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

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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."

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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.

Amy Chua () Amy Chua ()

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.

Most disturbingly, to me as a parent and teacher, I find that many and maybe even a majority of the students I've encountered are reluctant to grapple with, gnaw at, kick and otherwise attack math problems until they've figured out how to solve them. They wait passively for the teacher to explain a concept yet again, and if they still can't figure it out, they make the pronouncement I came to dread. "Mrs. McConnell, I just don't get math."

It is enough — or maybe almost enough — to make me sympathize with Ms. Chua's ferocious badgering of her young piano player. A 2010 survey by the high-tech Raytheon Corporation of almost 1,500 parents of middle school aged children in Singapore (up until this year the perennial top scorer on the PISA tests), England and the United States found that American parents were more confident of both their children's math skills and their own ability to help their children with math homework than parents in Singapore. Indeed, a stunning 78 percent think their children are in the top 20 percent of math students nationwide. Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the kids are above average. Meanwhile, the Singapore kids outperform the American kids across the board.

Even the popular claim that Asian math students learn by rote has come under challenge. Over the past decade, many homeschool parents (I was one of them) and some school districts have adopted the Singapore math curriculum … and discovered that they must promptly move their children a few grades back. What's disconcerting about this program — aside from the Asian names in the story problems — is the degree of conceptual complexity that the curriculum demands from young children. Let's not kid ourselves: this is NOT math for automatons.

So should we all try to discover our inner Tiger Mother or Father, hire math tutors and buy a stack of math workbooks to inflict on our kids? Should we toss out the calculators, or acquire more math manipulatives? Should we once again rewrite math curriculum, and if so, do we return to "basics," or do we continue, as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics urges, trying to find ways to instill both competence and creativity?

We invite math teachers, as well as parents and students, to weigh in on these questions. Within the next few weeks we will formally launch our new education blog, "Educating Ourselves." We will post your replies or longer entries on the blog, but meanwhile we invite you to enter your comments below.

We invite your observations on two of the most pressing education issues of our time: the role of test scores in evaluating and compensating teachers (what is sometimes called value added assessment) and the future of online instruction. If you would like to contribute a post on one of these subjects, please contact me at my e-mail address provided in the endnote.

Meanwhile, here are some additional links that will help parents, teachers and students educate ourselves about the math education debate:

This 2006 article in Time, "How to End the Math Wars," gives a quick overview of the issues but tilts toward the NCTM model.

This article, "An A-Maze-ing Approach To Math," recounts a parent — and mathematician's — frustrating encounters with his son's textbook and takes a more critical approach to the prevailing math education model. It also provides a fairly detailed history of the debate over math education in the United States.

This article, "Math Wars: Taking Sides," defends the NCTM standards but argues that they are often incoherent and/or badly taught.

This article, "School Achievement: Let's Not Worry Too Much About Shanghai," argues that parents and policymakers are overreacting to the PISA test results from Shanghai.

This article, "Miracle Math," gives an account of Singapore Math and the political pitfalls one U.S. school district encountered when trying to adopt it.

This article, "The Economics Behind International Education Rankings," argues in the National Education Association daily report that economic inequality rather than teaching techniques drives America's low relative performance.

Mary McConnell is a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board and a curriculum consultant to Juan Diego Catholic High School in Salt Lake where she previously taught. She graduated from Michigan State University and Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar. Among her many professional roles, she has served as chief legislative assistant for Congressman Jack Kemp and chief speechwriter for Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.

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