Friday, October 21, 2011

"White flight" from selective schools

A "WHITE flight" from elite selective high schools is entrenching ethnic segregation in Australia's education system, according to a social researcher. In a study of student language backgrounds in schools, Dr Christina Ho, of the University of Technology Sydney, found a clear pattern of cultural polarisation, with few Anglo-Australians in high-achieving selective entry government schools. Students from migrant families — mostly from Chinese, Indian and other Asian backgrounds — dominate the enrolments of the schools.
In Melbourne, 93 per cent of students at Mac.Robertson Girls High School and 88 per cent of pupils at Melbourne High School and Nossal High School are from language backgrounds other than English (LBOTE), a category that also includes those from non-Asian backgrounds. In Sydney, nine out of the top 10 highest performing selective schools have similar high percentages of LBOTE pupils, mainly from Asian backgrounds.
People who speak an Asian language at home make up 8 per cent of Australia's population, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Dr Ho said it was understandable why so many migrant families, put off by high fees in private secondary schools, flocked to public selective schools because of their outstanding academic results.
"Anglo-Australians' shunning of public selective schools is less explicable, particularly among those families with talented children who might achieve the required standard on the selective schools [entry] test," said Dr Ho, whose findings are published in the journal Australian Review of Public Affairs.
"The 'white flight' from these schools must partly reflect an unwillingness to send children to schools dominated by migrant-background children, which simply further entrenches this domination.
"If current trends continue, we risk creating highly unbalanced school communities that, rather than reflecting the full diversity of Australian society, instead constitute unhealthy and unnatural bubbles of segregation and isolation."
Dr Ho's study examined enrolment data given by all schools and education authorities to the My School website. The LBOTE data measures cultural diversity and, unlike birthplace, identifies second and subsequent migrant generations not born overseas but who are members of a cultural minority.
The principal of Melbourne High School, Jeremy Ludowyke, rejected suggestions that the school was not culturally diverse. "We don't see a white flight expressed in the pattern of applications to the school," Mr Ludowyke said.
About 60 per cent of his pupils have a parent born overseas.
"Melbourne High and Mac.Rob have played a pivotal role in providing opportunities for newly arrived migrant communities. They're part of the success story of multiculturalism in Melbourne," he said. [Source]

This is not the first "white flight" article that the Fairfax media has run in recent years; this one in 2008 reported that white students in Sydney were flocking to the independent school system to avoid certain public schools with large Muslim populations, while rural students were doing the same thing from schools with high proportions of Aboriginal students.

The Asianization of Melbourne's selective state schools has been going on for a while - my largely Asian social circle is rife with selective school graduates. I have to say I'm a bit sceptical about whether this "white flight" is a real phenomenon. Are the parents of white students actively rejecting these schools because of their predominantly Asian population, or are they simply being out-competed by Asian students for entry places?

Another article in the same paper this week points to the culture of private tutoring amongst many Asian pupils as a potential cause, which implies that if this "white flight" is really taking place, it is perhaps less about the Asians themselves than about the stress-inducing methods increasingly deemed necessary to remain competitive in an Asian-dominated environment.

So is this a cause for concern, or not?

Yes and no. (Regular readers will know that's my standard answer for most things.)

I've written previously about the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" attitude towards immigrants in this country; minorities are either condemned for not performing and fitting in well enough, or feared for performing too well. It's hard to escape that feeling when reading articles such as these.

Australians tend to have a somewhat laid-back approach to life; it's a part of our national character which has contibuted to this country being a highly sought-after place to live. Undoubtedly some see the Asian approach to education as incompatible with this aspect of Australian life. Yet in a competitive global marketplace, perhaps we have a lot to learn from Asians, and it is hard to argue that cultures that place an extremely high value on education would not be a positive influence.

The question is, how far do we take that? An overwhelming focus on education at the exclusion of sporting and other leisure pursuits can have very negative side effects; in the US, suicide and depression rates amongst young Asian-American women are alarmingly high, for example.

Something else to think about: does the selective school system merely favour the hardworking, the gifted, or both? A lot of evidence shows that many naturally gifted students are wasting away in our public schools, either hiding their intelligence to avoid being ostracised and bullied, or dropping out because they quickly grow bored with the limited curriculum. For these students, the selective system would seem to be a godsend. Yet does an increasingly Asian Australia mean that diligence becomes far more important than natural ability when it comes to academic success?

