The case of the unrepentant Mr Pei

Qinghua Pei is being investigated by ICAC for allegedly trying to bribe a Year 5 teacher to write a favourable report on his son, and improve the boy’s prospects of getting into a selective high school.

What is the appropriate reaction to this? Here are a few to choose from:

1. Mr Pei’s action would be normal in China and many other places pervaded by corruption. Immigrants can’t be blamed for bringing such attitudes with them, but in the past they’ve usually learned pretty quickly that bribery is not the way things are done in Australia, except in dealings with police and local government. The fact that Mr Pei didn’t learn, and indeed claims to have got the idea from other members of the Chinese community, suggests that such communities have becoming so large and self-sufficient that it impedes new immigrants from integrating with the mainstream and learning appropriate attitudes and practices. In this context it was reassuring to find in today’s Herald a letter from Anthony Pang, President of the Chinese Australian Forum, saying that Mr Pei’s behaviour

does not reflect the views of the vast majority of the Chinese community. If this proves more than an isolated incident, we will work with other organisations to correct any misconception by recently arrived immigrant parents.

2. Mr Pei’s action is merely one more symptom of the dysfunctional fixation with selective schools that has taken hold in Asian immigrant communities. It isn’t just a matter of getting your child into a selective school: getting into a ‘higher-ranked’ one can mean the difference between social acclaim and disgrace. Not all such families bribe teachers, but most of them force their kids to spend untold hours in coaching clinics, and demand that the colleges themselves focus on test preparation, which has no educational value. From a social point of view, this is a waste of money, and bad for the kids because it fosters an unhealthy competitive attitude to education and deprives them of the benefits of weekend sport (some even attend the colleges on school days to do intensive preparation for particular tests — I assume this is illegal, but I’m aware that it happens). Parents need to be educated that selective schools suit only certain kids with special needs, and that coaching just interferes with the process of identifying these kids.

3. Attempts to influence teachers are the inevitable consequence of a scoring system that gives some weight to school assessment, in which teacher’s discretion comes into play. One solution is to put the whole weight on the externally-administered exam, but of course that doesn’t solve the problem of time and resources being expended on the parasitic coaching academies. In any case, one would think that a child’s teachers could give a better indication of her aptitude for selective high school than her performance in a three-hour multiple choice test. An alternative might be to have primary school principals determine the scores, after consultation with several teachers, so it doesn’t just come down to one teacher. But that would be cumbersome and time-consuming, and tricky in the case of kids who had changed schools several times.

4. The selective school system is itself the root of the problem. Its main effect is to group manageable and motivated kids in particular schools and thus reduce the cost of learning there while increasing it in the comprehensive public schools — in effect, it’s a subsidy to the families that get their kids in (over and above the efficiency gain due to the streaming itself), and like any other subsidy it encourages wasteful, rent-seeking actions. The solution is either to abolish selective schools or to charge fees for them, at a level that will discourage the rent-seeking, whether it’s weekend coaching or bribery. (Presumably kids from higher socioeconomic strata get more than share of places — though I haven’t seen data on this — so selective schools are essentially middle class welfare anyway.) The libertarians would no doubt see this as another reason to go a step further and abolish public schools altogether, distribute vouchers and let the market generate schools for every taste and need.

My current view is that we don’t need selective public high schools. It would be enough to have a selective stream in every fourth or fifth high school, and strongly discourage out-of-area enrolments. This would end the process by which certain schools become entrenched as prestigious destinations, and vast resources squandered on prized places there. But I’m afraid my current view runs against the prevailing fashion for scores, rankings, transparency, choice, and all that. (Lest someone else out me for hypocrisy, I should mention that my own little tyke is heading off next year to the same hallowed academy that Mr Pei risked all to send his son to.)

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Richard Tsukamasa Green
Richard Tsukamasa Green(@richard-green)
12 years ago

I think that the selective school system can be good for education over all, by quarantining the spocks from the normal population.

This is from my own hypothesies about teenage behaivior.

I think that the existence of high achieving kids in a class room can discourage other kids from putting in as much. In teenage years kids are starting to try and work out what their strengths are, and play to them. And they decide what their strengths are by comparison with peers.

