Saturday, April 29, 2006

This Week's Recommended Reading

From Ash:

I almost didn't post this morning -- because I wanted to make sure you read Po and my post from yesterday on immigration. Once you've read that, I've got a few news articles of general interest -- but, in light of the Monday marches and boycotts, I more strongly recommend taking a look at some sources of information regarding immigration.

The Pew Center's Reports on Hispanics in America offer solid research on the number of undocumented immigrants, their lives, etc.

And for basic understanding of the policy issues on how to address immigration, try the Migration Policy Institute. Some of it gets pretty wonky, but if you're just trying to figure out what is actually being debated on Capitol Hill, you can start and end with their "side-by-side" analysis -- an easy-to-understand chart on the proposed immigration legislation, which highlights the differences between the various bills. (And note that none of them address Po's and my complaint -- none of them address the Mexican government's liability or participation in migration.)

Other social issue news of note:

AP reported this week on a new study had shown a continued increase in the number of those in the US without health insurance and that -- not surprisingly -- those without insurance received considerably less care -- from less visits to physicians to skipping needed medications.

Then, according to Reuters, another new study cast light on just how difficult social mobility really is: a child born into a poor family has just a 1% chance of becoming rich, while a child in a rich family has a 22% chance of being a rich adult.

The Recorder reported on what seemed to be a surprisingly honest forum for women attorneys. The message to the women: if you have kids, the clients still have to come first . . . and for God's sake, don't tell us about the kids because we don't care. So much for the pretense of a work-life balance.

And showing we're not the only ones struggling with what to do with immigrants --

Reuters reported that the Italian government had sent letters to the homes of 600,000 newborn babies -- congratulating their parents and informing them of their entitlement to a 1000 euro bonus that would be sent from the government created to spur births in a country with one of the world's lowest birth rates. But at least 3000 of the bonuses went to immigrant families who aren't eligible for the money, which is just for Italian babies, and now the government is saying that those immigrant families have to give the money back.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Immigration - How the Mexican Government is Creating a Parasitic Economy and Neglecting its Poor

From Ash and Po:

The current immigration debate is very emotional and complicated for me.

As an attorney and former presidential appointee, I've taken oaths to uphold all U.S. laws, defend the Constitution, and protect the U.S. I never considered any of those mere words: each time I've taken such an oath, I've been awed by the responsibility I just accepted.

But, at the same time, my faith background has taught me that love and compassion are the most important things. That I am to be merciful, and do whatever I can to aid my fellow man. To respect all people -- to value our common humanity.

The immigration debate pits those two principles against each other, much like the Myers-Briggs Personality question, "Is it better to be just or merciful?" I am angered by the disdain for law. I'm very concerned about a rapid, dramatic transformation of American culture without regard to the nation's will. But I am personally acquainted with a couple hundred undocumented aliens, and there isn't one I could have the heart to ever say "Send him back."

So I don't have the ready answers, but I would like to change the conversation a little. Because solutions like a guest-worker program or a really big wall are just lousy band-aids. They won't do anything to actually change the immigration problem, because they do nothing to get at the root-causes for immigration.

The problem here is not the illegal immigrant. Nor is it the guy who hires him (unless he's paying slave wages). It's not the border patrol responsible for sending immigrants back. It's not even the evilly opportunistic coyotes or those idiotic Minutemen.

No, the real problem is the Mexican government.

Let me be clear -- it isn't the Mexican people. It's their government. And maybe Mexico's big corporations. The fact of the matter is that the Mexican Government simply cannot afford to stem the tide of migration. In fact, it's to their benefit to encourage it -- and that's exactly what they are doing.

Pushing its poor towards the United States seems to have become Mexico's primary social policy. There has always been a push-pull dynamic. The lure of the United States has been the pull.

But we haven't recognized how much the Mexican government is pushing. By encouraging mass migration (and just how they are doing that, I'll get to in a minute), the Powers That Be get rid of the poorest -- which is a three-fold victory. First, it eliminates the financial concern of how to care for them. Second, the people who would be the angriest about the government's inadequacies keep leaving the country -- the ones who would vote, protest, stage walk-outs, even literally revolt -- instead keep voting with their feet. Which in turn protects The Powers That Be.

And third, as a reward for watching entire communities empty out, they receive a huge influx of cash.

In 2000, Mexico received $7 billion in U.S. remittances -- money sent home to Mexico from its US residents. A figure large enough that President Vicente Fox talked about it during his inaugural address. And why wouldn't he? It's a staggering amount, right? Well, it no longer is a staggering amount. Because that figure has tripled since then. Last year -- Mexico received a reported $20 billion in remittances.

Name another industry that Mexico could successfully increase like that within just 5 years. 78% of Mexican migrants in the US send home money -- the average well-over $200 a month. One-fifth of the Mexican population -- over 20 million -- receive remittances from the US.

To put that $20 billion in perspective, and to acknowledge how vital it is to Mexico, consider that $20 billion is more than Mexico receives in foreign aid. $20 billion is more than it receives from international tourists coming each year to Mexico. $20 billion is more than it exports in agriculture each year. $20 billion is more than it exports in car parts. The only category of foreign income that exceeds remittances is oil.

In 5 Mexican states, remittances now equal more than 100% of local salaries. In one state, Michocan, it's 182%.

The President of the World Bank Paul Wolfowitz is in Mexico this very week, and just this Wednesday said that it was remittances that were primarily responsible for Mexico's decreasing rate of poverty.

But it's not just remittances. The poverty rate is also going down in Mexico because the poor are being pushed toward the border. If Mexico were sending its best and brightest, then the Mexican government might be worried about the brain drain. But it's largely the lower classes who are moving to the United States -- those with a few years of education, if that, and those with some skilled labor experience. There are some areas where so many of these skilled laborers have left, there aren't enough to do the required work in areas of Mexico. But that's just on a community-by-community basis. From the perspective of the Mexican government, there are -- quite literally -- millions more where these poor workers came from.

The migration rate is the highest from the areas with the poorest people. These are states that the World Bank still says are receiving the least funding, and which have the most roadblocks to getting help in there. If the US emigrants and their children came home to one particular Mexican state, its population would literally double overnight.

Since year 2000, the proportion of Mexicans extremely poor has fallen from 24% to 17%, according to the World Bank. Is this the result of some miraculously beneficial Mexican welfare program? Hardly. Is it the result of a booming Mexican economy? Not at all. It's that many of the poor suddenly woke up in the U.S. The other poor left behind are receiving income from the U.S. - making them no longer poor. (Meanwhile, the proportion of Americans living under our poverty level has not gone down at all.)

Women are having trouble marrying, because there are so few men left some in of the poorest states. And a quarter of the migrant men in the US have a wife back home. Fewer marriages, later marriages, and separated spouses -- those all mean fewer kids -- and an even smaller poor population in the future.

Can you imagine the uproar in the United States if our national social policy for poor people was to encourage them to leave the country and go live elsewhere?

The Mexican government denies it is encouraging people to leave. But the reality is that created a culture and environment that absolutely encourages emigration. Consider the following programs instituted by the Mexican Government:

First, Mexico didn't really acknowledge its emigres -- not until 1990. But then the government began formal programs to aid citizens abroad -- and encourage more of them to go. One of these, the Program for Mexican Communities Living Abroad, established programs where Mexicans can send remittances to local communities via Mexican consultate offices and cultural centers throughout the U.S.

Since President Vicente Fox took office in 2000, the government has further increased these programs. In 2001, Fox established a Presidential Office for Mexicans Abroad, to serve as tie between emigrants and their Mexican communities of origin. His administration spearheaded legislation that allows Mexicans who live in the U.S. to have bank accounts in Mexico -- and they can keep the money in these accounts in dollars, not pesos -- and he's established other means to help the flow of remittances.

He's also behind allowing emigres to have dual nationality -- which means that they are eligible for some economic programs, but they can't vote in a Mexican election. In other words, the government still wants the emigrants' cash and connections, but it ensures that these millions can't have a voice in their national politics.

The Mexican government has started a program known as "3x1" -- for every $1 sent from a Mexican emigrant club or association for a development project, the Mexican Government will kick in $3.

Mexico has no express laws prohibiting human trafficking -- not across the border -- not even to protect as many 16,000 children a year in Mexico who are kidnapped or sold for sexual exploitation. Instead, Mexico says that its citizens have a free right to travel in their country that they don't want to abridge.

In December 2004, the Mexican Government began distributing 1.5 million comic books with instructions on how to safely cross the border. The books included suggested routes for coyotes, and legal advice on what to do if the US border patrol arrests a migrant, so that he will not immediately be returned to Mexico, but instead to initiate legal proceedings. The Mexican government explained that this was a necessary safety measure because people are dying during border crossings. The number of those who died crossing the border last year was over 400. That's tragic -- but 400+ out of almost 500,000 in a year -- warrants 1.5 million copies? That's enough for three copies for every US-bound migrant.

Inspired by the federal government's book, in 2005, the Mexican state of Yucatan distributed a book and a DVD about how to safely cross the border. But they don't historically have enough migrants moving North to have a safety problem. What they do have, however, is a doubling of remittances from 2001 to 2004 -- up to $9 million for a state of with a population of 1.7 million. And what they also now have is a government ceremony to celebrate migrants, on its newly created "Day of the Yucatan Migrant."

In December 2005, the Mexican Government agency announced that it was beginning a publicity campaign to make sure that its US-residing citizens knew they were entitled to a legal mininum wage. In the U.S., minimum wage is $5.15. In areas of Mexico, it's about $2. The campaign also will stress that Mexican US residents should not commit or allow domestic violence. Laudable -- but it's awfully interesting that they'd have such a plan here. Domestic violence occurs in about one out of every three homes in Mexico; at least 80% of women in Mexico City are sexually-harassed in the workplace.

That same month, the government started a special program that would enable US-residing residents to obtain special mortgages for Mexican property.

In poorer areas of Mexico, there are reports of officials telling citizens, in effect, "Don't ask us for aid and don't apply to our social programs. You should smuggle your family across the border."

In January 2006, a Mexican Government agency announced that it was distributing over 70,000 free maps of the border area, diagramming routes and locating water stations, to help migrants. (US uproar stopped them from being distributed.)

And Fox himself has described the migrants as "heroes."

What has been the result of all these programs? As Po wrote in his post yesterday, the flow of people north has exploded. In the 1970s, 120,000 people came north every year. In the 1980s, 200,000 came every year. In the 1990s, 300,000. Today, 485,000 Mexican citizens are coming into the United States this year.

By now you might be wondering, "Well, what's wrong with this, if it's working? If the United States benefits from cheap labor, and the Mexican poverty level is falling, isn't that a good thing?"

