Bad Comparison

Terry Hummer posted this link to Facebook, which then led me to this editorial from the Boston Globe on how American students are lazy, especially compared to their foreign counterparts, and I'm amazed by the giant, glaring error in both pieces. I'll get to that in a second.

Kara Miller, writing in the Boston Globe, compares her American students to her foreign students and notices a difference that anyone who's taught college classes notices--foreign students tend to work harder on average than our precious American snowflakes do. Maybe this is different at elite universities--never having taught at one, I can't say--but in my experience in grad school and at my current job, which makes for over nine years in the classroom, it's true. I had an example that mirrors Miller's just this past semester, as a matter of fact.

One girl from Shanghai became a fixture at office hours, embraced our college writing center, and incessantly e-mailed me questions about her evolving papers. Her English is still mediocre: she frequently puts “the" everywhere (as in “the leader supported the feminism and the environmentalism") and confuses “his" and “her." But that didn’t stop her from doing rewrite after rewrite, tirelessly trying to improve both structure and grammar.
My student was from Tokyo, but the rest is pretty much the same, and her effort earned her a B+ in a class where I gave only one grade higher than hers (that class was rough all the way around).

Miller's mistake--and the mistake of those who both applauded and criticized her piece--is that she's comparing two different groups. Foreign students are, in general, at the top of their classes either academically or economically or both, which means they've had access to learning opportunities that many of their cohorts in their home countries haven't had. We're getting some of the cream of their countries' crop. We're not getting the Bolivian football player whose girlfriend did his homework for him--but we do get the American version of that. We don't get the Chinese kid who doesn't really want to go to college but is because her parents demand she either do that or get a job, but we do get the American version--in every class.

In short, Miller is comparing a slice of elite-only students (spreading the term elite a little thin, admittedly) to a population which includes a number of decidedly non-elite students. No wonder the average American student comes off weak by comparison.

Which is not to say Miller's larger points about the problems in our education system aren't valid. They are. Many students are often unprepared for college, and a number of them go to college when they would probably be better off starting their careers. Our K-12 educational system is horribly overstressed and we seem to try to fix it in really stupid ways.

Maybe this stands out to me because I teach an unusually large number of foreign students. A large part of our student population comes from overseas and many went to high school in the US, so while they're foreign, they also fall into the category of "I'm going to college because that's what I'm supposed to do next" rather than having some push to go. They're Americanized, in other words, and would not be in an American university if they weren't already here. They might have gone to college in Venezuela or the Bahamas or wherever had their parents not come here--these aren't stupid kids--but they probably wouldn't have come to a US school otherwise. And their work ethic shows why. They get by, or they don't. They're not inherently hard workers just because they were raised in a different educational system.

The foreign students who bust their asses would do so no matter what educational system they were in, because they're the kind of kids who bust their asses. We're just lucky to have them in our classrooms.

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