Accountability · Blog

Is Education a Zero Sum Game?

Zero-Sum Game: A situation in game theory in which one person’s gain is equivalent to another’s loss, so the net change in wealth or benefit is zero. (Definition: Investopedia)

Admissions, a play by Joshua Harmon, ends its run at the Lincoln Center Theater this Sunday, May 6.

Admissions stars Jessica Hecht (Susan, wife of Carol, on Friends), as the Admissions Director of a New England boarding school, whose goal is to diversify the student body.

She is all for admissions based on skin color, until her own son is deferred from Yale… and his best-friend, who is one-quarter Black and, we’re told, a weaker student, is accepted.

When her frustrated son unleashes an epic rant about the unfairness of it all, his father excoriates him for being selfish and spoiled. So the chastened boy repents by pulling all his remaining college applications. He announces, “If there are going to be new voices at the table, someone has to stand up and offer a seat.”

The parents freak out. His mother pleads, “Our brightest kids shouldn’t take themselves out of the running,” before they’ve had the chance to make the world a better place.

But the son stands firm, arguing, “You’re happy to make the world a better place as long as it doesn’t cost you anything…. If people could make the world a better place without giving up anything, it would have happened by now!”

And… curtain.

The parents of Admissions, like the parents and politicians currently arguing about a proposal to diversify Upper West Side middle schools by setting aside 25 percent of seats for low-performing students (because low-performing equals low income and minority, natch) are both under the assumption that education is a zero-sum game.

If someone gains, than someone must lose.

But does that have to be the case? Is education a finite resource?

I was born in the former Soviet Union. Here is a joke from my ex-culture:

A dowager stands on her balcony with her nephew, watching the Bolsheviks overrun her city. She asks him, “What do they want?”

“They want that there should be no more rich people.”

“How foolish,” the dowager sniffs. “They should want that there will be no more poor people.”

Right now, New York City wants to move low-performers into high-performing schools, without changing anything else about them. Because sitting poor, minority children next to middle-class white ones magically improves their achievement.

As usual, no one is talking about raising the scores of poor and minority kids so they can confidently compete for seats at the top schools, including Specialized High Schools.

As the mom of one child who graduated from an SHSAT school, and another who will be starting in the fall, I know that what makes the “good” schools “good” is not the curriculum (same as at other schools), not the teachers (same as at other schools), but the kids. (It’s also how I know that parents don’t mind racial or socioeconomic diversity; their objection is to academic diversity.)

“Good” kids are definitely not a zero-sum game. Raising the bar for one child does not mean lowering it (or taking it away from) another. More schools (dare we dream, all?) reporting their kids performing at or above grade level is something that can happen without someone having to “give up their seat at the table.”

When they have more “good” kids, more schools will become “good.” Families will be fighting to attend, instead of scrambling to get out. Diversity will come organically, like at these high-scoring/majority Free Lunch schools.

But that’s not something that can be achieved merely by shuffling the population around. That’s something that can only be achieved by working for all kids, not by holding a lottery (Gifted & Talented, anyone?) to decide who will get “in” and who will be kept “out,” rewarding some and banishing others, counting on the nebulous “peer group” to do the work teachers, administrators, and yes, school chancellors should be doing.

“That’s not how tables work!” The teen from Admissions shrieked.

And that’s not how schools should work, either.


What do you think?

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