Well, think of Mexico as your talented and bright cousin who can't seem to hold down a job or take care of himself. He's family, and you believe in him. So you want to help him out. You send him a few thousand dollars to get an apartment, get a car, get some decent clothes, and get a job. You want him up on his feet sustaining himself. You don't want him to just spend the money away and remain unemployed.

There is no sign that the Mexican economy has been kickstarted by the $100 billion in remittances that have poured in since 2000. There is every sign that Mexicans are living off the remittances. It's being spent, not invested. Many Mexicans have quit their jobs because they can't earn anywhere near the amount of money they get sent each month. Were the flow of cash to stop tomorrow, the Mexican economy would collapse. One Mexican academic has determined that of the 16 Mexican states that have the highest migration rates, not one has made economic development a priority. There is still a culture of corruption that makes it incredibly hard to start a business in Mexico.

Any intertwined relationship between two entities can be categorized as symbiotic or parasitic. Symbiotic is when both benefit and get stronger from the relationship. Mexican academics are calling their country's relationship to the United States "parasitic" - they insist it is not making Mexico stronger, just making Mexico more dependent.

When President Fox calls the emigrants "heroes," he is taking advantage of their hard labor. He shouldn't celebrate this migration. It should be considered a tragedy that the Mexican government has not done more to end corruption, enable their economy, and care for its citizens.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Taboo Thought for a Pro-Immmigration Liberal to Have

From Po:

I believe we are all immigrants, in the United States. I believe the United States benefits dramatically from letting in people who really want to be here.

But I have started to think it is getting out of hand, and perhaps we should moderate the flow of new immigrants to a sustainable pace. Our research into America's schools has made me aware of how our educational system is breaking down where it is serving enormous immigrant student populations. If we're not giving these children a decent education, we are not helping them.

This is a taboo thought for me. I have never felt this way previously. My most long-standing friends in San Francisco are all immigrants - many of them who arrived illegally. I never thought I would be saying this.

It would be easy to miss the shift that has happened over the last few years. The difference is a matter of scale and degree. The steady trickle of new Americans has become a massive repopulation program, primarily from Mexico. During the 1970s, 120,000 Mexicans came to the U.S. every year. During the 1980s, it was about 200,000 a year. During the 1990s, it was 350,000 a year. Today, it's 485,000 - every year. One out of every eight Mexican adults -- those born in Mexico -- are now living in the U.S.

Mexican migration to the U.S. is the largest sustained migration movement in the world. Think about that. Due to war and famine, millions are fleeing back and forth across borders in Africa and Asia, and they have been for years. But Mexico-US migration dwarfs them all.

Over the last week, Ashley has convinced me that the Mexican government has used this repopulation program for its gain. Rather than having its own social support network, it has encouraged its poorer citizens to leave - and send money back. So the Mexican government officially states that it is fully cooperating with the United States to quell this mass-migration, but they are doing the opposite.

I have asked Ashley to post on this topic in depth. It's a very sensitive issue. Never before in this blog have we attacked a foreign government. But we've taken on the New York Times, Diane Sawyer, and our own government - and we haven't made too many enemies yet. So here goes.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Save Diane Sawyer's Job

From Po:

Last Friday, Primetime Live aired videotape of a stepfamily in Lake Placid, New York. In one segment, the father, Joe Nelson, is seen hitting his teenaged daughter Kyle as the stepmother Lynn egged him on. This moment was pulled from hundreds of hours of footage recorded by minicameras set up in the family's home by Primetime in 2002 and 2003. In addition to the beating, the segment made it clear that heated verbal arguments were commonplace in the Nelson home. In another moment, the parents threaten to hit her.

Most viewers felt they were witness to physical and emotional abuse. And they immediately wondered why Diane Sawyer and her producers did not report the Nelson family to the police or to Child Protective Services. ABC's team had been monitoring the videotape. Producers were clearly in the house at times, asking questions of the parents in an interview format.

This has caused a firestorm for Diane Sawyer. Over at, there have been 9,000 messages posted - most calling for Diane Sawyer to resign. The District Attorney for Franklin County has opened an investigation after receiving over 800 phone calls from viewers. Diane Sawyer has responded by devoting segments of Good Morning America to the fallout. On two consecutive mornings she has tried to explain why her team did not intervene - she has even brought Kyle Nelson on to the set to support her. Diane Sawyer insists that this family was already in counseling (though we never met the counselors). She also insists that this physical violence was an isolated incident - no others exist on the videotapes. (But in the show Friday night, Joe and Lynn admitted they had hit his daughter other times to discipline her). Diane Sawyer and her producers did not feel that the videotapes showed an unsafe environment. "It was bad parenting, but not unsafe for these children." Lastly, she falls back on the defense that ABC News created this segment in order to help stepfamilies. How was it helpful? It was supposedly "helpful" to let everyone know how bad it can get in some stepfamilies.

On the ABC message boards, viewers are only getting hotter. Not only are people upset that Diane Sawyer and her producers did not intervene to protect the teen daughter and her three young siblings, but they're furious that Primetime used this footage in a sensational way to get ratings. Slow-motion footage of the beating was repeatedly teased in previews to attract a larger audience. It was worse than tasteless - it was stomach-turning. And not at all informative. Far from being a portrait of a typical stepfamily-in-trouble, it was candid video of two abusive parents and nothing else.

I want to chime in with my two cents. As a journalist, I have been in situations where I felt I must intervene.

Journalists have this creed that they are not supposed to alter the outcome of a story. But that does not mean they can stand on the sidelines if they see a person in danger. If they feel they cannot broadcast a story because they altered its outcome, then throw the videotape in the file bin - but always help the person in trouble.

I interviewed families every week during the 3-year process of writing Why Do I Love These People? Twice I felt it necessary to affect the outcome. If that meant I crossed the line and could no longer report the story, then so be it. I always called a lawyer - the Random House lawyer - to discuss the ethics and my responsibilities.

In one instance, I had been interviewing a young couple and their toddler for about a year. They were skeptical whether their marriage could work. One day, the husband telephoned me in a panic. His wife had taken their son and gone to France on vacation for a week. Now it was clear to the husband that his wife was not coming back - the "vacation" had been a ruse. She had fled with their son, probably to her family's home in France. I knew that this was a violation of international law under the Geneva Convention, and that the mother could be prosecuted and forever lose custody of her child. The French government would be bound by treaties to pursue her and rescue the child. So I telephoned her parent's home, and sure enough, she was there. She was aware the French government might have to pursue her, so she was considering fleeing to Switzerland with her son under a false identity. Forever living on the run. Within one day, the father had hired an attorney who was ready to act aggressively.

Deciding to help was not a difficult decision. The agony was in realizing I would never be able to report their story as a result. My job was to get these two into the hands of professionals who could resolve their divorce and custody amicably. I insisted they find a mediator in Paris and meet at her office to strike a deal, quickly. The anger and hostility and distrust in these situations is explosive, and keeping both parties in a forgiving and positive state of mind took some stroking. To top it off, the mother was not a US Citizen, and after the divorce and she would not have the right to work in the U.S. - so an ocean would divide her and her son. The mediator was excellent. Within a week, they had a temporary deal. Within two weeks, the son was back in the United States. Within a month, they had agreed to divorce terms and custody - with some provisions. I am happy to say that their arrangement is working fairly well. The mother is back in the United States and sees her son frequently and has an employer that is sponsoring her visa.

Another time, I was visiting a single mother and her child. She was sharing custody with her ex. She was living with her boyfriend in a low-rent apartment complex. I met him and his brother briefly, before they went to their jobs at a fast-food restaurant. The mother told me that her boyfriend got drunk once a week and his brother was rowdy. There were no signs of imminent danger, but I did judge that this mother would be better off living on her own. She was mothering her boyfriend, and she had enough to deal with between her son and herself. She didn't need her boyfriend's problems. She wanted to move out on her own, but she did not have the $800 deposit on a new apartment. I decided that day to cross the line, slightly, and speak up: it was important she move out. Maybe not be in a relationship right now. I quizzed her at length whether she could borrow the $800 from someone. I agonized whether to give her the $800 myself. She called two days later to say she had found an apartment manager who was willing to let her move in without a deposit. She was going to move out in two weeks.

While some journalists might think I had already done too far, I worried I had not done enough. I recognized that my speaking up might already mean I would not report this story. I wasn't sure yet. Nor was the Random House lawyer.

Two weeks later, the mother had not moved out. Her boyfriend had convinced her they could save money sticking together; he had agreed that his brother would not come around. (For what it's worth, my own daughter was born at this very time, so I was occupied and did not have much time that month for my research families). Nevertheless, I did advise her that I disagreed with her choice.

A month later, she told me that her boyfriend had come home drunk one night and wanted sex. She always refused to have sex when he had been drinking. So on this occasion, he forced her to have sex. She understood that he had raped her, and she used that word. She was in tears. She loved her boyfriend but this was a crime. He had moved out, temporarily, to his brother's. I absolutely insisted she file a police report, or I would call the police myself. She did file the report immediately. Her boyfriend received counseling and began AA. About six weeks later, she let him move back in. I told her that my opinion did not matter as much as the opinion of the police and her boyfriend's counselor. She loved him and he has not had a drink since.

So let's take it back to Diane Sawyer. I intervened, and she did not. So why do I think Diane Sawyer should be spared criticism on this point?

Because the Nelsons were in family counseling. Kyle Nelson, the teenage daughter, was in individual therapy as well. Kyle had once attempted suicide, and she was taking ADHD medication, so I am guessing that her therapist was a psychiatrist with a doctorate in medicine who can prescribe drugs. It was not like the family therapist or Kyle's doctor did not know Kyle was in jeopardy.

A journalist's responsibility is to get the subject to a professional: a lawyer, a mediator, the police, or a licensed counselor. That's the important standard. Which type of professional they use to defuse the danger is ultimately the choice of the subject.

But what about the tape of the beating? Had I been in Diane Sawyer's shoes, I probably would have called the family's counselor and Kyle's doctor and told them I had a videotape of the incident. I would have wanted to make sure that the incident was discussed in their therapy sessions. The counselor and psychiatrist were the experts trained to decide whether further intervention was necessary.

Diane Sawyer insists that her ABC team showed the tapes to outside experts and asked their advice. Those experts did not recommend more-severe intervention than ensuring this family was in counseling. Diane Sawyer is a very-experienced journalist and I think on this point she did her job.

That does not mean I think the Primetime episode was okay. It was gratuitous, sensational, and mischaracterized as a "stepfamily" story when it was really a story about domestic violence and emotional abuse. ABC deserves to be called out for this. But that sort of criticism is the stuff we do every day here in this blog. We want the story told accurately. But when a journalist sensationalizes a story, we don't demand they should lose their job.

Postscript: In the ten days since I wrote this, I have been in communication with Kyle Nelson's family and learned just how in the dark ABC kept them. Read what I learned here.

