do precisely that with some remark about grade inflation. 1

What I meant, I guess, was that I didn’t work any harder than what would have been expected given my environment. You can call it privilege, or segregation, or why affirmative action exists: I was a product of all of those.

I was the student that teachers didn’t need to pay much attention to because they knew I would do well regardless. I was the student that counselors didn’t need to pay much attention to because I would definitely be going to college. I was the Asian girl who came from the magnet middle school that over-prepared its students for high school. I would be graduating from the high school that was somehow an exception from the typical comprehensive, urban school, a school that could compete with the exclusive magnet schools, the private and charter schools, the suburban schools. That I had every reason to believe that the 4 years ahead of me are, for the most part, going to be great.

And that even in the face of all science and personal experience, I still choose to have this illusion of control in my life, this almost sickening degree of optimism and faith, that in the end, it’s going to be okay, and I’m going to be okay.

And I don’t know whether to feel stupid, guilty or grateful.


  1. Actually though. When more than 70% of your AP English III class gets an “A” and when 30-40 point curves on tests are the norm in other classes, you start wondering what your grades actually mean. 
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Stories from Middle School: Mathcounts

This is related to one of my earlier posts: Partitions and the Quadratic Formula, but written from a broader perspective. Also, with more nostalgia. 

incorrect derivation

Yes, I know this is wrong. And that’s the point.

One of my most vivid educational experiences dates back to a middle school math competition– Mathcounts. After months of hard work, our team of four students were ecstatic to have qualified to compete at the state level in Austin.  In the weeks leading up, our sponsor had one goal in mind: beat St. John’s. This sentiment had been building up throughout the year. St. John’s was the local private school whose team had beaten us at the regional competition.

In preparation for the competition, we worked through lunch for a month to solve math problems in our coach’s classroom. Anyone who walked in would have seen four people huddled around a table talking numbers, but like children mesmerized by magic, we didn’t care what the others thought. Together, we had found something greater.

When we were able to solve a hard problem without guidance, the happiness was contagious. That is, until we realized the multitude of problems ahead of us and that many before us had already solved these problems. Nevertheless, to us each solution was an element in a series of epiphanies. As a team, we explained difficult problems to confused team members. When we were truly stuck, our coach would pull out the solution manual, and we would try to make sense of the official explanations.

As we pushed ourselves through problem set after problem set, we developed a mutual respect for each other. Like four legs of a table, our team was built on the idea that in order for the group to succeed, we needed support from all members. During the team rounds, we split up problems and learned to settle disputes quickly and effectively (though not always accurately). We shared our victories and failures, our laughter and frustration, our stupidest mistakes and grandest insights.

Through solving hundreds of different problems, I gradually learned probability, analytic geometry, and number theory. This was before I had taken Algebra 1. By comparison, my math class seemed dull (though I didn’t tell this to my sponsor, who was also my teacher at the time).

One day of practice in particular stands out. It was the Friday before spring break, and we had finished reviewing a set of problems with nearly 20 minutes left. One of our team members, Alex, decided that the logical thing to do was to go to the chalkboard and write ax^2+bx+c=0 followed by the statement “I’m going to derive the quadratic formula.”

When I was in kindergarten, my brother had made me memorize a sentence starting with “x equals” that included a bunch of a’s, b’s, and c’s. That was about all I knew of the quadratic equation. Deriving this mystical formula was a big deal for me, something complicated and important, though it had no bearing in our preparation for the state competition.

So I watched in awe as he rearranged and factored terms, until we were left with something that looked suspiciously like the quadratic formula.

Wait no. One thing was missing. An “a.”

For some reason, this mistake made us crack up and start repeatedly exclaiming “WHERE’S THE A?”.

The end of lunch bell rang. None of us left the board.

The students from our teacher’s next class began trickling in. They saw the four of us freaking out over a board of algebra searching for some mysterious “a” and silently stared at us.

