The State of NYC Education with Kenny Xu
FAIR NYC x PLACE NYC | August 18th, 2021
Selected Audio Excerpts from the Event – Transcripts below.
Brent Morden – Event Intro
BM: This is a very special event because Yiatin [Chu], Maud [Maron], and I have been talking
about this for months. We wanted to do a joint event with Kenny Xu discussing educational
policies and their consequences that we’re seeing play out in the classroom, in college
admissions, and in gifted-and-talented programs, which specifically impact us as New Yorkers
and more broadly impact Asian American and immigrant families in particular. Like my own
family. My family immigrated here from Soviet Russia to find a better life for their children in
America, where we could succeed based on our individual merit and hard work. Isn’t that the
And so, the issues and solutions that we’ll be talking about today affect us all in some way. You
know, we all come from varied walks of life, right? But we’re all here together under the same
roof with a common cause. Many of us here today are parents. Many of us are parents—we have
children in the New York City educational system, in public or private schools. Many of us are
concerned parents. Concerned about what our children are learning in the classroom and that
they’re not being treated as individuals or not being recognized for their individual merit as much
as they should. A lot of us here today are teachers—myself included—professionals, community
leaders. All of us have some common vested interest in the educational environment that our
children are growing up in, because it matters. Education matters and culture matters. Now with
that being said, there’s no better place to be today than here to talk about these issues. And there
are really no better people to discuss them than Kenny Xu, Maud Maron, and Yiatin Chu.
Kenny Xu – Hierarchies of Competence
KX: So, I want to start off with a very simple and obvious statement. Hierarchies will exist.
They have always existed and they will always continue to exist. Okay. We know that if your
student gets into one of the specialized schools in New York City, that he or she will have
opportunities that are unavailable to people who are not in those specialized schools. That’s
obvious, otherwise people wouldn’t be trying to get their kids into these specialized schools.
So the question is not, can we erase the hierarchy of competition at these specialized schools.
The question is how can we create a fair hierarchy, right? How can the people who get into those
schools also be the ones that are most fairly competitively getting into those schools? And the
principle that we all agree on is that you should get into these schools, and you should be trained
at these schools, as a result of your competence. Competence. I think that’s a fundamental
agreement we can all agree on.
Kenny Xu – Tests and Privilege
KX: People like to say that tests reward privilege. That’s not true. Tests reward competence, and
competence has a positive correlation with privilege. So yes, tests are positively correlated with
wealth, but competence is also correlated with wealth; another hard but pretty blunt and obvious
truth. That being said, tests are actually one of the most equitable—if you want to even talk
about the word equity—tests are actually one of the most equitable ways of measuring
competence. Because even in a structure like the SAT Math, which people who try to criticize
the test try to say reward privileged, wealthy students; even in that test, one out of four kids with
a median family income below $40,000 a year, which is considered poor, score higher on the
Math SAT than kids from families with greater than $150,000 a year.
So, it’s not as simple as saying tests reward privilege. No; tests reward a certain kind of, one,
intelligence, and two, work ethic. Both those characteristics are meritorious—both of those
characteristics. Innate intelligence is meritorious. Why? Because innate intelligence predicts how
successful you will be in college. IQ is five times more likely than any other correlate ever
discovered to correlate to college success. So, intelligence is highly correlated with college
success. Also, hard work—who knew?—is highly correlated with college success. Both of those
items are meritorious and both of those items are measured by the test. Now people will say,
well, what about all of those people who just gamed the test to get better at the test? Of course, of
course, of course you have to study for the test. That’s hard work. Asian Americans study twice
as many hours as the average American in this country. Twice as many hours; they studied about
13 hours a week. The average white American studies 5.5; the average black American studies
So of course, [Asian Americans are] going to do better on the test and you can consider it
gaming, but is it gaming or is it hard work? Is it the fact that they put in the hours to actually do
well in these things? And that should be rewarded. That’s fair reward. That’s not unfair reward.
That is fair reward. Now the fact that Asian Americans do so well in these tests creates a separate
issue. The separate issue is, it creates inequity in the specialized high school admissions process,
and then by extension the elite college admissions process. If Harvard did not discriminate
against Asian Americans, they would make up 43% of their student body.
