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.
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.