Duncan: Demand more of kids

U.S. parents need to demand more of their children, writes New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. We’re raising a generation of slackers, he writes.

“Teachers are held to impossible standards” and students aren’t held accountable at all, complained a seventh-grade English teacher in the Washington Post‘s Answer Sheet.

I set my expectations high, I kept my classroom structured, I tutored students, I provided extra practice and I tried to make class fun. … (The principal) handed me a list of about 10 students, all of whom had D’s or F’s. . . . I walked her through my grade sheets that showed not low scores but a failure to turn in work — a lack of responsibility. I showed her my tutoring logs, my letters to parents, only to be interrogated further.

Eventually, the meeting came down to two quotes that I will forever remember as the defining slogans for public education: “They are not allowed to fail.” “If they have D’s or F’s, there is something that you are not doing for them.” . . .  I suppose I was not giving them the answers. I was not physically picking up their hands to write for them. I was not following them home each night to make sure they did their work on time. I was not excusing their lack of discipline.

A high school teacher in Oregon told Friedman she used to have one or two students per class who wouldn’t do the work. Now it’s 10 or 15.  Expectations keep sliding. A failing student said, “You don’t seem to realize I have two hours a night of Facebook and over 4,000 text messages a month to deal with. How do you expect me to do all this work?”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave a “feel-bad” speech to the National Assessment Governing Board’s Education Summit for Parent Leaders.

In 2009, President Obama met with President Lee of South Korea and asked him about his biggest challenge in education. President Lee answered without hesitation: parents in South Korea were ‘too demanding.’ Even his poorest parents demanded a world-class education for their children, and he was having to spend millions of dollars each year to teach English to students in first grade, because his parents won’t let him wait until second grade. … I [wish] our biggest challenge here in the U.S. was too many parents demanding excellent schools.

South Korea probably has the most intense education parents in the world. But what about U.S. parents? Are they failing to demand excellent schools? Raising low achievers with high self-esteem?

About Joanne


  1. PhillipMarlowe says:

    S. Korean school suicides total 139 last year
    SEOUL: Nearly 140 South Korean school students killed themselves in 2012, according to a new government report that cited family problems, depression and exam stress as the main triggers.
    The report, published this week by the Education Ministry, covered all students from elementary to high school.
    The figure of 139 suicides recorded last year was the lowest for three years, but still worryingly high in a country with one of the world’s highest overall suicide rates.
    Of the total, 88 were high school students, 48 from middle school and just three from elementary school.
    About 40 percent were motivated by family-related problems, while 16 percent were triggered by depression and 11.5 percent by exam-related stress.
    Dozens of teenagers kill themselves every year around the time of South Korea’s hyper-competitive college entrance exam, unable to cope with the intense scholastic and parental pressure to secure a place in a top university.
    Last year’s student suicide figure compared with 202 suicides in 2009, 146 in 2010 and 150 in 2011.
    South Korea has the highest suicide rate among members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, with an average of 33.5 people per 100,000 taking their lives in 2010, far higher than Hungary (23.3) and Japan (21.2) which ranked second and third.
    The figure for South Korea equates to nearly 50 suicides a day and shows a steep increase from 2000 when the average incidence of suicide was 13.6 people per 100,000.
    The capital Seoul has installed anti-suicide monitoring devices on bridges over the Han river after 196 people jumped to their deaths last year.


    • So there is no possibility of some choice somewhat less than S Korea, or lots more than the US? It seems that many countries, namely the ones that far outperform us, do not have the degree of negative effects as in S Korea. The main point is that parents in the US for the most part do not value education and transmit this attitude to their children.

    • cranberry says:

      The US has more teen suicides: 1,659 for teens 15 – 19 in 2010. http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/youthviolence/stats_at-a_glance/lcd_15-19.html

      Our population is about six times the size of South Korea’s, but the number of teen suicides was more than 11 times the South Korean rate. (and that understates the case, as I only included high school students.)

      So the South Koreans are more stressed about exams, but that isn’t a good argument against academic rigor.

  2. What I heard the most from other parents when my children were in ele. was the demand for a slower pace and no homework. That would allow their bright children the opportunity to use their time to get their first place feathers in some exclusive extracurricular instead of having to spend that time with the tutor in order to keep up with the Jones’ geniuses.

  3. I think this says it all:

    Expectations keep sliding. A failing student said, “You don’t seem to realize I have two hours a night of Facebook and over 4,000 text messages a month to deal with. How do you expect me to do all this work?”

    Sounds like this idiot has his or her priorities screwed up…He or she deserves to flunk…period.

    • The amount of entitlement in that student’s statement simply shocks me. When I was a kid, it would have been absolutely reversed: my parents would say, “I don’t care if there’s really something you want to see on tv tonight, you have two hours of homework and 40 pages to read.”

  4. Were my children in charge, they would go back to k-8 flexible grouping by instructional need. They do not care to have their class time spent helping other children who will have zero homework per their IEP, while they do. They want to go back to the pre-nclb practice of having seatwork, rather than the post nclb practice of using the classtime for remedial students needs and sending the nonremedial seatwork home as homework.

  5. Jerry Doctor says:

    I have seen far too many teachers grade strictly by “the numbers.” Unfortunately the numbers used were zip codes. Even more unfortunately, the administrators thought these were great teachers. They never sent trouble makers to the office and parents weren’t complaining about grades.

