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.)