Eduardo and Leslita -- Crosscultural Challenges in the Classroom

From Ash:

Last week, Po and I spent a lot of time exploring the differences between parental involvement for the child of educated parents (whom we called "Eddie") and the child of less-educated parents ("Leslie"). But that doesn't mean that we don't recognize there are other influences on parental involvement as well, and that's what I want to talk about today. And remember when Po and I warned that, at times, we might not come off as the good P.C. liberals we're supposed to be? Well, here's the day when that warning really applies to me.

Because today, I want to address how rapid immigration is resulting in unrecognized crosscultural challenges in the classroom that we have to address.

We can't underestimate the impact on immigration upon our schools, and our kids' education. 17 million children live with a foreign-born householder. And it isn't just their parents. Children themselves are immigrants: immigrants make up 20% of our nation's student population.

9 million of the kids in our schools speak a language other than English when they get home: of these, 7 million of them are speaking Spanish.

And usually, language seems to be the only thing we seem to consider at issue. "How do we teach all these kids who don't speak English?" That's an important question. But what I want to argue is that we can't just stop there.

We also need to recognize that a child's immigrant parents are often likely to be poorly educated. Immigrants from Asia are actually well-educated: 50% have bachelor's degrees or higher. But only 11% of the immigrants from Latin Ameria have degrees (and half of all our immigrants come from Latin America.) A huge chunk have only minimal education - 20% of all foreign-born immigrants (over the age of 25) have less than an 9th-grade education.

Beyond the lower educational attainment of their parents, we also have to deal with other, tangible cultural issues facing children of immigrants, or those who are immigrants themselves.

And "deal with" doesn't just mean that we give a lip-service amount of respect to everyone's backgrounds by having the occasional "foreign culture" day at schools.

I'm saying that we need to recognize that families from different national backgrounds may have dramatically different approaches to schooling and education. And we have to either teach these parents and kids about the values we hold as important within the American school system, or change the system to accommodate their different traditions.

Now, we all seem to understand that Hmong families who arrive in the U.S. would need special attention in the class. After all, the Hmongs have no written language, so the idea of reading would be quite literally foreign to them. And we also recognize that others from similarly exotic backgrounds would also need accommodations.

But what about those coming from Central and South America? We fail to see that there is anything other than a language barrier from those families. And studies have shown that that is completely incorrect.

For example, families coming from Mexico and other Latin American countries come from extremely patriarchical societies. There, a good child is one who is obedient and respectful. So, not surprisingly, studies of Mexican parents in the U.S. believe, that if their children are quiet, obedient and listen to the teacher, that's all it takes for a child to succeed in school.

In my own experience, I've worked with families from countries like El Salvador and Guatemala. The parents have had lifetimes of revolution, repression -- and the one thing you don't want to do when the soldiers come through the village is speak out. And indeed, studies have shown that parents with backgrounds like these believe that the key to success in education is in conformity. The goal is for their children to think and do the same things everyone else does, and never intellectually challenge those in authority.

From that perspective, shyness is almost a key to success. But from the Anglo-American point of view, shyness is a character flaw you need to get over to get ahead.

In other studies, immigrant parents from countries such as Cambodia, Mexico, the Philippines, and Vietnam, believe that things like a child's learning social and practical skills are as important in school as developing their cognitive ability -- while white Americans would say it's the opposite: it's their problem-solving skills, verbal and creative abilities that are the most important.

At the same time, sociologists have determined that Mexican -American mothers do not see themselves as ‘teachers’ of their children. They see parenting more in terms of nurturance.

Which means, not surprisingly, that children with these cultural backgrounds are doing worse in American schools -- which are based in developing intellectual autonomy through the debate of ideas. In fact, I'll even argue that the very behaviors these families see as virtues may actually dooming their children to failure in the American system.

If it still seems difficult to understand how these cultural influences result in behaviors that directly hurt these children's success in school, here's an example from my tutoring kids.

95% of my kids come from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico -- extremely patriarchical, hierarchical societies. In those communities, you often show respect to elders and superiors by looking downwards; you don't look them in the eyes.

Now imagine, a white, Anglo teacher facing a room full of these kids, all silently looking down at their desks. They probably don't even realize that they are looking down, but if you asked them about it, they'd believe they were conducting themselves in a manner that would show the teacher the appropriate demonstration of respect.

But the teacher sees a room full of kids, not looking at her, not responding when she asks a question. So she thinks the kids are disengaged -- they're bored and not paying attention. Even though they actually might be listening to every word. She may even get pissed off at . . . irony of ironies . . . how disrepectful the kids are being, not even pretending to pay attention by looking up at her as she lectures.

For a while, I thought, "I can't say anything to the kids. The fact I think they should look up at me is culturally biased." But I thought, linguists call it code-switching, how you act and speak with one community is different from another. It's a learned process -- but you have to know to when it applies. I know the kids act differently when they're on a basketball court -- so I explained it like that -- how you act in class is different than when you're with your parents.

"Look up," I insisted, "Pretend it's a science experiment."

Some of the kids thought I was crazy. They didn't disagree with me -- yes, as a matter of fact, they did usually look down during class -- but they said it was just too hard to look adults in the eye. And you could tell when they tried it -- even with me, whom they've known for years -- that they were physically uncomfortable.

Then, a week later, all of Tutoring stopped when two brothers bounded in the room, breathless with excitement. They had tried my experiment. They were looking at the teacher -- in the eyes -- when a friend of theirs who was looking down got in trouble for not paying attention. And they didn't get in trouble. They knew they would have been, if they hadn't been looking up. They were thrilled. And other kids decided they'd try the experiment, too.

Months later, the kids are still looking up in class, not getting in trouble, watching others get yelled at for not "paying attention."

To just stick these kids in an ESL program (if they're lucky) and then shrug when they don't succeed is laughable.

The good news is here that there are some studies on classes for parents from Hispanic backgrounds -- teaching the parents how to teach their kids to read, and the like. And these programs do seem to work. Their kids are more school-ready, test scores go up.

The bad news is that there are so very few of these programs available, that there's little to go on beyond that.

Monday, April 24, 2006

When Leslie is About to Drop-Out: Is There Reliable Help?

From Po:

Two weeks ago, we analyzed the numbers on high school dropouts, and we painted a slightly different picture than Time magazine and the Gates Foundation. They said the huge number of drop-outs are being covered up with accounting trickery; we said these publications were doing a bit of alarmist manipulation as well. Then we attacked the Gates Foundation for its weak solution – a website called

In the meantime, we went looking for other solutions. And what we learned shocked us.

There are some well-planned “drop-out prevention” programs operating in America’s schools and communities. They have been doing their good work for up to 30 years. They have names like “Job Corps” and “New Chance” and “STEP.” Some are in the schools; some operate on schools as an after-school program or a summer program. Others are located away from the schools in community centers. Despite their differences, most of the programs try some variation of the same concepts. First, they provide a high ratio of counselors to students, creating a hands-on experience. Second, they are vocational, creating a bridge with future careers, promising jobs and skewing the academics to prepare for those jobs. They mix in health education and basic academics.

There are enough of these programs (each of which operates in many schools) for their effectiveness to be studied properly. This meant comparing each program’s high-schoolers against other at-risk students who did not participate in the drop-out programs.

Here’s what they found: the drop-out programs basically do not work. As well-intentioned as these programs are, the students in the drop-out programs are not doing any better than the kids who were unhelped. Not if you measure their income. Not if you measure how many get diplomas. Not on taking GEDs.

The lack of a statistical impact was so surprising that it obliterated the relevance of minor positive impacts in a few programs on sub-populations. For instance, some programs seemed to help only the extremely-at-risk kids. Or one program improved the graduation rate, but not work-status and income a few years later. Of the 16 most-well-known programs analyzed, only one program (Job Corps) showed any across-the-board benefits for the average student in its program. That benefit, while statistically relevant, was still far less than its administrators expected.

In short, they are all failing. Certainly, they are falling short of expectation.

So are these programs no good?

Reading the details of these programs, they sounded great. Blaming the programs is too easy. We certainly don’t want their funding cut. Rather, we started asking the question, “Why aren’t these programs making a difference? Is some other factor missing, that’s needed for these programs to work?”

That was what led us to parenting styles, and how they impact academic performance. We believe that none of these school programs will solve the problem unless paired up with a home environment that coaches academic preparation.

In case that seems too big a leap, consider the impact of preschools and day-care on poor children.

It was once-believed that Head Start would level the playing field for children in poverty. Attending preschool at age 3 and 4 was expected to eradicate the testing gap that already exists by the time children start kindergarten. Well, we know that hasn’t happened, but that’s because Head Start has never been funded in the way it was conceived.

Head Start obviously needs more funding before its success can truly be quantified. But because it is so huge, more funding has been pushed into certain pockets and then been evaluated. This has been a proxy test for the question, “If Head Start were fully available to every poor child, and enough money was thrown at the program so that it operated at its highest quality, what would be the impact on kindergarten readiness?”

If given all the money it ever asked for, could Head Start level the playing field?

The research says, “No.” In this best-case scenario, it can only reduce the test-score difference by about 25%. In other words, if poor children are entering kindergarten scoring 9% lower than middle-class children, we might be able to cut that to 7% or 6%.

No government program can substitute for what needs to happen in every home. We don’t presume that parenting styles can solve the world’s problems all alone either. But all the money is wasted unless we simultaneously raise the awareness of what is necessary for all parents of young children.

If you don’t know what I’m referring to, (because you didn’t read our posts of last week,) start here.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

This Week's Recommended Reading

From Ash:

If you have just a few minutes this week, I implore you -- check out the Los Angeles Times 4- part series, "The New Foreign Aid." Each piece profiles how one nation is dependent -- and being transformed by its citizens who leave their homeland to find work elsewhere. This is an issue that blew me away when we were working on immigration for the Factbook, and I'm thrilled to see such attention put on it.

If you're not aware of this global phenomenon, this series should cast the immigration controversy in a whole new light for you. The stories track those who have left, and those who get the money back home, as well, as illustrate particular issues that confront their countries -- for example, how the Philippines has become a nation with a chief export being labor -- to the point they don't have enough doctors left in the country, how almost all of Haiti's economy is dependent on this informal aid, etc.

The prose pieces go into the numbers -- and give you a sense of the vast scale of the issue. (e.g. One out of every six people in the world is depending on money from a person working in another country.) But the real "can't miss" here is Don Bartletti's interactive slideshows that accompany each article. Bartletti's work makes the prose seem, as informative as it is, flat by comparison. I just hope the LAT gets this guy into a master class with Ira Glass, so that his narration rises to the level of his photography, which is truly terrific. Oh, those highly saturated colors! -- just dazzling. Each image is a feast for the eyes and a dagger through the heart.

