Special Education Opinion

An Hour With a Presidential Scholar and Her Teacher

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — August 04, 2016 8 min read
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For those who think that public schools suck, or that we should shun immigrants, or that teachers are just chasing salaries and benefits, I invite you to spend an hour with Diana Chao and her teacher, Molly Arboleda.

Diana Chao is a Presidential Scholar, recently back from the White House. After a gap year, she’s headed to Princeton after Claremont High School (sorry MIT and Yale, where she was also offered admission). All Presidential Scholars may pick a teacher to accompany them to Washington. She picked Arboleda and then lobbied the school district to pick up her teacher’s travel expenses. Listening to the two of them provides, not just an appreciation for the doggedly hard work that each does, but the deep introspection they offer about the American education system.

An Immigrant

Chao’s story is shared by literally millions of immigrant kids in California. She came from China in the 4th grade speaking virtually no English. “Hi” and “thanks” were about it. She got English and physics, history, theater, debate, and social conscience in a regular U.S. public school system: not a charter school, not a selective admission school, just a regular school taught by teachers who were civil servants with tenure and union members.

Like millions of other immigrant kids, she worked to support her family: at one point three different jobs. Her father, Ted, had been born poor and an ethnic minority in rural China, has only a junior high school education, but he had prospered under capitalism. Prosperity went away when they immigrated. They struggled. The family business has picked up recently—you can buy their CAcafé coffee and tea at Costco and Walmart—but Diana’s email is still the address on the corporate “contact” page.

Chao has a winning smile and a disarming directness—can I call you Chuck?—born of a 17-year old who has spent a lot of her young life leaning in. She a self-confessed math geek, who also does a culture and fashion blog, Letrendary, with a friend and who has a conceptual and portrait photography business, Moonglass Studios.

Two Outliers

Being a Presidential Scholar makes Chao the kind of person that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in Outliers: an individual “who doesn’t fit into our normal understanding of achievement.” Your odds of becoming a Presidential Scholar from California are significantly worse than winning the Fantasy 5 in the California Lottery. Among the past Presidential Scholars: Judge Merrick Garland, whose nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court is being boycotted by congressional Republicans.

Just to be invited to apply for the academic recognition, Chao had to score among the 20 top females in the state on the SAT or ACT test or be recognized by a select group of other organizations. (There are separate categories for the arts and career and technical education.) Across the nation, about 4,000 are invited to apply by completing essays, self-assessments, and transcripts. Chao slogged through all of these, and survived the multiple selection panels that cut the total number to about 160.

So, recognition at this level is partly luck, but it’s partly opportunity coupled with dogged determination. Chao had read the book and talked about Gladwell’s “10,000-hour” chapter: “write 1-million words, and you’ll find your voice.” It takes a lot of work over many years to truly master something. Her science skills were recognized when she was in the 3rd grade in China after she bested junior high age students in a competition, but those skills were expanded, honed, and polished in the United States. She ended up taking math at Pomona College while still in high school.

Teacher as Mentor

But what makes Chao an outlier is not that she’s an Asian who excels in math and science but that she was encouraged by an outlier teacher to dive into everything else. Arboleda graduated from Yale in 1988 where she was captain of the tennis team. She found Wall Street boring, liked kids, and signed up to teach at the toughest high school in Pasadena. “Sometimes I had Bloods and Crips in the same room, but I never had discipline problems. At 5'3", I’m just not afraid of kids.”

She was tasked with mentoring members of the first class of Teach for America novices, some of whom she still keeps in contact with. “The arrogance of TFA thinking they could change the system with Ivy League kids doing their thing for two years. That’s a really weak structural overhaul.”

Claremont High is within walking distance of Arboleda’s home, and in a way it’s tough duty. “I’m an introvert, and it’s hard for me to teach in the community where I live.” She teaches in the International Baccalaureate and AP programs, but prefers sections of the required 10th Grade world history program to non-elite students. “I love teenagers. I think that this is a fascinating time in human development, and I want [students] to have a teacher who knows his or her onions.”

Deep content knowledge has been Arboleda’s 10,000-hour challenge. After years of teaching, she completed a PhD in history at Claremont Graduate University. She has taken a leave this year to turn her dissertation on the pre-school movement of the 1920s to 1940s into a book. “The whole idea got Red Baited in ’38 along with the Federal Theater Project, but American progressives had all these ideas, and the movement produced the first generation of women with PhDs.”

