Creating A Culture of Education (Part 3): Does the American Culture Support or Undermine Public Education?

Part 1 of this 5-part series addressed the importance of four interdependent components in building a culture of education in the United States: School; Parents/Family; Government; and Community. Last time, Part 2 asked why there is so little discussion of parent accountability in education reform. Part 3 goes into the third aspect, community and culture.

America’s strength has always been its entrepreneurial spirit. It is part of the reason why American business has successfully dominated the global economy for so long. Following the simple idea of free market supply and demand determines success or failure. When a product or service is not in demand, then it must be improved or discarded. Ceteris paribus — all things being equal — this market exchange ensures that the best products and services thrive and therefore improve our lives. There is a balance between supply and demand. So, does this model extend to public education?

No. Simply put, the goals of business and education are incompatible. The profit motive will ultimately trump what is in the best interest of all students. A teacher is required to help a struggling child, unlike in business, where a floundering product can and should be dropped. Historian Raymond Callahan detailed how educational goals have been sacrificed to the demands of business in his classic expose, Education and the Cult of Efficiency (Phoenix Books). If struggling children were dropped from public schools, scores would skyrocket, attendance rates would rise, and top teachers would be attracted, creating a cycle of continual improvement for the most highly sought-after schools. This of course, is how for-profit businesses run, in theory (and to some extent, private schools). But the concept of public schools, by its raison d’être, is inimical to the goals of business. In this respect, the current obsession with exclusive teacher accountability is flawed (more about this in Part 2).

Injecting the business mentality into education is nothing new, but the real issue is more related to the individualist culture. America has never had a collective, unifying culture, which purists may believe is what makes America so great; but in education, there has to be a greater emphasis on a collective push towards a culture of education in order to compete in the 21st century global economy. Here there cannot be any other goals. A focus on families, as argued in Part 2 of this series, is a good starting point to create a conducive environment for the child, but there needs to be more. There needs to be an impact on the greater cultural environment that rallies families and links the many “pockets of excellence” across the nation. From a national perspective, America must be singular in focus; thus, a pervasive culture of education is needed to support all aspects of a child’s environment. Such a culture can be, and has been, described in many Asian nations.

Confucian philosophy has strongly permeated all aspects of traditional Chinese culture, as well as other neighboring countries. According to this philosophy, “success is less the result of an individual’s innate ability than it is of the individual’s single-minded effort and consistent practice” (Tweed & Lehman, 2002; see sources below). Campbell and Verna (2004), as well as Watkins (1996), in their studies of international academic Olympiad students, found that:

…the Chinese Olympians have significantly more of a belief that effort [as opposed to natural ability] is essential. The European and American Olympians have much less faith in the usefulness of effort. This belief in the value of effort is certainly one of the hallmarks of Chinese culture. In China parents and teachers emphasize the value of effort not only for academics but also for character development. (p. 70)

No surprise, effort and diligence are manifested in student learning and pervade all aspects of their environment. Adults – teachers, parents, and the community – consistently reinforce this notion and collectively create this “flywheel effect.” Pearce (2006) continues this line of reasoning that possessing these cultural attributes “…allow parents to inculcate among later generations an appreciation of education as a vehicle for social and economic mobility” (p. 80). In fact, this consistent reinforcement is reflected in the children’s attitudes regarding education as well; to wit, young children in Taiwan and Japan are aware that education is highly prized, and come to like school, whereas American children tend to regard school in less positive terms, especially as they grow up (Stevenson et al., 1986). Such cultural capital in Asian families, in turn, leads to high educational achievement. My experiences as an elementary public school teacher in a New York City local Chinatown community attest to this assertion. Most of the blue-collared parents in this approximately 80% Chinese-populated school set up appointments during parent/teacher conferences to improve their child’s achievement (whether the student excelled or struggled), while a sobering majority of parents of struggling minority students rarely showed up. Even Chinese grandparents and uncles who spoke no English came in as a substitute if neither parent were available. I have even had older siblings come in on their parent’s behalf. This is a testament to the enduring Confucian ethic of hard work and the collective family effort regarding education. No doubt, successive generations will lose that connection as Asian students assimilate into the American culture.

The culture of diligence and respect, owing to its Confucian roots, has also been established as being crucial in creating the environment conducive to achievement and success. What were some specific characteristics exhibited by these families? It appeared that high parent expectations and involvement was key; unsurprisingly, countless research supports this idea. Stevenson & Stigler (1992) pointed to high parent expectations as the major difference between Asian and U. S. parents. A study by Hao and Bonstead-Bruns (1988) confirms this idea by suggesting that cultural values undergirded parents’ expectations for children as well as the expectations of the children themselves. Asian mothers even evaluated their children and their schools more rigorously, rating their child’s ability and their school’s performance lower on average than American mothers did (Stevenson et al., 1986), suggesting that, again, high parent expectations drove improvement and the will to succeed. The example of this mindset can be typified by the classic story where the student brings a test home with a 95% score, and the parents react to the grade by saying, “Why not 100%?” It was certainly the case with the majority of my fifth grade Chinese-American students. Meanwhile, other students would be content with a merely adequate score.

