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Education reform needs a new starting point

Marketplace Staff Jan 18, 2011


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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