Maybe it’s related to the way professional sportspeople have birthdays concentrated in one half of the year. The calendar cut off leaves some kids playing kids nearly a year less developed, and both groups take their cues from this with the older group continuing and the latter dropping out.

So if you have the high achieving kid in class, the average, or even above average may decide to cut their losses and look elsewhere, since they are falling behind the visible benchmark.

And it could relate to teenage tribalism, if academic achievement becomes a subculture, identity issues may lead to it being shunned by others (even if they aren’t hostile). Look at what’s happened to Christianity with kids.

Maybe these could be addressed with in school streaming, I’m out of my depth here.

(Disclaimer. I’m a product of the selective school system, but of the less ruthless provincial wing)

vanaalst.robert
vanaalst.robert(@vanaalst-robert)
12 years ago

“suggests that such communities have becoming so large and self-sufficient that it impedes new immigrants from integrating with the mainstream and learning appropriate attitudes and practices”

I think this idea automatically assumes that somehow integrating with the mainstream is good. If you want new Chinese immigrants to have the highest crime rates in the OECD and their children to have high levels of substance abuse and do poorly at school (etc.), then integration is a good idea. Alternatively, if you want new Chinese immigrants to be successful without these problems, then it would be better if they didn’t integrate. Once they become rich, they’ll figure out that hiring tutors and so on is just as easy as bribing teachers and leads to other benefits also.

“In this context it was reassuring to find in todays Herald a letter from Anthony Pang, President of the Chinese Australian Forum, saying that Mr Peis behaviour”

I’m sure Anthony Pang can say all he wants about Chinese people (you can too if you want), but the Chinese community is not homogenous at all. Many of the new Chinese are from many different parts of China and are hence quite culturally unlike many of the Chinese already here (say, like the HK guys in Chatswood versus mainlanders from Northern China). It’s like the Greeks telling the Norwegians what they should do. China and Chinese people are not homogenous, neither culturally nor genetically (nor is any other grouping of 1.2 billion people I can think of), no matter what the Central government wants to tell you, and they arn’t in Australia either.

“Parents need to be educated that selective schools suit only certain kids with special needs, and that coaching just interferes with the process of identifying these kids.”… “resources being expended on the parasitic coaching academies”

What parent wouldn’t want their kids to go to a school that is going to get them 10 extra marks in Year 12? Most parents in most parts of the world would want this. Perhaps one should be pointing the finger at Australian parents for not “coaching” which I read as “helping” their children to learn. I think you need to get rid of your bias against some forms of learning — of course parents choose methods they think will lead to the best long term outcomes. If you don’t like the outcomes from hard learning, then feel free to look at the latest TIMMS data. Guess which countries get on top?

“One would think that a childs teachers could give a better indication of her aptitude for selective high school than her performance in a three-hour multiple choice test”

I wouldn’t think this at all, as we know, for example, from university entrance exams, that this is extremely hard and leads to discrimination against certain out-groups (like, for example, Asian people). It stretches my imagination to the limit to think that a bunch of primary school teachers who may have got into their course with a TER of 50 are going to be better, than, say, a bunch of statisticians at ACER. I know where I’ll put my money.

“It would be enough to have a selective stream in every fourth or fifth high school, and strongly discourage out-of-area enrolments.”

You obviously don’t live in a poor immigrant neighborhood, as no doubt many new Chinese immigrants do. If you want to send your kids to a school where the kids don’t speak English (which is worse if you are a parent that doesn’t speak English well yourself), and where large amounts of time are taken up by kids with lots of problems etc., then you’re obviously an outlier.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
12 years ago

Thanks for your thoughts, Richard. I’m happy with a degree of streaming, as I tried to make clear. Your ‘less ruthless’ provincial school is probably the ideal environment.

Conrad, I have no problem with your first two points. The others, constituting a defense of the coaching industry, don’t impress me in the least. Coaching to perform well in tests has nothing to do with learning. Even if the practice promotes the individual child’s chances, this kind of learning makes no contribution at the aggregate social level (I’m sure they have no influence whatever to our placing on international league tables), and comes at a cost to the individual child. In any case, do you have any evidence that attending one selective school rather than another increases their TER by 10 points?

