Timothy Lance Lai: Reading Between the Lines

I know this article was the first I read on the Corona del Mar cheating scandal, because it didn’t mention the private tutor’s name and I was absolutely certain that the name would be Asian.

I wasn’t distracted by the description of the school and local environment. Sure, the school is “located in an extremely wealthy coastal area of Orange County “ and yeah, Corona del Mar is a “seaside enclave of quaint old homes and cliff-top mansions” but all the talk about pressure, plus the coordinated nature of the cheating screamed “Asian” (which, for blog newcomers, is a shortcut to describe first or second generation Chinese, Korean, and Indian immigrants).

So I looked up the school demographics: 9% Asian. Definitely not an “Asian school”. Heavens. I don’t like error.

Then I noticed that Corona del Mar is right next to Irvine. Ah. Irvine’s Asian population has increased 25% in the past decade, and much of that is from new growth. Many recent immigrants, mostly Chinese and Korean (although this article mentions something I’ve noticed as well–in booming Asian towns, the first ones into politics tend to be Vietnamese. No clue why). So the Asians in Newport Beach could be spillover, and if so, were less likely to be long-established families. Not certain, just possible.

Then I found the tutor’s name: Timothy Lance Lai. And his picture:

So I went back to thinking I’m right, because this is a schlub. Rich white people don’t often hire schlubs, of any race. Yes, I am making use of egregious stereotypes, but they can be quite useful when playing percentages. And remember, I tutor (or did, I’ve mostly dropped tutoring this year) rich white kids, so have a fair bit of anecdotal behavior with which to construct my discriminatory profiles.

But perhaps the schlub had compensating factors, something that would compensate for the horrible haircut. I googled around for Timothy Lance Lai and discovered that the guy simply doesn’t exist in the Internet prior to the first cheating reports.

Huh.

If Lai really was a high-end tutor of rich whites, schlub or not, I wouldn’t necessary expect an online footprint about his tutoring services. Rich white kids don’t talk about their tutors almost ever, certainly not online. But I would expect lots of information that told me his background, education, his lamentable preference for Taco Bell, a facebook page, whatever. Google me, for example, and you’ll find plenty of information that reassures and even intrigues your average rich white parent, even though none of it would be about my tutoring services for mostly rich white kids.

If he were a tutor of mostly Asian kids of the cocoon, the ones going to 80% Asian schools, the ones who don’t know white kids can be smart, the ones whose friends also have parents that scream in horror at a B+, then I would expect a website, glowing testimonials, and all sorts of recommendations or naysayers on yelp and College Confidential, because kids yap endlessly online about their tutors, their hagwons, the books they use and so on. Yes, again, egregious stereotyping.

But this guy doesn’t have any online footprint, which means he doesn’t fit the profile of a tutor of either white or Asian kids.

About the only thing reporters could discover was his many traffic violations.

And then he disappeared. Completely. They’ve been looking for the guy since December.

The kids were recommended for “stipulated expulsion”, a form of plea bargain that allows kids to attend other district schools and seals the record. Full expulsion restricts access to all district schools. (PSA: if your kid, god forbid, ever gets in the kind of mess that has administrators mentioning that E word, get a lawyer. District expulsions are routinely overruled by the county or other oversight committee, but only if the student and his parents fight, which isn’t allowed in stipulated expulsions—which is why districts push them. Make them blink. Stare them down. No, I’m not against school expulsions. I’m just pro due process. Change the rules if they’re stupid–and they are.)

Jane Garland, a district official, resigned in protest. The reasons appear fuzzy. Garland, who was in charge of a new “restorative justice” program, seemed to have goofed by brokering an expulsion deal with the parents, then making public statements about the use of restorative justice, which may as well been a neon sign saying “kids got off light”. This led to a small explosion of fury and the district officials immediately canceled aspects of the deal, reassuring the community that no, the kids wouldn’t be allowed to skate, they’d be expelled.

When all the kids were expelled, Garland quit, saying the school was engaged in a coverup, that the kids were all expelled for very different crimes, that the school had known about this for much longer and not done anything. am not sure how true Garland’s charges are, and anyone who works in favor of restorative justice is most likely a flake. But this interests me, given that the reporters are carefully avoiding the mention of race:

In her email, Garland questioned why Scott had removed one student from the list of those being recommended for expulsion. She wrote that the student “was given special treatment.”

When Garland asked Superintendent Frederick Navarro about the student’s removal from the list, he told her that officials “didn’t feel they had enough on him,” Garland wrote.