  6. As a middle school teacher in a Catholic school I can feel the pain of the 7th grade teacher in the Washington Post article (which was posted in our staff lounge last week). I meet parents all the time that want their kids to have limitless opportunities to make up work they never bothered to do, including after report cards. Parents actually send us emails explaining that their kid did not have time for homework because of parties and sports events with an expectation that we’ll accept these as valid reasons. The first thing that many of our parents do when their kid is doing poorly is rush them off to the doctor for a diagnosis – any will do – so that their poor, poor dear can be excused from due dates and basic standards. What is it with today’s parents that would rather have their child diagnosed as having some disorder than have them learn to be responsible and deal with life’s difficulties?

    • I had kids in MoCo schools at the time, and the rush to get a diagnosis coincided (mirable dictu) with the College Board’s removal of the “non-standard testing conditions” label on the score reports.

      I understand the issue of extracurriculars, but we required schoolwork first, even with a heavy travel-sports schedule.(including a swimmer training 28 hours per week). It can be done and done well, but hanging out at the mall, TV, online time-wasters etc have to go.

  7. Roger Sweeny says:

    Parents, like students, are different. Some really care and some push their kids to take 14 APs (next post “AP Overload?”). Some haven’t done anything about their kids education for years.

    Maybe I’m just lucky but I’ve had almost no parents who have tried to get their kid a grade he or she didn’t deserve. Much more common has been, “I try to tell him how important school is but I can’t get him to care.”

  8. Stacy in NJ says:

    American students are actually incredibly bright. They’re fully aware that our system is a hypocrisy wrapped in bullshite. They respond accordingly.

    The system isn’t structured to serve their best interests; it serves the interests of those drawing paychecks.

  9. So, Duncan thinks parents are demanding too little from their kids. Maybe he even wants them to send their kids to school ready to sit and walk quietly, treat staff and fellow students respectfully, pay attention and do their best work? Remember, he’s the guy who co-issued (with the DOJ), the recent directive which demands that school disciplinary actions are racially/ethnically proportionate, even though groups actually commit infractions as very different rates. So, he insists it’s OK to allow some kids to disrupt educational opportunities (not to mention commit assaults and the like) for the rest of the kids, while he expects parents to demand more? It’s not possible for the schools to demand more, like like did 40 years ago? The BS pile is the size of Gibralter, and growing.

  10. Sigh, here we go again. Educators, edu-wonks, and armchair policy analysts have always had this creepy fascination with authoritarian countries and their school systems.

    Back in the 19th century, Prussia was the rage, when it was the most heavily militarized and bureaucratized country on earth, and social planners were enamoured of its grim efficiency. Later it was the Russians, and we were singing the praises of their schools at the same time that KGB director Andropov was creating a network of psychiatric hospitals to deal with political dissenters and other malcontents. When I was growing up, it was Japan. They went to school during the day AND night, and they were an unstoppable powerhouse would dominate the world economy and surpass us in creativity and innovation! Then Singapore, which for most of its history was the fief of an iron-handed political strongman, and where you’re guilty until proven innocent in court.

    Now it’s China and South Korea. Who wants to emulate these nasty places?

    Let’s drop the charade, and admit that the North Koreans really have the best model. Their literacy rate has always been among the highest in the world (for a time I think it WAS the highest); their rural literacy corps — which is also responsible for party indoctrination — makes sure the peasants all know how to read!

    And students are certainly held to high expectations, even higher than that Texas judge who sent an Asian American honor student to jail for missing school. In N. Korea, if fail to meet expectations, they send students AND their families to a concentration camp for 40 years. Talk about holding all parties accountable!

  11. From my own experiences, I don’t see every teacher being held to impossible standards.

    I’ve been in circumstances where I’ve been willing to expect more from my kids and asked assistance from a couple teachers in doing so, and absolutely hit a brick wall. This was just with a couple of teachers, but I was floored. I was willing to do the implementation, I just wanted suggestions.

  12. Friedman’s children attended Williams and Yale. I’ll assume he and his wife demanded appropriate work ethics.

    We were the parents who showed up at meetings, and joined committees, and tried to advocate for more demanding course work in our public system. I suppose everyone appreciated our persistence, as some sort of proof of “involved parenting” or what not. However, the number of times we heard variations of, “it’s out of our hands, we have to comply with (state, federal) laws, we can’t treat anyone differently…” So we left, and have found private schools much more in line with the goal of academic rigor being a good thing.

    Moving effective control of schools away from communities, into the hands of the federal government, has reduced parental influence in schools to lip-service.

    The example cited of the teacher whose students did not care–the fault there lies in the hands of the administrator. A policy which guarantees students passing grades for NO work is foolish. The entire testing empire descends on the schools from Washington and the state governments, not parents.

  13. We can talk sensibly about how schools should be run until we speak clearly about how we envision the telos of schooling. But we aren’t going to do that. We’re going to continue operating schools that are entangled in a knot of national special interest groups competing with each other. “Education system” is an oxymoron.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      I think the schools largely have a telos. It goes something like this: You can’t get a good job unless you go to college. Therefore, it would be wrong not to prepare everyone for college. Therefore, all young people should go to high school, and high school should be, academically, a junior version of college–each day broken into “courses” which are based on college courses. Elementary and middle school should be preparation for high school.