Education reform needs a new starting point

Michelle Rhee.


Kai Ryssdal: I don't know if you've been following the discussion that's been out there the past week or so, about a book written by a Chinese-American woman named Amy Chua. It's about the differences -- the very big differences -- between western and Asian styles of parenting. Suffice it to say that Amy Chua is a strict mom: A's are the only grade that's acceptable, three hours of piano practice every day is barely enough -- that kind of thing.

Anyway, I've been wracking my brain trying to find a Marketplace angle to the thing. Commentator and educator Michelle Rhee says it's all Marketplace.

Michelle Rhee: We've lost our competitive spirit. We've become so obsessed with making kids feel good about themselves that we've lost sight of building the skills they need to actually be good at things.

I can see it in my own household. I have two girls, 8 and 12, and they play soccer. And I can tell you that they suck at soccer! They take after their mother in athletic ability. But if you were to see their rooms, they're adorned with ribbons, medals and trophies. You'd think I was raising the next Mia Hamm.

I routinely try to tell my kids that their soccer skills are lacking and that if they want to be better, they have to practice hard. I also communicate to them that all the practice in the world won't guarantee that they'll ever be great at soccer. It's tough to square this though, with the trophies. And that's part of the issue. We've managed to build a sense of complacency with our children.

Take as a counterpoint South Korea, where my family is originally from. In Korea, they have this culture that focuses on always becoming better. Students are ranked one through 40 in their class and everyone knows where they stand. The adults are honest with kids about what they're not good at and how far they have to go until they are number one. Can you imagine if we suggested anything close to that here? There would be anarchy.

There are many nations who have figured out what works in education. Look at Singapore. Last summer, I heard the prime minister gave a speech in which he outlined the plan for making Singapore number one in the world, financially. His economic plan was rooted in education. He knows that if the country can make its education system the best in the world, economic success will follow.

That's the opposite of what we do here in America. We see education as a social issue, not an economic one. And what happens to social issues in times of economic hardship? They get swept under the rug. We need to change our national conversation on education and our national culture on how we encourage kids. I think what's becoming clear with all of this, is that if we don't start to shift our perspective, we'll never regain our position in the global marketplace.

Ryssdal: Michelle Rhee is the former chancellor of the public school system in Washington. She now heads Students First, an educational advocacy organization. Send us your thoughts on education policy or anything else you hear on the broadcast.

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Perhaps Ms. Rhee's daughters like to play soccer because they can run and feel the wind in their hair, or meet people they wouldn't have a chance to meet otherwise, or laugh (and cry) with their teammates over pizza after the game. My guess is that their teammates don't put them down because they didn't score the winning goal. Just because they're not driven to be the best on the team (and remember, it is a team--not everyone can be the best on a team) doesn't make them complacent. And, when she tells them that their soccer skills are lacking, maybe what she's actually teaching them is that it's acceptable behavior to judge and dismiss others according to their abilities--even when they don't know much about the subject that they're judging. She has admitted that she's lacking in athletic ability.
Of course American schools can be better, but sometimes the ribbons don't really stand for achievement. Those ribbons let her daughters know that they were a valued part of the soccer community. I hope they treasue those ribbons.

PC entered the classroom long ago - witness no grades in some schools below a fifty(even when nothing was turned in), inclusion whether capable or not, and the general lack of consequences for "inappropriate" behavior.
We want students to feel good about themselves even if they have done nothing to feel good about.
And then - this evening - a PSA to encourage students to take math and science. Most just aren't willing to work that hard.
Go, Tiger Mom!

As an educator, I was horrified by Ms. Rhee's choice of words, "suck"!! I would never use this term in my classroom and Ms. Rhee is an educator herself! I think she should consider making her listeners feel good, not horrified by her "words"!

I'll have to say, having listened to the segment and after reading the many comments (often thoughtful and well-written), I have complicated feelings about all this. For now I'll just point to a response (on YouTube) by Branford Marsalis to an interviewer's question in a recent documentary on jazz:


Michelle Rhee repeated the oft-cited connection between education and “economic success”, arguing that we need to start seeing education as fundamentally an economic issue in order to “regain our position in the global marketplace”. We hear similar arguments from President Obama, and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. The full-blown argument goes something like this: knowledge and technology play larger roles in the new economy; therefore, we need to re-tool the education system to prepare young people to enter job market of the future and to compete globally with highly educated people in other countries.