If all the expelled kids are Asian, and the kid who wasn’t expelled was either white or rich (or both), perhaps Garland was just galled by the willingness to boot the outsiders.

Am I making up the part about race? Just imagining it? When I first found the story, I had stereotypes. Rich whites don’t hire young Asian schlubs, Irvine is a town filled to the gills with recent Chinese, Indian, and Korean immigrants who, as a group, cheat mightily and shamelessly. Very little to go on. I’m happy to speculate, but I wanted more teeny tiny facts to interpret. So I waited.

In mid-March, I found two stories written in mid-February that gave me all sorts of data between the lines. (Incidentally, the LA Times has been less than useless on this story. Score big points for the local papers, The Daily Pilot, Newport Beach Indy, and the Orange County Register.)

“One of the most important lessons he’ll learn”–a piece dripping with sympathy for the students, told via Jane Garland and the mother, name withheld, of an expelled student. The description and conversation with the mother provides more speculation fodder.

First, dead giveaway: “When [the mother] arrived, she was questioned about Timothy Lance Lai. She knew him. He had tutored her son. In fact, he had been to her house the week before. There they had exchanged a few words and she had offered him tea.”

Dingdingding. As a tutor, I go to lots of houses, predominantly white, often Asian (occasionally both). White parents say “Hey, can I offer you something to drink?” and I ask if they have diet coke. Asian parents say, “Would you like some tea?” If they’ve been in the US for a long time, or were born here, they say, “Would you like tea, or water, or a soft drink?” But they do that because I’m white. Asian parent to Asian tutor would almost certainly say “Would you like some tea?””

Second: “She remembered that he would often come home from tutoring sessions with Lai, bragging about the tutor’s intelligence and supposedly well-financed lifestyle.”

She just said he was at her house. Now her son goes elsewhere for sessions? That’s unusual. Tutors either have their own office, meet at the library or, most likely for high school students, meet at their houses. When I say unusual, I mean dishonest. I think the mother is just talking, saying words she thinks will evoke sympathy. Also, notice the kid is bragging about how smart and rich Lai is. Whether the mother is telling the truth or lying, the family in question is not rich and probably not white. White kids of any income level would not be impressed by a tutor’s wealth. Rich white kids, definitely not.

Third: “Still, she paid Lai $45 per hour to tutor her son in Advanced Placement Calculus.”

What? That’s insanely cheap. Rich people would be very skeptical.

Yet in a sympathy piece about the impact of the cold, cruel district on this kid’s life, no mention is made of the mom’s marital status. If she were single or divorced, surely the reporter would point out the triumph of a single mom going it alone, able to afford tutors for her high achieving kid. Even more remarkable, she did all this without working for a living. She’s home when the tutor comes by. She’s apparently home when the school calls.

Yeah. Unlikely. So on second thought, she’s probably not unmarried, not divorced, not a struggling single mom. She’s probably married. But if she’s married, surely the reporter would mention what her husband, the dad, thought of all this.

So whether the mom is married or single, the reporter’s left a huge hole in the story. Which doesn’t make sense, does it?

Takeaways: I’m getting closer and closer to right. At least one of the kids is Asian. The mom’s probably lying. And the reporter is sculpting around something.

The other piece, Missing tutor leaves questions blank at Corona del Mar High, tiptoes close to actually stating reality, rather than just hinting at it.

First hint that many of the parents involved are Asian: “Interviews with families and administrators paint a picture of Lai as someone who learned how to profit from well-intentioned parents who were eager to send their children to the best colleges and had the money to see that happen.”

Notice the parents aren’t mentioned as being connected, as being powerful, as being “rich”, just that they “have money”? Not the same thing. Chinese families have money because the grandparents have only one grandchild. Koreans don’t always have money, but they’ll spend themselves into serious debt. Indians are usually rich, I grant you.

Second, just to prove a point, you know how I said that tutors have footprints? Here are google searches for the tutors mentioned in the article: Clifford Lau, Tutor Genius, Laura Rickhoff, Amanda Rubenstein, Jeffrey Haig

Then: “While Lai taught high-level math and science to dozens of students striving for the Ivy League, he didn’t get his own bachelor’s degree until recently, at age 26, from University of California Irvine. His major: psychology.”

How, exactly, do the authors know that Lai graduated from Irvine? Did they get that from an interview? Did they visit his condo and see a diploma on the wall? Did they confirm it with UCI? I ask because, as mentioned, I exercised my mad Googling skillz to their utmost extent and could find nada damn thing on the guy. Without supporting data, I’d start with the presumption he didn’t graduate from anywhere.

