New praise in American schools — emphasizing hard work but not perfect scores?

Washington post writer Janice D’Arcy wonders on her parenting blog today whether the fact that teachers are dialing back on ubiquitous praise of students means that the Tiger Mother’s stingier approach to praise is being vindicated.

Her question comes in response to an article I wrote for Monday’s paper about how schools are changing the way they reward children out of concern that a decades-long focus on self-esteem has yielded more awards ceremonies and attendance certificates than actual academic results.

Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist who advocates praising children for effort rather than for intelligence (or mere attendance), said she agrees with the Tiger Mother — the Chinese American parent whose controversial book details how she pushed her daughters to practice piano for three hours a day and bring home straight-A’s and withheld praise until they succeeded — to a point.

She agrees that self-esteem should follow accomplishment — that it should be earned — not the other way around.


Amy Chua, a.k.a. “Tiger Mother” (Larry D. Moore/Associated Press)

Amy Chua, a.k.a. Tiger Mother, wrote in the Wall Street Journal in January 2011: Western parents ... worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.

But Dweck, whose work is being implemented in Montgomery schools and others around the country, departs from Chua’s views on one crucial point.

“I don’t agree with this total obsession with perfection,” Dweck said. Praise should be about “valuing learning and improving.”

That means that there should still be room for failure and starting over and trying again — hallmarks of an American education system that has succeeded at producing generations of innovators and creative thinkers.

I spent six months studying the education system in South Korea, another high-performing Eastern school system, last school year as a Fulbright fellow. I found the amount of effort that students (and their parents) invest in education to be staggering. Effort is not praised so much as expected in South Korea.

But for a lot of students (and their parents), years of late-night studying and extra tutoring feels like a waste if they do not achieve a top score on a college entrance exam and gain entrance into one of a few select schools. The definition of success is far more limited in South Korea, and the ways to attain it are far fewer.

In such a competitive system, it’s very hard to catch up if you don’t start off at a sprint and somehow sustain that energy. And with no room for late bloomers, there’s a lot of potential talent wasted.

The average American student has a long way to go in terms of turning up the heat and working harder — and maybe focusing praise in this direction can help — but the end goal does not need to be limited to higher test scores or a flawless piano recital. It seems like there’s a middle ground.

You can read more about my research in South Korea here.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.

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