Sunday, September 10, 2017

Some Ways Lenora Chu is Wrong


Anytime someone bases a criticism of the American public education system on a comparison to the supposed "superiority" of Asian students based on their standardized test scores from the PISA test, I am immediately suspicious, and I have to force myself to listen in an objective way. The latest entry in this discussion comes from journalist and writer Lenora Chu, who has recently published a memoir and education commentary called Little Soldiers: an American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve. The problems of such international comparisons are well-documented, and I don't intend to recount that issue here, other than to note a few things: when corrected for poverty, American schools actually rank number one in the world; the state of Massachusetts regularly outperforms the rest of the world including places like Shanghai; American students have won the International Math Olympiad for two of the past three years; the Chinese don't educate huge numbers of their kids (so the scores aren't really nationally representative); and the performance on standardized tests have not translated to superiority in the real world of innovation and professional achievement. In the past thirty-fifty years, have Shanghai doctors, engineers, scientists (physicists/chemists/biologists), computer programmers, economists, technicians, etc. outperformed their counterparts in America? Uh ... no.

No, I am actually much more interested in exploring how Chu's story and claims are actually a reflection of poor parenting skills and a social dynamic that is not really fixable in contemporary American society. I have not read Chu's book yet, though I will; and I am basing my criticisms on her recent piece of commentary in the Wall Street Journal, Why American Students Need Chinese Schools. It is certainly written as a promotional piece for her book, but I was more intrigued by the underlying issue which is basically an unintentional confessional piece about Chu's lack of faith in her own ability to parent and her desire for schools to raise her children for her. Chu opens her WSJ piece with a disturbing anecdote about Chinese teachers force-feeding egg to her kindergartener, and her apparent acquiesence to this absurd action because "the teacher knows best." Why she - not to mention the entire Chinese school system - believes that people have to eat eggs or that it is a necessary protein is beyond my comprehension. In reality, it's not about eggs at all - it's about absolute and indisputable compliance, complacency, and subserviance to authority.

Granted, Chu is correct in her assertion that "Western teachers spend lots of time managing student behavior and crushing mini-revolts by students and parents alike," and it can be subsequently argued that part of America's education problem is the result of poorly-raised children with negative attitudes toward school, teachers, and learning. That said, America has never been a society of somewhat mindless automatons who are afraid to challenge their government, and I'd argue we don't want it to be. I'd go one step further and argue that students thinking for themselves, having preferences and choices, and not blindly obeying a teacher just because of a degree and certificate are contributors to America's century-long dominance in innovation and social progress, and they are not necessarily correlated to poor educational performance and bad behavior. There is a reason that so many international students - especially from countries like China - come to the United States for college, graduate school, and jobs. It is the freedom from being "force-fed eggs" (and propoganda from an internet-restricted media) that allows people to thrive and grow.

Note: I lived and taught in Taiwan - the Republic of China - for five years. 

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