An incredible balancing act

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Dale Chu

School is out (or soon to be), which means the season of summer blockbusters is now upon us. “The Incredibles 2” will be a huge draw for families with young children, as well as fans of mathematics. Those who attend are also in for a special treat, as the short film playing before the feature offers some education-related themes. Titled “Bao,” it explores the travails of an empty-nesting Chinese mother. Having seen it already—my brother wrote the music for it!—I can tell you that it’s one you won’t want to miss.

“Bao” is a timely installment that is simultaneously entertaining and offers insights into the high expectations and high standards of Chinese parents, and the contrast of two different cultures and parenting styles. As a rookie father raised in a traditional Chinese household, I’m fascinated by the burgeoning influence of this latest trend on parents’ eternal struggle to find the right balance between academic rigor and a child’s own interests.

I don’t believe it’s as simple as leaving children to their own devices. My experience has been that children won’t gravitate to things they initially don’t like without some gentle pressure. I lean towards the idea of structured academics in a child’s early years and, once the basics are cemented, providing the flexibility and latitude for him or her to soar. The mother in “Bao” provides such a structure to her young son both out of love and necessity. This is why, for example, the goal of getting every student to reading proficiency by the end of third grade was (and still is) a worthy aspiration. The urgency and attention to it have seemingly waned over the last few years, but letting it fade will be at our own peril.

Fast forward to today’s shift in focus to multiple pathways and personalized learning. In some ways this is admirable and even progress, but perhaps it’s unwise to put these two areas ahead of yesterday’s more foundational priorities, like higher standards, identifying and rewarding great educators, A–F accountability, high-quality options for families, and turning around low-performing schools. It could be the Chinese upbringing coming through, but maybe we’ve prematurely moved on to flexibility and personalization when the basics are still a problem and the world is arguably more impersonal than ever. Growing up, certain things like studying, homework, and respecting your elders were non-negotiable. What are the inviolable tenets when it comes to our education system? Literacy and numeracy should be one and two, though that might be difficult to gather from today’s policy discourse.

We’ve lost sight of the basics, and it shows in our lack of progress. Indeed, sustained improvement has been elusive because of our predilection for the latest trend and buzz in education policy. Just look at the frenzied adoption of the Common Core at the beginning of the decade. The scene in most states was not unlike a Walmart on Black Friday with everyone (present company included) clamoring to embrace the initiative. Think I’m exaggerating? The first state to adopt the standards did so before there was even a final draft!

In “Bao,” the strictures are at times suffocating, as the young boy in the film yearns for greater freedom. This tension in the movie reflects the larger one in education when it comes to doing what’s best for children. Put another way, just as parents are struggling to find the right balance between academic rigor and a child’s own interests, education policy is struggling to find the right balance between nailing down the fundamentals and creating the conditions for each student to pursue his or her own interests.

I don’t think we’re there yet. The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of personalization. But there’s hope yet for a healthy equilibrium.

In the meantime, I’ll be equipping my daughter with the requisite foundational skills. She enjoys listening and talking about books, makes attempts to read and write, and cannot wait to see the latest Pixar short flick. And I too can’t wait to see it a second time. “Bao” made me think about how I plan on raising her before she leaves the nest, and what I expect from the schools she will attend. I recommend it to every parent reading this. Just be sure to have some tissues on hand.

Dale Chu is an independent education consultant.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.