Tag Archives: Asians in school

Painting Pictures

I quit my second job for a while, but got sucked back in by an importunate boss. He did move me out of PSAT/Book Club and into straight Book Club, for 7th-8th graders, which is a nice switch, except it’s in the afternoons and kills my Saturdays. But oh, the kids. Who are, in case you’re a new reader, first or second generation Chinese, Korean, Indian, and the occasional Vietnamese.

First day, a month ago, I face four eighth grade boys (one Chinese, three Korean), and I’m going into the usual spiel:

“The thing is, this class is about becoming readers, writers, and thinkers, not about getting a good grade. What do you want from this class? Francis?”

Francis just looks at me, wide-eyed and quiet. I am supposed to get the hint and move on. I wait. And wait. And wait some more. Francis realizes, to his horror, that I’m not going to move on. It is unholy how much I enjoy doing this, time and again. An unlooked for joy of teaching.

“Um. What was the…oh. Um. I want to get better grades.”

“You don’t get straight As?”

“Well. Yeah.”

“You just want more A pluses?”


“My mom wants me to come.”

“It’s always the mom, isn’t it? Bruce, what about you?”

Bruce is a Korean version of Ralphie from A Christmas Story, bright-eyed and chirpy.

“My mom wants me to come, too. But I would like to learn to write better. Not grammar.” He pauses, not sure how to say it. “Better. Like, with good vocabulary.”

“That’s a good objective. Arthur?”

Arthur would be a nerd, except no one around him would notice. It’s Saturday afternoon and I like to think that he took off the tie his outfit was missing the minute he was out of his mother’s view.

“I actually wanted to come. I need to develop a better writing style and take advantage of my vocabulary.”

“You want to get it drunk first? Kidding. Dino? What’s your pleasure–better grades, words you can love and leave, a chance to watch TV?”

Dino is slouched down, a shock of unruly hair pulled down over his eyes. “Not grades. I don’t care about grades.”

The other three boys literally gape at this anathema. “You don’t care about grades?” gasps Bruce.

“Look. We’re eighth-graders. None of this counts. I try to have fun. Read some books.” He looks at me. “I want to read deeper, find context and meaning. My teachers talk about analyzing literature, but when they analyze it I never agree with them. I want more ammunition.”

Huh. “I guess you didn’t get the memo?”

He’s quick. “Like ‘Rules and Regulations for Asians?'”

“Instead you read a pamphlet on the Beat movement.”

“What’s that?”

“Read up.”

Last week, that same boss begged me to cover two SAT writing classes in addition to Book Club, and although I was sick, I am nice. The class had already met for math so were in the room when I walked in. While I was doing my standard I’m a long time teacher here but don’t usually teach SAT spiel, I suddenly did a double take.

“Good lord, who let you in? Blond guy.”

The white kid slumped unhappily in the back eyed me cautiously. I seemed to be looking at him, but what could I mean? He looks to the left, then the right, then points to himself in query.

“Yeah, you. It’s Saturday morning. White kids are still asleep. And here you are. You don’t look half Asian, but I’ve been fooled before.”

The entire class is now unsure whether to gasp in horror or laugh.

“I think it’s your fault I’m here.”


“Yeah, a friend of mine went here last summer and his mom raved about the great teacher.”

“I”m flattered, but I don’t teach SAT.”

“That’s what I said! He went to PSAT class! But my mom made me come.”

“That’s what you get for having Asian friends.”

“I’m not blond, though.”

“Ash blond. Plus, look at the room, buddy. You’re blond.”

Now they’re laughing.

“You can’t tell half Asians?” a Chinese kid asked.

“Sometimes. But then a couple summers ago, I had this kid with blond hair. Not dyed blond, punky blond, but just normal blond hair. Blonder than this guy’s. He said he was half Korean, I said wow, he didn’t look it. He smiled, used both his hands to pull his hair away from his head and I fell out of my chair. His face was totally Korean! You know, slightly round, the eyes had the full epicanthic fold. But his hair was white people blond, and my brain just insisted his face was Caucasian until he pulled his hair back.”

