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:
Sarah from Left Brain Buddha: “Suspended in Webs of Significance We Ourselves Have Spun”
Stephanie from Mommy, For Real: “Finding Academic Balance: Finland Got It Right”
Lauren from Omnimom: “Hothousing”
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.
Sarah @ LeftBrainBuddha says
Jessica – your research sounds fascinating! And yes, so many of our problems stem from poverty, and a system of school funding based on property taxes, which only perpetuates the inequality between wealthy and poor districts. And I wholeheartedly agree that we need to emphasize learning over grades…. but with a culture that emphasizes grades, and the high-stakes pressure about getting into the “right” college with a perfect GPA… it’s hard not to blame my students for their concerns over their transcript versus what they’re learning and how it can transform them. As an Advanced Placement teacher, I have a complicated view on “teaching to the test.” As educators, in one sense we are always teaching to the test = we start with what we want kids to be able to do, and then teach and work with them to get them there. I think it’s great to “teach to the test” if the test is an authentic measure of our stated objectives (which I think the AP program does). But so many of our state standardized tests are not like that.
Great post and a lot to think about. (I feel I could have written a month’s worth of posts on this section!)
I know! I thought of about ten different themes that I didn’t even touch once I was finished with this. I definitely should have talked about the difference between authentic assessment — such as the case of AP exams — and the types of standardized state tests that are not evaluated as quite as authentic. Great point!
Mary Kathryn says
I agree that we are on the wrong path in the U.S. I think that’s why so many families are ditching the public system and looking for alternatives. Of course, my brain is on homeschooling. That focus on race/gender/class performance gaps is interesting. I read recently that these performance gaps that so interest sociologists, and so hamstring students, virtually disappear when kids are homeschooled. And it’s not because only privileged/wealthy kids are homeschooled. What I see is parents who want a good education for their kids, but who can’t afford expensive private schools b/c they’re NOT wealthy. Most of the homeschooling families I know are middle to lower/middle income. They make financial sacrifices (big ones) to homeschool.
I’m still not convinced the Asian model is best. I like their de-emphasis on testing, but I do wonder if all the rigor and discipline (which does produce academic performance generally) produces the more important product: a joyful, contented life. I think we must all sit back and ask ourselves what we want from children’s education. Just to GET them educated? No, of course not! Education is simply a means to an end, and the end is not money and privilege. We should keep asking ourselves the “Yes, and what then?” question, regarding life, regarding education. After the perfect education is achieved for every child, “yes, and what then?” Have we helped them live richly? Are they tormented, competitive achievers? What kind of education gives them satisfaction and peace in their lives? And … if the oppressive gaps persistent in the public system really do virtually disappear in homeschooling, why doesn’t anybody in the public system attempt to incorporate the traits of homeschooling that achieve this disappearance, into public school ed?
Just a comment to this post–I was educated partly in Japanese schools (but mostly in American schools), and want to point out that people in Asia do in fact, live “joyful, contented lives” and are generally not “tormented.” And that’s *not* in spite of going through an education system that appears less creative and fun to the West. Part of what I absorbed from my Japanese schooling and upbringing is that work isn’t supposed to be “fun,” but that contentment, serenity, and pride should come from within, whether one is working the fry station at a short-order restaurant or negotiating peace treaties between nations or writing poetry. It’s just a different perspective. I’m assuming it’s unintentional, but the above comment draws upon some negative Asian stereotypes; I just ask that folks be mindful when characterizing other cultures.
Deb @ Urban Moo Cow says
I totally agree with you on the idea of self-discipline and grit — not everything has to be super fun and amazing. Sometimes you just have to learn/do something to get to the next level, which may well be more enjoyable.
I also wholeheartedly agree with your perspective on class. Perhaps that’s what I was missing in my own post. I was already at a certain level of “knowledge” where memorization is pointless. But you have to get there, right?
Deb, It’s definitely true that once you reach a certain mastery, your enjoyment can increase dramatically. Have you heard of the concept of “flow”? It’s the feeling of total immersion and “losing yourself” in a task or an activity. If your brain is always working at this low-level — trying to figure out basic math tasks because you don’t have basic calculation skills or stopping every few seconds while you’re reading because you don’t have the background knowledge — you won’t find that true pleasure from something that you can once your brain gets to that next level. And that does usually require boring things like memorizing or lots of practice. At least that’s how I was thinking about it!
Could not agree with you more. We have gone way off the tracks in this country with regards to education, and it shows. Why are we not embracing what is CLEARLY working in other countries and using it here? I love this series.-Ashley
Debbie McCormick says
I agree about our education system being broken. It needs a complete overhaul. Great informative post. My 7 yr old son, who was recently diagnosed with Double Deficit Dyslexia, was not helped at all through the school system last year. They failed him because of his end of year test scores. It’s sad to think schools use one series of tests to define a child’s placement.
Lisa @ The Golden Spoons says
This is such a complicated topic. I come from a family of educators – public school educators – including myself. My initial reaction is to defend the “system” that has supported my family for many, many years. However, I have a very different perspective no that I have children who are “in the system.” In general, testing is not all bad. There has to be some way to measure growth/learning and to set a standard for what is expected and to hold students & teacher accountable. In this country, though, the testing has gone completely overboard and schools are now “teaching to the test” with little room for deviation from the core curriculum. It seems that finding a “happy medium;” and educational utopia is nearly impossible.
Dawn @ PricklyMom says
Jessica, do you have an opinion on the role of parental involvement/values on a child’s academic achievement? I, personally, believe that is the factor that cuts across all racial/economic lines. This whole issue makes me want to cry.
I’ve been a public school elementary teacher for 18 years. I’ve seen the climate completely and drastically change. Yes, there were always tests, but we, as teacher, could determine how we taught the required curriculum. And yes, some of it WAS fun, but some of it was also “just work.” The heavy testing culture started to permeate the system, and now, I barely remember the days of writing my own lessons or planning exciting projects for my students to do. The pressure, as a teacher, is ridiculous. And I desperately miss the autonomy and creativity of being the decision-maker in my classroom. It kills me: I KNOW how to reach reading and writing to elementary school children. And yet, every day, I have to walk the line between doing what I’m told and doing what I know is right. I agree…the American public school system is completely off-track, but I refuse to quit it, because it needs good teachers who still believe in the power of educating a kid. Incredibly frustrating.