Features Australia

On culture, parenting and education

20 January 2018

9:00 AM

20 January 2018

9:00 AM

The Sydney Morning Herald recently announced that the NSW Education Minister, Rob Stokes, is considering opening up the selective schools system to allow students access on residential rather than academic criteria. According to the SMH the department is conducting ‘a wide-ranging review of its gifted and talented policy for NSW public schools, including an overhaul of the entry test for selective schools amid concerns that wealthy families are able to game the system by engaging expensive tutoring services.’ (‘Open up Selective Schools ‘, 9/1/2018).

Unfortunately neither the Minister nor the paper could quite manage to acknowledge the herd of elephants in the tiny class room.

It is not the children of wealthy families who are currently ‘gaming the system’. It is the children of Asian parents, many of whom are very poor, who use cram schools to improve their chances in the High School Certificate selective tests. They do so because coaching schools achieve results. As has been the pattern for more than 20 years, it is Asian students who gain access to the selective schools in massively disproportionate numbers.

In its analysis last year of the 2017 HSC, the SMH noted that James Ruse Agricultural High, where in 2015, 97 per cent of the students were from a non-English speaking background, was the best NSW school in terms of academic performance. It has been the academic leader for the past 22 years. The SMH couldn’t find the space to ask why it is that the school which obtains the best academic results in Australia is populated almost entirely by people of Asian background.

The same ethnic imbalance is to be found in all of the selective schools in the NSW education system. The higher up the school ranking, the greater the percentage of Asian students. The association between race and intelligence is of course a very sensitive issue. It is an issue which both the SMH and the NSW Department of Education have long preferred to ignore. Dr Christine Ho, from the University of Technology Sydney, has called the selective schools at the top of the educational ladder ‘Hyper racialised’ academic hothouses and has called for substantial alteration to the current system.

Are Asians smarter than the rest of us? Ever since Professor Hans Eysenck was famously punched in the face at a public lecture discussing race and intelligence in 1973, academics have been careful about how they address this issue. It is complex and, of course, politically sensitive.

But it’s not only Asians who stand out in the academic hierarchy. At least 201 Jews and people of half- or three-quarters-Jewish ancestry have been awarded the Nobel Prize, accounting for 23 per cent of all individual recipients worldwide between 1901 and 2017, and constituting 37 per cent of all US recipients during the same period. Since the year 2000 Jews have been awarded 26 per cent of all Nobel Prizes and 28 per cent of those in the scientific research fields.  Jews currently make up approximately 0.2 per cent of the world’s population and 2% per centof the US population.

On these figures, the Jews are substantially smarter than the rest of us. And it is not just in science that the Jews occupied a massively disproportionate place in the intellectual and artistic hierarchy of the Western world. The number of classical musicians of Jewish background who have achieved immortality is similarly disproportionate to their numbers. The world’s concert halls were filled with Menuhins, Oistrakhs and Rubensteins. It was New York Jews who dominated the North American literary scene for several decades after World War II. There can be no doubt that there is some sort of association between intellectual achievement and ethnic background but, the question of whether that achievement is due to genetic or cultural factors is still unclear.

But what is beyond dispute is that the primary determinant of educational success is the cultural background in which the student is embedded.  Asian students, like their Jewish counterparts, perform exceptionally well in Western education systems because the traditions of their cultures value learning and see educational success as a way of getting ahead in a world which is not always welcoming.  Like the Jews who came in large numbers after WW2 as refugees, the Chinese who came in after the Tiananmen Square massacre have not been slow at taking advantage of the opportunities offered by Australia’s educational system.

One of the standard headlines which newspapers like to trot out every time we get another dismal report about the performance of indigenous school kids is ‘The Government/education system is failing Indigenous students’. By every measure of educational outcome the performance of indigenous students is abysmal and invariably we are told that the failure is the fault of the educational system.   All too often the media accepts without investigation claims such as ‘More kids would go, and parents would be encouraging them to go to school, if the lessons were more relevant, taught in both languages with a strong focus on (indigenous) culture… rather than being at school and feeling like you’re not really wanted in society’.

The current approach to the failure of most Aboriginal kids to benefit from the current educational opportunities assumes that, by making the subjects and delivery of curriculum more culturally appropriate, it will hold their  interest.

Why is it then that the children of Jewish refugees and Chinese migrants, for most of whom English was a second language, were able to thrive in Australian educational systems while the Indigenous kids didn’t? Why were migrant kids who were disparagingly referred to a ‘reffos’ etc. able to excel in an alien Australian environment which had very little to do with their indigenous culture?

Until such time as these questions are honestly addressed we are dooming future generations of Indigenous kids to academic failure. The problems faced in Indigenous communities are inter-generational, deep, and ongoing, and are the primary cause of poor Indigenous academic outcomes.

We must recognise that kids who are allowed to spend their evenings sniffing stolen aviation fuel are unlikely to become the dux of James Ruse High School. While the relationship between race and intelligence is still not understood, there is no doubt about the association between parental involvement and educational success. We have to be more honest about the challenges at both the top and the bottom of the Australian school system.

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