___ Students Have to Suffer

This will be old news to most of the readership of this blog, but I realize I’ve never written it down, so time to fix that.

Fill in the blank

Let’s begin by playing a game of “fill in the blank”. Suppose that today, the director of secondary education at your high school says:

“___ students just have to suffer.”

This is not a pleasant sentence. Fill in that blank with a gender, and you’d be fired tomorrow morning. Fill in that blank with an ethnic group, and you’d be fired in an hour. Fill in that blank with “special needs”, and you’d be be sued. Heck, forget “___ students”, replace that with “You”. Can you see someone’s career flashing before their eyes? How could you possibly get away with saying that about any group of students?

Those 500 hours

“Smart students just have to suffer.”
Director of Secondary Education at Fremont Unified School District

This happened to me. I haven’t told this story enough, so I will tell it some more.

When I was a senior in high school, I was enrolled in two classes and would thereafter run off to take graduate math at UC Berkeley. (Notes here.) This was fantastic and worked for a few weeks, so I got to learn real analysis and algebraic combinatorics from some nice professors.

Then the school district found out, and called me in for a meeting. The big guy shows up, and gives me this golden quote. I was then required to enroll in five classes a day, the minimum number of classes required for me to count towards the average daily attendance funding for my school district.

And that is why, for three periods a day, five days a week, I was forced to sit in the front office, saying “Hi, how may I help you?”.

(I didn’t even get paid! Could’ve asked for a cut of that ADA funding. It didn’t all go to waste though; I spent the time writing a book.)

Everywhere Else

Since I’ve had fun picking on my school district, I will now pick on the Department of Education.

“While challenging and improving the mathematical problem-solving skills of high-performing students are surely every-day objectives of those who teach such students, it is not a problem, relatively speaking, of major import in American education.”
Department of Education Reviewer

Oh boy.

The point is that the problem of neglecting gifted students isn’t at the level of individual teachers. It’s not a problem at the level of individual schools, or individual cities. This is a problem with national culture. The problem is that as a culture we think it’s okay to say a sentence like that.

Replace “high-performing” with any adjective you want. Any gender, any social class, any ethnic group, whatever, and you will get a backlash. But we’ve decided that it’s okay to mistreat the gifted students, because no one complains at that.

Maybe it’s too much to ask that schools do something special for top students. Can you at least not get in their way? Like not forcing students to be an office assistant for 500 hours to obtain ADA funding? Or more generally, how about just not forcing students to take classes which are clearly a waste of time for them?

Next Actions

So what can you do to change the national culture? As far as I can tell, this is mostly a lost clause. I wouldn’t bother trying.

The reason I wrote this post because I went through most of high school not really being aware of just how badly I was being mistreated. I’m really writing this for myself four years ago to point out that, man, us nerds really got the ugly end of the deal.

What you can do (and should) is make small local changes. You can persuade individual schools to make exceptions for a kid, and frequently individual teachers will do what they can to help a gifted student as well. Each individual student has good chance of finding a way around the big bureaucrats that rule the wastelands.

Ask a lot of people: if one administrator says no, ignore them and ask another one. Be prepared to hear “no” a lot, but keep waiting for the one or two crucial “yes” moments. If push comes to shove, switch schools, apply to college early, etc. Take the effort to get this one right. (See 56:30-60:00 of this for more on that.)

Dear past self, yell a little harder at the big guy when he comes, maybe you can save yourself 500 hours as an office aid.

Addendum: A Happy Story

In the comments, someone wrote the following:

Did your mistreatment as a gifted student hinder you in any significant way? … Where would you be today had the system not failed you?

I think it’s impossible to know. But here’s another story.

  • When I was in 7th grade, my school tried to force me to take pre-algebra. My mom begged the school teachers until they finally relented and let me take Algebra I. At the time, my 12-year-old self couldn’t have cared less: both classes were too easy for me, and I spent most of Algebra I playing Tetris on my TI-89.
  • Two years later this happened again: the school wanted to force me to take Algebra II. This time, my mom begged the teachers to let me take precalculus instead, which they eventually did. My 14-year-old self also couldn’t care less; both classes were too easy anyways, and I spent most of precalculus playing osu on my iPhone.
  • Two years later I was in Calculus BC, again bored to tears and in the last HS math class offered. That’s when my parents were able to persuade the school to let me take classes at UC Berkeley instead, since I had exhausted the HS math curriculum. I did very well in my first undergraduate classes, which then allowed me to take graduate classes for the rest of high school.

These professors were the ones that wrote my reference letters for college applications, which got me into all the top schools in the country (Berkeley, UCLA, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, Harvard). Without these reference letters I would certainly not have had as many options; winning the USAMO and making the IMO didn’t happen for me until the end of senior year.

But it wasn’t until I met the guy quoted above that I found out that I had unwittingly “broken district rules”, and technically shouldn’t have happened. (Belated thanks to those individuals who stuck out their necks for me!)

