As if anyone needs to be reminded, Asian students consistently finish at or near the top on all academic rankings. The latest evidence was Shanghai's No. 1 placement on the Program for International Student Assessment and an article in the Wall Street Journal about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua that triggered more hits on the newspaper's Web site than any other topic in its existence.
But what is left out of the overall glowing picture is the heavy price that students in China, Japan and Korea pay. This price shows up in two ways.
According to the World Health Organization, China has the highest rate of female suicide in the world. Korea has one of the highest suicide rates of all industrialized countries, with Japan not far behind. Critics will argue that correlation is not causation. They maintain it's impossible to prove that pressure to succeed academically is responsible for these tragedies. Perhaps so.
Yet what is possible to demonstrate is a similar troubling phenomenon in the U.S. A survey of more than 200,000 full-time students at four-year colleges and universities found that the emotional health of freshmen is at its lowest point since data began to be collected a quarter of a century ago ("Record Level of Stress Found in College Freshmen," New York Times, Jan. 26).
The survey, "The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010," is highly regarded because of its size and longevity. It pointed out that incoming freshmen are already stressed and depressed, probably because they are overwhelmed by heavy college debt and bleak job prospects. I'm not saying that these factors will ultimately lead to suicide, but they certainly constitute warning signs that cannot be ignored.
The evidence from Asia and America leads to the larger question of whether competition is the road to follow. President Obama's State of the Union address made it clear that it is indispensable if the U.S. is to remain an economic powerhouse. But I wonder if he realizes the potential for harm that his remarks contain when competition is applied to education? Are any awards ever worth the pain that losing a child inflicts on parents? Can any achievement possibly console them? It's sad when a child buries a parent, but it's unbearable when a parent buries a child.
The other price paid in the education competition wars is even less talked about. It's altogether possible to teach a subject well but to teach students to hate the subject in the process. Certainly cognitive outcomes are crucial. But what about affective outcomes? Don't they matter?
Japan serves as a case in point. Although its students excel in math and science, they report widespread loss of enjoyment for these subjects. A survey by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement ranked students in Japan No. 36 out of 37 nations for their interest in math and No. 22 out of 23 for their interest in science. These findings constitute a Pyhrric victory in my view. What has been gained if students score high on standardized tests but score low on positive attitudes?
Today, China is revered for its educational feats. But tomorrow, it may be reviled for the damage it has done to a generation of children. I hope the U.S. will recognize the risks involved before trying to adopt the Asian model. Caveat emptor.