Natasha Warikoo
Courtesy of Alonso Nichols, Tufts University

On Thursday, LexObserver will co-sponsor a community conversation along with the Lexington Lyceum Advocates and Racial Justice Team of First Parish in Lexington exploring the question: “How can our education system foster a sense of racial and social justice in our schools and throughout our communities?”

Natasha Warikoo, a sociologist at Tufts University, published a book last spring that explores the dynamics of competition at a high school in an affluent East Coast suburb she nicknamed Woodcrest, which, like Lexington, is a historically white community with a growing Asian American population. Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools describes tensions between white and Asian American parents in Woodcrest as they draw from different “cultural repertoires” to define and approach achievement, and situates Woodcrest in the broader context of racial and economic inequality in education.

Warikoo spoke with LexObserver about her journey to studying educational inequality and some of the big-picture takeaways of Race at the Top for communities like Woodcrest, including Lexington.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How does your research tie into the question at the center of this week’s event: “How can our education system foster a sense of racial and social justice in our schools and throughout our communities?” How did you come to this field of research? 

I think I’ve always kind of had a sense of wanting to address some kind of injustice in the world. I think a lot of that was growing up, my parents, particularly my dad, just at the dinner table, pointing things out – things that were wrong in society, unfair, or people who didn’t have the opportunities that others had. And so that was sort of always in the back of my mind throughout my life. 

Going to college, a lot of my peers were thinking about these questions as well. I thought a lot about gender when I was in high school. And then I think getting to Brown, I thought a lot more about race and my own identity as someone who is Indian American. And I decided to become a teacher after college. I was a math major – math and philosophy – and then went on to teach math. The last school that I taught at was a school for recently arrived immigrants. What I came to realize was that so much of what affected whether my students had positive school experiences – were able to complete the academic curriculum, go on to college – depended on things that were not about which kind of math curriculum I was using, or pedagogical decisions, but stuff that was happening outside of a classroom – immigration policy in the United States, social supports, public transport. 

I think I was drawn to education because I saw it as a venue for increasing equity and opportunity – and then as I did so, also seeing how social policies, all these things that happen outside the boundaries of a school, are really shaping the opportunities that kids have inside of it. So that’s kind of what led me to doing a PhD in sociology. And I think in all of my research in sociology, I’ve really been thinking about these questions of equity, both in terms of disadvantage, but then also in terms of advantage – how do people continue to maintain advantages in society across generations? Because that, too, fosters inequality, right, and we know that in the last, say, 10 years or more, part of what’s driving growing inequality is people who have a lot of resources getting a bigger and bigger share of those resources.

How have your own educational experiences, and parenthood, shaped your research?

I think being a parent makes you realize this fundamental tension. I think all parents are going to do whatever you can for your own children. We’re kind of born that way. So on the one hand, I have that hat on for my own children. But then as a society, we need to think about: How do we create a system that puts people’s ability to do that in check? Because we have different resources. We have different access to the ears of policymakers, of school administrators; we have different amounts of money to pay for things; we have different things in our neighborhoods that are available to us at a cost we can afford. How do we create a society in which there’s less difference in the ability to help our children? Because, not that I want to stunt anybody’s influence, but because we want kids to have equitable opportunities as much as possible. And so I feel like I better understand that tension as a parent.

At what point do you cross that fine line between when I’m doing the best for my kids and when am I hoarding things away from other kids, and other families? I think those are really important questions for people with high levels of resources to be asking themselves and asking in their communities. I also think that that is a very hard thing to sell, and to get people to change. So I really think about social policy as a lever for preventing people from hoarding opportunities.

Given your own experiences and expectations as a parent, what finding from Race at the Top surprised you the most?

Woodcrest is a very high-achieving community. And in the town, there was a lot of talk about pressures that students feel to achieve at high levels. There were worries about students’ emotional well-being. And so there is this image of these parents pressuring their kids. And what I found was that in this town – when I talked to parents, and actually kids as well – one of the questions was: “What does success mean to you?” If your child is successful 10 years from now, what does that look like? The image of success parents described was kind of modest. It was things like, “I want my child to be happy,” whatever that means; “I want them to be financially stable, to support themselves; I want them to be able to live on their own,”  these kinds of measures. It doesn’t take being a CEO to achieve those things. And they all – not every single one, but most parents across racial lines – talked specifically about their children’s emotional well-being, and caring about that, and worrying about that and thinking about how they could help their child make decisions that wouldn’t overload them, and that this was an important priority. I think the stereotypes of tiger moms, or, I think there’s a parallel stereotype about white parents as helicopter parents – I didn’t see that. 

