Mary McConnell: Tiger mothers and Lake Wobegon kids: is it time to 'Shanghai' our math students?

Published: Saturday, Jan. 15 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

A few days ago, as I logged into the Wall Street Journal, I happened to glance over at the sidebar that lists the stories most read or e-mailed that day. The essay, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior," scored the most hits and in less than two days garnered almost 3,000 comments.

Intrigued, I clicked on the link and read Yale law professor Amy Chua's account of raising exceptional American kids the Chinese way. She clearly sets out to provoke her readers, announcing in the first paragraph that she never allowed her two daughters to "attend a sleepover, be in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, get any grade less than an A" or play a musical instrument other than the one she chose.

When her children misbehaved or talked back, she told them they were "garbage." As daughter Lulu attempted unsuccessfully to play different rhythms on the piano with her right and left hand, Ms. Chua "threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years." Tears, kicks and a bitter marital squabble later, Lulu suddenly caught on. Her new proficiency thrilled her, and reignited her enthusiasm for playing piano. Dismissing American parents' obsession with protecting their children's self-esteem, Ms. Chua concludes "there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't."

The publishers of her new book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," have to be thrilled. Ms. Chua's timing couldn't be better. In December the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) reported that a representative cross section of students in Shanghai, China, ranked first in math scores (and, for that matter, reading and science scores as well). In math, by comparison, American students ranked 31st. A New York TImes article reports U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan bluntly observing that "we have to see this as a wake-up call," adding, "I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable."

While the reliability of the data has been challenged, the debate has turned more on teaching techniques and child-raising policies than statistical uncertainty. Many American educators charge that Chinese students face brutal parental pressure, that Chinese math teachers teach relentlessly to the test and that Chinese math students fail to learn how to approach math problems critically or creatively and therefore aren't prepared for the challenges of our rapidly evolving, high-technology world.

While I have some sympathy with both sides in this debate, my own experience as a teacher has left me deeply worried about math education in America. In addition to six years of homeschooling math from kindergarten through Algebra II, I spent one harrowing semester teaching middle school math at a small Catholic school in Bountiful, Utah, and for the past eight years, I have taught (rather heavily math-based) Concurrent Enrollment Economics in the classroom and subsequently online to students at Juan Diego Catholic High School in Draper, Utah. What follows are not scientific observations nor research results, but the reflections of a concerned and often frustrated teacher.

Many of the students I encounter have not mastered their basic math operations. They rely heavily on calculators but don't recognize when these nifty little machines have produced improbable results.

Even students who have mastered basic operations find it hard to apply those operations when confronted with realistic applications (what we called story problems back in my school days).

Students find it surprisingly hard to interpret visual representations of data such as charts and graphs. I say surprising because they live in such a visual world, bombarded with images that have often taken the place of words. Ask them to translate the images back into explanations, as economics students must, and many become baffled and even angry.

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