Friday, April 07, 2006

And the Echo Award Goes To . . . .

From Ash:

I'm starting a new feature -- giving out the Echo and Stentor Awards.

The original Greek nymph named Echo kept saying her own name until she was gone and only her empty voice remained, and so, the Echo Award goes to the individual or report that keeps repeating the same old story long after any real facts supporting its veracity are long gone.

Stentor, on the other hand, was a Greek warrior-type with a voice as loud as 50 men, but whose voice was nothing compared to a god. Stentor died during a shouting match with Hermes. Therefore, the Stentor Award goes to the individual or report debunking what is commonly perceived as fact, but is really little more than urban myth.

Of course, note that Stentor died -- his voice was silenced because he couldn't outshout someone. While Echo's voice continued on even after she was dead. So I mean the Stentor as a compliment, but if you win one, well . . . I'm sorry for your loved ones' loss.

The first winners tie nicely into the education themes we've been talking about, as well as Po's blowing up some popular myths about these kids today.

And so, the first Echo Award goes to (drumroll, please) the ABC News (prose) report, "Do Family Dinners Help Students Get In to College?" an article that addresses just that -- whether or not having your family eat dinner together help your children get into college.

The article opens with a statement that should make every anxious parent sit up and take note:

"As admission to college gets even more cutthroat, a key to getting in to one's first-choice school might be found at the family dinner table."

The article then proceeds to discuss a study shows that teens who eat with their parents are less likely to use drugs and get better grades, and that college admissions experts are saying family dinners therefore "can translate into acceptance to the student's college of choice."

Now, the article gets the Echo Award for three reasons.

First, everyone's written already versions of this article.

Second, if you take the article to its logical conclusion, and try to apply it in your own family, you may be doing your kids a real disservice.

And, third, the article's making a couple of huge leaps -- family dinners = grades = college -- without that much support.

I'll hit each of these in turn.

First, this really is a news echo. There have been a number of reports on this basic premise of the benefits of a family dinner in the past few months -- including one by ABC itself. And this new article isn't really adding anything to those. In fact, I'm not even sure why it was written at this point, except that maybe adding the "getting into college" aspect seemed like a sexy hook when college admissions letters are rolling out.

Second, if you take the article to its logical extreme, the premise of eating together being the key to college admissions makes no sense whatsoever. Are you going to stop your kid from doing homework to eat with you? Doing less homework will help your kids go to college? If you work late, you're going to force your children to stay up past their bedtime, so that they can watch you eat a taco? That's what's going to get your kids into Harvard? And I'm not taking this to a ridiculous extreme; there are families, trying to follow this advice, who are doing things just like that. According to an article in this week's The New York Times, some families really are keeping kids up to have a family dinner at 9 pm, then sending them straight to bed. The parents seemed to have forgotten that eating late could lead to childhood obesity and that lack of sleep absolutely leads to poor school performance. But, gosh darnit, they ate together.

Now, the third issue -- the article's dubious evidence.

I cannot imagine any self-respecting social scientist to say that family dinners, in and of themselves, are the key to anything.

Sure, the Columbia report mentioned in this article (and all the others) says kids who regularly eat with their families do better. But the report is about high school students' school performance and drug use; it doesn't even mention their college plans once in the report.

But here's the most important thing about the report, in a sort-of sociological drive-by, the report states that frequency of dinners is an indicator of other issues going on in the family, and that families that eat together less also report more "tension" in the family as a whole.

So what is really at issue -- but what's not in the study -- is that family dinners could just be indicators of overall parental involvement.

What defines parental involvement isn't just a meal, but a litany of demographic, psychological, economic, social, and ethnic factors.

Just so we're clear on how distorted it is to frame the question solely as "Are more family dinners the key to college?" consider the fact that some of the kids who eat less with their parents are probably living with single mothers -- who are more likely to work irregular hours. That means that these same kids are also frequently living below the poverty line, they have parents who are less educated, these are the kids who . . . you get my point.

On the other hand, kids who can sit down with both parents over a meal, have two-parents, are more likely to be living in a more stable family environment, less likely to be poor, more likely to have educated parents . . . .

The family dinner's a symptom -- not the illness or the cure. And not the key to an admissions letter.

The one actual college admissions officer quoted in the ABC piece mentions this very point. Too bad it's stuck in the middle of the piece. In fact, looked closely, none of the experts quoted really seem to be focusing on the family dinner, just the family relationships. And the article concludes that it is any activity that increases parent-child involvement, that is important.

So if that's the case, then why is the article's focus on family dinners?

Now, the winner of the first Stentor Award goes to . . . Elaine S. Detweiler.

Ms. Detweiler is Director of Public Information for the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, a prestigious test that can lead to scholarships and, oh, yes, college admission. The kind of test that if you do well enough on, you'll still brag about years, maybe even decades, later.

And so Detweiler wins the Stenton for what is apparently her fruitless, ongoing battle to end an urban myth about a corrolation between family dinners and her organization's test scores.

There's a story going around (and repeated in the ABC piece) that there is research saying that regular family dinners result in a student getting higher scores on the National Merit's tests.

But according to Detweiler, no such research has ever been done. Not by NMSQ itself. Not by Columbia. Not by anyone. Got that? There is literally no research to support this. She's not saying the findings are inconclusive. She's saying that no one ever did that research. The report just does not exist. In fact, Detweiler asked a reporter, "Let me know if you find the source of this myth."

At least, that's what ABC said she said to the Wall Street Journal. Echo . . . echo . . . .


Blogger valereee said...

It's worse than this -- the Columbia report doesn't take into account AGE of the teen when it's considering the effect of family dinner on substance abuse. Seriously. They used the entire sample -- kids 12 - 17 -- and just put them into one pot. Given that 12-year-olds are both less likely to be absent from the family dinner table due to other activities AND are less likely to have started experimenting yet, this seems a startling omission.

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