David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | [email protected]

Place Value

I read recently that the gap between measures of reading achievement between boys and girls was getting bigger. The author conveyed outrage. Those poor boys! Our educational system is failing them! When these tests were given a few years ago, girls were three months ahead, but now girls are five months ahead! It’s terrible! We need to help the boys! Our boys are falling behind!

While no one could argue that our classrooms are ideal for all learners, there is another way to look at the results. It doesn’t take a Ph. D. in education to suggest that sure, the boys could be falling behind.

But maybe the girls are just moving ahead.

No matter what happens the next time these tests are administered, indignation won’t be far behind. There are two possible headlines: Girls Losing Ground! (If the boys close the gap.) Or, Boys Falling Further Behind! (If they don’t.) Boys and girls can’t both improve relative to one another. There’s no possible win here.


Schmecklenberg County has the worst rate of poverty of 300 major metropolitan locations in the United States. Upward mobility is cruelly restricted.  Schmecklenberg County children born in the fourth quartile of income have the least chance of moving up to the third quartile. Schmecklenberg County children born into poverty have virtually no possibility of moving up to the first quartile.

A rising tide may lift all boats, but even a rising tide is helpless against the inevitable fact that there are four and only four quartiles. The arithmetic is relentless. If a child born into the fourth quartile does through some happy circumstance move up to the first quartile (Yay!) another child from the first quartile moves down to the fourth quartile (Boo!)


Talking sports heads pontificate about how the losing team failed to contain the wily quarterback or botched third down conversions. But your team only wins if my team loses. And where did that talented million-dollar athlete come from? Sports show commentators drone endlessly about how hard his coaches worked, how hard the athlete worked, how hard his agent worked. Now, thanks to the awesome work of all these admirable folks, this youngster from a disadvantaged background is earning hordes of samoleans and is giving back to his old neighborhood. And there is rejoicing throughout the land. Except that there are still 32 teams with 53 players on each team. The fact that this kid got a gazillion dollar contract only means that some other kid somewhere else did not. That hard-working, talented, deserving kid, the 1697th best football player can find something else to do.


And don’t get me started about Search Engine Optimization. Unless there are some numbers I don’t know about–“oneth?” “firsteen?”–SEO is only a competition. There are ten spots on the first page of Google. If somebody moves into the top ten, somebody else moves out. Yet the scammers who spam me daily and want to put David Altshuler on the first page of Google! are sending the same offer to all the other educational consultants. We can’t all be in the top ten. Indeed–stop me if you’ve already figured out where I’m going with this–only ten of us can.


Which brings us to the upcoming much talked about Supreme Court case about admissions at Harvard and UNC Chapel Hill. Some folks—White and Asian, I would imagine—are arguing that they are entitled to more spaces in the first-year class than other folks—first generation, under-represented, that sort of thing. What they’re not arguing is that there should be more beds in the first-year dorms or more opportunities for anybody else. It’s a zero-sum game, winners and losers. You and people who look like you get admitted to “top schools.” The rest of the great unwashed can go back to the fourth quartile where they belong. Maybe in future that’ll teach them to choose wealthier parents and better opportunities. In the meantime, there are still only 2000 first year spots at Harvard. If your brilliant, motivated, connected, valedictorian child is admitted then my brilliant, motivated, connected, valedictorian child ain’t. No matter how extraordinary those two kids are, there is no 2001st space.


Forgive the tedious examples and snarkiness to make the point, but the take-away is unassailable for loving parents. Being concerned about place value rather than ability is a fool’s game. If you insist that your high school senior be the best in the group, let them play soccer with seven-year-olds. If you are concerned that your high school senior be the dumbest person in the room, keep them away from the doctor’s lounge at Johns Hopkins University where the hematology/oncology fellows discuss recent research targeting specific genes treatments for cancer. There is always a room where everyone else is faster, smarter, nicer, wealthier. A better plan is to help your kids feel good about the room in which they are.

For college admissions, the way forward it simple. If Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill deny your child a space, there are other accredited institutions, a large number of them by my count, who will gladly admit a smart, motivated kid like yours. For parenting, the path is also clear: your child needs to be the best they can be, whether they make it to the NFL, the top quartile, the doctor’s lounge at Hopkins, or the first-year dorm at Chapel Hill. Ability and hard work will raise your boat. Emphasizing place value and pointless competition will not.

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