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Competition, cross-cultural roadblocks and petty corruption

10 Dec

Sad but familiar, this story, as is the way it is being framed: Cash lands pushy parents before ICAC.

A SYDNEY father accused of bribing his son’s teacher to help him get into a selective high school yesterday described the film character Forrest Gump’s mother as a hero for sleeping with a teacher to help her son gain entry to a school.

The Independent Commission Against Corruption yesterday heard that on August 5 Qinghua Pei wrote the first of two notes to Westmead Public School teacher Jodie-Lee Pearce, pleading with her to help his son, whom he regards as a budding scientist, to gain entry into Baulkham Hills or Sydney Boys selective high schools.

In particular, the boy, a year 5 student in a class for gifted and talented children, needed help with English comprehension…

Nothing wrong with the parents asking for help; what caused the problem was this:

Wrapped inside the first of Mr Pei’s letters, reluctantly delivered by his son’s mother, Xiaodong Lu, was a thick wad of $50 notes that amounted to $2000, the inquiry was told.

In the second, which Mr Pei delivered on October 28, was $500. The note said the boy "has great ambition to become a scientist". "First he must go to a good selective school. According to his performance at trial tests at Pre-uni College and their assessment he is like to make Baulkham Hill School or Sydney boys school."

In light of this, Ms Pearce was asked to give Mr Pei’s son, whose name has been suppressed, "favourable consideration in school assessment and report".

Selective school entry not only depends on the results of external tests, but also includes a school assessment component for which teachers are responsible.

Ms Pearce and the boy’s parents appeared yesterday before the ICAC at a public hearing into the alleged bribery.

The teacher told the commission she felt under pressure from parents who desperately wanted their children to win a selective high school places.

Lu Xiaodong was obviously not happy about any of this; she and her husband are separated. (By the way, they may as well have named the child, since it would not take a genius to work it out, if one was inside the system.)

This raises so many issues. In this case the “corruption” failed, as it should, but instantly disgruntled parents whose children missed places will start wondering about all those who succeeded! One clear moral is that the selective school disease – and that is what it is – clearly has a very strong down side. We have created a rod for our own backs here. I would assert that the comprehensive school system as it was in the late 1960s and early 1970s was objectively speaking just as likely to bring good results – as clearly was the case at Cronulla High in the late 1960s when I was a young teacher there. On the other hand, being forced to attend a local school, as people were then apart from private alternatives or the skeleton of an earlier selective system, did exacerbate differences between suburbs and regions. It’s a quandary.

I wish myself that it had been possible for Pei and Lu to simply have had their money returned with strong counselling that this is not what we do here in Australia, that their son had the same chance as everyone else and would be judged on his merits. In China what Pei and Lu did is quite normal. They are certainly not evil, just confused, caught between a desire to see the best for their son and not knowing how best to achieve that in this society. It is not an unusual migrant dilemma.

I am very familiar with the syndrome, having worked in selective schools, and having spent much time tutoring in a Chinese community context. In the last case I always begin by saying I will not do the coachee’s homework, nor will I give any kind of help, aside from generic explanation of what a question might mean, in any work that forms part of the student’s assessment. I will conduct post-mortems once an assessment is done and marked; I will set tasks that may help the students develop skills and strategies for themselves. Sometimes – rarely –a coachee (or his/her parents or guardians) doesn’t accept my terms; possibly they go somewhere else, but I know the difference between legitimate help and cheating, and students and parents need to know it too.

But I don’t find myself frothing at the mouth in outrage over stories like today’s.

See also Tutoring, reality, and results on my English/ESL site, and on the incredible angst surrounding such matters see 07 — a controversy — For the record: the great SBHS race debate of 2002.

And if you want to see real corruption, it appears Chicago is the place to go: Wiretaps and bribery: Illinois Governor charged with selling rights to replace Barack Obama. What a mare’s nest that is!

Update

Compare Maralyn Parker on the alleged bribe story. She makes some very good points.

Update 2

Club Troppo: The case of the unrepentant Mr Pei presents a range of options:

1. Mr Pei’s action would be normal in China and many other places pervaded by corruption…

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…

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…

4. The selective school system is itself the root of the problem…

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.)

Go and read the full post. There really is something to be said for point 4.

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2 responses to “Competition, cross-cultural roadblocks and petty corruption

  1. Jim Belshaw

    December 10, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    I found this an incredibly sad story, Neil.

     
  2. Neil

    December 10, 2008 at 10:49 pm

    Me too, Jim, and I wish it had never gone on to the level it has now reached.

     
 
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