Is Your Child an "Eddie" or a "Leslie"? - Improving Academic Performance Right Now
We've been looking forward to the day we got to write about parental involvement in education. But then, we've also been sort of dreading it. Because today, People, we're going to be decidedly un-politically correct. We're going to talk about the things nice liberals like us just don't talk about in polite society. Money, class, race, ethnicity. We even might talk about how one group does x, y, and z better than another.
In other words, there's a good chance we're going to offend somebody. Heck, we might even offend each other. But fear of offending people is part of how these problems don't get talked about. The PC answer is to just not to talk about such things, when, instead, they need to addressed head-on. Because only then can we really change anything.
Broadly speaking, there are two styles of parenting that a child can receive. The child of More Educated Parents tends to receive one style of parenting, and the child of Less Educated Parents tends to receive a different style of parenting. Let's call the first group of children Eddies and the second group of children Leslies.
Here's a rough sketch of what early childhood looks like for Eddie:
Eddie's parents graduated from college. They developed friendships there with people from far and wide, and these connections led Eddie's parents to land with jobs in a city different than they grew up in. So Eddie knows his cousins, but doesn't see them too often. Eddie's friends tend to be the kids from his microsoccer team or his preschool or his arts class - his friends are activity-specific. His parents drag Eddie to many activities because they believe these will improve his mind and coordination. His activities shuffle every month. Eddie watches some television, but always in the framework of moderation, with some rules about when it's appropriate for the television to be on. Eddie throws tantrums often and can say hateful things to his parents, but he also has a sense of his own budding independence. He is learning to stand up to authority when he feels cheated (even though his sense of what's unfair is childishly skewed). Eddie is read books every night by his parents, picking from an entire shelf of books. During reading, they pause often to ask Eddie what he thinks the alligator is feeling, or if he recognizes a word on the page, and they gently prod him to tell the story back to them.
Here's a rough sketch of what early childhood looks like for Leslie:
Leslie's parents might have graduated from high school, and possibly tried a couple classes at the local community college before dropping out to work. Leslie's parents likely grew up near each other, and so both of their extended families are nearby. At the birthday parties, everyone is related. Her cousins are her best friends and they have been as long as Leslie can remember. Leslie's parents take her to many activities, especially to church. They sign Leslie up for other programs just so Leslie can have a safe place to be. But she also gets plenty of time to just hang out and be a kid. The television is always on in Leslie's house, and her parents are not shy about it - they learn a lot from the television and they believe the television is very educational for Leslie. Leslie is keenly aware that her parents live on a tight budget, so she does not ask for toys often. She doesn't talk back - she does what her mom tells her to do. She is learning to defer to authority, even when she feels treated unfairly. Leslie is read one of her library books at night when Mom doesn't have to work the night shift - maybe twice a week.
Sociologists have studied these contrasting experiences in an amazing level of detail. For example, they take videotapes of children playing with their mothers and code the interactions between the two - often noting up to 3 interactions every second. What are they looking for? The magic subtlety of parenting. Is the parent responding to the child's needs or detached? When a child is getting confused, does the parent intrude or wait for the child to ask a question?
So here's what Eddie's childhood looks like under the sociologist's microscope:
Rarely is Eddie truly on his own. His parents are constantly watching him. Not only do they decide what he should and shouldn't be doing, they frequently make suggestions on what Eddie is doing, trying to steer him into a particular direction. His parents, highly verbal people, don't really dumb down their conversations that much; they use the same varied sentence structures speaking with him they'd use with adults. When he asks a question, they respond with a question -- so he must figure out the answer. When he answers a question, one word is never enough. His parents prod him for details; they make him back up his opinions with specific examples. "How was your day, Honey?" is the start of a dialogue, and "Fine" is not a sufficient answer. Eddie is encouraged to speak to other authority figures, just as he would speak to his parents. When Eddie and his parents disagree, his parents are authoritative - firm but still warm. They use reason and dialogue to resolve the problem - and they expect Eddie to do the same. They negotiate with Eddie, as if he is a peer who is entitled to voice his own opinion. Eddie is regularly and praised by his parents -- and it's spontaneous praise -- not because he accomplished anything particularly noteworthy.
