Spencer deems Aderhold’s letter a call to arms for the New Jersey district to join the “national discussion about the intense focus on achievement” and the extent to which is has reached – where 120 middle and high school students had been referred for psychiatric assessments, and where 40 of these students were hospitalized. During routine community meetings to confront the issue, Dr. Aderhold advises parents to join his efforts in encouraging a more “holistic” view of education, with the hope to alleviate the tense, self-destructive atmosphere hovering over his school. According to Spencer, he believes that in teaching students to value “deep and meaningful learning” over grades, they can begin to see themselves as heralds of innovative thinking rather than the numerical values they earn in doing so – or, at least, in attempting to.
However, despite his seemingly fresh outlook on handling the emotional downfall of his students, Aderhold has seemed to unearth a deep racial “fissure” that separates two sects of the community: White parents and Asian parents. Catherine Foley, a White mother of a middle school student and former leader of the Parent Teacher Association, claims her daughter’s learning environment is “antithetical to learning”. She remembers her son declaring he was never going to “amount to anything” due to his lacking résumé. At the time, he was in fourth grade. Foley’s children’s remarks echo those of students in Palo Alto, California and Newton, Massachusetts, cities which have experienced stress-related suicide epidemics in the past years. Foley does not want her children, nor the children of others, to reach the point where the only plausible option seems to be to sacrifice themselves for the sake of a test score.
On the other hand, Asian-American father Mike Jia complains that Aderhold’s proposal of de-emphasizing exams, scores and college preparation will undermine his child’s educational experience and potential. Spencer mentions how Jia believes the prospective reforms feed into a wider “national anti-intellectual trend” that will render young people unready for and inept in the real world (or career market, which some parents do not seem to differentiate from the former). Parents like Jia, many who have trekked across oceans and continents in pursuit of an adequate education for their children, feel disdain as Aderhold’s stress-conquering crusade has seemingly rendered their pursuits fruitless. For them, a decent middle and high school education symbolizes a multitude of additional opportunities, such as acceptance to a prestigious university*, a lucrative job and, eventually, a successful career – experiences they never had, and which they can enjoy vicariously through their children. At one point, Spencer describes the disillusion of Helen Yin, mother of two, who emigrated from China to earn a master’s degree, and who demands if there is anybody she can trust. The question is rhetorical, and garners exasperated head-nods and murmurs from one side of the room. Ultimately though, parents are divided, each side disagreeing which entity to prioritize: their children’s wellbeing, or their children’s futures.