Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Prelude to the next book: China's Examination Hell

The next book that I'll blog about is China's Examination Hell by Miyazaki.

Americans tend to act as if the concept of high-stakes standardized testing was invented in the 20th century.  Obviously the most famous and significant high-stakes standardized testing practices in the US are only a little over 100 years old, but if we want a broader view of the phenomenon, we would do well to remember that China has been at this for a very, very long time. Standardized testing has certainly not been the only player in Chinese history, culture, and government, but it has undeniably been significant in shaping the Chinese elite class, and also in shaping the aspirations of parents who seek to lift their children into the elite class.  Moreover, 1300+ years of human experience with a subject is not something that we should just ignore.

Additionally, I see the legacy of China's experience with high-stakes testing literally every time that I run errands.  I live in a neighborhood with a very large concentration of ethnic Chinese families, and there are numerous tutoring and test prep centers in the local strip malls.  The Chinese practice of high-stakes testing led to the rise of a test prep industry long before Kaplan, and elements of that industry have come here with Chinese immigration. If Americans wish to analyze and debate the proper role of standardized test in an educational system, ignoring Chinese experience with these tests (as well as the experience of countries adjacent to China) means ignoring a historical and cultural legacy that continues to influence the experiences of my neighbors and my students.

Before I delve into the book, I should also say something about the stereotypes that often come up when one mentions test prep and East Asians.  I know people who work in the local tutoring industry, and I socialize with families that send their children to tutors.  While the motivation for this forthcoming series of posts is the very real legacy of high-stakes testing in China, it would be a grave mistake to view Asian Americans solely through that lens.  For starters, not all Asian Americans are of Chinese descent, and educational achievement actually varies quite a bit among Asian Americans from different ethnic groups.

Moreover, even within a particular ethnic group, you will find tremendous variation.  Yes, certain academic practices are undeniably more common in Asian American neighborhoods, but that's only one piece of a much bigger story.  Go and socialize in an Asian neighborhood some time. You will find parents that range from near-perfect confirmation of stereotypes to surprisingly (even dismayingly) lackadaisical.  You will find well-balanced parents with high but realistic expectations, and parents with all of the usual pathologies that can plague a family. You will find drug abuse and mental illness and learning disabilities and criminal behavior and child abuse.  You will meet affluent parents and parents who are one paycheck away from defaulting on the mortgage. You will meet surgeons and fast food workers and everything in between.  In short, they're as mixed as any other group of people.

But now that I've given the "Really, they're just people like the rest of us" speech, let me note another facet that sometimes goes unnoticed when white people offer up stereotypes about Asian American parents.  Hiring tutors isn't solely about the cultural legacy of imperial exams, or about pushing kids as far as possible.  Sometimes it's just about making up for deficits.  The white people who have made snide comments about Asians hiring tutors in my presence are all fluent English speakers.  They can help their kids with homework.  They can critique their kids' grammar.  They can introduce their kids to books and other media with English words that are challenging but developmentally appropriate.  While plenty of Asian Americans are either native English speakers or fluent speakers of English as a second language, the parents who patronize tutors around here are usually limited in their English ability.  Hiring a tutor is something that they do to make up for their own deficits, to make sure that their kids get help that kids from other homes could take for granted.  Hiring a tutor can the act of a loving parent who is trying to help a struggling kid.  Of course, it can also be the act of a pushy parent with unrealistic expectations.  Like anything involving parents and children, it's complicated.

OK, with all of that said, let's talk about the book.

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