Bigger lies and bad science

Yesterday we wrapped up a week and a half of kindergarten parent interviews. It wasn't too bad, fun to meet some of my kids' parents and to show off their reading, but there were parts that bothered me immensely. For instance, did you know that every child in my class is WELL above average? I know! Shocking! It was a reminder of what I do try to forget -- we aren't a school, we're a business, and keeping the parents happy comes before teaching the kids.

The format of the meeting was pretty straightforward. We gave a powerpoint presentation on the elementary school program, then our director came in and bullet-pointed it in Korean, showed off the textbooks and explained the prices and schedules. We brought the kid in and had them do a reading rate test in a minute, told the parent the kid was unbelievably great and then asked a few questions to show off their listening and speaking skills. Of course, the questions were rehearsed and for half of them the reading was basically them saying "a" and "the" and "to" and us providing the rest.

The reading rate test was shit, of course. We took first and second-grade level tests off a website that measured reading speed, but it was one with a start and stop button, so the passages weren't meant for a 1-minute timed test. However, without any supporting data, my coworker decided that the passages (which, remember, weren't made for a 1-minute test) weren't meant to be read in 1 minute, so the average must be about half the passage, in this case 20 words. So she persisted in telling EVERY parent whose kid churned out 45 words a minute -- the lowest "score" amongst our 7-year-old ESL students -- that he or she was well above the reading level of the average American first grader. Even after I explained that a) the passages we chose weren't intended for this sort of test, b) data on the topic shows first graders average 50-80 wpm according to a couple different studies and c) not knowing how to say a word SHOULD affect their score, she STILL didn't stop telling parents that.

But the bad science for marketing ploy bothered me most. At my university, only one science major required a research methods class for graduation, and that was psychology. I imagine that part of the reason is that because of the nature of psych research, the variance, the difficulties in study design and the impossibility of generalizing most things to a whole population, it's more important that students be capable of distinguishing bad science from good, but whatever the reason, I did very well in the class and misrepresentation of psych research is a huge pet peeve of mine.

So my fellow kindy teacher dug up some study showing that children who change schools have worse grades, while those who remained in the same school got better grades, went to university and got better jobs. First of all, university follows from having good grades and better jobs follow from being university educated, so I objected right off the bat to essentially telling parents that if they changed hagwons on us at age 7, their kid would be working at 7-Eleven in vocational high school.

Then, the attached graph showed that of the kids who "stayed in the same school," 70% had an A average, about 25% were B students and the remainder were C or D students. The A-B-C/D-F breakdown for kids who "changed schools" was 25%-25%-35%-15%. I couldn't find the exact study, because she didn't cite it, but I did read some similar research for a class in development of social behavior last year. Most of the work seemed to be focused on grade spans, illustrating that the jump from elementary to middle and middle to high could affect grades, especially in students that were going through puberty at the same time as the change in schools. For all I know, the study was looking at at-risk sixth graders making the jump to seventh. Or it was examining the grades of students who changed schools midyear, or those who had changed schools more than once in a five-year period. I don't know, and neither did she, and neither did those parents.

Of course, I can say with certainty that this study was not addressing the grades of 7-year-olds who are starting the first grade in public school ("changing schools") anyway and are only deciding whether or not they want to attend English academy in the same building that they attended kindergarten. And every time I had to explain that stupid graph, I thought about how I didn't deserve that A in Research Methods.

I do know that hagwons are first and foremost a business. It's why we can't give bad grades or bad comments, it's why 8 year olds have black belts in taekwondo. That didn't bother me at first, when I was teaching the kids who didn't want to learn English and never would. But now I'm teaching the really good kids, the ones who can be fluent, who can study abroad and go to college outside of Korea if they want to, and I do care more about what they learn than what their parents think they learn. These are bright, creative kids and they deserve better than the hagwon business, and I hate sitting in meetings being the only one on their side.

So in honor of solnal, the lunar new year, a resolution: I get five more months of these students, and I get to teach 'em not just English reading, but creative writing, science and social studies. In my class, this isn't going to be about what the parents see, it's going to be about what my kids learn. What's wrong with this system that that isn't enough?

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