Kenny Xu – Identity Politics and Meritocracy
KX: There is resentment over the fact that Asians do so well at these tests. And so, when you
can’t beat them on merits, you have to beat them by politics. This is the lesson that we learned
from Dennis Kearney and the Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 1800’s. The Asians came over—
the Chinese came over to California—and they worked harder than the white miners did at the
gold rush, and they got more gold. And it infuriated the miners. So [the white miners] went and
they launched a political–basically, revolution–to kick all of these Asians out, and they were
successful with the Chinese Exclusion Act.
So, there are alternatives to meritocracy in this country. Identity politics is an alternative to
meritocracy in this country. The question is, is it a fair alternative to meritocracy in this country?
And the answer is definitively no. No, you should never be in a position in a country like
America, where you should treat people on the basis of their background [or] their race. You
should never be in a position where you should create a system, a hierarchy, that attacks those
who are genuinely competent. Because those are the people who will go to these specialized high
schools and will do the kinds of professions that provide immense social value in our country.
That deserves respect. And by the way, it’s going to take a huge toll on them too. They’re going
to be working many, many hours a day to do those kinds of things for their country. And you
attack them and it’s not right to attack them. We should be living in a country [where] the
American ideal, the American Dream, the foundation of the American Dream is meritocracy,
which is that you can come from any background in this country. You can come from nothing, as
so many Asian American immigrants do. And if you work hard, you’ll be treated on the basis of
that hard work, not on the basis of your background. That’s what the American Dream is. That’s
what meritocracy is. This is why we have to protect that in our education system today. Thank
Kenny Xu – Equity vs Fairness
KX: The second thing that I wanted to comment on was equity and fairness. When I talked in
my speech about fairness, a fair system is not an equitable system. By definition, you actually
have to be unfair to be truly equitable, because—I’ll give you an example. I’ll give you a very
classic example. Women do better than men academically right now. And so actually, if you
want to have an equitable system where you have a 50/50 in the college system for women and
men, you have to be unfair. You actually have to discriminate against girls if you want to have a
50/50 system. So, that’s why equity and fairness cannot go together.
Kenny Xu – Harvard Case
KX: You have these Asian Americans who Harvard University routinely discriminates against
for the past 30 years because they score too high. And if Asians were not discriminated against at
Harvard, they would make up 43% of the Harvard student body. Now we’ve gotten to the point
where an Asian student has to score 440 points higher on the SAT to have the same chance of
admission as a black student. And by the way, we’re not talking about the south side of Chicago;
God, we’re talking about private school, wealthy black students; private school, wealthy white
students; and yeah, private school, wealthy Asian students. But the point is, we’re not talking
about rich and poor here. There are many wealthy students of all races who are applying to
Harvard. 71% of the students at Harvard who are black are from wealthy backgrounds.
So, this is a case really that’s actually just straight up about racial discrimination. And you can
[come] to every meeting as you want, that you want; you can try to knock on the administrators’
doors, but they’re ideologically possessed. They’re determined to do this because they truly
believe that they need to bow at the feet of diversity and inclusion to accomplish all of their
goals, to make themselves seem like the most virtuous people in the entire country. They need to
bow at the feet of diversity and inclusion even if it means excluding higher-qualified, better-
qualified Asian American students. So, how are you going to fix this when you can’t go to the
administrators yourself? They’re not going to listen to you. You’ve got to file a lawsuit. You have
to take the Supreme Court in this. You’ve got to make it about a larger issue in the country, and
that issue is affirmative action. So yeah, you’ve got to stand up, but you’ve got to do it
strategically. You gotta do it right.
Yiatin Chu – What Changed Since 1985?
YC: I started wondering when people started talking about only seven black students getting an
offer to Stuyvesant and then, 10, it’s always very, very low numbers. And it’s a headline that is
in the New York Times, usually in March when results are released. So what has happened since
1985? When I graduated from [Bronx] Science, it was 22% Asian and 20% Black and Hispanic.
I flipped through my yearbook and it was a very diverse student body. And honestly, when
people ask me about it, I say, I never really thought about race. They were classmates of mine.
I’ve seen many of them go on to do really great things in their lives.
Yiatin Chu – Just Eight Schools
YC: How could a race-blind, income-blind, bubble test be the source of so much anger,
everywhere? And this test is used in eight schools. We have over 400 public high schools in New
York City and a total of 700 programs. So it’s really 700 programs. Each of them uses different
criteria. And these are eight schools that use the SHSAT. And there are over a hundred schools
that use a combination of different metrics to select students further.
