Monday, September 14, 2009

How much of the achievement gap is in our heads?

The overwhelming perception in Malaysia is that Chinese schools outperform national schools, and that Chinese students outperform others. This isn't something we (by which I mean Malaysians) like to talk about, but reading this report on a study of self-esteem and stereotyping in America, I couldn't help but think of the situation here.

Problematically, I think these perceptions of Chinese superiority have some basis. Maybe Petaling Jaya is an outlier, but amongst the primary schools, Chinese schools generally do better when going head to head with national schools. Over 90% of Chinese parents choose Chinese vernacular schools, and I think it's well-established by now that a lot of these parents do this purely because national schools aren't delivering the quality of education they want.

The issue of Chinese students is a trickier one, especially because I'm not sure what data is publicly available on this. The anecdotal evidence I have strongly suggests that the Chinese are disproportionally represented among top performing students.

It does not help public perception at all that our government tends to further this, with officials' not-so-subtle lamentations about how Malay students need more help to compete against their peers. This perception has been around since independence -- Tunku and Tun Dr Ismail both talked a lot about how the Malays would need help to compete against the Chinese academically and professionally. Tun Dr Mahathir took this rhetoric to another level, both in his statements and his policies.

But a lot of academic literature suggests that it is precisely these kinds of stereotypes which become self-fulfilling prophecies. Because we think the Chinese are more academically-inclined, Chinese students perform better. Because we think the Malays need help, they become demotivated in school.

Even if we aren't consciously aware of these effects, I wouldn't be surprised to find them here. Other studies which have attempted to account for stereotyping often find such unconscious effects. A common experiment is to make students read a passage about stereotyping (e.g. in the US one might ask a class to read about how East Asian men often outperform other demographics on mathematics tests), and then make them take a test where that stereotype applies. When the stereotype has been "primed," students from the underperforming groups (such as white males or women, in our example of supposed East Asian aptitude for maths) do poorer compared to a control group, where no stereotypes have been primed.

It would be interesting to see if we can carry out a counterpart to that American study here. The study I mentioned earlier showed that simply encouraging black students to think about themselves positively through a writing exercise slashed the white-black achievement gap by 40 per cent. A follow-up study two years later shows that the benefits remain.

Living in Malaysia, you can't help but be exposed to all sorts of stereotypes everyday. I think a lot of us are constantly primed for exposure to particular stereotypes, especially in urban areas. It would be interesting to study how much of this achievement gap we perceive between different demographics can be narrowed purely by accounting for and neutralising these stereotypes.


Shawn Tan said...

The only people who believe that Chinese are disproportionately represented among the top performing students are people who have not had enough opportunity to compete with the best non-Chinese students, particularly Malays. It is quite a sad thing in Malaysia, that the students are isolated from each other at a young age.

The only opportunity that the students get to compete head-to-head is in primary school. After that, the top Malay students are shuttled off to schools like MCKK, TKC (and friends) and are not heard from again. These people generally get scholarships and go on to pursue overseas degrees.

There are many Chinese school students who choose to go to a vernacular primary school and switch over to a national secondary school later. Unfortunately, by this time, the top Malay students are no longer there. As for meeting them at the university level, there is less of a scholarship opportunity to do so.

From my personal experience teaching some of the brightest sparks at the university undergraduate level, there is really no difference between the races. Stupidity is colour-blind. :p

Anyway, isn't it more important to help the poor performing students, regardless of colour? I will agree that the kind of division that the government introduces does not help situations much. That is why I think that a single national school system is probably a positive thing - to level the playing field at least.

Malaysian Born Chinese said...

Well, look at Chinese students studying in National-type schools. Did they performed well? Yes and no. Only certain studious type able to cope with it. Majority of them unable to perform well in public exams including those studying in La Sallian's School. Most of them can't even read or write Malay or English language.

clk said...

Yes, the brightest Malay chaps can give any chinese/indian a run for the best. I studied in a residential school in the 80s and had to compete with 90% of the malays in school. We fought all the way and so did they academically.

After SPM, we parted ways and I entered a regular day school for my STPM. I then experienced the source of the poor perception of the non-chinese students in the day school.v

Coltz said...

Agreed with Shawn Tan that "the kind of division that the government introduces does not help situations much" - in the sense that the elite resources in secondary education are grossly misallocated due to racist (redistributing?) policies. Note that the "vernacular" Chinese primary schools are technically "national" schools - subject to the same curriculum in all aspects except for the medium and a mandatory teaching of Chinese. It's misleading to suggest that these students "switched over" to a national system after six years of public-controlled, semi-private-funded education. At best, they simply "switched over" from a Chinese-medium environment to a Malay-medium environment, with all the cons of having to cope with a different learning medium but none of the pros of supposedly "national" high-end resources.

Anonymous said...

The Malays have it had it so good with scholarships and equiped schools esp for the urban kids. They then go abroad and bring back BMWs and Mercedes to show off to their friend back here. Some of them do not even come back to pay their loans and work in the then successful Wall Street before the credit crunch. The talk that Chinese are academically superior is just to garner votes for the ruling party, nothing more but jibes to get more support from the grass roots.

k a l a m b o n g said...

When I see a bull, I'll say that it's a bull

And you, the author, has uttered a complete bull

"Because we think the Chinese are more academically-inclined, Chinese students perform better. Because we think the Malays need help, they become demotivated in school."

Just because someone says A is a good student, that A automagically becomes a good student?

And you Sir, have proven your "fulfilling prophecy" thingy wrong, for you, a Chinese educated fella with Oxford education, actually believe in that type of mumbo-jumbo

All the hardwork of all your teachers come to a waste

What a pity !

dollyfong said...

I respect everyone's opinion but if anyone wants to have a list of Malay children who sit for the Cambridge IGCSE exams at the age of 13/14/15 with spectacular results, I personally know quite a number of them. It's a matter of how the children are taught.

Anonymous said...

Well..,Not all bright Malay students offered scholarship after SPM. Both my son and daughter scored 11As and 10A1 failed to get JPA or MARA scholarship.I was informed in 2008 there were about 2,000 students get straight A1. What can you say ?