None of the rest of this comes close to that LAT work, but it's still worthwhile.

On education, NPR's Morning Edition has a solid prose piece on some of the issues that have resulted from Mayors trying to establish control over their school districts. And perhaps better is its audio profile of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's plan to take the LA schools from the current administrative body.

The Boys & Girls Club of America just released results from a survey of over 46,000 teenagers. It didn't particularly rock my world, but particularly since we've been spending so much time on education, it's interesting to hear what these kids today are thinking. Highlights: almost 3/4 of the teens thought that a college education was necessary to their future success, but less than half (42%) actually saw themselves as still being in school 5 years down the road, while for a quarter of them, their greatest fear was that they wouldn't finish high school.

On April 21, the New York Times wrote a piece about the "bank of mom and dad" -- how parents are still giving money to their adult children. Well, I sort of hate these pieces, but at least this one's focused on economics, instead of "failed adulthood."

And lastly -- this is one of those articles you have to tell someone about, but you're afraid if you do, more people will know about it and go "Hey, What a cool idea!" instead of the "Oh . . . my . . . God" response you're hoping for. So, hoping you'll be as perturbed as I am, on April 19, the Los Angeles Times also ran this column one (page one) story -- that outsourcing to India isn't for jobs anymore. No, now, we're outsourcing pregnancy. Specifically, you can find an Indian woman to act as a surrogate, who will be fertilized and carry your baby for you. For the bargain price of $5000.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Eddie and His Father - Stance Towards Authority

From Po:

We continue with our analysis of how two parenting archetypes affect the long-term academic performance of children. In previous posts, we introduced two archetypes - Eddie and Leslie. Eddie is a kid whose parents have more education (college or more); Leslie's parents have less education (completed high school at best).

I've got an Eddie. He turned five a month ago. He loves action figures and watches too many "shows." When he's not tired or in tears, he has excellent pronunciation of multisyllabic words. He tells long stories. He has been in a preschool since he was 4 months old. He can write all his letters and sound out phonics and is memorizing sight words. His imagination is as robust as mine - give him two action figures of any sort, and he can entertain himself for hours.

In most dimensions, I don't worry about him. He's normal, and he is headed in the right direction. That said, there are times he behaves in ways that I simply cannot quite figure what is going on. It feels like the theories I have been provided to interpret this behavior don't quite fit. He exhibits a particular civil disobedience I do not see in other children. I wouldn't call them classic tantrums.

I see the kids throwing tantrums on Dr. Phil every night, and my kid does not look like those kids. He doesn't scream and doesn't make going to bed or turning off the television into a war.

For instance, this winter we signed him up for microsoccer practice. Our Eddie has been running around on the sidelines of his parents' co-ed soccer games since he was 5 months old. Soccer is his family sport. His uncles and aunts play too. On Saturday mornings, we take our Eddie to his practice. The players are gathered around the 2 coaches, standing up when their name is called and giving the coaches high fives. If our Eddie had a friend there, he would run out to the circle, no problem. But Eddie does not know these kids, so he refuses to run out there. He wants a parent to walk out there with him. This I understand - he is a little shy around unfamiliar kids, and he needs an introduction. So Mom walks him out there. He still refuses to participate. He wanders off and falls down in a heap. He knows that he has already embarrassed himself, and this embarrassment-factor triggers a downward cycle.

No amount of positive encouragement from the coaches or the players helps him now. He runs away from anyone who tries to approach him. A perturbed scowl (maybe exaggerated?) is on his face. We walk away, not wanting to give him any option but to join the team. He is silent and evasive and back to being a heap. What does he want? What is he after? Probably, he has just decided this isn't his thing. He doesn't want to be there. We, of course, do not give an inch - Dr. Phil has assured us, no must mean no. If we give in once, he'll use this technique forever. I will leave the field and sit in the car if that's what it takes to make sure he is not using me as a foil. But every week he keeps using it anyway.

Is he just shy? Well, this is the same kid who runs up and down the streets of New York City, knows exactly where the big rocks are in Central Park, and has no hesitation jumping on subways ahead of his parents. On the subway, he will call out to strangers if they are wearing a funny hat or speaking in a language he does not know. (We live 3,000 miles from New York City). Shyness is part of it, but doesn't seem to describe it fully. He says "Remember, Dad, I'm shy." But I think he's trying to use this as leverage. And he seems so self-aware of shyness as a possible excuse - it's too rehearsed. He doesn't grab my leg and hide in safety. He is out there, on stage, an exhibitionist of civil disobedience. I used to be very shy, and my mother assures me I did not act this way. I clung to legs.

This is the other reason shyness doesn't fit entirely. He reproduces this type of behavior when I drop him off at preschool. He runs into the school ahead of his sister. He puts his cuddle-bear in his cubby and signs his own name on the sign-in sheet. He is playful and happy. But when we get to the door to his classroom, he balks. He wants to go to his little sister's class or just play in the younger-toddler class. I open the door to his class, and the teachers - who he is in love with - welcome him in, offering hugs if he steps inside. The class is full of his friends, kids he has known for years. They all like him, but he thinks and fears they secretly like other kids more than him. He is strangely intimidated. And so he balks. No tantrum, and not quite shutting down in a heap. He doesn't attempt to negotiate - he doesn't ask to be bribed. He'll run to the aquarium and talk to the fish. I try not to give an inch. I don't want to let him manipulate this situation. But this has gone on for two years. So I leave him. It works itself out in my absence. When I pick him up at the end of the day, he doesn't want to leave. He loves his preschool, and says he wants to stay there until he is thirteen. He want to marry his teachers. He hugs every one of his friends goodbye before he finally leaves. So why does he do this to start the day?

Not giving in has not helped. The experts say he is testing his limits. They say a child needs to know that yes means yes and no means no. Promises must be kept. According to this theory, when the rules are clear and known to be inflexible, he will abide them. I know this theory well, and it fixed his terrible-2s perfectly. They say when a kid is 4 or 5, his instinct to please will take over and he will abide the fixed rules.

Perhaps he lacks that need to please. I don't sense that he is out to please anyone. This, I admire. I see other kids his age acting polite around their parents and then badly with their siblings, or polite to their teachers and then terrible to their parents. My Eddie is not two-faced and is not manipulative in that style. But sometimes I wish an urge to please would kick in.

Is it me? When he goes into civil disobedience mode, it is not reserved for me at all. He does it to his teachers and his two soccer coaches, too. Not with total strangers, but with any known authority-figure he doesn't hesitate to balk if he feels like the urge. And in that, I now see a clue.

When Ashley and I began reading the sociological studies on how parenting differences explain the future academic performance of children, the authors of the studies kept making a point. It wasn't just the vocbulary-enriched childhoods these Eddies were experiencing that helped them develop. It was a stance towards authority they were learning. What seems like defiance, when young, later turns into a confidence that you are free to demand changes from institutions and authorities when they are not serving you well. You don't distrust institutions - you trust that if you speak up, they will make accomodations and meet your needs.

Somewhere between kindergarten and high school, the Eddies and the Leslies do an apparent flip-flop. Many of the Leslies switch from deferential to disobedient. The Eddies might be unhappy too, but they manage to work within the system. The Eddies understand that if a teacher is unfairly singling you out, you can tell your parents and your advisor and it will be addressed. The Eddies understand that if they fall behind, they can ask teachers for special help. The Eddies understand that if the class is proceeding too slow, they can ask for extra credit work. When they grow up, they will believe that unfair laws must be changed, that police can't discriminate, that they deserve equal pay to those around them, and that misguided politicians must be voted out.

When I read about the Eddies in high school, I was given a new theory to describe my Eddie's civil disobedience. Right now, his sense of fairness/unfairness is childishly skewed. But he feels like this whole childhood thing (as we've constructed it) has to work for him. It has to meet his needs. So he'll do his reading and writing work, but he deserves to watch a television show now and then. Not in payment - (not a trade) - just that an occasional show needs to be part of the package. And he'll go to school every day, but he has needs. He needs to sneak in some tiny Lego figures in his lunchbox pocket. He needs his favorite teacher to come out of his classroom and come squeeze him with love meant just for him. He will go to soccer practice, but he needs us to convince one of his good friends to sign up for practice too, so he's not alone out there with a bunch of strangers. He's not trying to fight back just to test his limits. He's trying to make it work for him.

I have to say, he never seems to ask for anything unreasonable. He doesn't push his luck, following a successful negotiation with another request.

For a moment, at least this week - with these theories bright in my mind - his behavior seems understandable. I'm seeing the genesis of a stance towards authority that will serve him later.

But I'm skipping taking him to soccer tomorrow. I've got a game of my own.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Helping Leslie -- How the Littlest Things Matter

From Ash:

This week, Po and I have been working with portraits of two kids, Eddie and Leslie, as a way to address how parents' educational attainment effects their own children's educations. Eddie is a kid whose parents have more education (college or more); Leslie's parents have less education (completed high school at best). Both Eddie and Leslie are archetypes -- not even stereotypes. Meaning, they are meant to be more illustrative than representative -- highlighting common traits and behaviors sociologists have identified after years of surveys and studies. But we both know that every family has unique traits, issues, challenges. So today, I thought I'd spend a little time with some real Leslies I know.

As a little backstory, in January 1999, I began a free, all-volunteer tutoring program in "Mid City" Los Angeles. Mid City is predominately Hispanic and Black. Most are struggling to make ends meet. Gangs are a constant problem, so are drugs. Most of our Hispanics are immigrants (legal and illegal).

As I mentioned in a previous post, the tutors are very small group -- we all have college-educations (except for the one still in college), and a few of us have professional degrees. Despite my occasional ineptitude, and an annual "budget" of around $1000 (donations tutors and friends chip in), we've somehow managed to work with over 300 kids in 8 years.

Our "Leslies" have parents with some schooling, some with none at all. Their parents are almost all in service jobs, skilled labor, or other blue-collar jobs, if they're lucky enough to have a job. The vast majority of the kids in the tutoring program are Hispanic -- and the parents and the kids are native Spanish speakers. The others are black. Why so few of our kids are black, we've never been able to figure out, or change. Though we've tried. We've never seen a white kid come in for tutoring. (But then, I don't know any living in the area, either.)

Sigh. This is incredibly painful and awkward for me to attempt to explain. I'm only writing this because Po promised it. I love my tutoring kids. Get me in a room, and I can't stop talking about them. But I hate talking about us, the tutors. No matter how I do it, it always feels like I'm bragging - look at me, the educated white girl working with the poor uneducated masses. Ugh. It's so not about me. But it's awfully hard to write a post like this and leave myself out.

