Raised by my grandparents, I grew up in China. After every major exam, my school ranked every student. No matter how well I did, I was never the No. 1 kid in the class, and my grandmother never seemed satisfied. One day after she scolded me again for only scoring 96 on a math test instead of a perfect 100, I resentfully asked her, “Why can’t everyone be number one?” She looked at me with an all-knowing smile and said, “If everyone is number one, then no one is number one.”
After almost 25 years of academic training and a professional education career in the United States (including 15 years as a naturalized American citizen), I notice that in current education achievement debates in this country, we often hear the phrase “high standards.” We hear politicians and commentators sound the alarm that the United States will soon fall behind those nations whose students achieve higher scores in mathematics, the sciences, and reading. And the persistent achievement gap between our minority and white students raises the question of fundamental fairness and equity, with no clear resolution in place.
With the high-stakes accountability measures at hand, as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers, administrators, and parents are collectively relieved if their schools are not on the “in need of improvement” list. Schools work hard to ensure that their students score at or above the state-defined proficiency level. Once the majority of students have attained the level of proficiency in standardized tests, their school receives accolades as a model “improved school.” Everyone is happy, because everyone is content with being good enough.
The concept behind federal legislation like NCLB is that it ensures that all children have only the minimal knowledge, skills, and disposition to be contributing members of society. Parents often hold on to the notion that they want their children to be “happy” and “enjoy their childhood.” It is much easier for us to reward our children with video games, iPhones, or new cars than it is to push them. It seems to me that, as Americans, we are missing the point. Shouldn’t we be asking if this the goal for which America should aim?
While Amy Chua’s “tiger mother” approach to raising her two daughters provoked us for her tactics and her definition of success, she captured the essential ingredients of education: Learning must be challenging, and achievement is a result of relentlessly high expectations. In other words, achievement requires commitment and dedication. As American educators, it is how we help our children reach for the stars that will distinguish our future generations from the rest of the world. What are the key aspects of aiming high? Can achievement be successfully married to a happy, healthy childhood?
First, parents must be involved in their children’s education. In order to stay at the top of the knowledge economy, America must produce innovators and inventors who will create the “next big thing.” American businesses and industries are increasingly concerned with the lack of talent in mathematics and the sciences in the workforce.
Not uncoincidentally, corporations like Intel are investing $100 million in education annually. Parents are the most effective group in affecting local education curriculum, and their role should not be discounted. Parents should demand that those who are responsible for curriculum in their local school districts articulate how their curricular standards compare with those of the top-performing schools at home and abroad. Parents should take an active role in their local school boards and demand that educational expectations rise above the baseline.
Second, educators must recognize that the proficiency is not negotiable. Educators must accept the fact that all children need to be proficient in mathematics, the sciences, and language literacy at levels appropriate to their development. They should understand and use measures developed through valid and reliable psychometric assessments to gauge student achievement. There should be opportunities for educators to work with parents to ensure there are additional curricular mechanisms and after-school activities to stimulate the intellectual curiosity and desire for achievement of their students. Talent is developed by using effective means to push a learner’s limits.
Third, state regulators and legislators should move beyond their single-minded focus on the traditional compliance model of enforcing policies and standards. Traditionally, the state has measured quality educator-preparation programs by counting course credits and reviewing course syllabi, and not much attention has been placed on student learning outcomes. State agencies must adapt to new ways of measuring student and teacher-candidate competencies. And they must ensure that staff members have the expertise in learning theories, assessment, and evaluation practices so that they can articulate to their community, which includes education-preparation faculty, parents, teachers, and students, the critical importance of a challenging and rigorous curriculum.
Finally, let’s not forget the students. They hold the greatest power to affect the outcome of their learning. Twenty-first century skills require our students to be productive citizens with a global perspective. Perhaps one of the ways to foster this could be for our students to learn what their international peers are mastering in mathematics, the sciences, and language arts. For traditionally disadvantaged students, it is America’s collective responsibility to give them hope by ensuring equal educational expectations and educational opportunities. Every community should expect its children to achieve beyond “good enough.”
Many major international corporations and firms have already outsourced their operations to countries outside the United States. It is true that better tax incentives and lower labor costs are major factors in these decisions. But no one should discount this fact: The overseas workforce, particularly in Asia, is more motivated and better educated than our own. The top graduates from our colleges and universities are being drained to foreign countries. This has created a tremendous challenge for medium to small businesses in the United States: How can they be competitive if they do not have the best workforce?
From district to district in this great nation, people are concerned about the economy and the impact it is having on school budgets. While it is important that we are fiscally conservative, we must also define what it means to be high-achieving and invest our resources accordingly. As a nation, there is no option for us to be left behind, or bullied by others. We must ensure that our children demand more of themselves.
When I was in the 1st grade, my classmates played in the neighborhood after school while I was forced to sit inside with my grandmother so that I could learn English. After hearing my constant complaints about this extra work, she said, “One day, you will thank me.” In fact, I do owe her an enormous debt of gratitude. She was the single most important factor in my education, growth, and success.
Our children will thank us, too, if we consistently ask them to aim high.
Yuhang Rong is the assistant dean at the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut. He lived in China from birth until the age of 24. He currently serves on the board of examiners for the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.
This article appeared as a commentary in Education Week on July 8, 2011.