Nothing I said could be taken to imply that I don’t think kids should be helped to learn. But take your child on an overseas trip if you want to help her learn; don’t lock her up on Saturday mornings and drill her endlessly on strategies to solve number crosswords.

vanaalst.robert
vanaalst.robert(@vanaalst-robert)
12 years ago

“do you have any evidence that attending one selective school rather than another increases their TER by 10 points”

No, but that isn’t the comparison that is of importance. It’s selective school versus poor immigrant school in the worst case, or normal public school in the better case. In my books, it’s basically impossible to work out what the contribution of the school is to TERs with selective schools, because the sample of kids going there is so completely non-random. Alternatively, we do know the difference between public and private schools is around 10 points (which is huge, if you want to go to university), and I find it hard to imagine that selective schools would be worse than the average private school. The second of these we know does a better job at least from university performance (yes, I know there are confounds in that too, as courses get tailored to the typical entrant, which is a private school kid). If I remember correctly, if you come in from private school with the 10 points extra you got compared to the public school kid, you’ll perform as if you were doing 8 points better (I can’t find the ref right now).

“Coaching to perform well in tests has nothing to do with learning”

Looking at the 2007 TIMMS data, you might have a point for kids in grade 4 (and before), where a quick glance seems to show that homework negatively correlates with performance. Alternatively, for kids above that, I really fail to see the difference between coaching, tutoring, and going to an expensive private school where coaching is basically done by the school. So what you are basically arguing for is that rich people should be allowed to use coaching but poor people shouldn’t (the same effect as locking people into neighborhoods incidentally — please stick to the crappy school in your crappy neighborhood, and don’t use methods that help your kid). I also fail to distinguish between coaching and learning. It isn’t homogenous. No doubt some teaching in schools has nothing to do with learning (just like poor coaching) but that doesn’t mean all teaching is bad. What’s the difference between having a coach and a tutor apart from the name? If one can pass these tests with simple coaching, then my suggestion would be to make the tests better. Alternatively, if the tests are measuring what you want, and coaching gets kids to that point, then it’s obviously a good teaching strategy and we should praise parents for using it.

“dont lock her up on Saturday mornings and drill her endlessly on strategies to solve number crosswords”

Why not? A good example here is mathematics. I remember doing “every second question on the left-hand side” at school as I’m sure lots of people do. Now that isn’t very intelligent or creative, but it works extremely well. If you do it, you’ll get close to 100% for mathematics and you’ll most probably understand what you are doing given how simple maths is in primary and secondary schools and what you need to learn. A lot of the stuff you just need to remember so you can do the harder stuff later. No doubt coaching schools use such methods (lots of repetition of examples) and no doubt kids learn from it, even very young ones. I don’t see how this is bad at all. If you think that all learning is fun, then you are falling into the “learning must be fun” camp now so prevalent in the Western world. I’m sorry to say that lots of things you are going to learn are not going to be fun, and they won’t be fixed by going overseas on holiday (why not do both?). Learning to walk is hard. Learning to read is hard for many. Phonics is boring but has the highest efficacy. Learning mathematics is hard for many too. Lots of repetition on some things is good. If you don’t believe this, my suggestion is to look at how maths is taught in East Asian countries, and see who tops the mathematics ability in the TIMMS, and, if you think this doesn’t lead to later success, see which countries most of the people doing advanced mathematics and science in university come from now (the biggest group of people getting PhDs in US universities comes from China).

Tel_
Tel_
12 years ago

… it fosters an unhealthy competitive attitude to education …

The primary purpose of education is to get kids ready for the real world, which happens to be competitive.

(some even attend the colleges on school days to do intensive preparation for particular tests I assume this is illegal, but Im aware that it happens).

I see no reason why it would be illegal, the state has no monopoly on being the sole supplier of education (we still have some freedom left).

… the problem of time and resources being expended on the parasitic coaching academies…

If the coaching gets the kids higher marks, and if those marks are considered the best way to measure ability, then the coaching academies deliver a service and improve the child’s ability. Nothing parasitic about that. One may argue that such examinations are not a terribly accurate way to measure ability (and I certainly would argue the same) but that is a matter for the people setting the exams to deal with.

… one would think that a childs teachers could give a better indication of her aptitude for selective high school than her performance in a three-hour multiple choice test.

