Leverage unfair advantages in order to get the power to fix them

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I had a friend in high school whose mom wrote her papers. At the time I thought: messed up family.

Then I became a mom who practiced cello three hours a day with my son. And I thought: messed up family.

When we added two hours a day of piano practice I thought: I need to own who I really am. I’m a person who teaches my kids to cut corners. Here are my six principles of cutting corners:

1. Link your goals to your moral code so you know what rules you can break. 
I surprised myself when I was surrounded by music moms, but then I realized it’s like belonging to synagogue that also recruits Asians. I surprised myself when I embraced the mantra of “music is not about speed,” but then I realized we were all racing when no one was watching.

I am no longer surprised by my particular brand of tiger mom parenting (with a healthy does of Jewish-mother martyrdom and  Gen-X reverence for cynicism.) I’ll do whatever my kids need as long as I’m not doing something they will need to do for themselves in order to be a successful adult. So I write biology flash cards but I won’t make beds. Because people who make their bed every morning are happier people.

2. Work backwards to find the fastest way to meet your final goal.
My son decided he wants to do research. I started with the gods of high school science,  kids who won the Siemens prize, and I worked backwards – what did she do junior year? Sophomore year? Freshman year? How did she get to where she got to?

Every kid I investigated was working with a lab. I looked into high schoolers working in labs, and the consensus was that it’s a total pain in the butt for the professor.  My scientist professor friend told me it would be a six-month Festshrift to get legal clearance for a kid to work a lab. She said, “How about if he just comes in for a tour?”

3. Look for patterns among the winners.
I started looking more closely at the contest winners. Nearly all science competition winners have a parent who is a scientists. I should have known. This title is entirely representative of all the entries: Developing a computational model of blood platelets with fluid dynamics applications.

This is not baking soda and vinegar. This also is not particularly controversial. Even Science Buddies advises, “Most kids have a parent helping them, and often it’s a parent who is a scientist.” It hit me: this is the equivalent of moms writing a paper or moms practicing every note alongside the kid. Dads who oversee every tennis practice or dads who build their kid a lab.

4. Yes, the system’s unfair. Life’s unfair. Work with it to get power to change it.
Music is the same as science — at the top, it attracts kids who are privileged and then kids with musician parents have a big advantage.  String instruments and privilege are so intertwined that Harvard doesn’t even make note of an applicant who has been playing cello or violin their whole life because such a huge percentage of accepted candidates are in that category.

Overachievements in high school are just another way to separate kids who already have advantages from everyone else. The list of kids who placed in top competitions is also a list of the top twenty high-schools in the US.  It’s not just that kids who have parents who went to college are more likely to go to college. Kids who have parents who play and instrument are more likely to play an instrument. And kids who have a parent who’s a scientist are more likely to be a scientist. The lack of class mobility is deep.

5. The rich are different from you and me; they don’t seek change or challenge.
And we are not even talking here about the kids of the super rich: there are few kids of super-rich who are committed and driven in a way that dominates life like string instruments and science labs. Intense commitment is boring, high-risk, and all-consuming. Why would anyone do that who is super rich?  The super-rich are so entrenched in their  jet-setting, ski-sloping, island-owning lives that they don’t even worry about having high achieving kids.

6. Self-knowledge is the scissors of the corner-cutting class.
For my kids, their best hope of inherited privilege is cutting corners. So I was researching yesterday, trying again to figure out a way to cut a new path to the Siemens competition. And I discovered that the competition is canceled as of 2018. An announcement on the site explained:

Over the last few years we’ve taken a close look at changes in the U.S and the people, programs and expertise we have to address those needs and adjusted our investments accordingly. The growing momentum around our investments in workforce development, including through career and technical education, apprenticeships, and more, has affirmed our belief that moving forward in this direction provides the best opportunity for us to serve those in need. Addressing inequalities in economic opportunity and the vanishing middle-class of America is an area where we believe we can be an important part of the solution.

This is one of the most radical, disruptive, and life-affirming statements that I’ve read in a long time. Siemens is calling BS on the idea that we need to celebrate privileged kids leveraging their privilege. And Siemens is calling a spade a spade: it was a competition that reinforces a static class system.

The whole problem with our education system is that we celebrate achievements in systems that are rigged. Siemens is pulling the rug out from under all the people trying to leverage our lack of class mobility in order to benefit their kids. I am one of those people. And I confess to clicking Siemens’s list of alternative competitions.


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