Waiting for the tiger teacher?

Unless you’ve spent the last couple of weeks on a desert island somewhere, you must have heard of Amy Chua’s tiger parenting recommendations. Chua, who is also peddling a book, asserts proudly that Chinese kids become high achievers because their Chinese parents are not squeamish about pushing them to the limit and beyond. Her anecdotes involving her own daughters make it clear just how far she’s willing to go. When Lulu, then 7, is unable to learn a piano piece, Chua ignores her protests and tantrums and makes her practice, practice, practice:


I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.

Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together—her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing—just like that.

Lulu realized it the same time I did. I held my breath. She tried it tentatively again. Then she played it more confidently and faster, and still the rhythm held. A moment later, she was beaming.

“Mommy, look—it’s easy!” After that, she wanted to play the piece over and over and wouldn’t leave the piano. That night, she came to sleep in my bed, and we snuggled and hugged, cracking each other up.

If I had a dollar for every objection I have to the article, I could buy enough Chinese take-out food to last me the whole year and still have enough change left for extra chopsticks and a feng shui mirror. Everyone else has already piled on it. Chua herself is now claiming that the excerpts selected for the article misrepresent the intent of her book and that her attitude to parenting has since evolved. Well, maybe, although it baffles me that an experienced and distinguished law professor would have been so oblivious of the appalling possibility that stuff you write might be taken out of context.

It went almost unnoticed by comparison that Waiting For Superman was passed over for the best documentary Oscar nominations. Waiting For Superman, you will recall, made the case that:

American public education is a failed enterprise. The problem is not money. Public schools already spend too much. Test scores are low because there are so many bad teachers, whose jobs are protected by powerful unions. Students drop out because the schools fail them, but they could accomplish practically anything if they were saved from bad teachers. They would get higher test scores if schools could fire more bad teachers and pay more to good ones. The only hope for the future of our society, especially for poor black and Hispanic children, is escape from public schools, especially to charter schools, which are mostly funded by the government but controlled by private organizations, many of them operating to make a profit.

The movie made a big splash on release, pulling all the emotional plugs and triggering a widespread debate on the subject. I linked to Ebert’s review at the time, mostly to disagree with it and recommend the readers’ comments instead. The excerpt above is from Diane Ravitch’s scathing review of the movie in the New York Review of Books. While Ebert’s commenters mostly gave anecdotal evidence pointing to issues that the movie didn’t bother to mention, from teachers’ workload and low pay to social factors such as poverty and family involvement, Ravitch has enough hard statistical data to demolish just about every claim that Superman is making. That, and she’s also pretty well informed about the actual history and practice of charter schools. Read the whole thing; you have my word that it will be worth your time.

And now there’s also Chua vs. Rhee. Do you really believe that it’s only the “bad teachers” who stand in the way of children’s education by not motivating them enough or something? Look at Chua. Her family is stable, well off, and obviously involved in their children’s education. She’s educated and accomplished herself, as is her husband (also a Yale professor). There’s no doubt that she only wants the best for her daughters. She has the money to hire the best private tutors available. And yet that’s not always enough to motivate her daughters and inspire their interest in the subject, as school teachers are expected to do as a matter of course.

At this point, Chua takes charge as described above. She’s quite aggressive about it; other parents might stop well short of what she’s doing. But what if you wanted to hold the teachers solely responsible for your child’s education while insisting on high test scores, as Rhee does? Would you not mind if they resorted to Chua’s methods, from screaming at the students to withholding their bathroom privileges? I most certainly would. Would you indemnify them for any psychological damage they might inflict on the students? I would not. When Michelle Rhee talks about rewarding “excellent” teachers, is she looking for “tiger teachers” in Chua’s sense? I’m guessing not. Most likely, she’d have any putative tiger teachers fired in short order due to parents’ complaints, and rightly so. She, on the other hand, reserves every right to be a tiger administrator, demanding the impossible, threatening the teachers if they don’t deliver.

Let’s start dialing it back, then. It’s hard to deny that kids will not always work hard enough willingly. Should they be pushed to practice well past the point of zero enjoyment? If so, how far? Should teachers be able to use more than just gentle persuasion and positive encouragement? Or should most of the unpleasant stuff be left to the parents after all? Who takes which part of the responsibility? And how high should we aim, anyway? Does there really have to be a college degree for everyone? To what extent should kids submit to their parents’ aspirations? Complex problems require complex solutions and any extreme approach is likely to backfire. Which is what Rhee and Superman don’t seem to understand.

Chua has acknowledged that her past practices might have gone a bit too far and that she has now embraced a more moderate approach to parenting. What I really would like to see at some point is a similar statement from Michelle Rhee.

14 Comments

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14 responses to “Waiting for the tiger teacher?

  1. Matthew Bond

    That Diane Ravitch essay is pretty stunning. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised… it brings a few things to mind.

    I saw this a while ago:

    http://reason.com/archives/2002/07/01/stand-and-deliver-revisited

    I should probably read it again sometime. But I’ve sort of already used up my non-work time for today; this is Thesis Thursday.