Only if the teacher can be trusted not to play favourites based on race, religious background, sex, hairstyles, family friendships, general laziness, and the many bribes that don’t get investigated.

The selective school system is itself the root of the problem. Its main effect is to group manageable and motivated kids in particular schools and thus reduce the cost of learning there while increasing it in the comprehensive public schools in effect, its a subsidy to the families that get their kids in (over and above the efficiency gain due to the streaming itself)

In the case of government-run selective schools (i.e. those without a substantial influx of private capital), my feeling is that they actually get less resources per student than the “difficult” schools. Having manageable and motivated kids does substantially reduce the cost of learning, but it only takes a small number of unmotivated and unmanageable kids to spoil a class for the others and consume large amounts of the teacher’s time. I would argue that the selective schools are delivering a subsidy to the comprehensive schools. Also, highly intelligent kids turn to trouble making when they are bored so sticking them into a class of dumbos is going to increase costs and reduce outcomes all round. In an environment where the only skill that pays dividends is being able to render someone unconscious in as short a time as possible, any rational person will focus on learning that skill.

The nutshell of argument number 4 (and number 2) is that by giving people nothing to strive for, they won’t do anything untoward in striving. In even simpler words, you are saying “property is theft”.

Patrick
Patrick(@patrick)
12 years ago

Also, highly intelligent kids turn to trouble making when they are bored so sticking them into a class of dumbos is going to increase costs and reduce outcomes all round. In an environment where the only skill that pays dividends is being able to render someone unconscious in as short a time as possible, any rational person will focus on learning that skill.

This is extremely true. I think selective schools can literally ‘save’ many intelligent but poorish kids for this reason.

Surely there is some net advantage to society in giving these kids a fair crack.

Your approach seems a little too much letting the perfect be the enemy of the better (have I mangled that?).

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
12 years ago

Conrad, thanks very much for taking the trouble to argue your position with care. This kind of debate doesn’t occur often enough, though it should be one of the main aims of blogging.

On your first point, I think it’s clear that there is simply no data to support any claims about the benefit to a given individual of attending a selective rather than a comprehensive school. However, I’m not denying that there is a benefit — indeed that’s the whole thrust of my Point 4.

On the question of whether coaching works — your last point — there is no disagreement either. If the selective school test was a phone-number reciting competition, who could doubt that the kids who spent weekend after weekend memorising phone numbers would triumph?

Where we really disagree is over whether the sort of coaching these kids are subjected to is educationally beneficial. If I’m right, and it isn’t beneficial, then it’s a waste of the childrens’ time and of social resources. Furthermore, if it results in mediocre children getting selective school places ahead of more talented ones, then that’s even worse, as it subverts the purpose of the selective system.

I’m not blaming the parents for wanting the best for their kids, but with limited places, their striving will only be at someone else’s expense.

On the other hand, if you’re right that the coaching really imparts useful skills and boosts nataional productivity and welfare, then it seems to me that you ought to be advocating a longer school day and more ‘traditional’ teaching — emphasis on the three Rs, rote-learning, homework, and so on. If these things are so worthwhile — and maybe they are — why not give every kid more of them. The countries that appear most favourably in your beloved TIMMs data may indeed have more of that sort of stuff, but I bet it’s in normal school time and not in weekend coaching clinics.

Tel: truancy is truancy. There are certain things you can get permission to take your kids out of school for, but I doubt very much that test cramming is one of them.

vanaalst.robert
vanaalst.robert(@vanaalst-robert)
12 years ago

“If Im right, and it isnt beneficial”

If coaching wasn’t beneficial and the wrong people were getting in en masse to selective schools, then all of those selective schools wouldn’t be blitzing the field at year 12, where at least some subjects are harder to score highly in by coaching. This hasn’t been the case. As an anecdote, I remember being in Sydney a decade or so ago when the best argument people could think of for the racial mix at James Ruse changing so much (mainly to Indians and Chinese) was that they couldn’t field a good Rugby team (!! No doubt their cricket team is in fine shape). I’m not saying that all kids are likely to benefit from coaching, but some subset are, and those that are and get into these schools appear to be able to do well throughout their schooling. Now it may well be that in the worst case, all that is happening here is that coaching schools are essentially acting as a filter for kids who are diligent and have good memories, but they’re good study skills — You certainly don’t need to be a genius to score well at high school. However, I think this isn’t the case, since I don’t see any complaints about the graduates of these schools being dumb kids that just happen to work hard (quite unlike some private schools, incidentally, although this may simply be a case of anti-intellectualism), which would be the case if coaching schools were creating such a big bias.

