Many paths to academic success

I still haven't found time to write "Goodbye, Minsky" yet.  But here is another placeholder / build-up (following on from "IJCAIs I have Seen").  One of the themes of the forthcoming article will certainly be about the diversity of approaches to AI, and another will be about how academia changes over time. My present experience at Princeton is feeding into my consideration of what's important to say here.

So though I'm mostly thinking about higher education, here's something I wrote to address a very local question of elementary education that's made the national news: should Plainsboro & West Windsor students be tracked into high-performance or "ordinary" math in third grade (as they have been), or should they stay single track until fifth grade, and then be "differentiated" rather than just two tier?  Though my natural inclination is to worry about any kind of dumbing down / underachievement, as I read the parents letters in our local biweekly newspaper, I wound up getting worried about something else.

For a quick rundown of the problems, here's the New York Time's take:

New Jersey School District Eases Pressure on Students, Baring an Ethnic Divide

And here is my letter (which is mostly just my own narrative) to the West Windsor / Plainsboro News, which I titled "Many paths to academic success", but the editor of course changed the title...editors do that.
We only moved to Plainsboro a few months ago, so I don’t know much about the schools, but I’m worried that some of your letter writers and parents are distressing themselves and their children more than is necessary. I’ve read that they want the Ivy League for their children, and I only went to the University of Chicago and MIT, but maybe my story will still be of some comfort.

I went to ordinary, mediocre public schools in Illinois. We had five levels of math at my high school: two levels of honors and two levels of remedial. Some of us had been tracked into accelerated math since sixth grade, others didn’t get that chance or missed the mark, but were able to place into honors in ninth grade. Accelerated and honors wound up in calculus together in 12th grade, and you know what? A lot of the supposedly second-tier honors math students were smarter and did better than us accelerated students, having had to go through the same material faster the previous three years to catch up to us.

Speaking of honors, I never made the honor roll until my final quarter of my senior year. I was dyslexic, but we didn’t get special treatment then, so I always got marked down for my spelling and handwriting. Everyone at my high school started in the same English class, and then if we got an A in the first quarter we were allowed to choose whether we switched to honors. My teacher warned me “Joanna, I’m giving you an A, but if you go into honors you’ll never get another one, because of your spelling.” I chose the harder class because it would be more interesting, but she was right. (Nearly. My best English teacher had started out in mathematics and couldn’t spell either.) But I got a high score on the PSAT and that made me a National Merit Scholar. That got announced over the school PA, and then all the teachers gave me an A my last quarter, even gym. But what got me into Chicago was my scholarship, not my grades.

At Chicago, I still kept taking the most interesting classes I could, mostly graduate classes, and ignoring my grades. I wound up with at best a B- average. I worked a few years as a computer programmer, paid off my debts, and saved enough money to get a master’s degree at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland), which isn’t that famous but is good at what I wanted to do, Artificial Intelligence.

There I actually did work harder to get good grades because I wanted a scholarship for a PhD, but my grades still weren’t good enough to get a “distinction” (top honors). But I got good enough letters of recommendation from my research supervisors that combined with my entry essay, I got into MIT anyway.

I don’t know exactly what parents want for their children, or whether their children want the same things. There are also a lot of kinds of success, as well as lots of pathways into it. Now I’m a professor, and I’ve had PhD students straight out of college and PhD students who have already paid for their children’s college and first apartments. Of course not everyone wants a PhD, and of course not everyone who wants a PhD gets one. But just because one route shuts down doesn’t mean there isn’t another more interesting way forwards. Don’t panic!

This is kind of a sister piece to What are academics for? Can we be replaced by AI? and was written on the same day.