Home > Uncategorized > Chinese Bands and US Charters: Sorting by Eugenics and Sorting by Parent Engagement

Chinese Bands and US Charters: Sorting by Eugenics and Sorting by Parent Engagement

I read an article in yesterday’s NYTimes with a mix of astonishment and revulsion. The article, by Didi Kirsten Tatlow, describes a music program in China where students are enrolled in band programs and assigned musical instruments in the band based solely on their physical attributes. Titled “In China, Eugenics Determines Who Gets in School Band”, Ms. Tatlow’s article describes the method “Teacher Wang” uses to identify prospective musicians. Here is an excerpt from the article that describes his meeting with the parents of the future band members:

Mr. Wang, whom parents addressed only as “Teacher,” (a sign of respect common here) stood before a giant white screen on which he projected a power point full of instrument images. “I’ve chosen your kids, one by one, out of a thousand kids.” Mr. Wang was referring to band C, the third in the school which trained the youngest students, some of whom would eventually rise through the ranks to band B and on to A, at which point they would perform at overseas gigs.

“I’ve looked at their teeth, at their arms, their height, everything, very carefully,” Teacher Wang said. “We don’t want anyone with asthma, or heart problems, or eye problems. And we want the smart kids; the quick learners.”

“Your kids were chosen not because they want to play this or that instrument, but because they have long arms, or the right lips, or are the right height, say for the trumpet, or the drums,” he said.

This sounded appalling to Ms. Tatlow, but ultimately she accepted the program in large measure because her daughter wanted to be a part of it and evidently possessed the physical and intellectual qualities Teacher Wang was seeking.

In some respects US schools in the 50s and 60s were no different: students were sorted into homogeneous batches based on their intellect and upbringing— and until 1954 they were also sorted based on race, a vestigial method of sorting that remains in place today on a de facto basis. As an elementary student I was among the group in my PA elementary group that were “smart kids”. I was in the highest reading group and did well in math without much effort. When my father was transferred to Oklahoma I was identified as “gifted and talented”, largely because 4th grade in that state was comparable to 3rd grade in PA. When he got transferred back to PA, though, I was in for a rude awakening. I was no longer deemed to be a “smart kid”. Rather, I was a “kid from Oklahoma” and was consequently placed in a mid-level section of students. I excelled in my classwork, but when the team of teachers met with my parents to discuss my placement in one of the higher groups they were told there was no room in those classes. And so for the next five years I remained in the “second tier”.

Schools today avoid that kind of rigid homogeneous grouping within the school… but they achieve homogeneity in a different fashion. Schools in affluent communities effectively screen out the “middling” students because their parents cannot afford housing in those towns. Charter schools in cities can screen out children of indifferent or working parents because their enrollment procedures require a level of engagement that is virtually impossible in a single parent household or in a household where both parents work. So the schools in less affluent areas and the non-charter schools in the city tend to have students whose parents are less engaged. And here’s where our sorting arrangement and that of the Chinese music teachers are similar: a child born into a US family where the parents are unwilling or unable to engage in their schooling has no more chance at success than a child born in China who lacks the physical and intellectual qualities sought by Teacher Wang. The result in both cases is a tremendous waste of talent.

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