Not so long ago, we vigorously opposed Russian Communism’s threat to our American beliefs. Now China is projected to replace us as the world’s economic leader.
How should we react? While China has in many ways embraced capitalism, it is still ruled by an authoritarian regime with little regard for human rights. As I see it, the threat to our basic beliefs has not changed. Read, for example, Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret to get a shocking inside look at how the Chinese politburo handles its own people. Pomfret’s work confirms that China’s power and influence would seriously undermine human rights and government of, by, and for the people.
To reaffirm democratic principles for ourselves and other nations, we must meet China’s economic challenge to our leadership.
But first we should consider how a once-backward China caught up with the West so fast. The obvious answer: education.
I have taught for 60 years and witnessed ongoing educational reforms even as the quality of American education continued to decline. Yet even in America, many Asian students excel. What do they have that we don’t?
Simply stated, in my opinion, Asian students have far stronger preparation at home for the school experience.
I say that if we hope to compete with China, we must develop excellence in American parenting and family life to help our students excel in school and after. Then, given America’s strong cultural edge in innovation, we would retain our world leadership.
Today, we need the leadership of American mothers, fathers, and all surrogate parents. We need them to begin to develop a standard of excellence in parenting and family, now and for future generations.
I have worked in depth with thousands of families, and I have met Asian and Asian-American parents who form a deep mentoring relationship with their children, which creates a bond of love and respect. This opens children to a strong learning process at home and further prepares them for effective relationships with their teachers and schools.
In contrast, I find American parenting today often gets confused with concepts of “love,” friendship, and equality, which waters down the critical parent-mentoring role both at home and then later at school. Raising children is basically an autocratic process, after all.
The foundation of the learning process is character. In character development, parents are the primary teachers, and the home the primary classroom. Painful to say, but most Asian and Asian-American parents are well ahead of other American parents in developing basic character, which requires patience, consistency, and discipline.
The massive 1966 Coleman Report, which many call the 20th century’s most important study of American public schools, was popularly summarized thus: Schools don’t matter; families do. This study was ignored, and instead we continued to try to reform schools. It reminds me of the guy who loses his keys outside but looks for them in the house because “it’s too dark out there.”
For example, tremendous effort has been made to close the black-white “achievement gap” in school. Yet the family is ignored: Seventy percent of black children are born to single mothers (compared with 29 percent of white children, according to the federal government). Because single parenthood is often associated with poverty, this can have devastating consequences. Consider, for example, that children from low-income families are typically exposed to millions fewer words at home than their better-off peers—a powerful disadvantage for them in terms of school readiness. To close the “achievement gap,” we must deal with such family issues.
Why have we continually failed to face these deeper and more critical learning issues of family? Because it would require deep change, and we haven’t yet felt the sense of urgency needed to face it. It is urgent now.
Pearl Harbor and World War II mobilized America out of a depression. Necessity was, in fact, the mother of invention. Men went to war; women worked in factories; rationing and anything else was accepted that furthered our cause.
America desperately needs that same national commitment today. World War II required the leadership of all qualified American males, ages 18 to 45. Today, we need the leadership of American mothers, fathers, and all surrogate parents. We need them to begin to develop a standard of excellence in parenting and family, now and for future generations.
I am the founder of a network of six private and public Hyde Schools, serving 2,300-plus students, 80 percent of whom belong to a minority group. Ninety-eight percent matriculate to college. In 1974, to truly prepare our students for life, we developed a program to regularly address parental growth and family issues.
This program is our strongest contribution to student attitude, character, motivation, and sense of purpose.
But our work has also taught us that an even more powerful program would focus on parents of children from birth through age 5 to help prepare these youngsters for school.
Such profound change would be resisted, but ultimately it would be overwhelmed by the pride of parents whose strong families would transform American education and America’s place in world leadership. And our nation would lead the way in providing all children with an excellent preparation for life.
A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2010 edition of Education Week as Parenting: The Key to America’s Future