Selective High Schools: bad reporting or bad statistics?


A lead story in The Age bemoans ‘white flight’ from Australia’s selective High Schools, such as Melbourne High and Mac. Rob. here in Melbourne. These two schools are regularly the ‘best achievers’ in year 12 exams but, according to the story, based on enrolments:

Anglo-Australians [are] shunning … public selective schools …

Now this headline-grabbing claim may or may not be true. But we cannot tell from enrolment data. Why? Because the schools are selective. So it may be that more Anglo-Australians than ever are trying to get into these schools, but are not achieving high enough scores on the entrance exams. Indeed, the principal of Melbourne High gets this distinction, noting that:

We don’t see a white flight expressed in the pattern of applications to the school.

An associated article does not clear up this mistake, but focuses on ‘perceptions’. I have not been back to the original paper (Published in the Australian Review of Public Affairs), so the issue may be bad reporting rather than bad research. And if students from different ethnic backgrounds are systematically achieving at different levels on selective school entrance exams, then there may be an interesting story here. On the information given, however, the story is Monday Morning beat up on a slow news day.

6 Responses to "Selective High Schools: bad reporting or bad statistics?"
  1. Another use of bad statistics is the point where’re the article states that a much higher proportion of students at selective schools have non English speaking backgrounds than the 8% in the general population. In my experience (and I always look for it) these articles never look at the appropriate comparative; high school aged students, who have a much higher proportion of non English speaking background than the population as a whole.

    That said, and data in Sysney at least does support the white flight hypothesis, but I believe it is an anti coaching view, rather than an anti immigration view. The second article was a bit more nuanced on that topic.

  2. The original paper by Christina Ho is abysmal. There are interesting numbers in there but the author leaps headlong to conclusions that are simply not supported by the evidence she cites.

    The worst of the lot is the line about ‘white flight’:  

    The ‘white flight’ from these [selective entry] schools must partly reflect an unwillingness to send children to schools dominated by migrant-background children, which simply further entrenches this domination.

    That statement follows a discussion of the reputedly high academic focus of migrant families, citing (get this) Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in support. The author looks at one datum about schools, the proportion of students who speak a language other than English at home, and is somehow able to draw conclusions about the inner motivations of Anglo-Australian parents.

    It’s the ‘must’ in that sentence which really rankles. There’s no effort to think through in a systematic way what the range of contributory factors might be, and why this possibility is necessarily a significant cause for the peculiar ethnic mix at selective entry schools. Its a gross error of logic and argument, and it really makes me wonder about the standards of publication for the Australian Review of Public Affairs.

  3. It was certainly a very odd conclusion to draw from the data as presented.  My initial reaction to the limited evidence presented in the article was to see it as supporting my own opinion, largely but not entirely evidence-free:  that the private school market in Melbourne, one of the strongest in the world, is sustained by parental prejudices and history.  People who arrived in Melbourne post school age, such as myself, calculate the value proposition of private vs public schooling more objectively than those who automatically send their sons and daughters to Daddy/Mummy’s old school.  I think that hypothesis fits the data too, doesn’t it?

  4. Ho’s evidence is purely circumstantial. But I have heard one ‘white’ parents saying that he wanted to avoid these schools because he thought that the dominance of students forced by their parents to study so much was not going to produce the well-rounded social and sporting environment he wanted for his son. From another article in The Age yesterday the schools are very aware of this issue and trying to provide a more balanced life for their students, but it would be quite reasonable for parents to conclude otherwise. While extreme swot behaviour is more common in Asian than non-Asian families, it is not racism to want to avoid this.

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