achievement gap · admissions · Advanced Placement · Educational Equity · Gifted & Talented · School Choice

What NYC Schools Can Learn From Simone Biles & Olympic Gymnastics

When I first planned to write this Olympic-themed post (back in 2020, oops), I was going to talk about two things:

  • Simone Biles’ athletic feats being deliberately underscored due to “a fear that Biles is so good that she might run away with any competition she enters simply by doing a handful of moves that her rivals cannot, or dare not, attempt.” Biles’ response at the time was, “They don’t want the field to be too far apart. And that’s just something that’s on them. That’s not on me. They had an open-ended code of points and now they’re mad that people are too far ahead and excelling.”
  • And this quote from a rhythmic gymnastics coach, “When (my student) was competing, we had 25 elements. Judges asked me, “Isn’t that too much?” I said, “No.” They said, “Well, then, we need to remove some elements, if the Russians are doing 25 elements and winning.” So they cut the number of elements down to 17. We kept winning. They reduced them to 12. We kept winning. What is this? How is that possible? We’ll lower them to 9! Now we only have 9 elements, and the scoring is kept secret. But that’s like saying you can’t jump over 3 meters in the long jump. They don’t care if you can jump further.” Her since-retired champion added, “The Russian team used to perform elements no one else could do. But they leveled us all out because Europeans and Westerners couldn’t compete with Russia. As a result, the sport isn’t progressing. Everyone is supposed to be equal. Nobody is supposed to stand out. It saddens me.”

I was going to compare both of the above to how New York City keeps tweaking the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) in a desperate bid to change which students perform best on it. How Hunter College Elementary and High School and The Special Music School, not to mention screened high schools like Beacon and Bard, and Center Middle School, refuse to explain the subjective metrics they use to admit their students. I was going to talk about the ongoing attempts to cut Honors classes, AP classes, and Gifted & Talented programs in the name of equity, as well as the push for quotas at all schools.

But then Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympic Team and All-Around competitions. And, suddenly, I had something new to think — and write — about.

I’ll be honest. I never knew that quitting was an option. Maybe it was the immigrant in me, but I grew up with the understanding that, no matter how unhappy you were with something, you still sucked it up and kept going. That’s just what you did. I never expected anyone to come to my aid, either. When I was feeling browbeaten and mistreated by a then-boss, my American husband said, “Why don’t you go to Human Resources and file a complaint?” The notion never crossed my mind. A few weeks later, an American colleague did just that. The boss was spoken to, and his behavior towards all of us improved. Wow. Mind… blown.

I’ve written about how, when my middle child came to me and said that he was unhappy in high school, he wanted to quit and home-school himself, my first instinct was to say no. Persevering through an unhappy situation builds character!

Those of you who’ve read my son’s writing know that he has plenty of character. So. Much. Character.

I, on the other hand, literally didn’t understand quitting simply because you were unhappy. It just didn’t compute. So what? Who cares how you feel? 

Until Simone Biles. 

Almost a year after I broke down and allowed my son to leave public school, I finally understood his request.

I said to my husband, “What if he’s right? What if you don’t have to stick out a bad situation, no matter what? What if it is OK to say, this isn’t working for me, and go looking for something that does?” Wow. Mind… blown.

Which brings me to my final realization of the week. There were those who said that Biles should have stuck it out. Not for herself, but for her team, and for her country. This wasn’t about her. This was about what she could do for others.

It’s the same argument parents get when they opt out of traditional public schools. Whether that’s because the school is not letting them take the classes they want, as in my son’s case, because the curriculum isn’t culturally relevant and even actively destructive, or because, despite promises to the contrary, the school can’t support a child’s special needs, ranging from teaching reading to physical accommodations.

Every family has a different reason for making alternative arrangements for their child. But every family gets the same pushback when they leave public school: You are hurting those left behind.

They claim that if involved, active families leave a school, then the remaining students will suffer. Now, I’ve said multiple times that it’s not the teachers, administrators, or facilities that make “high-achieving” schools, but the parents in them who get their children tutored that account for the above-average test scores the schools then take credit for. But doesn’t this sound like, with the above argument, the schools themselves are admitting as much?

If schools are admitting that the only way they can get even a majority-passing school is by putting the onus on the families to prep children, isn’t that a much bigger problem? In fact, isn’t that the biggest problem of all?

Other critics contend that it’s not the involved families’ presence that makes the difference, but the simple fact that, when your child walks out the public school door, the $28,808 dollars the state pays for their presence goes out with them.

Families opting out means schools lose funding. And lost funding might mean firing a teacher or an administrator! Don’t you understand that the primary purpose of the public school system is to keep staff employed? Their needs are far more important than yours.

Once upon a time, I might have fallen for both arguments. But, as Simone Biles demonstrated last week, if you’re in an untenable situation, you have to get out before your mental and physical health is permanently destroyed.

And that’s why she’s the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time). And I’m still learning….

What do you think?

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