I guess I should also say that I don't feel like an outsider to this community, and I don't think anyone there would think otherwise, either. While I live about a mile west, our tutoring program is an offshoot of the church that I've been attending for about 9 years. So many of the children I tutor, I also see at Church or other activities: their parents and I often volunteer together for a church festival or something. Even for the kids I don't know from Church, I often already know one of their cousins or their friends.

You might wonder whether these children are having difficulty translating their Spanish into English, or whether they are struggling with literacy -- regardless of the language. The latter is the case. They speak both Spanish and English, but equally-poorly. They are termed "bilingual" but in many ways they are not-very-lingual. They use a street-speak in both languages.

Their parents -- not very educated themselves -- are not familiar with the importance of getting the best grades possible. They understand that failing is bad, and staying in school is good. But the distinction between C-grades and B-grades and A-grades is not something that usually resonates with them all that much.

But the truth is, if I have anything to offer, it's not how much we do for the tutoring kids -- it's how the little things we do for them make a difference. These are little things that you blog readers probably do for your children instinctively. Yet the same little things amaze our students' parents. Like I came up with this random rule, if we have cookies to give out, a kid can't get one until he's learned how to spell "cookie." It's not rocket science. But first graders struggling with the alphabet suddenly are able to spell not only "cookie," but they usually get a good start on "chocolate," too. One day I realized some of the kids frequently used "I need to go to the bathroom" as a way to get out of studying. I kept taking them to the bathroom, but I would quiz them about what they were working on as we walked there and back, so they didn't get out of working. Now kids pretend to need to go to the bathroom because they want to be quizzed to see how many state capitals they know.

We have a thing we do when a kid is bored. It works especially for the younger kids. If there's a kid who is really getting fidgety, frustrated with his inability to get anywhere with his homework, a tutor will say, "Let's take a walk, Honey."

For a myriad of safety reasons, the walk goes never farther than the opposite edge of the parking lot. But the parking lot is an open classroom.

"Hey, Honey, What kind of a car is that? What's that say?"
"Great! Spell 'Ford.'"
"What does that say on the car's license plate?"
"Great! What's that over there?"
"The water fountain."
"Great! Can you spell 'fountain'?"
"No, Sweetie, let's try that again, together."

We start quietly but soon we're singing it, yelling it out-loud, again and again. A mantra turned cheer. All the way back to the tutoring room, until the kid can do it by himself.

At the end of tutoring, I stop the kid from dashing out the door. I pull Mom over to the side. You can see the fear in her eyes: she knows her kid must have done something wrong.

"Spell 'fountain'!" I not so fiercely command her son.


The kid beams. I beam. The mom gives her child an amazed stare.

We've had other moms who secretly follow us around the parking lot. Listening to every word. Afterwards, a Mom will shake her head, "That thing you did with the cars. That would never occur to me."

To her, all she saw was parked cars. But for me, it's just an outdoor classroom.

When I hear that, then the Mom and I will make our own quick tour, and I show her some of the "textbooks" parked outside. I point out how I make the kids read all the stuff written on the cars, the street signs. License plates can launch you into a geography lesson. The number of seats in a car can be the start of a math word problem.

By now, Mom's usually speechless. Sometimes near tears. But quite often, she just shakes her head, dazed. It's like I ripped the blinders off. All these times she could have been helping her kid learn. And she'd only thought that "helping her kid" meant sitting next to him as he did his schoolwork - which she often couldn't do herself.

Sometimes, parents will shove a failing report card into our hands and ask us for suggestions on what they should do. A lot of times they tell us at the start of a tutoring session, "He needs help with reading." As if this is our problem to solve. We say, "Sure, we'd love to read with your kids."

But then, when that Mom comes back, we hand the kid and the responsibility right back to her. "You need to read more with your kid. Half-hour, every day. I don't care what you read. English, Spanish, labels on a cereal box but you have to read with them."

Of course, after a few years of doing this, we no longer wait for the Moms to give us an opening like that. We just plow into them. We barrage them with unsolicited suggestions for their kids. Again, it's nothing we ever said we should or shouldn't do. We just all do it.

"Make them read, every day. And turn that t.v. off. Really, no t.v.," we insist. (One family, every time I see their mom -- "No, really, No t.v.")

"Can you find the way to get the closed-caption button to work on your t.v.? Then your kid can see the words everyone's saying." "Really?" "Si."

"Does your family have a dictionary in the house? Here, let me get you one."

"Don't go yet -- Are there any books at home?" "No. Not really." "Yeah, I do -- I have my schoolbook." "Come back here, Honey, and let's find you a couple books. Have you ever heard of Wizard of Oz? No? Try it. It's one of my favorites."

"Did you call the teacher about this report card? You need to talk to him. It's his job to help you, really. Do you want me to go with you?"

"Maria's squinting when she reads." "Really?" "Have you thought about getting her glasses? Here's the number of a clinic."

"Here -- take these flashcards -- do them with him every day." "Really? For how long?" "Half-hour, at least." "Really?"

Yeah. Really.

As I said, it's not rocket science. Honestly, I just thought every parent did the sort of stuff we do in the parking lot, using the world as an open book. I mean, in my mind, what do you talk to a child about, if it isn't about teaching her about the world around her? How do you not see a blue sky and ask the child to spell "sky"?

It wasn't until I met the parents who weren't doing that sort of thing that I realized I was doing something different than they were. That this could actually be an issue.

It's a real issue.

Don't get me wrong. The vast majority of these parents adore their kids -- want the absolute best for them. For a lot of them, they've given up everything they've ever known just so that their kid has a chance of getting an education. That's why it hurts so much to see that they are being disadvantaged. These little things are easily teachable. Every parent should know how to make the parking lot a classroom.

Next up: Po on raising an Eddie of his own.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Eddie and Leslie In Elementary School

From Ashley and Po:

We continue with our analysis of how two parenting archetypes affect the long-term academic performance of children. Fyi, our goal here is not to help parents create the perfect stimuli to maximize their academics. Rather, our goal is to help eradicate the entrenched underclass in our society. We use these archetypes to portray how a person's educational attainment affects the way they parent their children. In many ways, the "Leslie" childhood teaches important lessons and values that the "Eddie" childhood does not. However, sociological studies repeatedly find a strong correlation between Leslie's future academic challenges and the fine details of how she was parented.

A school-age Eddie continues to be involved in a myriad of activities. His parents will continue to be highly involved in his educational development. Despite all the bad things they hear about public schools, they’re actually “well-satisfied” with Eddie’s school. But then, Eddie’s parents had moved to a new neighborhood when he turned 4, ensuring him a place in a better school. Eddie’s parents continue to regularly read to Eddie. They limit his t.v. watching - not just how much but what he watches - all the while still complaining that he watches too much as it is. They help him with his homework, making sure he knows how to do every last math problem. His parents go to PTA meetings, participate in school committees and school fundraising. They think this is important, not just because they can directly praise and encourage Eddie -- but they also use it to help Eddie in other ways. They casually tell a teacher that Eddie’s been practicing his multiplication-tables - but if he’s still having trouble, call immediately so that “the three of us” can work together to find a solution.

Since most of the friends of Eddie’s parents' are professionals, Eddie knows teachers, doctors, and lawyer-types socially. They are the parents of his friends, so they don’t seem like authority figures any more than other adults. If Eddie does have to go to the doctor’s, his mother encourages him to be an active participant in the appointment. He’s not just a specimen to poke at: Eddie should ask the doctor about what he’s doing. When the doctor asks a question, Eddie can answer it himself. Eddie and his mother both laugh when his mother confesses that Eddie’s diet “isn’t as good as it could be” - but don’t worry about it when they stop for ice cream on the way home.

When she reaches school age, Leslie’s parents aren’t very happy with the school she’s been assigned to, but her cousins go there, so they figure it will be all right. Leslie is no longer read to. Her parents rarely ask her any specifics about what she’s studying at school. Leslie’s teacher had once acted like her parents were supposed to check Leslie’s work. Sure, her parents asked if Leslie finished everything, but they didn’t actually look the homework over. If her kid didn’t understand what she was teaching them, wasn’t it the school’s fault for not teaching him better? They’re the experts. The teachers know best, don't they? Leslie, for her part, was relieved, because then she could lie that her homework was done, and they’d never know. Which was a good thing since she didn’t want a spanking for lying -- and they wouldn’t let her explain that the reason she didn’t finish was because she couldn’t understand the directions. No, this way she could watch t.v. with everyone. The t.v. is never off. Once, a teacher said Leslie watched too much t.v. When Leslie told Mom about the comment, Mom was furious. She told Leslie, “Well, all the nerve - you’re home, safe, well-fed, clothed. You’re not on the street like a lot of kids around the neighborhood. T.v.’s educational anyway: you learn more from CSI than you ever learn in that science class.”

Leslie’s parents go to school events -- but not as much Eddie’s parents. That may be because of their work schedule, but it may also be because Leslie’s parents see teachers, doctors, and others in the professional class as their social superiors. And while Leslie’s parents hope she goes to college, they are sometimes unintentionally teaching Leslie to be suspicious of superiors - even fear them. People like teachers can report on you for being a bad parent and get you in big trouble. That means that her parents are as deferiential to teachers as they expect Leslie to be to her parents. So in a parent-teacher conference, or a doctor’s appointment, Leslie’s parents say the answers they think will please these superiors - even if they aren’t true. Yes, she eats her vegetables. No one in the family drinks. They don’t argue back; they don’t explain. They just listen and nod. They even speak in the same short obedient replies that they hear from Leslie. And they never turn the tables, demanding answers of their own.

Because superiors are to be feared, her parents are teaching Leslie to take care of herself. When Leslie has a confrontation in the playground, instead of telling her to take it up with a teacher, Leslie’s parents tell her to stand up to the other girl when the teachers aren’t around.

Leslie's parents want the best for her. They are doing everything they believe necessary to help their daughter survive in a tough world. But unwittingly, Leslie does not get the support at home to excel in school - even if she happens to be enrolled in a good school. It is for this reason that school reform alone is not enough.

Tomorrow - Ashley's personal experience tutoring the Leslies in central Los Angeles.

Eddies vs. Leslies - Two Categories or Just Points on a Spectrum?

From Po:

I received a lot of email overnight from people who read our take on the different ways children are raised, and how different parenting styles leads to a gap in academic readiness even before children start kindergarten. We presented two archetypes. One archetype we called the "Eddies." The other group we called the "Leslies." The Eddie style is correlated with well-educated, highly verbal parents. The Leslie style is correlated with less-educated parents. (ED-ucation = Eddie, LESS-educated = Leslie.) But the Eddie vs. Leslie paradigm also correlates to socioeconomic class, as well as racial & ethnic culture. It correlates to those, but the real variable is parenting style.

All readers recognized bits of their own childhood and their children's lives in the two paradigms. But many also said, "I'm not exactly one or the other." This was particularly true of the rough sketches of Eddie and Leslie's childhood.