Now, I was not in people’s homes observing them. So, what people say is not always the same as what they do. But even with the kids, I mean, they were like, “my parents don’t pressure me, it’s all me,” or “my parents tell me just relax. It’s okay. You don’t need to do so many things, or x activities or advanced classes,” or what have you. And interestingly, the town ran a survey of all the students in the high school, and there was a question along the lines of: “Do you feel pressure from your parents to achieve at high levels or to get good grades?” The group that reported the highest level of pressure from their parents was the Black kids. So these ideas that I think people assume about who is pressuring their kids to what extent I think just didn’t hold up, at least in terms of how the kids perceived it, in addition to what the parents were telling me. So I think that was probably the biggest surprise.

This community, similar to Lexington — there’s a concentration of people with high levels of education, high incomes, and it almost becomes the norm, right? It’s not the norm to go to an elite college, to even go to college – approximately one in three adults has a bachelor’s degree in this country, right? The norm is not to have a bachelor’s degree. But when you’re in a town where most people do – and not only do they have a bachelor’s degree, they have them from the top, these selective colleges – most colleges are not selective – then it can feel like that’s just what you have to do. (LexObserver previously reported on this dynamic as one among multiple causes of student stress in Lexington.)

Interestingly, in the same school survey, there was a question about: “Do you feel pressure from your peers?” That’s where Asian American kids actually voiced the highest level of peer pressure, but in the school, they were also more likely to be in advanced classes. And I think that that plays a role, because if you’re in advanced classes, kids are higher achieving, you might feel more pressure to keep up with them.

Part of the problem is our class and racial segregation in this country, which is why I came to housing in my talk at Cary Library a few weeks ago – we shouldn’t have such a separation of where kids go to school and who they go to school with.

Lexington is in the midst of refining a proposal for new state-required multi-family zoning; the Planning Board held a public hearing on its proposal last Wednesday. Coming from your education focus, do you have any advice or reflections about the implications for education in a place like Lexington of creating more multi-family housing?

Yeah, I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s what places like Lexington need. I think the tricky thing is figuring out: Where is this housing going to be? Is it going to be realistically accessible to public transportation? Are people going to feel welcome who are not culturally similar to the community that is already in the town? What income bracket, realistically, is this going to cater to? Will they be able to afford to live in the town beyond just the housing? And then how do you ensure that their children’s needs are being met in the schools? Because there’s other research on suburban schools that shows that students who are not well off, or Black or Latinx kids and families, don’t always have great experiences in suburban schools. I haven’t seen anything on Lexington in particular, but I’ve seen studies of the METCO program that indicate that it can be a very difficult experience. So how do you learn from that and make sure if you’re building multi-family homes where people have lower incomes, probably not low incomes – how are you ensuring that they have positive experiences in schools and that their needs are being met? And that the district is thinking about them proactively?

Since Race at the Top was published last spring, have there been any trends in reactions you’ve gotten from parents or students in towns like Woodcrest, or Lexington specifically?

Many readers will say, “Oh, this is just like the town that I grew up in.” I think the biggest response is that the portrayal resonates with them, which always feels good because it’s like, ok, then I captured something that is common in these lived experiences in towns like this, really around the country, not just even on the East Coast. So that feels good.

How would you sum up what you hope communities like Lexington take away from Race at the Top? And what kind of follow-up conversations would you hope to see your book stimulate in places like Lexington? 

So two things. One is, as we’ve been sort of talking about, housing. I think our residential segregation is problematic. We need to think big about how to better integrate our communities in terms of class, in terms of race. And we’re increasingly segregated by politics as well. I think that’s also problematic. And I think housing policy plays a big role. 

I’ve read a little bit about the suburbs of Boston because I live here. And a lot of these communities were created for people to separate themselves at a time that schools were being integrated in Boston. And these communities set up zoning laws to prevent multi-family housing. The original proposal of METCO was initially that we’re going to have this program, and then eventually we’re going to have a region-wide school district. And that plan was quickly squashed. And it just became this piecemeal kind of thing. I think that we need community integration by class and by race. When you have this concentration of people with high incomes and high levels of education, I feel like that’s the problem. And then how do you fix the problems that fall from that? 

The second big finding that we didn’t talk as much about is that I found in this community – and I think this goes beyond this community – there are these tensions around what’s a fair way of getting your kid ahead. Is it okay to sign them up for extra math classes and science class in the summer so then they’re in the advanced classes in school? Is it okay to sign them up for club baseball, so that then they make varsity the next year? And is it okay if other parents have different priorities than you? I think that in this town, there were a lot of tensions around that, about what’s okay, what’s not okay, what should this district do to sort of try to reduce competition and stress in the town. I think it’s important to recognize that communities may do things differently, one is not better than the other, and understand where they’re coming from. A lot of Asian immigrants, particularly in highly educated towns like Lexington and the town that I studied, did really well in the education systems in their countries of origin, which are all about standardized testing. So they impart those skills to their kids – they didn’t focus on sports, because in Asia, if you’re really into sports, there’s a correlation with that and lower levels of achievement. And elsewhere it’s correlated with higher levels of achievement. It’s a very different way of doing things. And I think a little bit of understanding, rather than judgment, is important.

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