So here’s a surprisingly clear example of a near miss. Suppose that my mom had been more polite, or my school had been a little more firm, and any of the three events above didn’t occur. Not only would I have lost some college choices (potentially including MIT), I wouldn’t even know that this was the key event I could have changed.

[Bonus question: I estimate about 2% of USA high school students take the AMC. How would my life have changed if I had been in the other 98%?]

By analogy, if you ask me now what ways I’ve been affected, how am I to tell you? Without an Earth simulator I can’t point to which of the other 100 times I was mistreated hurt me the most. All I can do is point out that I (and many others) are being mistreated, which really should not be okay in the first place.

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20 thoughts on “___ Students Have to Suffer

  1. Thanks for writing this (and sorry that you had to go through the experience you described). Hopefully it will be helpful to some people still in high school going through the same thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “This is a problem with national culture. ”

    This post comes as a surprise to me, because I thought things like that could never happen in a country that has legalized homeschooling.

    Is there a place in the world where the bureaucracy does less harm to the students (or people in general) ahead of the curve than the USA?

    Is there a reason why one of the most liberal states in the land of the free has such strong regulations about the schooling system? Are things better in the other parts in the US?

    Like

    • I imagine there’s a large variance between even individual schools; often it just comes down to one or two key people who can either say yes or no. From the administrative perspective, helping or not helping a few top students is completely inconsequential to them (and the incentive structure seems to do this by design); it’s usually not that they feel strongly one way or another, they just don’t care.

      Like

  3. I’m not incredibly smart, but I consider myself smart enough to relate. Really, I think unless things are explicitly pointed out, it’s very easy to come to the conclusion that smart people aren’t underserved. Everyone wants to be smart. Everyone works within the system, and to most people, being able to thrive within the system is the dream. People think within the lines of, “Man, I wish I was smart enough to ace my tests with no effort and learn things immediately.” That’s their idea of smart. If schooling is extremely easy for you, then people are just going to see you as overprivileged when you complain about it. These people fail to realize that many gifted kids do not want to play within the system at all. Intelligence hardly ever happens in a vacuum; when you’re smart, you don’t just have the additional ability to ace tests and learn fast. Smart people have vastly different social/emotional/educational needs and preferences than the average. Throwing them into the standard system and saying, “You can get through the curriculum easily, so stop complaining,” is downright abusive.

    Unfortunately, some smart students get complacent. They lose their curiosity, but rejoice in the fact that they can top the scoreboards. School is just a game for them, and they’re addicted to winning. But contrary to popular belief, these types of students are actually being abused by the system. They aren’t overachievers; they’re underachievers who’ve been brainwashed by the system to believe that they’re overachievers. It makes me angry.

    Liked by 2 people

      • I also think there’s a part of North American culture (and many other cultures) that tries too hard to avoid things that could be mistaken as elitist, even if they aren’t. How many people see gifted education as accommodation for special needs? Very few, as far as I know. How many people see gifted education as a reward for being smart? Probably the majority of the population.

        Like

  4. Did your mistreatment as a gifted student hinder you in any significant way? Your resume reads like a student who has excelled. Is MIT not your first choice? Was Math not your passion? Where did the failure of our education system slow down your growth? Where would you be today had the system not failed you?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s impossible to know. But here’s another story.

      * When I was in 7th grade, my school tried to force me to take pre-algebra. My mom begged the school teachers until they finally relented and let me take Algebra I. At the time, my 12-year-old self couldn’t have cared less: both classes were too easy for me, and I spent most of Algebra I playing Tetris on my TI-89.
      * Two years later this happened again: the school wanted to force me to take Algebra II. This time, my mom begged the teachers to let me take precalculus instead, which they eventually did. My 14-year-old self also couldn’t care less; both classes were too easy anyways, and I spent most of precalculus playing osu on my iPhone.
      * Two years later I was in Calculus BC, again bored to tears and in the last HS math class offered. That’s when my parents were able to persuade the school to let me take classes at UC Berkeley instead, since I had exhausted the HS math curriculum. I did very well in my first undergraduate classes, which then allowed me to take graduate classes for the rest of high school.

      These professors were the ones that wrote my reference letters for college applications, which got me into all the top schools in the country (Berkeley, UCLA, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, Harvard). Without these reference letters I would certainly not have had as many options; winning the USAMO and making the IMO didn’t happen for me until the end of senior year.

      But it wasn’t until I met with Dr. Maxwell in senior year (the guy quoted above) that I then found out that I had unwittingly “broken district rules”, and technically shouldn’t have happened. (Belated thanks to those individuals who stuck out their necks for me!)

      So here’s a surprisingly clear example of a *near miss*. Suppose that my mom had been more polite, or my school had been a little more firm, and any of the three events above didn’t occur. Not only would I have lost some college choices (potentially including MIT), I wouldn’t even know that this was the key event I could have changed.