Next, given the story so far, why would they say that Lai “taught” students anything at all?

So the reporters assume that he has a bachelor’s in psych (or verified it without mentioning source), and then hint that such a person wouldn’t be qualified to tutor kids in high level math.

To me, the big neon light isn’t whether or not he’s qualified, but why the parents would hire him without any other signals. You’re thinking yo, Ed, aren’t you an English major who teaches higher level math and history and whatever the hell else kids ask for? Why, yes, as it happens, I bear no small resemblance to Timothy Lance Lai in this respect. (I’m probably a schlub, too.) But when I began tutoring, I was attending a name-brand university getting a master’s degree in a technical subject. I’d been self-employed in technology. I was a parent of a teenaged white boy. I was working for Kaplan as well, which is one of the few companies that can require a high score on an IQ test. Then I went to a really top-tier education school. All sorts of signals. In my experience, the parents check. They don’t do anything as formal as a vetting, but they google me, they ask casual questions, they check with their kids.

I am unfamiliar with parents who let their kids arrange tutors, even though my clients are often the people who go out of town for a weekend and return to find their kids arranged a party, and now one of the girls or her parents have arranged a lawsuit.

So the fact that Lai had a psych degree from a mid-tier UC, coupled with the red flags in the first article, further suggests that the mother’s story is, er, invented.

Oddly, given the circumstances, I could find only one source that mentioned Lai as an “alleged tutor”–Corona Del Mar officials pointedly refer to him as such in their public statements. Reporters, on the other hand, unhesitatingly call him a tutor whilst describing his cheating assistance as “alleged”, whilst oh, my goodness, the poor parents just “welcomed [Lai] into their homes to work with their children without knowing much about him, other than his ability to raise grades. He had become so successful that he had as many as 150 clients.”

I want to be clear that I’m not asserting any of my thinking as fact. More likelihoods and probabilities.

But reading between the lines, I figured the most likely scenario as follows: This guy was not a tutor. He provided a service to the Irvine community of Asian parents (it must be parents, if true), fixing kids grades through a variety of means, but most likely with the er, innovative tech tools. He may or may not have offered the same service to the rich white kids in the community, but if he did so with the knowledge of their parents, I’d be surprised. Timothy Lance Lai is probably living in Hong Kong, paid off by one of the parent clients.

I’ve written before about cheating and Asian immigrants before, but this is new. First, as many news reports have suggested, hacking into a school system is very Matthew Broderick in War Games, an underachieving, over-privileged white boy trick. So hey, cultural crossover!

This certainly isn’t the first hacking scandal a school has faced, and Corona del Mar isn’t the first sign that hacking has expanded beyond its original demographic, although there’s no pattern to the incidents I’ve found. The Winston Churchill High hacking incident was two white kids, but Tesoro High was Asians. This story on Haddonfield Memorial High School doesn’t mention race but does mention one of the kids came back from vacation “deeply tanned”, so I’m going with stereotype and calling it white–they’re also a couple years younger than the juniors and second semester seniors in the other stories, who would be changing their grades for college applications.

The other concerning aspect, whether this habit of stays restricted to Asians or crosses over to ambitious white kids, is the intent of the grade changes. Matthew Broderick changed his grade to a C; he changed Ally Sheedy’s to an A, to impress her. But your average underachieving white teenage boy hacker is trying to get his parents off his back, not create a resume to fool Harvard. I don’t know how prevalent this will get, but I find it worrying that kids have now moved from faking the underlying abilities to just faking the grades.

And can I just say how tedious it is to try and read between the lines? Perhaps I’m imagining all this. But I have to balance my analysis and subject matter knowledge against the likelihood that the media will do its best to obscure race if it doesn’t involve whites. It’s not a close call.

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26 responses to “Timothy Lance Lai: Reading Between the Lines

  • Adam Molnar

    As a clarification, degrees earned are usually public directory information. If you have a person’s name, you can call the university and they will tell you what degrees were received. The reporters found his sister; they did some work. A thorough reporter would call local universities to try to find out if Mr. Lai graduated.

    As for the bigger question, if one had a way to achieve a grade without having to take the tests, why not go direct? Get rid of extra effort? It doesn’t worry me at all; to the contrary, it shows smarts. I don’t think it will become popular. Even halfway different teachers will keep backup copies of scores. Central computer changing is risky.