Well, those sketches are just sketches that hint at the way a parent's education affects their child's environment. But more importantly, the rough-sketch is not what's crucial to the long-term academic performance. Future academic performance is caused not by the rough sketch (whether or not you live near your cousins) but by the fine-details of parenting noted by sociologists (how commonly parents talk to their children, reason with their children, and expose them to robust vocabularies).

So yes, there are many people whose experience would match Leslie's in rough-sketch-mode, but match Eddie's in fine-detail-mode. Which is why they ended up doing well in school.

So when I say "the real variable is parenting style," I really mean that the important variable is the fine details in parenting style - not the rough sketch.

And yes, kids are on a spectrum. To do studies, sociologists accumulate data and notice groupings, but by no means does every kid fit the grouping. The groupings, and the names we give them, are descriptive monikers.

The good news is, parenting styles can be taught. Children everywhere can have whatever rough sketch childhood parents feel is appropriate - as long as they're getting the fine details they need to be future students.

To better understand the gap between the Eddies and the Leslies, please come back soon and read Ashley's forthcoming post on how parent-involvement continues to affect Eddie and Leslie as they grow up.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Is Your Child an "Eddie" or a "Leslie"? - Improving Academic Performance Right Now

From Po and Ash:

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.
That's why parenting style and parent-involvement are so important! Success at school isn't just the school's responsibility.

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.

Exhibit A -- Just How Far Away School Reform Really Is

From Ash:

Just a quick, further thought on Po's post from yesterday, from something in the news that really drove this all home to me.

It's not that either of us think that our society should stop from considering larger school reform movements. We'd love to see them happen. However, as Po said, the results of those are decades away -- and there's no guarantee any of it will work. Actually, a lot of the reforms that have been tried over the years have been surprising failures. (e.g., Is anybody else here a victim of "new math"?)

But if you want to really know just how far away a successful, thorough reform of the public schools is, take a look at yesterday's The Boston Globe. In it, the paper reported that four of the five candidates for Governor of Massachusetts are sending (or have sent) their kids to private schools. Not just any private schools -- we're talking $17,000 to $20,000 a year kindergartens, $40,000 a year boarding schools and the like.

This is Massachusetts -- the state that sends the most of its high school grads to college -- the state with the highest number of adults with college-educations.

In other words, in a state with some of the best ed numbers around, those who seek the absolute power to run their schools don't think they can do it in enough time to help their own children.

Monday, April 17, 2006

"Stand Up" Ought to Sit Down

From Po:

When we first heard about the Gates Foundation report on high school dropouts, we were encouraged. A serious organization with unlimited finances might make a real difference in permanently improving the lives of kids destined for the underclass. When we heard Oprah was going to devote two shows to the topic, I really got my hopes up. If anyone can make a difference if she chooses to, it's Oprah. Oprah and Bill Gates on the same stage? Those are the two most powerful people in this country. When Time magazine added its weight with a cover story, we anticipated the rest of the media would jump on the bandwagon.

So what would these powerhouses recommend as a solution? We eagerly awaited ...

... and we were painfully underwhelmed.

The Gates Foundation took a year to poll dropouts and come up with a solution, and that solution is:

"a website"

A website? Yup, a website. They have set up a website,, where parents can buy medallions. Not innocuous Lance Armstrong bracelets, but leather-strapped metal quarters with a cut-out V. Hip jewelry, basically. While buying the medallion, parents can learn how to pressure their governments to "stand up" and demand better schools.

Note that Gates didn't offer more money for drop-out programs. Conversely, they're asking for your money - for medallions - to fund activities.

In fact, offers you no hope at all to help your child right now. It's theoretically possible that parents will sign up by the millions and mobilize collectively and one day, ten years from now, Bill Gates will cut the ribbon on some new schools that have been built. But as for your child who's bored with high school so is barely passing and considering dropping out ... get her a medallion!

This is not even as useful as Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No."

Can you imagine how this kind of solution would go over at Microsoft? "Bill, we can't make Windows Longhorn work yet, but in the meantime, we've set up a website so users can register and demand better software. Oh, and we're selling them coffee cups with the Longhorn logo."

Then we have noticed a few itsy bitsy problems about the website in question. It's very fancy, technologically, and has color-coordinated photographs. But it is available only in English! Didn't the people read their own Gates Foundation report!? Twenty percent of the school population wasn't born in America. The most at-risk category for dropping out is Hispanic youth. Their Spanish-speaking parents are supposed to log on to this English-only website and read about demanding better schools?

Most of the language on the site is in the very style of the boring textbooks that drive students away from school. Here's a sample sentence: "Courses and projects must spark student interest and relate clearly to their lives in today's rapidly changing world." We all agree with the sentiment of that sentence. But it's bland. And the parent of a drop-out is likely not to have much of an education either, so being simple and direct and super-easy to read is essential. Feeding them policy-speak is not helpful.

In fact, if they'd been serious about reaching the parents whose kids need the most help -- not only should the website be translated into a number of languages, and in simple language, but each page should have an audio of all the text, so that parents who can't read will still be able to understand its message.

But these are quibbles in comparison to our biggest gripe.

The most important thing you can do right now to help your children is to be actively involved. Not involved in demanding for better schools, but directly involved in the learning process of your children -- when they are at home as well as at school. We are going to post on this topic in depth tomorrow, but the research shows that there is a significant gap in academic performance between people of different races and ethnicities. Half of that gap is correlated to socioeconomic class - poor people generally do worse. (Meaning, when the social scientists controlled for socioeconomic status, half of the gap went away). But here's the interesting fact they also found: half the gap is also explainable by parenting differences. There are racial and ethnic differences in how parents talk to their children, discipline their children, and read to their children. By the time a child gets to kindergarten, these cultural differences have already set the child up to start out behind.

The battle is not just in the schools. A huge piece of the solution is in changing the culture so that these children start school on equal footing. This is a taboo subject because it involves a critique of class and ethnic parenting styles. If anyone could have surmounted that taboo and made it an issue of public importance, it would be Oprah and Bill Gates.

But most of the show was about the failure of schools. They put all the blame on the schools. They let the parents off the hook. Oprah tackled a big issue here, and I applaud her. But I can't believe she was all that excited about the Gates' website either. I wish she'd steered the show to her kind of "take it home" solution - maybe challenging every parent to read a book to their child that night. Not just read it to them, but ask questions and make sure the child is following along.

I'd love for Oprah to devote a show to teaching parents the fine details of how to be actively involved - how to talk to children with positive regard, and how to ask questions that give hints and encouragement, and how to have more conversations with children. In one hour she could do more for parenting styles (and future dropouts) than a billion of Gates' dollars.

Tomorrow - how parental involvement makes such a difference.

Day After Tomorrow - how good programs to help at-risk kids aren't actually working.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

This Week's Recommended Reading

From Ash:

On April 11, the New York Times reported that, as part of a new United Nations study on domestic violence, the Syrian government has begun studying domestic violence -- and determined that one in four married women in Syria has been beaten. The report has a two-fold importance because it is the government's first real acknowledgment that such violence exists, and that it is wrong. The article also notes that there is a similar transformation occurring in Syrian press -- which has only recently begun reporting on the occurrence of so-called "honor killings."

Also in the Times -- specifically, last Sunday's Magazine -- Jack Hitt wrote a riveting account on the absolute ban, and subsequent criminalization of, abortions in El Salvador.

And since we're in the midst of a discussion on education, there's been some interesting reporting on education this week.

First, has a "don't miss" analysis -- disputing recent articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times regarding the increased difficulty of getting into college. According to InsideHigherEd, these articles' focus on the most selective campuses (e.g. Harvard) give a very distorted picture of what is going on in admissions. Just how distorted? Well, they explain, "Of around 3,500 nonprofit colleges in the country, only about 150 accept fewer than half of the applicants they receive."

And this made me gasp, a classic example of the abuse of numbers: "The Times article adds, from the CIRP survey, that the proportion of students who applied to 12 or more colleges increased by 50 percent from 2001 to 2005. The article does not go on to note that the 50 percent increase brought the percentage from 1.4 to 2.1."

Once again, it's a privileged, educated media driving a story that really only effects themselves. (I loved how this played out on yesterday's Chris Matthews Show. The Times' David Brooks and Newsweek's Howard Fineman were agreeing with the phenomenon -- and Fineman said he knew it was true because his son goes to University of Penn, and all the kids there were serious. He ignored the fact it's an Ivy League. Only the Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Cynthia Tucker said they were looking at a narrow, privileged group -- of which she acknowledged she was a member -- and that they weren't representative. Ms. Tucker, you're this week's winner of the Stentor Award, for speaking the truth no one else will listen to, and I've just become a regular AJC reader because of your appearance.)

Now why is the echo chamber on this a problem? According to InsideHigherEd, there are concerns that it's discouraging the less-than-stellar students from applying to college at all. To the point that, some smaller schools are initiating marketing campaigns to combat the "you can't get in anywhere" reporting.

Now that you're little less panicked about your children's college future, consider the worrisome future of kids in Omaha. This week, the Governor of Nebraska signed into law a bill which would split Omaha into three school districts -- the effect of which being to divide the schools into racially segregated districts. Now, a number of headlines that made it seem like segregation itself was incorporated into the law. ("Law To Segregate Omaha Schools Divides Nebraska" (New York Times), "Nebraska Lawmakers Vote to Realign Omaha Schools Into Racial Districts" (, "Racially Based School System Adopted in Nebraska (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

Unfortunately it's only really hinted at, but if you actually read the AP article underneath a lot of these headlines -- you'll discover what is really going on is that segregation is an effect of the districting -- segregation isn't in the actual law. Now why is that important? Because if there are court challenges, the redistricting will probably be upheld, if they can prove that the segregation is not intentional -- but a side effect -- and there are real, race-neutral reasons for their actions. I haven't been following the debate -- so I don't know if the race-neutral reasons are just a cover. But I did just read a Nebraska legislature statement on the law, which explained one of its goals was to lessen the schools' economic segregation: it would even out the financial resources of the schools, and presumably, the students as well.

That's completely fascinating. I have no idea if it's true -- but let's say that it is. That would mean it's really racial integration vs. economic integration. Both have a huge impact on students that we can't ignore. So which is more important? It's a great question to consider as we continue our dialogue on education this week.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Drop-Outs -- A Need For Reform, Yes, But . . .

From Ash:

Here's my real problem with the coverage of drop-out rates. It's not really a debate over how many they are. Because there are innumerable difficulties in figuring that out --- from what is considered a drop-out to the trustworthiness of the survey. And even if the number changes, the answer is really still the same: there are too many.

My real concern is that we might take panicked actions based on the publicity over the number of drop-outs (even if we all agree on their accuracy). But frantically addressing one particular crisis in education -- even when it's a legitimate crisis -- is not the answer to saving our kids.