      [Bonus question: I estimate about 2% of USA high school students take the AMC. How would my life have changed if I had been in the other 98%?]

      By analogy, if you ask me *now* what ways I’ve been affected, how am I to tell you? Without an Earth simulator I can’t point to which of the other 100 times I was mistreated hurt me the most. All I can do is point out that I (and many others) are being mistreated, which really should not be okay in the first place.

      Like

  5. This article was articulated very well. That quote from the Freemont School District sounds eerily familiar to me…
    I could never understand why so many administrators are opposed to accelerating kids.
    Maybe its just been my personal experience, but I think that usually you are better off going to public school than a private, as far as taking math is concerned. Most private schools, or at least those in the bay area, tend to be very resistance to a student taking math outside of school. Furthermore, once one admin says no, there is nobody else to ask since the school is small. However, at a public school you can fly under the radar, getting first period off and cutting a deal with your second period teacher…

    The strategy has paid off for me the past two years, but I still have another year left so fingers crossed. I just hope I won’t have to serve time in the Berkeley High front office.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. As a parent, I can relate to this. We had to take my son out of school for homeschooling in 9th grade. He was way too advanced to take basic courses in math and science, and school would not let him take courses appropriate for his level. We tried to go back for 10th grade and showed his accomplishments. School still did not budge at all. But homeschooling leads to isolation, and he will go back. But we consider that just a wasted time and wasted opportunity. He needs friends so he needs school. What a pity living in this most advanced country on Earth and land of freedom where students can’t even pick courses appropriate for their level.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As a parent, I can relate to this as well. My son goes to a highly-rated public Middle School. He is showing a lot interest in Math and he spends a lot of time on AoPS. As any kid that spends time working out on AoPS will tell you, school math, which is typically watered-down, becomes mind-numbingly boring. I had a parent-teacher conference with this Middle School Math Teacher. She tells me, “He is spending too much time on Math. He is doing really well. But, he needs to have a balance, and also get A’s in Core. He needs a 4.0. The colleges won’t like it if he has an A in Math/Science and B+’s elsewhere Also, he talks higher level Math in class, and the other kids and myself don’t understand and can become a social issue”. I am completely shocked by this attitude: Getting kids to study Math is non-trivial; how he could you possibly be doing “too much” Math is beyond me. If I were to generalize, the mindset seems to be, don’t get too advanced in Math; otherwise, we don’t like it. With this kind of attitude, trying to advance through school Math seems darn near impossible.

      Kudos to your Mom for what she was able to get done!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hello there! This blog post couldn’t be written any better!

    Looking through this post reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He constantly kept preaching about this. I will forward this article to him.
    Fairly certain he’ll have a great read. Thanks for sharing!

    Like

  8. Interestingly, there is evidence society can flourish without such strict bureaucracy in education. I live in the UK, and my schools have been very flexible about my education. When I was younger, they allowed me to join maths classes with people a few years older than myself. These days, teachers just let me get on with what I have want in maths lessons. I know that I am not the only person who benefits from such freedoms.

    But perhaps I am one of a lucky few? Are there any other “smart students” who have not really suffered?

    Like

  9. I am a public school student who can totally relate. The school doesn’t have to do much except for not get in my way and I’ll be happy. Like make me not take the state assessment at the end of the year which wastes my time. Or make me take geometry class when I know all the material. Or let me skip multiple years of school subjects not one year every year.

    Like

  10. The other beneficial about acceleration is that it opens many doors and allows you to know what you’re good at. This is inspired by this blog post: http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=40 . Even if someone isn’t 100% mastered in whatever material, they may be more talented in some specific field, and emphasis on the fundamentals sometimes doesn’t let that person see so.

    Like

  11. Hi Evan,

    I’m going to be a junior in the upcoming school year with a free sixth period and I really want to take math classes at a good university (like UCLA or CSULB or something). I was wondering how logistics for concurrent enrollment goes — how one convinces the university/school administration to let you take the course(s), whether or not you have to have a competitive application, how expensive it is, etc. and how to acclimate to the college environment.

    Thanks
    Ayush

    Like

    • In my experience the univ was always the easy part. Assuming there’s a concurrent enrollment program, you ask the professor nicely and explain your qualifications. Assuming you are prepared, professors are usually be happy to let you join — it costs them nothing and it helps you a lot, so everyone wins. The hard part is convincing the high school, and this is pretty hit-or-miss.

      It is pretty expensive, because you are paying even more per class than the college students are.

      I think you needn’t worry about academic “college environment”. Classes are classes, and if anything the college classroom is better because math professors are on average more reasonable than HS teachers. (In my opinion most of the “college transition” happens when you actually live at the school you attend; it is largely residential / social, not academic.)

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: Notes on Publishing My Textbook | Power Overwhelming

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