I guess one argument here is that if coaching schools really are so successful, then the distribution of skills kids have when they get in to these schools is changing from what it used to be, even though the old and new skill sets both lead to good outcomes. However, if people are worried about this, they should think of better tests (or better yet, have more selective schools, potentially for kids good at different things — Those who want to do maths can go to Epping boys, and those that want to do music and arts can go to McKinnon High).

I guess this still doesn’t answer your question as to whether coaching schools are using methods that are of educational benefit, but I think this is very hard to answer — coaching schools are not homogenous. There are obviously some that are just using beat-and-learn learning which you find more in some parts of Asia, but even that type of learning has benefits and good outcomes. Is that worse than playing computer games all day which many kids do now instead? You need to think of what the average parent can do for their kid, and not, for example, what academics with PHds arguing on blogs do. If the average parent can get great results from their kids using these schools, even if the methods don’t have thrilling validity, it’s better than nothing.

“it seems to me that you ought to be advocating a longer school day and more traditional teaching emphasis on the three Rs, rote-learning, homework, and so on. If these things are so worthwhile and maybe they are why not give every kid more of them”

I think the traditional teaching is orthogonal to longer school days and more homework. It isn’t clear what the effect of longer days is, and I don’t think homework is worthwhile at younger ages (as shown by the TIMMS data, where the correlation appears to be negative), although even that is more complex (there is a huge data set from the US which is actually so interesting (and complicated) that it is used as a multi-level modeling example, and what you find is that the amount of homework given interacts with other things — so there is no simple linear relationship. I remember being in HK, where many parents complain it’s them doing the homework (teachers expect it there, and you can get in trouble for not doing it), although even then, there would be the indirect effect of forcing parents to spend more time with their kids. That might be good for some parents but not others, especially in HK where working hours are really high.

This is getting off topic, but I also think that “traditional teaching” versus what’s being done now is a false dichotomy. In some areas, you get the the best outcomes with what many people consider traditional methods (e.g., early reading), and with others the data is far less clear (e.g., later mathematics). These are often confounded. If you look at the traditional teaching loonies like Kevin Donnelly, then they treat things like literacy from birth to the end of year 12 as one homogenous problem, which it isn’t. Teaching early reading the traditional way with phonics (or even better yet, with the non-traditional variant synthetic phonics) is good and will get you great outcomes, but getting 12 year olds to draw hundreds of grammar trees will do far less. In my books, the main problem now is not lack of knowledge about good teaching methods (there’s journals full of the stuff, as well as many huge government studies across the world), or whether traditional is better than non-traditional, it’s that the educational bureaucracies are not good at understanding what is best. On this topic, to me the most interesting part of the TIMMS was not so much the cross-country scores, it’s the within state scores. There are huge differences between, for example, Queensland and New South Wales. The obvious conclusion is that those in Queensland are idiots and don’t know what they are doing, and whoever is in charge there should be given the boot, preferably tomorrow.

Tel_
Tel_
12 years ago

There is not (to my knowledge) any such crime as truancy. You may want to start here:

http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/nsw/consol_act/ea1990104/

They talked about introducing new laws in NSW to make it possible to jail parents with minimal trial and no jury (basically a political appeal to old people by offering a bit of youth bashing) but the idea died a well deserved death. The only thing that might catch out the parents of kids who go to coaching schools during school hours might be the need for copious registration paperwork. An army of faceless bureaucrats can always find some critically important government form, that should have been filled out.This applies to anyone, at any time, regardless of the activity they are performing. The most amusing part of the Education Act 1990 is that you can have conscientious objections to registration, in which case you have to register your conscientious objections. Brought to you by the “We Hate Trees” party of NSW.

None of this changes the fact, that parents (rightly) do have the final decision in how they want their kids educated. Since parents are determined to get selective schools, then selective schools they will have, one way or another. The government could force the entire selective system to become private, but to what advantage?

