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Sunday, January 23, 2011

What Michelle Rhee really thinks about children

From the Washington Posts Answer Sheet

by Valerie Strauss

Suddenly parenting styles are in the news, thanks to Yale law professor Amy Chua’s new book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” which espouses Chinese traditions of child rearing that, in Chua’s case, included rejecting her kids’ homemade birthday cards for their lousy quality and forcing one of her daughters to do 2,000 math problems a night after she came in second in a math competition.

(Why didn’t you and I think of that?)

Now we hear from Michelle Rhee, former D.C. schools chancellor and rock-star school reformer, who recently said the following about her two children and aptitude for soccer:

"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."

I could ask why she is insulting her children in public to make a point, but that would be so American of me, so I won’t. Instead:

1) Rhee doesn’t blame the soccer coach for not raising the level of her children’s play. Instead, she blames their own lack of ability -- which she notes is such that all the practice in the world might not help them be great.

It seems fair, then, to ask, why Rhee insists that teachers should be held solely accountable for how well students do; she has even argued that it is fair to take a child’s standardized test score and use it to evaluate his or her teachers and determine their compensation. Hmmmm.

2) I’m going to assume that Rhee's comment that her children “take after their mother in athletic ability” is not an argument that genetics is dispositive, because, of course, that doesn’t leave much room for improvement by means of education. It also justifies telling kids that all the practice in the world at something won’t make them great.

But Rhee says all this in the context of how Americans have “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.”

Yes, a self-esteem movement in this country did exist, and yes, it did go overboard in trying to make kids feel great about themselves, and yes, it is true that telling kids (and adults) that they are great doesn’t make them great.

That doesn’t mean that bashing kids over the head is a better approach to getting the most out of them. Ultimately, they just wind up with a bashed head. (And yes, as always, there are exceptions -- Chua’s children, for example, who seem to have turned out to be lovely people and who defend their mother’s harsh parenting approach. But the failure of one extreme is hardly a case for another extreme.)

Getting back to Rhee's recent comments, she further said:

"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."

Her comparison to South Korea is perplexing. She seems to be holding it up as some sort of model for American schools. Yet the South Korean education system works much differently from the kinds of systems that Rhee herself supports in the United States.

For one thing, the South Korean system from kindergarten through high school is run by a centralized government administration. Rhee, a champion of charter schools that by definition operate outside central bureaucracy, can’t be in favor of that, can she?

And yes, South Korean students do exceptionally well on international tests. But consider this, from an article in Asia Times Online:

"What the stats don’t tell is how drearily authoritarian classes often are. Flair and creativity are rarely rewarded. Instead, teachers drum into students a ton of stuff they must learn by rote so as to jump through hoops leading up to the all-important university entrance examination."

And there’s this, from a 2010 article entitled “The Reluctance of Korean Education in the Face of Change” in the Academic Leadership Journal :

“In general, the Korean system of education does not seem to value student creativity as a notable asset and thus it is hard for people with new innovative ideas to move to the forefront of the system in order to bring about positive change and to create something so great that the whole world would give it merits in the form of a Nobel Prize.”

This can’t be what she supports either, can it?

Rhee doesn’t believe in social promotion, but, in South Korea, grade retention is not permitted (nor, for that matter, is it permitted in Japan -- or Finland).

Rhee has evolved into a national spokesperson for modern school reform. That’s why what she says is important. But when she says things like the above, it is fair to ask whether she is, in fact, the best person to be at the forefront of a serious reform movement.


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