“Oh, I know someone like that!” said an Indian girl.

“Hair color is white people’s. We own that trait. So much ours that I looked at a Korean face and ignored reality until the hair was gone. Hey, wait.” I suddenly stopped cold.

“You. Behind blond guy. You’re not Indian.” The kid shook his head, laughing, knowing what’s coming.

“You’re BLACK. Like, African American black! Jesus, there’s like, maybe eight of you in a ten mile radius from this spot. Where do you go to school?”

Black kid is enjoying this, names a very wealthy public school.

“Oh, well. You’re used to being one of three? Two? Just you? I know Blond Guy has to suffer through being the one no one wants on group projects–white guys never do homework–but you, you’re such a novelty they probably fight over you.”

The kids were now howling.

“My god. A white kid AND a black kid in this establishment deep in the heart of Little Asia. Cats and dogs sleeping together.”

And I started the class which I like to think lived up to the icebreaker.


So my last essay got a lot of attention, and I’m happy about that. I’m even happier that most readers took it as I intended.

But some didn’t, and by “some”, I don’t mean the various ethno-nationalists groups, nor do I mean the Stormfront and other vaguely or overtly anti-Semitic sites who liked the piece. They understood what I was saying, even if I disagree with where they took it next. I allow almost all comments, and allowance should not be construed as agreement.

No, I mean the people who said I “claimed” that all Asians were cheating, or that I didn’t “prove” that Asians weren’t living up to their resumes, or that white people cheat, too.

I am exactly the opposite of a scientist. I like facts fine. But proof is boring. It’s always so small. I like probabilities. And not calculating them, that’s boring, too. I like seeing things, reading about things, and thinking about what they mean. Then I start to anticipate. If A, which I’m reading about, is happening, then isn’t B happening, too? Let’s see what Google says. Damn, Google agrees with me! And I google, search, and keep reading, find ten other things that tie in, or are just interesting tidbits for later.

A good chunk of this blog is dedicated to describing and explaining the reality I see as an older but new teacher, as a math teacher, as a test prep instructor, as a white teacher who lives in a heavily Asian community and teaches many recent Asian immigrants. I paint a picture, and in many cases, people who work in the same reality say yeah, that’s an accurate picture. Others who aren’t familiar with the reality often find it an interesting and credible picture; still others say wow, you just took a kaleidoscope I was trying to figure out and made it clearer. All good. It’s rare that people say hey, that’s just not how reality looks and when they do, they are math teachers, and that’s religion.

But proof? It’s just a picture. Accept it, don’t accept it. Challenge it. Give data that directly contradicts it. I’m happy to realize that I’m missing a piece of the picture, or even misreading it entirely. Just quit whining that I haven’t proved it. Enough people clearly agree with the picture that I haven’t invented it out of whole cloth, and I’m not asserting anything beyond the picture. I give data to show it’s not one-off. Take it or leave it.

Over the past decade the open discrimination against Asians in college admissions has risen to the level of public notice. Many people hear the news and think, “We need to catch up! We need to make our kids more like Asian kids!” This, more than anything, is what I hope to—if not correct, then at least compensate for. Because no, we do not want to make our American kids—white, black, Hispanic, or Asian—like the kids who are, through “hard work, dedication, and cultural expectations” churning out 4.5 GPAs and taking 10-12 AP courses. Those kids are achieving those intellectual goals using methods we don’t value (and I mean more than just cheating), and they are not, in far too many cases, attaining the intellectual base that we in America assume comes along with that resume.

I can’t prove this. What I can do is show readers what problems arise from educating this population (again, recent Asian immigrants or their kids), and let them think about how that plays out in college admissions.