For example, the Time/Oprah Survey found that 61% of those surveyed thought outlawing dropping out of school would be an effective solution to the drop-out problem.

Indeed, there are already states taking steps in that direction -- stripping drop-outs of their drivers' licenses, their work permits, etc.

Laws like that are exactly the sort of hysterical, knee-jerk responses that make me so concerned. That's the kind of thing that happens when a legislator reads a single headline, and says, "We have to do something!" Then there's a press conference and, it seems like a no-brainer -- no one will dare challenge. After all, who is going to be the one who votes against keeping our kids in school? Suddenly a bill's passed before anyone's even bothered to read it, let alone consider its consequences.

But there are consequences. And the consequences are not simply that those kids who would have dropped out will now get an education.

You want to know what it's like to prevent a segment of the population from having drivers' licenses? Come to California -- where millions of undocumented immigrants cannot have licenses. They still drive. They just do it without licenses, without taking "Driver's Ed" and having proved they know the rules of the road. They drive without insurance. Taking away drivers' licenses won't stop these kids from driving. It'll just be a new reason to punish them when they get caught for breaking another moving violation, and, in the meantime, your insurance will go up because of all the accidents caused by the now-uninsured young drivers.

Unintended consequences. But that's just the beginning.

Consider, for a moment, another popular idea now making its way into law: since many drop-outs quit to get jobs, we should strip them of the ability to legally work.

I'm sorry -- but, once again, that's just another answer that's good for a legislator's list of "accomplishments" but it won't solve anything. And I don't want you to fall for that flawed logic for a minute.

According to the Gates Foundation's recent survey, a third of the kids said they'd left school because they had to get a job. Not "they wanted" -- "they had" to get a job. It isn't their choice: it's their reality.

The fact is that children are the poorest of any demographic in the U.S. With the rate of child poverty in this country as tragically high as it is, criminalization of dropping out is just cruel. If you want to know what will happen to these kids when it's illegal for them to work, look at underage runaways. They can't legally work -- so they work illegally. That's why they end up in prostitution and drugs, because they can't legally get a job. So the likelihood isn't that these poor kids are going to stay in school because a law demands it. Instead, they'll just join the labor force of those paid under the table -- they'll end up in jobs working for people who don't care about such things as fair wages and child labor laws.

A kid I know hasn't dropped out yet -- but he's got most of the "risk factors." He's poor, a child of a single parent, lives in a gang-infested area (his relatives are in gangs), he's a Hispanic speaking English as a Second Language.

He can't come to a free tutoring program because his father insists he works as a gardener on the weekends. I know his education is suffering from decisions like that -- but I also know that his gardening may be the only thing that's keeping a roof over his head.

I know a girl who dropped out at 15 to take care of her mother and her younger brother. Her father's dead. Her mother is blind, deaf, and mute.

According to the Gates Foundation, over a fourth of the drop-outs (26%) said they'd left school because they'd become parents themselves.

Just punishing these kids is not the answer. Neither is scolding them.

And, unfortunately, even the best teacher in the world in the best school in the world wouldn't change anything for these children either.

If you want to address the problem of drop-outs, you can't do it without first acknowledging the reality of these kids' lives outside the classroom. as well as on campus, and figuring out how to help there, too.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

High School Drop-Outs -- More About the Numbers

From Ash:

Po and I tried not to overwhelm you with numbers in our first post on drop-out. But, given a couple comments we received, I decided to reply to those here (particularly since I messed something up, for which I apologize profusely). (And which means get ready for a small sea of numbers.)

Dothis4ALiving wrote us:

"#7 is partially wrong. The census, by design, measures households. Therefore people in the military and in prison are not counted. This is not trickery and the census doesn't hide it; this is just how it works. So the 84 percent graduate census figure excludes people in jail who are disproportionately dropouts."

First, I've double-checked my numbers -- and oops, I'm very sorry -- we re-used the same number in #7 that we did in #4 -- which I hadn't meant to do -- so I messed up. "Do" is correct that the 84% high school education attainment is from the 2002 Current Population Survey, run by the Census. That's a survey that is primarily meant to measure U.S. economics and employment, so it's much smaller, and done much more frequently than, the Decentennial Census. Because of that, the CPS excludes the prison, military population and others living in "group quarters." And it's also true that the prison population has a much higher drop-out rate -- but, on the other hand, the military has a lower drop-out rate than the larger population.

More to the point, the Decentennial Census is meant to have a more complete, demographic portrait of the US, so it does include the populations that are excluded in the CPS. (I called Census to double-check that specifically for the charts we were looking at.)

If we're using the Decentennial Census numbers, as of 2000, then it is 80.4% of those 25 or older who have a high school education or higher. Yes, it's a bit lower -- but it's still not the much lower numbers that are out there. (Oh, by the way, Time reported that the CPS numbers were at 85-90% -- but I can't find CPS saying anything higher than 84%.)

(And to make myself feel a little better for my error -- that percent may have increased in the six years since then.)

"Dothis" also wrote a comment -- that the blog ate (Sorry!) -- addressing whether or not the Census numbers were misleading because they combine those who hold GEDs with diplomas, and also said that researchers were tracking 9th graders to get more accurate numbers.

Regarding the GED + diplomas, again, that is true that Census combines that data. But first, the Census is measuring those with a high school level education, and I think it's education that is the real issue, so I don't think it's as much of a problem as others do. But aside from that, the Decentennial Census does have more specific information: it specifically asks for those who have dropped out at what grade. About 16 percent of the U.S. population 25 and over do not have either a high school or GED. Which is way too high, but not the huge percentages that others are talking about.

Similarly, the Dept of Education reports that, from 1971 to 2000, about 12.4 million have received GEDs. Assuming that all of those people are still living, if you are looking for a "pure" number, the Census reports that, as of 2000, 146.5 million have at least a high school education (defined by diploma or GED). 146.5 - 12.4 = 134.1. So, as of 2000, approximately 134 million have a high school diploma (rather than education) or more. So, again, there's a reduction, but it doesn't seem to me to be such a dramatic one that warrants condemnation as an accounting "trick."

Regarding the 9th grade-tracking research, we have longitudinal studies that follow sets of 8th graders, done by the Dept of Education, but if you know of a specific study we should check out, I'd love to see it.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

High School Drop-Outs - Inside the Numbers

From Ash and Po:

[From Ash, 4/13/06: please note a correction at point #7]

As we teased yesterday, this week's cover story for Time is on drop-outs. Oprah, Time and the Gates Foundation all joined forces to address this issue. We haven't yet seen what Oprah's doing, but much of Time's contribution is to expose the breadth of the problem, specifically attacking the drop-out numbers used by the federal, states and local governments -- including a census-reported number that we've got in The Factbook, which says 84% of students graduate high school. Time argues that a third of students aren't graduating. They mention several accounting tricks used to mask the real failure rate.

So which is it? Do 1 out of 3 not graduate, or do 1 out of 6 not graduate?

As always, it's all in how you count and when you count. So this post might get a bit technical, going inside the numbers. But we believe accuracy in journalism is all-important, and we see a little bit of sensationalism going on that we fear will lead to a wider distortion in public perception. We anticipate every other media outlet will now cover this issue, and it will continue to get distorted at each step, like a game of telephone.

So keep the following factors in mind.

1. When you see reported that "1 out of 3 don't graduate," they are talking about public schools, not private schools. 12% of all students are in private schools, and they very rarely drop out.

2. The scores of the American educational system are distorted by the huge influx of immigrants. Twenty percent of our school population are immigrants. First generation immigrants don't do very well - less then half graduate. But here's the reasonably good news: their children do vastly better. Second-generation immigrants graduate at over 80%. Schools are often taking the blame and the heat for what is really a broader social issue.

3. Dropping out is a serious problem, we absolutely agree. We estimate 20% of all high schoolers drop out for at least a short while. But that's not the end of the story. 63% percent of high school drop-outs eventually go back to get their degree or take the GED. More kids eventually get around to it than ever. In 1967, 17% of kids had not received a diploma or a GED by the age of 24. Today, only 10% of kids have done neither by the age of 24. That is improvement, indeed.

4. The Census, in their "84% graduate" number, counts people with GEDs as "graduated." Is that an accounting trick? Hardly, because it's not hidden in their numbers - it's right there. 16% of those who've "graduated" did so via taking the GED rather than receiving a diploma.

5. Is the GED a waste? Meaning, should we count them as graduated? The Time article makes a case that GEDs aren't useful in entering the workforce - they're not enough. While we don't completely disagree with that, we must recognize that 43% of former dropouts actually make it to college. Often people finally take the GED because they intend to enroll in a community college, bachelor's program, or vocational school. They're not pretending the GED is enough.

6. Are we doing worse than in the past? Most reports say "no." Most suggest that for all the educational reforms applied in the last twenty-five years, our graduation rate has leveled off - but it hasn't gotten worse. In fact, if you allow these same kids another five years to get their act together, more are graduating now than ever - and the improvement has been consistent.

7. Time says that graduation rates are often distorted by excluding prison populations and transients. That might be true of some states and cities, but it's not true of the Federal government - the "84% graduate" figure does not exclude those people. The manipulation of the graduation figures is done primarily by school districts and states -- often because that graduation rates -- and manipulation of them -- directly effects their funding. We do not see the Census as complicit.

[Note/Correction from Ash: Actually, I confused two points. 80.4% of the population 25 and over has a high school education or more, according to the Decentennial Census, while the Current Population Survey has the attainment at 84%, and does exclude prison, military, etc. But I think the point is still the same -- the Feds are counting everyone.]

We agree that drop-outs is a major social concern, and we applaud the attention to it. But the numbers shouldn't be distorted to make the case. They don't need to be distorted. The truth is frightening enough.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Who Should Pay for School – The Student or the Parent?

From Po:

College admission letters are in the mail, perhaps headed to some of your homes. Soon, the question of “will we get in?” will be replaced by “how will we ever pay for it?”

The New York Times reports today that more middle-class families are telling their children, “Pay for it yourself.” The story twice admits there are no statistics to back this up, so it is basing this trend on the anecdotal observations of financial aid officials at three colleges – Johns Hopkins, UCLA, and Carleton. These administrators perceive a gradual shift of the burden from parent to student.

Is that true? Or is this just The Times fishing for a trend again?

Well, it’s not what we’re seeing in our analysis of the many research reports on this. 83% of all parents plan to help pay for their child’s post-high-school education. Among parents who have been to college themselves, 91% expect to help pay. Even among parents who don’t speak a word of English, 87% of them expect their children to go to college, and three-quarters of those expect to help pay for it.

So when The Times says “more” parents are doing this, it’s not very many.

