Tiger Mom Amy Chua’s Got a Plan to Overhaul U.S. Education

Yale law professor, Tiger Mom, and now...education reformer?

By Julianne Hing May 12, 2011

Amy Chua, Yale law professor, Tiger Mom, media darling, a Time Magazine Top 100 Most Influential Person of 2011, and now… education reformer?

That’s right.

Chua wrote an op-ed for USA Today this week with her ideas to improve American education, and it sounds a whole lot like asking other parents to model themselves after her. In Chua’s view, if U.S. parents just stepped it up at home and were more strict about instilling a strong work ethic in their kids at a young age, the country’s education woes would be eliminated.

Is Michelle Rhee looking for a sidekick?

Chua writes:

The average American child spends 66% more time watching television than attending school. We have alarming rates of teenage substance abuse and the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the developed world. In the recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, American high school students ranked 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math — with Asian nations taking top marks. This is a problem across the board. Even America’s top math students rank poorly compared with top performers elsewhere. … Self-discipline and focus are skills that have to be instilled when children are young — and that’s one thing the Asian nations excel at. The great virtue of America’s system is that our kids learn to be leaders, to question authority, to think creatively. But there’s one critical skill where our kids lag behind: learning how to learn.

If in their early years we teach our children a strong work ethic, perseverance and the value of delayed gratification, they will be much better positioned to be self-motivated and self-reliant when they become young adults. This is a way to combine East and West: more structure when our children are little (and will still listen to us), followed by increasing self-direction in their teenage years.

There’s so much happening here. For one, there’s the striking way she actually sounds a lot like President Obama, whose favorite appeal to parents is to tell them to turn off the TV at home, even as he’s simultaneously pushing reform policies that further destabilize the public education system. Then there’s the slippery way that she attributes America’s poor education rankings to parenting deficiencies. Like Obama, Chua puts the responsibility on individual parents when there’s plenty of evidence that shows that it’s entrenched poverty and racialized inequities that sit at the root of the education woes that plague this country.

Her insistence on sticking with this East-West parenting paradigm is just icky. There are plenty of other conclusions to draw from international education rankings than just that Asians know how to be stern parents. Could, say, part of the reason students in Asian countries excel so wonderfully be because those countries invest heavily in education, and unlike the U.S., spend more on education than they do on other domestic expenditures like the military?

But Chua’s myopia runs even deeper. I’m continually struck by her blindness to the class privileges that allowed her to raise her daughters the way she did and give them every available educational opportunity.

In her book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" she talks at length about the nanny she hired to speak Chinese to her daughters as toddlers, and mentions tutors and tennis and private music lessons. Some of the book’s most dramatic scenes take place in far-flung locales where her harsh parenting didn’t take a holiday just because the family was on vacation. She speaks with well-deserved pride about all the time she poured into helping her children with their school projects, and no one can begrudge her her parenting successes. (I can’t speak for her but I’ll assume Chua’s quite proud of her kid’s acceptance to Yale and Harvard, and her eldest projects an easy self-confidence and intelligence.) But she can’t reasonably suggest that parents be able to replicate her parenting for themselves with similar results, without acknowledging her own family’s significant wealth.

But like Chua, the rest of the education reform movement is similarly uninterested in talking openly about the structural forces like poverty and systemic inequality that determine kids’ educational opportunities today. Sadly, it’ll take much more than turning off the TV to overhaul the U.S. education system.