Instead of embracing this logic, as Michelle Rhee suggests, we need to question the casual (and causal) link made between education and economics. According to projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 15 professions accounting for the most new jobs in the next decade, only four need any college education. None are in high-tech. Among the eleven low-education occupations that will be providing the most jobs in the future are retails sales, home health aids, office clerks, construction laborers, truck drivers, and landscaping workers. Retooling the education system to serve the needs of high-tech industry will do nothing to help those destined for these service-sector jobs. Viewing education as primarily an economic issue, as Rhee argues, means viewing education from the perspective of a small minority of future job seekers. Rhee would have us spend precious public resources to create an education system that primarily benefits a very small minority.

Education is not primarily an economic issue, despite what we have been hearing from politicians lately; it is a bedrock of democracy. Public education in this country has been built on the principle that a democratic society needs an educated populace. The survival of our political and social system depends on an education system that meets the broad needs of a democratic society, not the narrow economic interests of a few, well-heeled industries.

I agree completely with Ms. Rhee. I first became aware of our over-emphasis on self-esteem versus achievment when I lived in Britain. I was shocked when parents would say to their kids such things as "Sam, you're rubbish at art." (Fill in soccer, math, football, whatever.) I was so visibly floored that the British parents started laughing at my response. I can't say the degree to which my particular circle of British friends is representative of the whole of Britain, of course. However, they all told me that they felt Americans significantly overemphasize self-esteem at the expense of honest feedback to children. Now, keep in mind that none of these folks were being mean or harsh with their kids; most often such comments were delivered gently. But Americans shy away from ALL "negative" feedback, scared will kill our kids' creativity and spirit. Like Ms. Rhee's children, mine have received numerous awards, ribbons, trophies and such for what is clearly mediocre effort. Why should every child who enters a contest recieve a ribbon? Nonsense. Competition is a good thing. Our children need to learn that not every good effort results in an excellent result, and results matter.

You want to talk about our competitive edge with China? Consider that the richest 10% of US kids score higher on international tests in every subject than anybody in the world, and that China doesn't educate its poor population. Why do we pretend that we want to be like China?

Education is both economic and social in the United States. If Ms. Rhee wants her daughters to become mindless drones stamping microchips in a dangerous factory, she can send them to China.

I absolutely agree with Ms. Rhee. But judging from criticism here and elsewhere, I'm starting to think that this is a message that people with no exposure to or experience of competitive societies like S. Korean and China just cannot hear. With my own friends and family, I am getting responses like, "You just have to love your children." Come on, at least admit that that's a very western perspective. I'm not saying that this other way of parenting is without its downside. Frankly, I think it's a pretty toxic environment ... but it sure does prepare you to compete. And like it or not, our children are going to be competing more and more with kids who were raised this way for jobs. How will they fare?

Stunned to hear Michelle Rhee blame American students’ learning habits and report that her own daughters “suck at soccer!”; that she “routinely” tells them their soccer skills are lacking” & to be better, they have to practice hard,” but admits that “their rooms [are] adorned with ribbons, medals and trophies,” exemplifying an American culture “so obsessed with making kids feel good about themselves.”

By contrast, Korean “adults are honest with kids about what they're not good at, but “if we suggested anything close to that here? There would be anarchy.”

No, Ms. Rhee. Had you "honestly" “suggested anything close to that” to your DCPS teachers & parents & reached out to residents, “here,” looking for a school leader with the parental insights you now reveal, we would be addressing student responsibility - together. Instead, you listened to ivory-tower turnaround “experts,” scapegoated teachers and exposed them to administrative retribution. A great opportunity was squandered.

HALLELUJAH !! I thought I was the only one to think this ! Not grading papers with red ink,no more 'F's" as a grade,not keeping score for soccer games;our P.C., feel-goody culture is sure to be our Waterloo.


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