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd(@chris-lloyd)
12 years ago

The primary purpose of education is to get kids ready for the real world, which happens to be competitive. Well, actually the real world is not like that Tel. Most of our lives are spent cooperating with our work colleagues, enjoying our families, trying to take meaning from of our lives. Knowing the planets in the solar system is not competitively useful. It is education for its own sake. So spare us the ne-con framing of education as a process of converting young humans into homo rectum (economic man).

Lets be clear what the main problem is here. The problem that drives migrant parents to pressure their kids to study for selective schools is the same problem that drives me and others to spend k$150 sending my kids to a private high school. The problem is that state schools are dysfunctional. Not because the teachers are no good, or even because they are under funded. It is because there is no enforceable discipline in state schools. Simply put, most of the class is taken up dealing with kids who are taking the piss, because teachers cannot expel, hit, incarcerate or even repeatedly remove unruly students from class.

Chris Lilley gets it pretty right. The clown of a teacher who allows Jonah to negotiate his behavioural and learning goals pushes all the right buttons of the educational theorists and will see early promotion. Wold you EVER send you kid to Summer Heights High?

Next we get to the Asian issue. You may be interested to know that in Hong Kong they have selective streaming from grade 1. There is an industry in coaching four years olds to be able to speak basic English and write a few Chinese characters. It is pretty hard, but not impossible, to change streams after grade 1. I make this observation so that we are clear that current Chinese culture involves educational competition from the crib. Indeed, life in China involves seeking advantage in any way possible, finding loop holes in Kafkaesque regulations and practices and making connections through various forms of bribery.

It stands to reason then that they would arrive in Australia, see that university entrance is based on TER, see that there was a free back door to a decent educational environment at selective schools, and stampede towards it. But the door was left open by the education department and teachers unions. An ugly spectacle to be sure, but not their fault.

There has been some interesting discussion about whether schools can be shown to make a difference. The economists will say that the fact people pay for them means that it does the market distilling available information. That is good enough for me and agrees with my personal decision. However, until there is some kind of random assignment of students to schools, we will never get any clean empirical evidence.

Conrad: Was I correct in interpreting your first comments as an ethnic generaliation about Aussies having the highest crime rates in the OECDhigh levels of substance abuse and do(ing) poorly at school. You have also apparently endorsed bribery until the parents become rich enough to figure out there are better ways.

vanaalst.robert
vanaalst.robert(@vanaalst-robert)
12 years ago

Yes, you are correct about my generalization about Aussies. The last one would in fact be easy to disagree with because it isn’t based on good data – In fact, Aussies do very well on literacy, despite all the complaints in the media (alternatively, they are average at science and mathematics). Despite this, my comparison was really with the successful migrant groups we are talking about here (like the previous groups of Chinese who have come to Australia — who knows how the new Mainlanders will go), who are basically light years ahead on maths and science. I certainly wouldn’t like to see those groups lower themselves to the Australian average, nor pick up bad cultural habits. Terence Tao would have been an obvious casualty if they did.

“You have also apparently endorsed bribery until the parents become rich enough to figure out there are better ways”

I’m not endorsing it, but, after having worked in China for some time (albeit a long time ago), I’m not especially surprised by it — this is just the way things work in China (as you appear to know), and it’s easy to see why Mr Pei is surprised by the fuss and doesn’t think he has done anything wrong. I myself have been part of a group that gave quite reasonable sums of money to some teachers in China across a table at a restaurant so they would collect some data for us (try claiming that on a grant :). Do I feel bad about it? Of course not. This is just the general expectation. People would be offended if you didn’t do it.

“Lets be clear what the main problem is here. The problem that drives migrant parents to pressure their kids to study for selective schools is the same problem that drives me and others to spend k$150 sending my kids to a private high school.”

