As Chatterboy gets closer to high school, our conversations and angst about high school seem to intensify. I’ve blogged about this before – the choices we have for our boys are:
- two very exclusive private boys schools within walking distance
- a selective boys school within a long (2km) walking distance
- a very exclusive coed school that is a short bus ride away
- a comprehensive coed school a longer bus ride (probably 40 minutes door to door on a public bus) away that is locally notorious for being the place children get sent when they get tossed out of the exclusive private schools (which happens to be Mr Penguin’s alma mater – he doesn’t think it is as bad as painted, but it wasn’t great)
Of course, this means that we are incredibly fortunate. Although we don’t want to, we could afford to send our boys to those exclusive schools, if we decided it was worth while.
When we have this discussion with other parents, sooner or later the conversation gets to the selective schools and the dreaded ‘coaching’. The stereotypical view of selective schools in Sydney these days is that only “Asian” students get into them, by spending every waking moment being coached – perhaps here or here.
Lisa Pryor, in The Pin Striped Prison summed up the conversation well:
To families with children at elite private schools, all this tutoring is considered somewhat distasteful. ‘Asians’, they whisper and point discreetly. Filling up the selective schools with their hardworking ways, cheating with tutoring! Don’t these Asians have any respect for the fact that the only student who is supposed to have an advantage in the race for gifted and talented classes and selective schools is the white child whose parents speak fluent English, work in professional jobs and live in houses crammed with books? Private schools like to teach their children to be workaholics in other ways. Well-rounded ways. By rising at six in the morning for swimming squad, spending the lunch hour rehearsing with the madrigal group, taking speech and drama classes after school.
I think that there is some degree of truth to the stereotype – there are a lot of “Asian” students at our local selective high schools. I see students from all the local private exclusive and selective schools on my way to work in the morning, and the difference in the faces between the schools is quite stark. Those “Asians” have all sorts of backgrounds – from first generation immigrants to children whose families have been in Australia for generations. But they generally value education fairly highly – highly enough so that they travel from all over Sydney to get a selective school education, and, rumour has it, have a lot of educational coaching after school, in primary and secondary school.
But as Lisa Pryor asks, what exactly is wrong with being coached? If a child is good at sport, it is perfectly socially acceptable for them to spend (by the end of primary school) six hours doing it. The academic coaching that I linked to above seems to vary. One seems to be of the order of one or two afternoons a week. Another seems to make it possible to spend every afternoon studying, plus Saturday mornings.
As Pryor points out above, the upper middle class parents (like us) who say that they want their children to spend their time being children, rather than studying, don’t necessarily give them all that extra time as unstructured time. They get them to do other things, like drama (the boys are spending this week of the school holidays at a theatre course). They spend a lot of time reading books, and going to museums (we went to the Maritime museum last weekend, to learn about mythic creatures). Of course they watch TV, but many of the things we do as a family are also quite educational in a broad sense. So we aren’t exactly coaching our children, but we are educating them outside school as well as in it.
One of the pieces of research that Malcolm Gladwell spends a lot of time on in his book Outliers is the fact that by an enormous margin, the best predictor of someone’s success in a given field is the amount of time they have spent practising it. He calls it the 10,000 hour rule (blogged by a reviewer here), and it is based on research by Ericsson and Charness, among others. So if children have spent a substantially greater time studying, they are likely to be better, objectively, at pretty much any test a school is going to give them. If all they’ve been studying is a particular kind of test, then that’s all they are good at. So those coached children really do belong in a selective school. They’re better at school, and selective schools are supposed to be for children who are better at school. They are likely to be better at school than children who haven’t spent a lot of their non school time studying.
Today’s Australian society does value education more than pretty much any society in history. Knowledge workers are those who have the highest potential incomes. So education is important. It seems, though, that we have reached a very unhealthy form of apartheid in the way in which many parents react to that. Some shell out ridiculous amounts of money to exclusive private schools (which also get far too much funding from the federal government). Others have their children coached throughout school – here or here. And the children of parents who don’t do either of those things are more and more likely to fall behind in educational outcomes.
Education is too important to be left entirely up to the market. And so, here in Australia, it isn’t. Everyone is entitled to a public education. But increasingly, that public education is more and more inferior to the private, or private supplemented, alternatives. And that can’t be a good thing for our society, particularly if we have any expectation of equality of opportunity for our children.