And if so, is there anything wrong with that? Obviously we are not talking about a dichotomy of gifted versus hardworking students; most of our highest achievers have both qualities in spades, and a student gaining entry to a selective school would undoubtedly need to be of at least average intelligence anyway. But "Asian parenting" (a problematic stereotype, but let's accept it for now) means that Asian students who may not have great natural intelligence can still outperform many who are. As customers, employers and consumers, we expect hard work and commitment from our workforce, and probably value them more than brainiacs who lack work ethic. Is it only right that we reward hard work, rather than those vague concepts of giftedness and intelligence?

Again, the concern is that as a society we are criminally under-utilising some of our sharpest minds, those students who have great intellectual capacity but don't easily fit into a highly regimented culture that relies mostly on extreme diligence as a path to achievement.

The most obvious solution is to have more selective schools, and it's one that the Victorian government has belatedly begun to address.

But multiculturalism is a two-way street, and I think we may eventually see things working out for the best. I like to think that just as the influence of Asian students will be beneficial for the broader Australian schooling culture, Asian students will become more Australianized as well. As Amy Chua laments in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the second and third generations of migrants tend not to have the same fierce aspirational mentality. Let's hope that means a perfect study-life-balance that allows students to reach high levels without becoming stressed-out robots in the process.

Of geeks and gangsters: the "model minority"
Asian kids, Jewish education
On hardass Asian parents
Summation of Wesley Yang's "Paper Tigers"


  1. ES

    Very interesting post.

    The one thing I do want to ask is how much does selective immigration have to do with Asian Australian success?

    (and by extension, Asian American and Canadian)

    While the U.S. and similar Western countries are a bit of a joke when it comes to curbing illegal immigration, they actually have somewhat stringent policies when it comes to legal immigration.

    A very large percentage of Asian immigrants (as well as Indians), at least in the U.S., already come with a good deal of money and education.

    For example, Indian Americans are very successful, particularly in the fields of medicine and engineering, and yet the vast majority of people in India itself are not doctors or engineers.

    Likewise, most people in China are not electrical engineers.

    They call it the "brain drain" for a reason.

    So anyway, I do think that Asians work a lot harder academically than non-Asians (with perhaps the exception of Jews), but at the same time, I believe that selective immigration and the fact that so many second generation Asian Australian/American kids are raised by middle/upper middle class professionals plays a role in their disproportionate success.

    Frank Wu, author of "Yellow," has an interesting take on this, and has highlighted the role of selective immigration in an attempt to dispel the "model minority" stereotype.

    I think a good litmus test to determine whether or not Asianness is the reason for academic success would be to compare a second or third generation Asian kid, raised by middle class professional/college educated parents, to a white kid raised by similarly college educated/professional parents, and see how divergent the two are.

  2. Another interesting experiment would be to have a bunch of white professionals move to Asian countries, and see how their kids performed academically relative to the general population.

    (of course, for the sake of the experiment, I'll ignore the obvious language issues)

    Hard work and intelligence are indeed important, but being raised by college educated professionals makes a huge difference.

  3. @ Bay Area Guy:

    The selective nature of legal immigration does have something to do with it. It certainly helps to immigrate here if you have skills, wealth and education already. Australia is also a huge market for international students, proportionally much more than the U, and many of them stay on.

    Amongst African immigrants to Australia, the ones who came as refugees (Sudanese, Somalis) are struggling a bit, while the ones who come as students and economic migrants (Kenyans, Zimbabweans, etc) are probably more successful than the average Australian.

    Mind you, the Vietnamese arrived on boats in the 70s, and have had tremendous success, although on many indicators (crime, income) they are still a way behind the Chinese.

    But it's also important not to overlook several other factors. Immigrants as a general rule have a strong aspirational drive and work ethic that they instill into their kids. And many Asian cultures take that a step further.

    I've seen this in some poor working class areas of Melbourne. What were originally white areas have an injection of refugees (eg. Tamils, Vietnamese), but by the next generation, the refugees kids have got degrees moved out to middle-class suburbs instead. The white families that stay there are often stuck at that rung while many of the immigrants move upward.

  4. How many of the mixed Asian-white kids in the US are classified whites? I bet all of them. Down south from the Bay area, in the Gretchen Whitney High School in Cerritos, CA is classified 85% Asian. But, kids with non-Asian (white) last names account for 30% of the pupils and a staggering 40% of the 50 or so Presidential Scholars it produces every year on average. On closer inspection, usually their mothers are Tiger of mixed Asian-white origin. You also find few kids with Asian last names, but they look white in the Presidential scholar list...about 10%...their mothers are white and fathers Asian. So these kids account for nearly 50% of the Asian kids who make it into the list. They are all called Asian. Should be actually Eurasian. But, going by America's one drop rule, they are classified Asian. This is probably not the case in Australia, I do not know, but this is definitely the case in at least parts of the US.

  5. Sorry, the first line should many are classified Asians?