Yiatin Chu – It Was Never About the Single Test
YC: I arrived at the conclusion that it was never about the single test. There were a lot of things
that were in common about these schools. One is the admissions criteria was based on
meritocracy using tests, grades and other forms of more subjective measures, but certainly trying
to at least assess the students. And the other is they were majority Asian. Is that a coincidence?
And many of them were immigrants. And I was starting to kind of look into these schools and
really understand what was happening here. The families that depend on the specialized high
schools are ones that rely on public school education. When we look at the numbers in New
York City, we find that Asian New Yorkers are the most dependent on public schools.
Maud Maron – Racial Achievement Gap
MM: What I have seen and, what wasn’t obvious at first but then became obvious, is that the
parents who say things like ‘we don’t want to get rid of the gifted and talented programs, we want
to hold on to that honors math class, why are we getting rid of the chess program in the school,
why are we dismantling this honors program or the special progress program?’. And the reason–
not always the reason they say–but the real reason at the end of the day is because the racial
outcomes are not pleasing to the people in charge: to these school administrators, to the
principals, to the teachers. And I think there’s two things going on there that informed these
changes, that parents are seeing and that many parents are trying to fight against. One is, I call it
the true believers. There are teachers who think, ‘well, if the black children aren’t getting into this
program in the numbers equivalent to their numbers in our system or in our city, it must be racist,
right’? That’s the Ibram Kendi definition of racism. And so they believe that.
There’s a more craven political reality too, which is what we call the achievement gap, when we
measure groups of kids by race and see how well they’re doing. The achievement gap has
perplexed and vexed generations of politicians and teacher union leaders. And if you erase the
evidence of those gaps by getting rid of programs and tests and schools that highlight that, you
solved a problem for yourself. And I do think to be fair, I don’t think everyone is craven and
political in their desire to get rid of gifted and talented programs or honors math programs. I do
think some of the true believers–while I disagree with them–I do think they think they’re trying
to make things more equitable and fair.
Maud Maron – Civics Education
MM: When I think about our schools, instead of teaching children that you’re the member of a
racial group–and that puts you on a racial hierarchy where you’re either oppressed or you are the
oppressor–how about basic civics? I said before that our kids weren’t taking constitutional law
class. Well, no, not what you take in law school. But it would be really good to start talking
about what the First Amendment is and why it’s important, and why we’re awfully special in this
country because of our coming into it. […]
The removal of civics from our curriculum was sort of a disaster, and we’re seeing the results of
it. So, and I’ll just say, since race has been so much mentioned, [civics] is a perfect example of a
class where it doesn’t matter what your score is on a test or not. We all have to function in a
democracy together. So I think in any school, you can separate kids out in their math ability. You
can audition kids for a sports team. But for civics class, everyone should be sitting around
together, regardless of anything you do on a test or any placement you have, because we have to
function together in a democracy. So we should be able to learn about how our democracy
functions in a class together. I think that’s one of the ways. I wish we’d have a robust civics
program as part of that culturally responsive sustaining education framework. That to me would
be the biggest improvement we could have.
Brent Morden – Closing Remarks
BM: I’ll make a closing remark, which is that this is part of a larger discussion that we would
love to talk about for hours, right? And there’s a lot of nuance to issues and solutions around
education in America, in New York City. There are so many questions that we have yet to
answer. This is part of a larger discussion that is happening within PLACE and within FAIR. All
of us here, we want a better world for ourselves and for our children, right? We want tomorrow
to be a brighter day. And a question we want to leave you with today is: how do we create
meaningful change? How do we help develop the world that we want to see? We talked about
that today; we talked about making your voice heard.
It takes courage to make your voice heard, but it’s so important. And we can do it in our own
corners of the world, which is what brought a lot of people to organizations like PLACE and
FAIR. So, we encourage you, please check out PLACE and FAIR. An important work that FAIR
is doing is developing an advocacy toolkit for parents, for teachers, for individuals like
ourselves, just regular folks who want to speak up for your values and work towards creating
meaningful change in our pockets of the world, which matters. It matters. So on your way out,
please take a FAIR postcard; read up about the resources, initiatives, profiles in courage. I think
we feel inspired when we see individuals who speak up for a positive change in their community,
like Yiatin, Maud, and Kenny.