Parental involvement, the other component, is also highly integrated within families in the Asian culture, but less so with schools. Asian and Asian-American parents internally work with and supervise their children, giving them extra work, forcing them to play the piano, finding out the best high schools or colleges to attend, or regulate the decision-making process regarding the future of their child, among many examples. Conversely, these parents are much less involved externally (i.e., with the school), probably owing in part to the Asian culture of respect bestowed on teachers and authority and to a language barrier. They attend school meetings less than their White counterparts, preferring to get involved only as a response to a child having difficulties (Pearce, p. 94). Perhaps as an Asian-American teacher, I had many Chinese parents asking me to “look after” their children academically, to be stricter with them, and to provide additional enrichment work. In contrast, they were much less vocal when it came to extra-curricular matters.

American culture, on the other hand, is much more diverse and complex, owing to its heterogeneous roots. Its foundation, based on the aforementioned “rugged individualism,” fostered a competitive and Darwinian culture that favored independence and freedom, some might say, at the cost of the collective good. Such competition has the effect of marginalizing certain groups, usually by socioeconomic status, by culture, or by race. Fordham and Ogbu’s (1986) concept of “oppositional culture” aptly described how African-American social experiences and subsequent perspectives are tainted by a history of racial discrimination, all of which result in the inadvertent creation of a toxic climate detrimental to achievement and success in society (e.g., a mindset that high academic achievement is perceived as “acting White”). Embracing cultural pluralism in the U.S. often meant acknowledging and respecting the differences, including diverse perspectives, philosophies, and religions on what it meant to succeed in America. Because of this diversity, a “cultural accretion” results, mixing to such an extent where all but the most selfish, basest values are obscured, much as a colorful box of cereal might stand out to a child in a supermarket bursting with unhealthy choices. Such deviant values create a lethargic and desensitized perspective unfavorable to education and citizenry. It is the reason why loud music (whether it be rock or hip hop), big-budget movies driven by innovative special effects, violent video games, and super-sized meal portions, among countless other examples of excess, have been firmly entrenched in the American youth culture. How can education possibly have a fair chance to compete?

The aforementioned “pockets of excellence,” however, do continue to thrive, mostly within wealthy or suburban districts or areas of higher socioeconomic status. Not surprisingly, research on American education has long agreed with the successes of parental involvement and expectations. Karen Smith Conway, a co-author of a federal study on parental involvement in the U.S. (Houtenville & Conway, 2008) stated: “[It] is consistently associated with higher levels of achievement, and the magnitude of the effect of parental effort is substantial” (Viadero, 2008, p. 4). Maxwell (2006) followed the progress of schools in the San Jose, California district, which abolished their two-track high school system in favor of demanding all its students take high-level college-prep courses and saw how minorities successfully rose to meet the expectations. Similar exhortations for higher parent (and teacher) expectations abound in articles from The Wall Street Journal (Akst, 2008; Gerstner, 2008).

No doubt that balance is always key; Asian cultures (among other similar traditional cultures as West Indian or Jewish), have also fostered a rigidity that can undermine social progress and creativity. Rather, combining the emphasis on education found in Asian countries with the western ideal of creativity will help create a powerful and educated society that can thrive with others in the 21st century.

Next time (Part 4): How can the government help to create a culture of education?


Akst, D. (2008, August 29). Raising the bar: How parents can fix education. The Wall Street Journal, p. W9.
Campbell, J. R. & Verna, M. A. (2004). Academic home climates across cultures. In J. R. Campbell, K. Tirri, P. Ruohotie & H. Walberg (Eds.), Cross-cultural research: Basic issues, dilemmas and strategies (pp.25-29). Finland: Hame Polytechnic.
Fordham, S. & Ogbu, J. U. (1986). Black students’ school success: Coping with the “burden of acting White.” Urban Review, 18, 176-206.
Gerstner Jr., L. V. (2008, December 1). Lessons from 40 years of education “reform.” The Wall Street Journal, p. A2.
Hao, L. & Bonstead-Bruns, M. (1998). Parent-child differences in educational expectations and the academic achievement of immigrant and native students. Sociology of Education. 71, 175-198.
Houtenville, A. J. & Conway. K.S. (2008). Parental effort, school resources, and student achievement. Journal of Human Resources, 43(2), 437-453.
Tweed, R. G. & Lehman, D. R. (2002). Learning within a cultural context: Confucian and Socratic approaches. American Psychologist, 57(2), 89-99.
Maxwell, L. A. (2006). Greater expectations. Education Week, 25(33), 37-39.
Pearce, R. R. (2006). Effects of cultural and social structural factors on the achievement of White and Chinese American students at school transition points. American Educational Resarch Journal, 43(1), 75-101.
Stevenson, H. W., Lee, S., & Stigler, J. W. (1986). Mathematics achievement of Chinese, Japanese, and American children. Science, 231, 693-699.
Viadero, D. (2008). Scholars put a price tag on parent involvement: Parental effort, school resources, and student achievement. Education Week, 27(39), 4.
Watkins, D. (1996). Hong Kong secondary school learners: A development perspective. In D. Watkins & J. Biggs (Eds.), The Chinese learners: Cultural, psychological, and contextual influences (pp. 107-119). Hong Kong, China: Hong Kong University, Comparative Education Research Center.

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