After balancing our laughing with serious efforts to find our mistake, we found the “a” lost inside a fraction.  Alex quickly filled in the chain of mistakes that the  ‘a’ had created and we excitedly proclaimed to all within earshot, “WE FOUND THE ‘A’!”

The tardy bell rang, and we were officially late to our next period.

That didn’t stop Alex from exclaiming, “YES! I FINALLY GOT IT! I HAVE TO WRITE THIS DOWN!” Meanwhile, I knew I had to get to my next class. So while he was scribbling down the slanted rows of algebra onto a sheet of notebook paper, I packed my stuff and went to my next class, still feeling the euphoria from deriving a long complicated algebra equation and hoping that my 4th period teacher wouldn’t mind that I was late.

Two weeks later, we had to leave school right after lunch on Friday for the state competition. This was my first time staying away from home overnight with friends. As fun as this sounds for a middle school student, there was still a sense of pressure. This was when we were supposed to beat St. Johns. Something had to result from the loads of math problems and unfinished lunches.

After busting our brains through three intensive rounds of math harder than anything we had practiced, we were a bit demoralized, but still hoped for the best. Fortunately, we ended up placing 7th in the state, beat St. Johns, and all individually ranked in the top 25% of students.

There have been few days where I have felt as happy as I did when I clutched that right-triangle-shaped trophy on stage alongside my team members. But that happiness was mixed. At the same time, I knew that the state competition marked the end of our lunchtime practices, and that the sense of unity we felt as we worked towards a common goal was coming to a close. Two of our team members would be going on to high school, and I knew that the team I had grown accustomed to working with would soon change.

Math is easily the most stigmatized subject in America, even more so amongst girls, but within our 3 girl, 1 guy team, none of that mattered. I was extremely lucky be a part of this amazing experience with such a group of talented people who shared similar interests in middle school, and I’ve carried this motivation with me throughout high school.

We weren’t going through intensive training like the top schools and students did. Our sponsor merely sat back and let us learn from each other. There were no textbooks, no curriculum, no formula memorizing, no technology (even our calculator use was minimal)–we simply had problem sets, their solutions, pencils, and lots and lots of scratch paper. We were doing what we considered to be important in our learning, and we had the freedom to explore the topics that truly piqued our interest.

Thought Cluster: Happiness and Sadness

I’ve been struggling to come up with a good post idea, but I’ve had plenty of semi-philosophical epiphanies and questions about happiness and sadness recently. Here they are, concepts that otherwise would have made it into the rejected pile.

  • Why is there a medical condition for extreme sadness (depression) but not a corresponding one for extreme happiness? (taken from my diary)
  • Studies have shown that people feeling sad can analyze and edit a document better, while slightly angry people are better at distinguishing between good and bad arguments. Seen from another perspective, depression is an evolutionary adaptation to help us focus and analyze.  Is it any wonder that so many people dislike school?
  • In response to Miley Cyrus’ new-ish song Wrecking Ball: I feel like you almost can’t criticize it because it’s so emotionally desperate. Not much separates it from a normal pop song, yet the haters are seen as “insensitive” because it’s “expressing her true emotions”, while most cheery pop can simply be passed off as shallow. What makes criticizing happiness more acceptable than depression?
  • On “the real me”: Often times, we only acknowledge our “true selves” when we’re depressed and secluded with no one around to see us, and consider all other interactions to be fake and artificial. (read: school) However, I refuse to believe that the times I spend hysterical and hyper are any less “real” than the not-so-pleasant emotions at the other end of the scale. (I have a feeling this is mostly an insecure teenage girl problem, but an extremely prevalent one.)
  • News reporting is ridiculously biased on reporting tragic events, while the rest of the media and society (including social media) is preoccupied with portraying happiness. What’s causing this huge gap, and is it distancing us from reality?
  • And…the overarching question: What makes sad emotions carry more weight than joy in general?