PISA and the Tiger-Mother dilemma

Call it coincidence or call it synchronicity. The release of Amy Chua’s book on extreme parenting, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother comes close on the heels of the Programme for International Student Assessment’s (PISA) latest international rankings of countries in education based on how their 15-year-olds have performed in standardized testing in reading, math and science.

These two events are completely unrelated but because they happened at roughly the same time it’s natural to see a meaningful connection between them.

The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a Chinese mother’s unapologetic account of her iron-fisted approach to demanding achievement, excellence and nothing but the best from her 2 daughters, whatever the cost to them in childhood pleasures. The household rules are strict: No roles in school plays, no sleepovers, no play dates, no TV or computer games, and no playing of any instrument besides the piano or violin.

U.S. parents have been burning up the internet lines with their outrage at this severe and even abusive approach to discipline (did I mention that piles of stuffed animals are burned if a difficult piece of music is not mastered?) The author is even receiving death threats.

Because of its timing, this provocative book provides an emotional outlet for our national angst over the U.S.’s latest lackluster international rankings–17th in reading, 25th in math and 24th in science. Its scores are slightly above average in reading and science and below average in math. At the top of the rankings heap are Shanghai, Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore and Canada. Among the reasons cited for the stellar performances of these regions are tales of impressive hard work and discipline, long hours in school, classrooms that brook no misbehavior, a laser-like focus on fundamental skills.

The U.S. stands out for its spending on education and for the relationships its students have with their teachers. Only Luxembourg outspends the U.S. on education. A large percentage of U.S. students also have good relationships with their teachers. Over 80% agree or strongly agree that their teachers are interested in their well-being, compared to only 28% of students in Japan. Amy Chua might interpret this as more signs of the Western tendency to indulge children rather than drive them on the expressway to achievement.

There are many complex factors that go into how good a job a country does in educating all its children. Poverty, diversity, inequity, economics, leadership and culture all play a part. So do value judgments. How much voice and autonomy do you allow children while you’re trying to educate them? Do you prescribe what’s good for them and tell them they’ll thank you later or do you let them take some of the lead in the messy process of discovering who they are?

Major strengths of the U.S. system, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development(OECD), which conducts PISA every 3 years, are its history of innovation and reform and its leadership position in educational research.

The U.S. system has problems, no doubt about it. But, underneath all the serious concerns about educational inequities and the system’s weaknesses, there is also a value judgment about how far to impose discipline, hard work and expectations on students. Based on the public’s response to the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, U.S. parents are spirited defenders of sleepovers, play dates, school plays and giving children a choice in what musical instrument they want to play. They clearly think the Tiger Mother needs to get a life.

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