The Power of Culture: The the Specialized High Schools Admittance Test (SHSAT) Roots are Embedded Deeply in the Past

We visit our favorite Dim Sum restaurant every few weeks and the maitre’d knows we’re teachers. She asked us, “My kids go to Chinese language classes after school every day and all day tutoring for the specialized high schools on Saturday, do you know of a tutoring class after church on Sunday?” You might say: a classic Tiger Mom, yes; however, far more typical among Chinese parents.

An examination system has been at the core of Chinese culture for more than a millennium.

 In China, a system of competitive examinations for recruiting officials that linked state and society and dominated education from the Song dynasty (960–1279) onward, though its roots date to the imperial university established in the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220). Candidates faced fierce competition in a series of exams dealing primarily with Confucian texts and conducted on the prefectural, provincial, and national levels. Despite a persistent tendency to emphasize rote learning over original thinking and form over substance, the exams managed to produce an elite grounded in a common body of teachings

 And,

 The civil service examination system, a method of recruiting civil officials based on merit rather than family or political connections, played an especially central role in Chinese social and intellectual life from 650 to 1905. Passing the rigorous exams, which were based on classical literature and philosophy, conferred a highly sought-after status, and a rich literati culture in imperial China ensued.

Today the exam system is still at the heart and core of Chinese culture, it is the pathway to a prosperous life.

The Chinese examination, the gaokao is widely considered to be the most important exam which can make or break a young person’s future. It is intended to help level the playing field between the country’s rich and poor … [it is] the academic qualifying test for almost all high school gradates hoping to receive an undergraduate education.

 … their scores in large part determine their future – whether they can go to university, which institutions they will be admitted and consequently what careers await them.

Candidates must perform well in the gaokao to gain admission to the better universities, where graduation guarantees a bright future with status, wealth and even power.

For most Chinese, especially those from less privileged backgrounds, a high score in the gaokao is their only means to significantly alter their fate.

 When electeds or elites or progressives or civil rights advocates tell Chinese families that an examination system, a thousand years old, will no longer be a path to a prosperous life, you can anticipate opposition, vigorous opposition.

In fact, our nation has a long history of antipathy towards Chinese. From the beginnings of Chinese immigration in the mid-nineteenth barriers were erected to immigration, for example the Chinese Exclusion Acts, it wasn’t until the 1940’s that these barriers were lifted; we needed China as an ally. The Chinese laborers who built the transcontinental railroad were virtual slaves, and thousands died and lie in nameless graves.

Chinese are now the largest immigrant group coming to New York City each year. Of the 3.1 million foreign born New Yorkers 10% are Chinese (only Dominicans are a larger group).There are nine “Chinatowns” scattered throughout the city and for the last few years Chinese new immigrants led the list of new arrivals.

The SHSAT fight has mobilized the Chinese community; they have become a political force.

The examination system is embedded in the Chinese psyche, the national culture, and a plan to deprive Chinese students of perceived pathways to prosperity is viewed as Sinophobia.

Chinese aren’t the only supporters of the examination.

Back in my union representative days I worked with a high school with mostly Caribbean students and many Caribbean teachers. The school rep called, a crisis, she was concerned about her state certification. I checked the website, no problems she had passed all the required exams.

Yes, she passed all the required exams, she was dissatisfied with her scores; they were too low, it was embarrassing  and she wanted to take the exams again: she was Jamaican.

The Caribbean population in New York City has been quite successful economically. Many professionals and have moved through the civil service system, teachers, transit authority, nurses, medical technicians, others are small business owners; and, they have been both active and successful in politics. From the City Council to the Albany legislature there are many with Caribbean roots.

And, there are excellent high achieving high schools with students with Caribbean backgrounds.

Medgar Evers High School and  Bedford Prep High School are high achieving screened schools with many students with Caribbean heritage.

At an Assembly hearing on Friday over the SHSAT Jumaane Williams, the newly elected Public Advocate, a specialized high school graduate (Brooklyn Tech), with Jamaican roots clashed with Assemblymember Charles Barron, an Afro-American with Black Panther roots  – it was hot and heavy.

While Williams and Barron agree on a wide range of progressive issues they disagree, rather vehemently on the SHSAT question. Barron argues the test is racist, Williams defends the test and advocates for more gifted schools.

David Kirkland, the Director of the Metro Center for Equity and the Transformation of Schools at NYU and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams are friends and on the same side of most social justice issues, not the SHSAT

David E. Kirkland‏ @davidekirkland May 13

I supported @JumaaneWilliams from jump. He’s smart and has a righteous commitment to justice. While I support the brother, I couldn’t disagree with him more on the issue of specialized high schools but hold out hope that he (and others) will reconsider their positions on #SHSAT

I doubt Jumaane will change his mind.

The SHSAT inequities have been allowed to fester for years and blame can be attributed to mayors and chancellors; the challenge is how to work within cultures and not require that deeply held cultural beliefs be abandoned.

2 responses to “The Power of Culture: The the Specialized High Schools Admittance Test (SHSAT) Roots are Embedded Deeply in the Past

  1. You can provide an education or you can have high standardized test scores…but you can’t have both. I live in a MD county with a dense Korean population and the next county over has a very dense Chinese population. Our schools are very much test prep centers and nothing more. We even have a few schools that the kids call “the Asian schools”. These asian children attend school all day and then go off to specialized tutoring every day and then on the weekends, they have more tutoring….along with piano/cello/violin lessons and specialized sports lessons. Our schools are overcrowded and segregated, but every time that redistricting is talked about, the asian communities come out in droves and write op-eds in the local papers. The school systems give up and kick the can down the road for a few more years rather than fight for ALL the children. Meanwhile, kids attend classes in portables, class sizes increase, and the schools become even more segregated and test score driven. It’s a “pressure cooker” of a situation and I’m waiting for one/some of these over stressed asian students to go off the deep end.

    Like

  2. DOEcorruption

    LisaM, that sounds like either-or thinking.

    To be serious though, exams don’t cause pressure, lack of opportunity does. We live in an age where poor parents and students feel social mobility is limited and education is their best shot at it.

    In NYC 30,000 students are competing for 5000 seats at the specialized high schools, there should be at least 15,000 seats.

    The logical things to do to address the NYC’s specialized high schools demographic imbalances are:

    1. simply build more of them but keep the SHSAT as the sole admissions criteria or we’ll have more people like DOE deputy Cheryl Watson-Harris pull strings to place their children in selective schools and permit the DOE to actively discriminate against politically disfavored minorities in admissions. But not every student wants to attend a specialized school, there needs to be more rigorous non-specialized schools built in boroughs that have heavily overcrowded zoned schools. Most students simply want coursework that prepares them for the rigor of college.

    2. restore G&T/SP programs in black and Hispanic neighborhoods which lost them in the 80s-90s. Reassess students each school year to have multiple identification opportunities. Fix the pipeline.

    3. stop the systemic grade inflation in NYC public schools, stop giving black and Hispanic children subpar math and ELA curriculum so underserved schools can claim they are meeting “progress” metrics or are “improving.”

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s