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.

I'm currently reading The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.

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Saturday, April 4, 2015

Thoughts on Miyazaki

I am about a third of the way through China's Examination Hell.  The first thing that jumps out at the modern reader is how familiar some of this is.  Miyazaki was writing in Japan in 1963, but much of chapter 1 could be published unedited in the NYT and people would assume that it is about rich Manhattanites selecting preschools, test prep services, and even prenatal care with the goal of maximizing a kid's odds of acing standardized tests. I just hope that we don't go down the same road to ruin that Imperial China followed. All of this has happened before and will happen again.

Second, the mixture of official solemnity and public spectacle around the exams in China helps us understand how modern Chinese immigrants in the US, most of them descended from merchants and farmers rather than officials, could nonetheless include a substantial number of parents who send their children to test prep services and try to inculcate in their children an academic mindset that their own ancestors probably had not been able to profit from:  Standardized tests were not merely a matter of personal advancement but rather a public occasion that the whole community was encouraged to celebrate. 

Third, while many in the US worry about what standardized tests will do to our elite class, I worry about what a focus on narrow targets will do to education.  On pages 35-36 Miyzaki notes that originally one could enter officialdom via either success on tests or overall performance at university.  However, over time tests became the sole route to officialdom and so universities declined  in prestige and quality.  I believe that this cautionary tale should be read more broadly than just as a tale of testing or even vocational emphasis in universities.  Rather, it is a tale of narrow targets.  When the only purpose of an educational program is to prepare students to hit one narrow target they will aim for that target and neglect all else.  The breadth, depth, and intellectual playfulness of the institution will decline, and how could they not?  I am in the middle of some bureaucratic tasks involving curriculum design, and if we ever start treating narrow, targeted learning objectives as the real purpose of a class we will be in big, big trouble.  Fortunately, that sort of paperwork is ignored once it has been approved.

Finally, this book shows us the timelessness of issues of exam security and test prep industries.  That should give pause to anybody who says "Well, clearly we could fix everything if elite institutions just selected their students by <INSERT METHOD HERE>." As long as the stakes are high, people will game whatever process you put in place.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Recommended post: Cheating scandals

Regular reader Phil Ebersole has a good post up that says more succinctly what I have often tried to say about tests, measures, and selection criteria.  The only thing I would add is that many of the problems of standardized tests probably also apply to a lot of other high-stakes selection processes or criteria.

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.