    At any rate, the other thing that reminded me of was How To Lie With Statistics. I think it’s a good book, but it seems somehow incomplete. It really should be required reading for grade school, but it absolutely is not. Do you know of anything better? I sort of think there should be a slightly meatier generally-accessible version that goes into some other things like Simpson’s Paradox and… well, overly naive school and teacher rating systems, for starters.

    I’ve been hoping for a better How To Lie With Statistics for a while now, but no luck. Not just to recommend to others, but to fill in some more blind spots I probably still have about these sorts of things.

  2. It’s sort of like Szemeredi’s theorem: given a large enough set of data to choose from, you can find any pattern you want. Then you can ignore the other 99.9% of the data.

    Maybe we should write the better How To Lie With Statistics together if we can find the time.

  3. brokenears

    Greetings,

    I have existed as a “Tiger Teacher” for the last 10 years. Prior to that I was a ‘substitute’ Tiger Teacher for 13 years (on and off).

    This entire discussion is quite interesting. I am looking forward to reading more from those ‘in the know.’

    brokenears

  4. Matthew Bond

    In the years I took an undergraduate math major at the University of Florida, this man was the only one who taught us about Simpson’s Paradox, and indeed it was the first time I’d heard of it:

    http://www.stat.ufl.edu/~aa/

    His book he wrote and used for the course used the administration of the death penalty within the United States as an illustration of the paradox. The first variable was the race of the defendant. The hidden variable was the race of the person killed.

    I think it can be left as an exercise for you to guess how this data set ended up satisfying the conditions of Simpson’s Paradox.

  5. brokenears – Would you care to elaborate?

  6. brokenears

    Greetings,

    The notion of a teacher having more drive than the student(s) they teach has caught my attention.

    brokenears

  7. brokenears – Seems like a fairly common notion to me… although too many teachers start like that and burn out eventually.

  8. brokenears

    Greetings,

    Speaking from experience or assumption??

    The intensity level can and must be altered, but as is my case, teaching music requires more than what most students can self-muster.

    To acquire basic musicianship requires more than what is normally expected from students or various ages.

    Leave a student in a room with a piano everyday without instruction is a bit different than leaving one in a room with a basketball.

    It is safe to say, there are educators in every area, who allow students to squander time during developmental stages of acquisition.

    Do you you see it as well??

  9. Matthew Bond

    I don’t think you get an NBA star by leaving kids alone in a room with a basketball ever day, either. You’re vastly underrating the amount of skill, discipline, and accumulated knowledge about technique it takes to become exceptional at just about any human activity, not just the highbrow ones. I can’t think of any area of human endeavor where the same issues wouldn’t come up in some form, really.

  10. Matthew Bond

    I don’t know if I’m reading this right, but I get the impression that Izabella isn’t against the idea of ever pushing kids at all – just the idea of taking it to extremes.

    Raising kids is hard, from what I hear. How to do so remains an open problem, and isn’t likely to have a single solution consisting of a single silver bullet that always works for everyone.

  11. Yes, I’m against taking it to the extreme in either direction. Most kids probably need some pushing. Some mothers (and fathers, and teachers) take it too far, some don’t do it at all, some try to find a good balance and don’t always get it right. We’re all human, you know. I resent both attempts to reduce a complex problem to a simple recipe.

    What bothers me is that Chua is being universally condemned just about everywhere, whereas Rhee has developed quite a following. If I had to choose between the two, I might end up sympathizing more with Chua than with Rhee, just because Chua comes across as more human and clearly cares about her daughters… not that I like either choice.

    And, what Matt said about excellence generally being a hard thing to achieve, in any kind of endeavour.

  12. brokenears

    Greetings,

    When Asian communities and education departments produce “high achievers because their Chinese parents are not squeamish about pushing them to the limit and beyond,” I find it something to pay very close attention to.

    There are quite a few glimpses into flaws in American educational systems at large. That said… we could never duplicate the Asian communities or produce real “Tiger Moms” or “Tiger Teachers.”

    A close approximation?? Though maybe.

    But you must admit, there is something to examine with these ‘revelations’ that will have more and more educators finally able to find a pigeon hole to nest, while they factor in all of the geo-socio-econ identifiers.

    Our path of least resistance has virtually clogged the system.

  13. Alex Trenton

    I wouldn’t cite Diane Ravitch as a reliable source. She either isn’t smart enough or honest enough to understand the studies that she likes to cite. Consider what one economist said about her:
    http://modeledbehavior.com/2010/03/18/how-do-charter-schools-perform-nationally/

  14. I’ve checked that link and I don’t see a problem. Of course if you look at the grand totals, you get a rough picture, and if you look at how the data breaks down, then you get a more complicated picture where different patterns occur on a smaller scale depending on specific circumstances. Big news. Presumably Ravitch did not want her article to become a full-length book and could not analyze every detail at length. To claim that she’s “not smart enough or honest enough”, you’d have to show that her overall picture is skewed, not just that the details are missing. I don’t see that. And with the information in the linked post taken into account, she still kicks “Superman”.