    • educationrealist

      On the first, I think it could have been mentioned.

      On the second, I think people who approve of cheating are pretty repugnant.

      • Wanderer

        These days, with grade inflation and cheating it is pretty well understood in private industry that degrees are not to be trusted as a measure of anything.

        And, yes, someone who cheats on their grades is also like to short-change an employer. Employers like to weed them out.

    • Audrey

      “Get rid of extra effort? It doesn’t worry me at all; to the contrary, it shows smarts.”

      What it shows is a lack of ethics.

    • Mark Roulo

      “As for the bigger question, if one had a way to achieve a grade without having to take the tests, why not go direct? Get rid of extra effort? It doesn’t worry me at all; to the contrary, it shows smarts. I don’t think it will become popular.”

      This ‘works’ if the goal is the grade and the learning is unimportant (as are ethics). For classes that *matter* (eg. the stuff in medical school) there is an additional flaw with the “get the grade without the knowledge” approach.

      But I’m sure you know this.

      Trolling?

  • Mark Armistead

    This example of cheating is particularly bad because its profit driven cheating not just academic cheating. I think you’re being harsh on the Asian parent mentioned though. Remember you had students (likely Asian admittedly) reselling Lai’s services to other students. It was mentioned in the “important lessons” article.

    There is a more probable sequence of events than this particular mother lying. You said that Lai didn’t have any internet foot print, that basically means his recommendations were word of mouth. Look closely at some of the things her son was saying:

    “She remembered that he would often come home from tutoring sessions with Lai, bragging about the tutor’s intelligence and supposedly well-financed lifestyle.”

    “He would talk about him like he was one of the guys,”

    Her son was groomed. No other way to say it. He heard about Lai from a friend/salesman. He told his mom about this awesome tutor his friend/salesman is using. His friend’s/salesman’s mom (possibly also involved) then confirms a rise in grades and that Lai is a miracle worker/tutor. This process probably repeated for awhile. Then Lai got greedy and his salesman pitched to the wrong student. The school receives its tip shortly after.

    At this point the school discovers 150 students are involved (7-8%ish of the total student pop) and can’t punish everyone. Its not just Asian students by now either because if the school is only 9% Asian as you stated, that basically means ALL of the Asian students are cheating, which is unlikely. That would also explain the lack of some of the “ethnic” markers in the articles. No mentions of overbearing Asian parents anywhere. No mentions of cram schools or Asians under intense academic pressure.

    • educationrealist

      Actually, ALL of the Asians cheating is quite believable, and all the “ethnic” markers are there, including the parents and intense academic pressure. I think it quite likely whites are involved, but would be surprised if it’s a lot.

      As for the “grooming”, oh, please. That’s such crap.

      • Carl G.

        Literally all of the Asians? I did not attend a high school with a large Asian population so I cannot comment directly on the type of culture fostered in such an environment. However, at university, I knew many Asians and my experience counters that assertion since ubiquitous cheating by Asians at the secondary level would be exposed in college. Are there cabals that gather in some recess in the library to share stolen exam questions? How does one disguise his inadequacy in small group projects where it becomes obvious quickly who the competent ones are? How does a math major cheat writing proofs? And once away from the parents, why do Asians bother spending so much time in the library anyway if they don’t have to? Even Asians with two-digit IQs can figure out a night playing Starcraft or BSing with friends in the dorm is time better spent than pretending to read a chem textbook in a musty library. This latter point is more than rhetorical. Think about it.
        You really think all of the Asians cheating is believable? This strikes me as zealotry more than carefully reasoned deduction based on evidence for SYSTEMIC cheating. Based on the posts I have read of yours, I believe this is a religion for you in the sense that no evidence would counter what you take as faith.

      • educationrealist

        Asian cheating is a huge problem in college, as is cheating on their resumes, grades, tests, and applications to get there. I am again speaking primarily of recent Chinese, Korean, and Indian immigrants in this country but it’s pretty widespread throughout the continent.

        If you went to college more than a decade ago, you were dealing only with the very top students. Even then it was more of a problem than you present it as, but it’s nothing like it’s been for the past 15 years.

        It’s not a religion with me, I’m well aware that many Asians don’t cheat and have written as much. What I am saying is that it’s quite possible at this particular school, which is right next to Irvine, that most if not all of the Asians at the school were cheating. It was a small group (9%) and if they were all recent immmigrants, they would have been from the same community of Irvine, with the same access and experience.

