The morning after Amy Chua’s article “Why Chinese mothers are superior” I received a barrage of emails and phone calls asking if I had read the article and what I thought about it. On the surface of it I wasn’t sure why they were so interested in what I thought as I’m neither Chinese nor a mother. Filled with curiosity I pulled up the article and read it and quickly saw what was brewing - my friends thought of me as a Chinese mom!
I’ll get back to my thoughts on the article but first let me make my perspective (read agenda) clear. I live in the US and have a vested interest in ensuring that the US remains competitive in the global economy. I'm concerned that we may be losing our edge and want to do my part to help us succeed long term. I agree with President Obama's comments that countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.
As I read the debate about the article there are two levels in which you can approach it; a micro-level about Amy and her parenting style or a macro one about what the US needs to do to stay competitive in a global economy. I'm going to tackle the latter in this post.
Education, just like healthcare, is universally relevant, evokes visceral reactions and can be polarizing. To understand the issue I think it is important to look at some of the commonly held misconceptions I read in the comments and what the data tells us and just like many others I will use “Chinese” very liberally.
- Chinese kids are good at rote memorization but really poor when it comes to application of that knowledge to practical problems. In the US we value understanding and not memorization. The data doesn’t support this. The PISA exam which tests this sort of understanding showed that we are about average and that China is at the top of the table. Take a look at the NYT article Top Test Scores From Shanghai Stun Educators. If you look at the table you will find the US in the middle of the pack. On a side note, I’m surprised educators were stunned at the results as I could have rather easily predicted it.
- In the US we are great at innovation and creativity. Well in 2011, China is projected to outpace the US and Japan in patent activity. You can read more about it in the article China patent filings could overtake US, Japan in 2011.
- Chinese kids do not learn the leadership and other soft skills to lead organizations. They will be relegated to middle management. Asians (not just Chinese and Indian) make up 20% of the bay area population but start and lead about 30% of all startup companies in the area.
- China’s communist system will stifle creativity and prevent them from being successful. Women in particular are not given equal opportunities. Of the 14 self-made billionaire females in the world 7 are Chinese. Good article in Forbes about why china is an incubator for billionaire females.
. The data should be a wake up call to the fact the Chinese are out-educating their children and that if we don't do something we'll be at a competitive disadvantage. Now you may be wondering what this has to do with Amy Chua's article but I view it as a proxy for how we educate our children. Sure there are things that we can do to refine the tactics she uses but strategically there is a lot of value in where she is heading.