Lucky and Overwhelmed

“I feel lucky because I get to do something that I love,” she said. “But I’m frequently overwhelmed by how hard it is.” Arboleda often works through lunch so she can take less work home and leave some evenings for family time. And sometimes, lunch also becomes a counseling session with her student, Chao.

Like all teenagers, Diana Chao is a complex being, amplified by her inner drive and circumstances that thrust her into adult roles at an early age. In the early years in the U.S., her parents were relying on her to do most of the translation. She also taught herself to code, to do web site development, and to manage Photoshop. “My parents are like the antithesis of Asian Tiger parents. My dad didn’t even complete middle school, coming from a very rural part of China, so there was no expectation. What was more important was being innovative, frugal, creative: that sort of stuff.”

I Have to Push Myself Hard

“For me, it’s not fair if I don’t push myself as hard as I can because there are so many people who want a chance like this [to live and study in the U.S.] but who can’t have it, so who am I to take it for granted? Who am I to let it slip by when I am in this incredible position to take advantage of it?”

All this comes at a cost: lots of stress. “I’m terrified of tests because I think that I don’t know anything, so I over study.” And there’s a constant sleep deficit and serious bouts of depression. “I’m fine now,” she says.

She’s moving way beyond STEM. Arboleda mentioned a long essay on the Cambodian genocide, to which Chao added, “I have specifically examined the Nixon Doctrine’s effect on the Cambodian war that led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge.”

And her thoughts on college: “What I think is really cool and what I think is not looked at right now, is examining historical astronomical knowledge especially because in Chinese and Indian history there have been so much astronomical studies that have been lost over time, and because I am specializing in astrophysics, I think that there is a lot of knowledge and discoveries that can be garnered from that. This is especially interesting to me because a recent Chinese Nobel Prize winner, she got her idea from reading ancient Chinese herbal medicine texts.”

This is a 17-year old!

How to Think about History

She also studied history by putting together intersecting timelines of the Vietnam War: domestic, foreign, the context of the Cold War, what was going on in Latin America? Of Arboleda, she said: “She taught us a lot, not only about history but also how to think about history.”

Deep breath and then a wry smile that started in one corner of her mouth, which opened to say: “I think that politics would really wear me down.” But in the next breath she said, “I was an officer of the Young Democrats club.” She also played a Hillary Clinton supporter in a mock primary debate.

Stack on musical theater and choir, and performing on the two-stringed Chinese erhu. And she was a champion debater: a love-hate relationship, that “ate up so much of my time and my sanity. Also very sexist.”

Arboleda and Chao are both affirming and critical of the U.S. education system. “It’s important to remember that Diana is a product of the American education system,” Arboleda said, to which Chao added, “coming here was very liberating.”

Lack of Appreciation for Excellence

Still, there was a critical theme running through their conversation, one of under appreciation of effort and excellence. “This is a part of the reason that you see a lot of apathy in a lot of students because there is no incentive,” Chao said. “After a certain point no one cares any more, and that can be a bit of a disappointment if you cared and were passionate about something.” The lack of incentive is not just applicable to high achieving students. “When I came here I was with kids who were terrified to take the actions necessary to further themselves: there was no incentive, and it was more comfortable to fail without taking that extra step.”

Arboleda voiced similar criticism: that the school offered no recognition for excellence. “We still don’t have a great model in place in encouraging teachers to improve their craft,” she said. “In a more ideal system there would be a structure that always thinks about getting better, and there would be collaboration among adults. We provide only rhetoric for collaboration.”

So, what’s next for each of them?

Finland and SpaceX

Arboleda wants to take a group of teachers to Finland to better understand a system where it’s hard to become a teacher but where teachers are respected, well paid, and supported.

Chao is doing research with a Pomona College professor this fall with hopes to save enough money to backpack in Europe before entering Princeton.

Eventually? After reciting the college application response about astrophysics and history, she tosses her head a bit and says: “I would love to be at NASA or SpaceX, but I would also love to be U.S. ambassador to China [long pause and smile] or maybe a novelist or a photographer. I’m not worried about confining myself, because I know things are going to change in the future.”

To which her teacher adds: “She works very, very hard and she’s working on getting plenty of sleep [Diana laughs] and eating regular meals...she’s working on it.”

Photo: CTK

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