Point of View: Good or bad student? — it’s up to parents

By George H. Tsai

Few people would question the quality of our institutes of higher learning that have attracted thousands of gifted students from foreign countries. They come to our campuses to develop their talents and realize their dreams. They would never imagine that education for many Americans has caused jitters among the parents, educators and politicians.

Now we have a new president who is determined to fulfill his campaign promise to make accountability the centerpiece of education reform. He calls on Congress to take quick action to implement the plan, giving school vouchers to students left behind academically, enabling them to attend schools of their choice.

Scientifically, the United States is the undisputable leader of the world. But, ironically, many of our elementary and middle school students are doing poorly in science or math tests. Our high school students fared worse than those from Asia and Europe at the International Mathematical Olympiads. High school students from Singapore and Taiwan were at the top at a recent UNESCO-sponsored math competition, leaving the American participants far behind.

A great majority of Asian students, mainly Chinese, Indians, Koreans and Vietnamese, in this country always outscore other ethnic groups in school examinations and SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test), so they are awarded scholarships and admitted into prestigious colleges across the country. Are Asian youngsters smarter? No. In fact, most of them graduated from public schools, but they work much harder than we thought. Their parents, even more so than teachers or good school facilities, have played a vital role in their academic performance. Parents set good examples and high standards for their children. Many parents, especially the well-educated ones, devote their free time to helping their children in their homework. They want their children to excel in both academics and extracurricular activities — playing the piano, violin and tennis.

On the other hand, a high percentage of our students are from single-parent families, or families where both parents are working and don’t have the time (or simply are too tired after work) to pay much attention to their children’s school work, or are struggling in poverty and have to worry more about paying the rent than going over homework.

Some concerned parents often take school officials and teachers to task for their children’s low test scores; they put the blame on mediocre teachers or bad environment. They want to send their children to a charter school or parochial school, convinced their children would get a better education and more discipline there.

Yes, in some respects, students at private schools fare better than those at public school. But remember that few Asian students here graduated from private schools.

The rising violence in elementary and high schools across the country is another serious problem. Despite metal detectors at a number of schools in New York City and other parts of the country, students still find ways to carry guns into school buildings, in some cases shooting at classmates or teachers.

It is undeniable there are mediocre or lazy teachers at our schools, but they are few in number. Besides, students have been known to excel despite a bad teacher. It is parents who should be held accountable for their children’s academic failure and disruptive actions.

In Asian communities, Confucian influence is still strong. Traditionally, Chinese people think the father is to blame for his children’s academic failure. Chinese students are told virtually in the cradle that knowledge is power, and they’re taught to show respect for scholars, teachers and parents. According to a Chinese adage, one can find golden houses and precious gems in a book, a connotation that knowledge can bring success and fortune.

American students don’t have to worry about academic future as early as their Asian peers do. Motivated by their parents, students in those countries begin to map their academic plans when they are in the fourth or fifth grades, making early preparations for the tough examinations to enter a limited number of middle schools and colleges. Their parents would help them reach their academic goals at all costs, such as hiring tutors or buying tonics for their children, who usually study 12 to 16 hours a day. Elementary school kids, in fact, are in school from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., including reviewing what they have studied. Thoughtful parents bring meals to them because of the long hours at school. For the high schoolers, the homework load is much heavier. After school, they have to stay up as late as midnight to finish the assigned homework.

Perhaps this sort of regimen would be impractical in America.

But it’s certain that no matter how many hours a child is in school or has to study, the parents can make all the difference.