Actually, I wouldn’t agree with that. Many groups want the best for their children not matter what. Even if the state schools were good, I think you would find that some migrant groups would still want to send their kids to these selective schools because they would think they are even better. This is of course why the majority of the rather unrepresentative sample of Chinese parents in Australia seem to think that teaching their two year old a musical instrument (etc.) is a good idea.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
12 years ago

Chris

I agree with the thrust of your argument, but you exaggerate when you imply that all comprehensive schools are Summer Heights. I have complete faith in the schools in my area, and if my second child doesn’t get into a selective school, I have no qualms about sending him to one. Nor do several of my friends who teach in them. The main problem with those comprehensive schools (apart from the decrepit facilities they share with all NSW public schools) is that they’ve been creamed of the most talented students, who in the past (and in other states) would have been models and motivators for the next tranche.

Conrad

My gut feeling is that a year of Saturdays at a coaching academy is probably worth about 10 points on the selective school test. This means that it makes the difference between getting into any selective school and missing out, for only a tiny minorty of those who do attend. For the rest, it might make the difference between getting into James Ruse or Sydney Boys’, or two other schools adjacent in the hierarchy. For many families the school the kid gets an offer from really is a source of prestige or disgrace, and I have no shortage of anectdotal evidence on this. Your and Chris’s reflections on the cultural roots of this bahaviour are very interesting (thought not surprising), but I stick by my contention that it’s dysfunctional.

The upshot is that your analsyis, attributing the coaching to a reasonable anxiety about the comrehensive schools, only applies to a small minority of marginally capable kids. The benefits for the rest are low, so where do we stand on the costs?

At the aggregate level, it means that a few naturally talented but dreamy kids will be replaced by kids who, as a result of their weekly drilling, are mentally fitter and more goal-oriented. Perhaps this is good for society — there obviously isn’t a simple answer. Here your idea of setting up more specialist selective schools is relevant: the main problem with that plan is that even more kids than at present would end up attending schools far away from home and community.

At the individual level, the cost is in time and money. In most cases the time would be spent on sport, not video games. (I doubt that James Ruse has a good cricket team, for exactly this reason, but stand ready to be corrected). As far as money goes, I already suggested an overseas trip. Your first reaction to thet suggestion was to deny that it would be better than doing number-crossword drills, but you now seem to be saying rather that most parents, lacking PhDs, wouldn’t have the imagination to educate their children in this way, therefore the number crosswords are a second-best, to be preferred to video games.

Finally, your ruminations on traditional education are all very interesting. But they don’t seem to refute my main point that, whatever the deficiencies of our school curriculum, it would be better to fix them by changing that curriculum rather than by tolerating the proliferation of supplementary after-hours schooling, much of which is of dubious educational benefit.

Richard Tsukamasa Green
Richard Tsukamasa Green(@richard-green)
12 years ago

On a minor note, I have a dislike for the concept that “Asians highly value education”.

Apart from the obvious stereotyping, I think it misrepresents the exact dynamic that’s happening.

I think its far better to describe it as “Asians understand exams as the primary method of social mobility”. This of course being the legacy of centuries of civil service examinations and quasi-bureaucracies like chaebol and zaibatsu. It does have markedly different implications for the expectations for schools. I also think it washes out fairly quickly (as in a generation) when it becomes apparent that there are other methods of mobility, as valuable as exams up til uni are.

But on the mainland tendency to play the angles etc., Mr Pei does seem unusual for a Chinese in Australia. Whilst the mainland habits of chasing loopholes, playing people for advantage etc is prevalent and terrible, I’ve always found it is one of the most rapidly lost features when they come to Auatralia. Afterall, it is a horrible dehumanising game to play, and is only a legacy of the cultural revolution and the structure of CCP society rather than anything really “Chinese” (note how absent it is in Hong Kongese for instance). As soon as they get placed in a situation where this behaiviour isn’t the norm it dissapears. Within a couple of years, if not months. If Chinese growth means that less and less of one’s destiny is in the thrall of random (or saleable) whims of bureaucracy it’ll wash out there as well.

But Mr Pei either has not lost it, which could be an indication of the segmentation of Sydney communities preventing the above dynamic or, more likely in my opinion, he’s just a rogue person and can’t be taken as any indication of his ethnicity.

Tel_
Tel_
12 years ago

Well, actually the real world is not like that Tel. Most of our lives are spent cooperating with our work colleagues, enjoying our families, trying to take meaning from of our lives.

