I’m thrilled to introduce the next installment of our Parenting Around The World series! This week, we’re discussing American education, academic pressure, and competition. And be sure to check out the other posts in this Carnival:
Deb from Urban Moo Cow: “How Should We Educate Our Children?”
This is not a post about why you should send your kid to an expensive private school to get away from high-stakes testing and from mediocre teaching. Even though it’s partially about kids that I met in my research who went on to some of the most elite schools in the country.
But it is about how our current public school system is broken.
In my heart, I consider myself a sociologist. Most of my doctoral coursework — including my dissertation — was in the area of sociology. But this actually doesn’t mean anything fancy. Above all, sociology is a perspective on the world, a lens through which to explain what happens in society. Much of what contemporary sociology does is try to account for inequality, for the deep divisions in our society based on race, gender, social class, income, all sorts of separations. Specifically, my research was in the field of educational sociology, and that particular subfield of sociology mostly devotes itself to accounting for how the educational system — its institutions, its norms — perpetuates inequality based on social class, ethnicity, and race.
When you’re a sociologist, or align yourself with a sociological perspective, you do know that there are other ways of perceiving the world. For instance, psychologists are more interested in the individual, and in understanding the human mind and how its inner workings impact how we think, feel, and behave. (These are just generalizations, of course.)
So when I got to the section on education in Christine Gross-Loh’s book Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us, I came to it with my own biases. Namely, that most of our country’s educational problems are all about privilege based on social class, ethnicity, and race. And social class. And social class again. And more class privilege. (In case you’re wondering, we sociologists have a real thing for talking about privilege and social class…)
And all of that is true. I will keep wearing my sociologist’s hat.
But sometimes we get stuck in ruts. Intellectual ruts. (Not all of us. In education, Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character is one of the best examples of cross-disciplinary brilliance, combining psychological findings about motivation and trauma with sociological insights about the effects of class-based parenting styles.)
And this chapter in Parenting Without Borders about cultural traditions in learning and education snapped me out of complacency.
Her basic points about cross-cultural differences in educational systems didn’t surprise me too much. They are:
- Asian education is characterized by what Gross-Loh calls a “fierce devotion” to the importance of education, not necessarily for the purpose of achievement as an end in itself, but also as form of self-betterment and the promotion of harmony within the family and throughout society.
- The American obsession with “having fun” while learning, with developing the “whole child,” and with developing self-esteem are not shared by countries with better educational outcomes than we demonstrate.
- There is a place for rote learning, memorization, practice, and the development of basic skills and habits in a solid curriculum.
- Parenting style — and how parents cultivate a sense of inner motivation in their children — is intimately connected to school performance, but not always in ways that are directly tied to social class differences.
And what her conclusions from this chapter made me think about was my own research. I conducted a study of the experiences of urban students of color who were graduates of a Boston nonprofit called Beacon Academy. The goal of Beacon Academy is to prepare its graduates for the most prestigious and rigorous independent schools in New England. The students who are accepted into Beacon’s program must demonstrate high potential for academic achievement, despite the neighborhoods in which they grew up or the failing schools they had attended in the past.
In my dissertation, I concluded that this nonprofit instilled many of the same traits that Gross-Loh identifies in this chapter, the best traits of Asian parenting:
- a sense of community and an obligation to bring honor the group
- a sense of responsibility to and connection to peers, staff, and teachers
- a deep feeling of purpose and commitment to long-term goals
- high expectations and an intensely rigorous curriculum for all students
- self-discipline and “grit,” despite boredom or setbacks
- belief that learning has little to do with testing
We’re on the wrong path in American education. Instead of obsessing about testing and accountability as answers in themselves to better outcomes, we should be focusing on cross-cultural models and what we can learn from other the best in other countries. As teachers, as scholars, and as parents, they have important lessons for us.
As Gross-Loh states, our lesson from other countries, particularly Asian cultures, should not be create more data and more tests. Instead, she concludes
“As a nation we, too, are at risk of focusing too much on short-term outcomes that stifle longer-term blossoming and potentially subvert the values that we actually care most about.”
We are the risk of abandoning what we know is true about how kids achieve — through learning and models related to hard work, effort, persistence, and, yes, even failure — at the expense of short-term objectives: better test scores.