        Do remember that the whole story here is if…then.

      • Carl G.

        There is a big difference between all and some. Without knowing the students involved or the atmosphere at that school intimately, how can you make such a blanket statement?
        Reasons why some Asians would not cheat:
        1) They are risk-averse. The risk is not worth the reward.
        2) The brightest ones do not have to cheat. Cheating for some kids would be as pointless as a literate adult cheating on reciting his ABCs.
        3) They find cheating morally wrong. Korean-Americans are overwhelmingly Christian. Presumably (if not certainly), at least a few are Christian in more than name.
        4) The reclusive and anti-social will not have access to answer keys or stolen exam questions.

        It makes no sense to me that you have enough evidence to support the claim that all or almost all the Asians are cheating despite these basic assumptions.
        In fact, there are very few cases where a complex group trait is so endemic that you will have a > 95% correlation. And that is what you are implying: that cheating is profoundly ingrained in Asians whether on a genetic or cultural level or both such that one can a make strong hypothesis without much evidence.
        That is not a remotely reasonable thesis. I am not just being argumentative or politically-correct here. Extreme, unsupported arguments suggest to me someone with a strongly-held belief in search of proof (or in spite of it) rather than the other way around, Hence the reference to religion.

        On a side note, how representative do you consider your experiences with Asians to be? To what degree would the behavior of Asians at a hyper-competitive East Coast or West Coast Ivy League feeder school apply to Asians at a typical public school in the Midwest or the South? And if the results are less than universal, does that undercut your anecdotal approach?
        How well do experiences with Asians who need tutors generalize to all Asians as a whole? For example, the smarter Asians do not require tutors; they often act as tutors themselves.
        And so on.

      • educationrealist

        how can you make such a blanket statement?

        I said why.

        And anyone who is arguing that Asians don’t have a propensity to cheat, when it’s a huge problem in every Asian country, is simply not worth engaging with. I’ve written several posts with links to the strong anecdotal data, and I’ve said several times I’m talking primarily about recent Chinese, Korean, and Indian immigrants (1, 1.5, and 2 generations).

    • Carl G.

      I never said or implied that Asians don’t have a propensity to cheat. I said assuming that ALL Asians at the school cheated without any evidence of which you have provided none is silly. If you have provided specific evidence beyond blanket generalizations, please remind me.

      • educationrealist

        I didn’t “assume” that all Asians cheated. Someone asked if it could be that all the Asians were cheating at that school. I said, given the proximity, that it’s quite possible. It is irrelevant to this situation whether it was all of them or not. I also said it’s quite possible whites were cheating, too.

    • Carl G.

      For the sake of discussion, all my objections and questions apply to Chinese, Korean and Indian immigrants.

    • Carl G.

      I apologize for the multiple posts, but one more point. It’s one thing to use anecdotal evidence as a basis for noting a trend (Asians have a higher propensity to cheat). It’s another thing altogether to stretch that hypothesis to all Asians–or Chinese, Koreans, and Indians, if you prefer. It’s preposterous actually and wholly unjustified.
      If you have any actual hard data, please link it. Thanks.

      • educationrealist

        Since my case is entirely anecdotal, and I’ve said so several times in a previous post, I suggest you go fulminate over something that you actually understand.

      • Carl G.

        I’m not sure you understand the purpose of rhetoric, which in my case was to elicit from you this acknowledgement (any unbiased reader understands why.) If you admit that your STRONG hypotheses in this thread and in others rely on nothing more than anecdotal evidence, then how can anyone take seriously your claims, methods and logic given how extreme and unjustified your conclusions are?
        Is your intent to be taken seriously by skeptics or is the primary purpose of this blog to vent about your opinions which you agree might not be true. I hope for your sake, it’s the latter.

        Good luck proselytizing your case to the outside world.

  • anon

    “Her son was groomed. No other way to say it.”

    Just look at that picture. Could easily have been grooming in more than one way.

  • Audrey

    I forgot to mention this previously, but this was a very interesting article!

  • Riordan

    Very off topic, but did you happen to catch this article from the NYT on UT Austin efforts to improve minority graduation rates?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/magazine/who-gets-to-graduate.html?src=me&ref=general

    Any thoughts on that? Would it be possible for you to do a post on it?

  • The SAT is Corrupt. No One Wants to Know. | educationrealist

    […] the SAT is basically corrupt in the international market. I’ve already written about test and grade corruption among recent Asian immigrants over here, particularly in regards to the Advanced Placement tests […]

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