Naturally you are welcome to your own experiences, but I doubt there was anything at school to teach me to “enjoy my family” any better than I already was, and I’m dead set certain that there was nothing to teach me to “take meaning from my life”. Nor do I really want someone to explain to me how to do these things in any other way than my own way. I’ll buy a new-age self help book if I really get that desperate, or hang around in church or something.

I don’t have any straw-poll data handy but I feel confident that most parents sent little John and Jane off to school hoping that they will learn something they can use to earn a living. Speaking for myself, I’ve found that when trying to get a job, there are various other people also trying to get the same job. Once in a job at the bottom floor, some folks get promoted, others don’t. It has to be that way, we can’t all be supervisors. Anyone running a small business knows there is another small business down the road that is perfectly happy to service the same customers. If you know of an industry where that is not the case, then do please be a cooperative fellow and tell us all.

You call this “neo-con”, but there’s nothing “neo” about it. Athens competed with Sparta, Rome competed with Greece and the Christian world continues to compete with Islam (and arguably they both compete with Paganism). Nor for that matter is there anything particularly “con” about it — I’m no great advocate of conservative values, only a pragmatist who uses what works. The radical of one century is the conservative of the next, they all end up discovering the great value of looking after their own interests and I challenge anyone to point out any political or religious group who have thrived by abandoning their own interests.

Tel_
Tel_
12 years ago

The problem is that state schools are dysfunctional. Not because the teachers are no good, or even because they are under funded. It is because there is no enforceable discipline in state schools.

I went to a NSW selective state school and although I was never educated about the meaning of life (it was after all, an all-boys school), I did learn some solid maths, science, engineering, literacy and a bit of history… all skills that I have found useful, and as far as I’m concerned, exactly the skills I was in there to learn. The discipline situation had better days and worse days, some people got a little bit hurt now and then, nothing serious by global standards. Overall the balance worked well enough. There was a time (not long ago) when true discipline was achieved by self-flagellating whenever an evil thought came to mind. I’m no enthusiast of going back to strict regimentation (such values are way to “conservative” for my liking). The simple fact is that if you select off the most intelligent and motivated kids and give them an opportunity to get an education, then they will put their energies primarily into achieving (and now and then blow off a bit of steam, for which we can all be forgiven).

vanaalst.robert
vanaalst.robert(@vanaalst-robert)
12 years ago

James,

Changing the topic slightly, I pretty much agree with you on the idea that at least some coaching is not thrilling educationally, and better things might be used if you were truly trying to teach kids in the best way. Personally, in my area (reading and reading disorders), I see all sorts of crazy schemes that are supposed to help you get better but are really just quackery designed to take money from gullible but well meaning parents (coloured glasses, balancing drills, etc.), so I have a lot of sympathy for some sort of fix to this problem. If you sold medicine making the type of claims that these people make, you’d get sued.

However, what might fix the problem without making things worse is unclear to me. Even if there wern’t selective schools, one would see coaching, especially at the latter years of schools (it is no doubt used with dull kids in rich private schools — and changing exams to get around it is almost impossible). I know people in my area have suggested that these guys be forced to run proper trials with proper controls before selling these sorts of programs, but that has it’s own problems (cost — which basically stops small operators. It’s also not clear how one would deal with minor program changes if you have to demonstrate efficacy).

Given that you can’t get rid of them, if you have any suggestion as to what to do to coaching schools to identify those that really just torture kids versus those that actually teach them something, it would good to know. This is going to be extremely problematic, because unlike dyslexia cures, where it’s rather easy to show that things like balancing on a board won’t help your reading, I imagine that these guys can claim at least some efficacy.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd(@chris-lloyd)
12 years ago

Tel, If school never taught you anything about enjoying life or finding meaning then it was a pretty poor school. You never did art or English or social studies? You go on to reiterate that parents send their kids to school to increase their economic value. I agree with this. I was objecting to you apparently justification this as a defining aim of education. The neo-con jibe referred to the drive to reduce all human activity to competition and economic transactions..

Re your comment #15, I was referring to comprehensive state schools. I guess I should have made it clear but I thought it was obvious since I argued that the reason parents aim for selective schools is to avoid the dysfunction.

James, I am not quite sure why you are bothering having you kid apply for the selective school if you are happy with the local comprehensive