And here's what Leslie's childhood looks like under the sociologist's microscope:
Leslie's parents leave her alone to play; they don't encourage her to do one thing or another. They don't direct her play towards any (educational) end result. Leslie's parents speak to her in short sentences with a simple vocabulary -- and often what they are saying is a command for Leslie to do something. ("Go to bed.") When Leslie asks a question, her parents often give a direct and brief answer. Leslie does not get peppered with endless questions. And when she does get asked something, if Leslie says her day at school was "good," that's sufficent. Her parents aren't going to ask her to explain her response any further. And they do not expect Leslie to talk to other authority figures; if she tries, she'll be silenced. It's her parents who should do the talking. When conflict arises between Leslie and her parents, her parents are authoritarian - strict and harsh. Leslie's parents don't use reason to get her to obey. Instead, Leslie is immediately punished -- often physically -- for her disobedience. And Leslie is only praised by her parents when she does something particularly worth praise.
In the rough sketch mode, Leslie’s life sounded better than Eddie’s in many aspects. But her early childhood is not training her to develop the skills she will need in elementary school. By the time she enters preschool, she will have had thousands fewer conversations with her parents than Eddie had with his. By the time they are 3 years old, Eddie already has twice the vocabulary of Leslie. Language – written and oral – is the primary method of communicating new ideas, concepts, and stories. Eddie’s superior language skills turn him into a sponge. Leslie is also absorbing as fast as she can – but not as fast as Eddie.
These differences seem minor - but by adding up every day, their consequences are major. By the time Eddie and Leslie enter kindergarten together, the average Leslie is scoring 9% lower than the average Eddie. Note that few kindergartners take tests - but the sociologists do make some take vocabulary and intelligence tests to figure this out.
We like to imagine that school is the great equalizer, that Eddie and Leslie’s differences wash away after a few years in school. That might be true if they had similar parents. Instead, the differences in academic performance don’t wash away – they accelerate. Few can catch up. Twelve years later, their difference is even more dramatic:
- For every 10 students who enter college, 8 will have parents like Eddie’s, and only 2 like Leslie's. One of the Leslies will drop out of college before graduating.
Right about now, you might be wondering why these subtle cues aren't being taught to all parents everywhere. If it makes such a difference in school, why aren't Leslie's parents being taught to interact with their children like Eddie's?
This is how the subject becomes taboo. So far, we've distinguished Eddie from Leslie by the education-level of their parents. We suggested that most of the Eddies have college-educated parents, and most of the Leslies have parents who did not graduate college. But that's not the only way to slice it. Because it is just about equally true to say that Leslie's parents are poor. And it is just about equally true to say that Leslie is black or hispanic.
Those three variables - education, class, and ethnicity - all correlate in the real world. Mind you, we firmly believe the key variable is none of those. The key variable is parental involvement and parenting style. But because of these correlations, you can't critique parenting style without coming across like you are telling the poor and the blacks and the hispanics that they are bad parents. They aren't bad parents. In fact their parenting style might be the best for dealing with poverty, racism, and holding the family together. But their parenting styles are not optimized for future academic performance.
Aware of this, sociologists are loathe to appear insensitive to people of non-white cultures. So they publish quietly and avoid controversy.
Here's the thing: avoiding what we know about parental involvement is only perpetuating the underclass. This might surprise you, but in all the time-use studies, blacks actually spend more time in school than whites or any other ethnicity. Spending more time at school is not fixing the gap in their performance. Blacks and hispanics both spend more time studying than whites (not necessarily in school). This, too, is not fixing the gap.
We can't continue to sacrifice our children's education on the altar of political correctness.
Tomorrow: how parental involvement continues to matter as Eddie and Leslie grow up.