Friday, January 01, 2016

Stereotypes Ahoy in the NY Post

In the NY Post this week, former NY Lieutenant Governor Betsy McCaughey trotted out the old reliable model minority stereotype to let us know that Asians are all doing the right thing and the rest of us all suck. Evidently, good parenting trumps poverty, learning disability, lack of English, and everything else is excuses. It's all about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, the clarion call of pretty much everyone who wants us to ignore the insidious and growing wealth gap in these United States.
McCaughey suggests an example for us all:

As Dennis Saffran explains in “The Plot Against Merit,” some Asian-American eighth-graders practice for two years for the test, while their parents toil in laundromats and restaurants to pay for exam-prep classes. 

I have read The Plot Against Merit, to which McCaughey refers, but to which she fails to link. If you read it too you will note that it cites one individual case, which McCaughey multiplies to give the appearance it's a regular thing. Now I could write a column suggesting that because Bill Gates, or any number of successful people, didn't go to college, your kids shouldn't go either. I could even suggest it has something to do with Gates' race, religion, or sex, find others who share those qualities, and develop it into some sort of column.

One thing that seems to have eluded McCaughey is the great difference between a seven-year-old English language learner, like the one cited in the article she mentions, and a teenage one. Younger students acquire language much more thoroughly and quickly. My teenage students have a much harder time. And my Asian students (like all my students) are being actively hurt by New York's insane Part 154, which cuts direct English instruction by a factor between 33-100%. This doesn't bother McCaughey, who's happy to perpetuate stereotypes and have us judge an entire group via a single example she read in an article somewhere.  I've known Asian kids who, like me, did not have a whole lot of talent in math. Can you imagine a math teacher applying the model minority stereotype, and issuing lower grades simply for bigoted expectations?

As a matter of fact, I work with a whole lot of Asian students. Some of them are indeed driven, and some of them have very involved parents. I've known some to fit the stereotype to a T, but most have not. In fact, I've known Asian parents who brought their kids here precisely to escape the extreme educational pressures in their countries. I've known Asian kids who attended after school academies every day with no benefit whatsoever. I've known others with tutors who did their homework for them, always with no benefit to the students, who had no understanding, and I've frequently seen tutor work done quite imperfectly.

I've known kids with tutors who showed them how to cheat on Regents exams, assuming English teachers could not discern between the writing of ESL students and hack writers on the Internet. (I once had a supervisor chide me after I identified a plagiarized paper and its source, saying, "Only you would have noticed this." I disagreed but took it as a compliment.) Parental pressure and tutoring are not magic bullets, there are no magic bullets, and there's a distinctly ugly potential to pressuring children toward academic achievement above all things. 

I also work with a whole lot of kids who are not Asian, and there's good and bad in every group. I once worked with a boy who felt his particular ethnic group was the smartest and best, and treated pretty much everyone else with contempt. He did well on tests, but was horrified by a young South American girl who consistently did better. It did not fit with his limited worldview. He would ask her how she did it, but she just smiled and ignored him.

I'm happy for kids who get into Stuyvesant, but not so much for people who have to "toil in laundromats and restaurants." I'll bet you dimes to dollars Betsy McCaughey never did any such thing. But if she's willing to lead by example and work 200 hours a week in a laundromat for a few years, I promise to take her more seriously the next time she places a piece in the Post.
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