Our educational system needs improvement, and one of the areas that most dramatically needs improvement is our education and development of bright kids. I suspect, but can’t prove, that our failure in this respect is what allows the Asian “swot” method to dominate without actually learning all that much. What we need to do is track, is ensure that our top kids are getting a challenging education that doesn’t just allow them to regurgitate, but think creatively, intuitively, and engage their intellects. We used to do that, but our determination to pretend cognitive ability doesn’t exist has seriously damaged this area of education—both in high school and college.

Until we decide to fix this, however, the answer lies not in making American kids more Asian, but in making Asian immigrants—indeed, all immigrants—more American.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I love all my students. I teach this second job, and let my boss talk me back into it even though I’d like the time off, because I particularly love these kids, these recent Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Indian immigrants who don’t all look alike and don’t all think alike, but who far too often dutifully obey their parents and live under extraordinary pressure to succeed. I want them to be more than the hardworking stereotype, to learn to ask why, to ask questions beyond “will this be on the test” and form the occasional opinion. And towards that end, I’ll be doing my best to convince my Asian students to win more concessions for their time in Saturday school, defy their parents on a daily basis, watch more TV, watch way more movies, tell their moms to get a job if they have nothing better to do than nag them, and skip their homework entirely a couple days a week.

Why Chris Hayes Fails

Chris Hayes has a book to sell and guilt to expunge. The poor lad feels guilty that he benefited from the Evil Mostly White Meritocracy:

But the problem with my alma mater is that over time, the mechanisms of meritocracy have broken down. In 1995, when I was a student at Hunter, the student body was 12 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. Not coincidentally, there was no test-prep industry for the Hunter entrance exam. That’s no longer the case. Now, so-called cram schools like Elite Academy in Queens can charge thousands of dollars for after-school and weekend courses where sixth graders memorize vocabulary words and learn advanced math. Meanwhile, in the wealthier precincts of Manhattan, parents can hire $90-an-hour private tutors for one-on-one sessions with their children.

By 2009, Hunter’s demographics were radically different—just 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic, according to the New York Times. With the rise of a sophisticated and expensive test-preparation industry, the means of selecting entrants to Hunter has grown less independent of the social and economic hierarchies in New York at large. The pyramid of merit has come to mirror the pyramid of wealth and cultural capital.

Here, Hayes is relying on the cheapest and most meretricious of the education myths: the rich have the ability to improve their test scores, SAT or otherwise, through expensive test prep, while the low income blacks and Hispanics do not. The higher scores are not genuine, and thus the acceptance is not truly meritocratic.

There’s just one tiny glitch in this mythology:

Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to use test prep than whites. Cite, cite, and oh look, this cite has a table:

Use of Test-Prep Courses and Gains, by Race and Ethnicity

Group % Taking Test-Prep Course Post-Course Gain in Points on SAT
East Asian American 30% 68.8
Other Asian 15% 23.8
White 10% 12.3
Black 16% 14.9
Hispanic 11% 24.6

The idea that blacks and Hispanics don’t have access to test prep is some sort of delusion that all the reality in the universe can’t shake out of progressives.

Within a ten mile radius of my home, at least 10 organizations are dedicated to providing free test prep, college admissions advice, and academic support to low income, first generation college blacks and Hispanics. Double the radius and the count will be in the dozens, if not hundreds–as it probably is anywhere in America. Any low-income black or Hispanic who wants SAT/ACT test prep and thinks he or she can’t afford it is the victim of criminally ignorant high school advisors–and the facts suggest that this isn’t a big problem.

Low income whites are a different story; few charitable organizations are dedicated to improving their test scores. Of course, given that low income whites trounce high income blacks on the SAT (Cite, cite, and
cite), I guess maybe organizations figure there’s no point making the gap worse? But of course, the very fact that poor whites outscore wealthy blacks pretty much kills whatever remained of Hayes’ theory about the test score advantage of the rich and powerful.

Furthermore, as Steve Sailer and commenters to Hayes’ article point out, Hayes complete ignores another reality: the huge shift in Hunter College High School demographics isn’t so much from low income to high income, but from whites to Asians.

