The Education Divide In New Jersey

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Differences between Asian and non-Asian attitudes to education have divided the high-performing West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District in New Jersey even as educational authorities warn students are dangerously stressed.

A New Jersey school superintendent’s concern over the intense stress faced by high-performing students has exposed the chasm between Indian (and other Asian) parents, who want a rigorous academic program, and their non-Asian counterparts.
The difference stems seemingly from cultural attitudes to education and differing competitive environments the groups grew up in. Superintendent David Aderhold sounded an alarm in a letter to parents at the 9,700-student West Windsor-Plainsboro School District (WW-P) about the toll students were paying in the race to ace grades. He pointed out that during the 2014-15 school year more than 120 middle and high school students had to go for mental health assessments for complaints such as anxiety, depression and suicidal ideas, over and above drug or alcohol problems.

“Whole Child”

Aderhold said he along with the education community wanted to create the “Whole Child” and give up the obsession with grades. “When 68 percent of high school Honors and AP (Advanced Placement) students state that they are stressed ‘always or most of the time,’ the balance is simply not there,” he said in the October letter. Many parents, most of them Indian and other Asian working mostly in IT and finance, saw this as an attempt to water down the high priority for academic performance that had drawn them to the district in the first place.
The differences were presented by The New York Times as a racial and ethnic chasm between Asian and nonAsian parents, following numerous changes Aderhold said he was instituting in the curriculum including canceling some midterm and final exams and pushing up to 6th Grade the special math classes for children. While Whites are the majority race in West Windsor according to the 2010 Census, Asians are the majority race in Plainsboro.
The foreign-born population is 32% in West Windsor, and 43% in Plainsboro, with India being the largest source of the foreign-born population in both communities. In the schools, Asians are a majority, forming 54% of the student body, while 33% of the students are white.

Culture Gap

Desi Talk spoke to several parents of Indian descent in the school district and also got access to entries on a special Face Book site called West Windsor Peeps with more than 1,200 members, a large majority of Indian descent. They indicated that the differences between non-Asian and Asian parents was more a product of culture rather than race or ethnicity. The parents also accepted that their perceptions and experiences as
first generation immigrants impelled them toward wanting their children to excel academically. “I’m sure the differences between the various communities are more cultural than ethnic,” said Leena Pai, whose three children are in the WW-P school district. Pai said her kids, who are doing “exceptionally well,” are not stressed. The stress comes from parents she said and how they see grades which then stresses out the kids. Many Indian parents put kids into after-school classes or into the Kumon instructional institutes, she said though she did not detect any stress on the kids.
“We (Indians) love it when we are overburdened,” she joked. “But I do want to follow the school rules. When the school says you don’t have to practice at home or take extra classes, I don’t.
“I certainly believe there is a divide (between Asians and nonAsians regarding student stress),” Shalini Anand, who is an IT executive, said. “The differences are absolutely cultural. We Indians, as it is, stress out a lot. And since our parents always came 1st in class, we expect our kids to do the same.”
Explaining the cultural stress that the children and parents face, she said, “Our kids have double pressure – they are trying to feel included in the mainstream, plus having to take on extra workloads. Plus we are very competitive –and with growing social media –we want to be first to tell everyone in our circle how well our kid is doing.”

Stress Factor

Striving for a competitive edge, Indian parents push their children into hard courses, Anand said. For example, she said the school says only students who are a natural fit for the Accelerated And Enriched Math(A&E) class should join it, and they should not be tutored to be able to qualify. “But Indian-American parents try to prepare their kids to get into those classes and then the kids suffer.”
Kapu Patel said on Facebook that each side was seeing the problem as one of too low or too high stress and neither was the case, just a perception. To which another parent, Karen Sue, responded, “My kids are surrounded by other kids whose value systems and stress levels are affecting them. We don’t teach our kids to feel superior or to judge others based upon academics or anything else. But others do. And that affects my kids. Not fair.”
In response to Desi Talk’s question about the apparent division among the parents, Superintendent Aderhold said he had received “overwhelming” support for the ideas in his letter. “The issues of mental health and stress impact all children of our district and are not bound by culture, ethnicity, or race,” he said. “While there may appear to be differences in the learning outcomes and expectations that our diverse community values, all parents want their children to be successful, fulfilled and happy.”

Adult Divide

“Our children’s collective fates may be riding on the ability of the adults to come together with a common understanding, and with mutual respect,” Aderhold told Desi Talk. “We are proud of our diversity and we embrace our varied cultures within our school community.”
An Indian parent, who did not want her name used, said there was a practical reason for some of the extra educational efforts parents enroll students in. In a system where children don’t get homework till 5th Grade, and then “get hit by a rock” in 8th Grade can be traumatic for them. To prepare for it, students needed to practice some things like math and, therefore, parents enrolled them in places like Kumon.
It’s a competitive world out there, she said. “If we don’t teach them to face it,” she asked, “how are they even going to get into undergrad? You don’t just throw someone into deep water without teaching them how to swim.”
She conceded “Indian-American parents are over ambitious,” but said it was a product of cultural and social forces at work in her community.  Parents hail from families which were generally not rich, and now they want their kids to have and do all the things they wished or could not, she said. “Parents are living their dreams through their kids.”
Immigrants  in the West Windsor-Plainsboro district live mostly in dual-income families further complicating the situation, she said. Add to that loading the kids with activities like Chennai Mission classes, Hindi, Bharat Natyam, ballet and the like. “The stress is all created,” she said.