A portrait of Pawan Dhingra

Why study extracurricular academics?

We don’t expect elementary schools to teach baseball, which is why we have Little League. But in choosing extracurricular academics, parents of elementary-age children are saying we need more math, more competitive academics: it’s a critique of the education system, and what’s interesting is that these kids are in very good districts and are performing well in school.

What have you learned that’s surprised you?

I’ve interviewed parents and observed spelling bees and after-school math programs. The parents say that school systems neglect high-achievers. And they worry about their kids assimilating into the neighborhood population. These are people in well-off suburbs. That’s surprising in and of itself; it’s also surprising that they see math centers as a way to prevent assimilation: one white parent said, I’m trying to teach my kid to not be a “spoiled brat,” to value academics.

Why is it important to understand the choices these parents make?

The more this grows as a trend, the more we erode the public school as the center of education. You need Little League for the middle school baseball team to exist: you don’t make the team unless you’ve played Little League. This is different. It’s saying, we don’t trust the best-performing schools to teach our kids. Also, we hear a lot about problems of “tiger parenting”: Asian-Americans are often blamed for why affluent students are stressed. If we understand why parents make these choices, we can stop caricaturizing them. 

What do you want people to know about spelling bees? 

They’re one way in which Indian-American youth are increasingly being recognized. Spelling bees are a way to claim a national belonging, because what these kids are demonstrating is a mastery of the language. But they’re often ridiculed on social media. They resent the stereotyping: they’re actually quite well-rounded, and they’re not forced into this against their will.

Photo by Maria Stenzel