If you read of a school that’s suddenly moved to elite status or seen a dramatic rise in test scores (e.g., AIPCS), or heard that a test prep process has gotten out of control, it’s a sure thing that it’s become “an Asian school”, as we call them in my area. Once a school “goes Asian”, hitting a tipping point of about 40%, it’s a short step to 60-80%. Check out the top-scoring comprehensive high schools by SAT average, and the highest ones will be “asian schools”. They end up Asian because of white flight. It’s not that whites don’t like Asians, but their kids will lose access to AP/honors courses and get lower GPAs—not because they have lower abilities, but because the white parents haven’t managed to convince their kids that the world will end of they don’t get straight As. Donations, as a rule, decline with this demographic change, which is why wealthy school districts get more than a little annoyed when their schools are at risk of “going Asian”, and come up with all sorts of odd rules to discourage it (giving up class ranking or limiting AP grade bumps).

Hayes engages in yet another fiction (and that’s just in this excerpt!): that through test prep, the rich are distorting their abilities. The poor and the rich have similar abilities in a purely meritocratic world but thanks to test prep, the rich are making themselves look smarter, even though it’s a mirage.

Clearly, that can’t be true, or rich blacks would have higher test scores.

But here I will bring in personal experience in test prep. For the past nine years, I’ve been preparing students for the SAT, the ACT, the Subject tests (Math, Histories, English Lit), the high school admissions tests (HSPT, ISEE, SSAT), and all grad school tests except the MCAT (although this last not as much as I used to). I do this both through private instruction institutions (Kaplan in the past, an SAT academy now) and private tutoring (with rates in line with those in tony Manhattan, apparently). I work with Asians of all income levels, wealthy and upper income whites (as well as middle income whites in my Kaplan days), low income Hispanics, and low income African Americans.

In other words, unlike many people who yammer on about test prep, I actually have some experience preparing people of all races and all demographics for all sorts of tests, and will draw upon that experience to assert this as fact: test prep primarily helps people use their existing abilities more effectively. With some people, the bump is huge, with others it’s minimal, with still others, non-existent. In only a very few cases are students actually distorting their abilities by improving their test scores, but rather showing their abilities in the best possible light.

Is it possible to game the test, to prep so much that the score is a blatant misrepresentation? Yes, but it’s rare. The people who are most likely to do this are not the rich of any color, who can buy their way into whatever school they want. And it’s not low income blacks or Hispanics, who I’ve coached and seen huge increases that still only bring the majority of the kids to just below national averages. It’s certainly not middle-class or low income whites, who are clearly the least likely to even use test prep.

No, the students who might be actually distorting their abilities through test prep would most likely be Asian. (Please note that this statement is only assuming such distortion is possible.) I work at an Asian SAT “cram school”, teaching book clubs and math enrichment. Their parents call it “SAT school”, even though the kids are rising freshmen and sophomores for book club, and rising seventh and eighth graders for geometry, because as far as the parents are concerned, the kids are doing this as part of a five year program to improve their SAT scores. Junior summer, they are in SAT boot camp: 20 hours a week (plus a test) for 10 weeks in the summer, and then Saturday school until the test.

The kids I’m working with, dozens of hours per year, aren’t distorting their abilities, but going through all that work for the last 10 or 20 points possible of their score range. That’s leaving aside the Korean cram schools, which somehow enable kids with limited English skills to score an 800 on the SAT reading section. Now that, I would argue, is distortion.

Unfortunately for Hayes, though, these Asians aren’t rich. Wrong again.

Hayes is correct about one thing, though: the elites are locking out the hoi polloi from highest-level institutions. But it takes a real ignorance to pretend that the rich are doing this because of over-reliance on test scores or test prep, as opposed to buying their way in, using their powerful networks to only hire from the “right” schools, and the fuzzy math of the “holistic” evaluation process. Give me test scores any day.