How to explain this gap between the reality and the perception of those financial aid administrators? Well, parents routinely downplay their willingness to help, in hopes of qualifying their child for more aid. Maybe these pleas of hardship have ratcheted up a notch in their volume lately?

I worry that this story will lead more parents to think their own retirement is a better investment than their child’s education. The article might create the illusion that it’s more socially acceptable to not help their child.

The other question that many parents wonder about is whether great private schools are worth it. Kids from good schools tend to do better financially over the rest of their life, but is that just because they filter out all but the brightest in their admissions vetting?

The Washington Post reported last weekend on a particular study done in the late 1990s that tried to factor out the admissions filter factor. This study compared kids who had gone to 34 colleges. It then looked only at the subset of kids who had applied to elite colleges. In this pool were plenty of kids who applied to the elite schools, but ended up going to state schools. Maybe they didn’t get accepted, or maybe they couldn’t afford it – but they applied.

It turns out that the state-school kids did just as well as the elite school kids.

This was not a long-term study, but it used long-term data. The kids were all freshman at college in 1976, so by the late 1990s they were in their early 40s.

This study suggested that if you are the kind of student who would consider applying to an elite school – with good grades and all – then you don’t actually need to attend.

In other words, going to college makes a huge difference in life – but which college you attend may not matter.

This is a very personal question for me, because when I was growing up this was a constant debate. I attended an expensive and elite high school in Seattle called “Lakeside.” (Bill Gates went there). My mother believed I should go to the public high school in Seattle and attend the University of Washington. If there was an academic benefit to the private schools, it was offset by the warped perspective a child gets from going to school with rich kids. My father believed it was worth it. During those years, I moved back and forth between my parent’s homes, and I always got an earful from my mom. I constantly had to defend the integrity of my school and the quality of my friends. I wasn’t sure why she was harping on it – she wasn’t paying for it (or so I thought).

On the day before my high school graduation, I learned the truth from our high school principal. Neither parent had been paying for it. For three years, the tuition bill had gone unpaid. Behind my back, both parents had squabbled over who should pay the bill. My dad believed my mom was sitting on money from the sale of my childhood house. My mom believed my dad had money. He didn’t. His small company had been going through Chapter 11 bankruptcy. He was strapped.

Unless someone paid the tuition bill, my principal told me, I wouldn’t graduate. I would have to take the GED test that summer to get my equivalency. My grandmothers stepped in and paid the bill.

I had been admitted to Stanford University, with a financial aid plan that brought the cash cost of tuition+room+board down to $7,000 – about two grand more than the University of Washington. I decided I couldn’t attend Stanford, but I didn’t tell my parents. I decided I had to do it on my own. I joined a fraternity at UW that summer and even went to tryouts for the UW varsity soccer team.

Eventually I told my Dad, and he was appalled. He couldn’t believe I was turning down a chance to attend Stanford over a two-thousand-dollar difference in cost. Until that time, my dad had given me extremely little guidance, for fear I would rebel against him and do the opposite of whatever he advised. But he finally told me his opinion – get the very best education I could. I insisted I could not be a drain on the family’s finances, and that he was an unreliable financial backer. He made another appeal to Stanford for more aid, and eventually we brought the cash cost down to the same price as my local state college. It meant working 20 hours a week and borrowing about ten thousand dollars a year through various loans. My Dad never complained once about the cost of school, not wanting me to feel guilty.

When I graduated from Stanford four years later, I lived on Top Ramen and rice and cut my own hair to save money. My dad and I were both able to pay off our share of the loans within a few years. In doing so, we both stuck to the plan, and I found my trust in him again.

Was it worth it, going to an elite school? It may not matter, as the study mentioned above pointed out. What did matter was that my father said my education was important, and I agreed with him – and we made a plan and did it together. We both sacrificed, and joint sacrifice is a unique bond. So whether it’s a public school or a private school, the best part of it is doing it with your parent, together.

Drop-Out Rates - Are We Wrong? Maybe So.

From Po:

I highly recommend reading the Time magazine cover story this week on high school drop-outs. Oprah will be devoting two episodes later this week to the issue as well.

If you happened to read my education post of ten days ago, we mentioned that 84% of students graduate from high school today - versus 16% eighty years ago. What I didn't tell you then was that this number had plateaued for twenty-five years.

Now Time's story reports that this 84% Census number is inflated. Schools around the country count the "intent to take the GED" as a high school equivalent (whether they pass it or not), and they exclude students who get pregnant or join the military to boost their numbers. The real graduation rate is somewhere between 64% and 71%, apparently. This huge problem has been hidden by dastardly accounting tricks. This dwarfs Enron.

My hat is off to the researchers who audited the numbers to reveal this problem, and I also admire Time and Oprah and the Gates Foundation for bringing attention to it.

The Time article focuses on one town in Indiana that bragged for years of a 98% graduation rate, but is now addressing the problem. The most fascinating part of the Time article is about why these kids dropped out. It wasn't because of bad grades. 88% of the drop-outs had passing grades. It was plain old boredom. A failure to be engaged by school, and a failure to see the purpose in sticking around despite the boredom.

We're going to look into it in more detail and return to this issue later in the week ...

Saturday, April 08, 2006

This Week's Recommended Reading

From Ash:

A couple articles of note this week . . . .

Immigration as a Family Issue

While researching the Factbook, we were amazed how immigration is an intrinstically familial issue. And while the Congressional debate may now at an end, there is an interesting portrayal of the connection between immigration issues and family ties in the April 4 New York Times article, "An Immigration Debate Framed by Family Ties," which unveils the immigrant background for four senators.

Indian Text Says Donkeys are Better than Wives

On April 4, Associated Press reported that a school textbook in India explains that donkeys are similar to wives -- but that donkeys were actually preferable because they don't talk back or act disrespectfully. The text was apparently government-approved prior to use in schools, but protests from women's groups is putting the book back under review.

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 . . . .

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Who You Calling Lazy?

From Po:

The story of today’s young adults is always reported one of two ways.

In the most common method, today’s young adults are portrayed as lacking character and drive. They are coddled and spoiled and only have themselves to blame for being unmotivated.

In the alternative method, society is held responsible for young adults’ failure to grow up. These kids would be motivated and working harder if we gave them opportunities – which we don’t. Thus, they are disconnected from society. We made them this way. We stewards of society are to blame.

Those are our options. Blame the youth, or accept the guilt ourselves.

I would like you to consider a third possibility. This is going to sound radical, so don’t reject it outright – give me a moment to argue my case.

Is it possible that America’s young adults aren’t lazy and unmotivated at all? Sure, there’s always plenty of laziness evident – but when you compare them to what we were like at their age, they look pretty industrious. This is also true when you compare our young adults to those in other countries.

Yesterday, I mentioned near the end of my post that these kids are working very hard. I noted that a higher percentage of 22-24 year olds have jobs than people age 55-59. I also pointed out that half of the students in college have jobs - and nearly half of those jobs are full-time jobs.

I decided to look into this a little further.

Measuring what's going on with young adults is tricky, because they don't categorize easily. They are both in school and working. They are primarily children, but some are already parents - and some of those parents are home taking care of their babies.

So when you compare today's crop of kids to the generations of yore, or you compare them to kids in other countries, you have to take all these scenarios together. You can't just look at how many are in school, or look just at how many are working.

For instance, you know from my education post last week that the United States ranks #1 in sending kids to college, and we rank #3 in how many graduate from college. The college population has swollen from 12 million to 16 million in the last twenty years.

Our youth are simultaneously on the job. A higher percentage of 16-25 year olds have jobs than in most of Europe, Japan, and Korea. We're not talking summer jobs either. Over 6 million kids in America, aged 16 to 19, have jobs right now, this month. The summer-job bump will be about 2.5 million jobs. The few countries that have more kids working - like the United Kingdom - end traditional education at age 16 and don't send nearly as many to university.

So we compare favorably to the rest of the world. How do today's kids stack up against recent generations? The short answer is: far more are in school, while nearly as many are working. Meaning more today are doing both.

Is that a good thing? It's hard to say. I think we'd prefer if a student could focus on his homework. But to all those who say we are coddling these kids, I say you're wrong. Fully 1/3rd of all 18-20 year olds are both in school and working simultaneously.

Also keep in mind the following: that's just paid work. 22% of young adults are doing unpaid volunteer work - the highest percentage ever. We have 8 million 16-24 year olds volunteering.

Some are taking care of their families too. 4.5 million 19-29 year olds report that they are "family caregivers," taking care of parents who have physical or mental limitations.

And don't forget about our military fighting our country's war. Half of the military - 600,000 of them - are under age 24. You calling them lazy?

And in case you're still focused on that small set that are neither working nor in school, don't assume they are bumming on their parents's couch. Most of them are young moms, staying at home to raise their children.

Still not convinced? Consider how many young adults are taking extra classes in the summer. In the last ten years, it's gone up 80%. Now more than a quarter of all young adults take summer classes. Half of them hold down jobs while doing it.

You want their life?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

How Good News Becomes Bad News - The Five Asterisks

From Po:

Baseball started this week, and there's been a lot of talk about using an asterisk on Barry Bonds' career home run total.

So I'm going to employ this technique today. I'm going to put some asterisks on another place they belong.

The hot-topic demographic group of Year 2006 is the 18 million Americans aged 18-34 who live with their parents. It's not an election year, so this group isn't being wooed by the politicians the way Soccer Moms were. Rather, these 18 million people are being held out as the demographic that explains what's wrong with America these days. They are being called out as immature losers who fail to grow up. They might have a job, but they have no work ethic. The only thing they apply themselves to is reaching the next level of their favorite video game.

Once you're aware of just how adrift these 18 million slackers are, it's easy to see how they are to blame for just about everything that needs explaining. They are a perfect Bogeyman. Or Bogeyboy. For example:
  • The economy is walking along at the leisurely pace of a stoner strolling down the street - because these people don't work hard.

  • Women can't find husbands because these guys would rather live with their folks than move in with a girl who expects them to do their own laundry.

  • College boys are lagging behind college girls in academic performance because the guys simply are unmotivated.
We've been too easy on these kids!

Or so it is alleged. The Wall Street Journal called it a "Crisis of Coddling." The Times called them "adultescents." US News called it the latest challenge in parenting. Psychology Today called it the "Perma-Parent Trap." Time cried "They Just Won't Grow Up." And everyone has his own pet name for these 18 million. Boomerangers. Rejuveniles. Failures to Launch.

Every media outlet has pitched in with the criticism, but most of the media gets triggered by a book or two that needs to be sold. Last Friday, the Washington Post ran an op-ed that had a huge response. It was by Dr. Leonard Sax - another guy with a book to sell - who stated that a third of all boys age 22-34 live with their parents. He also alleged that this represents a doubling of the percentage in the past 20 years - and he cited the US Census. (When our Census Bureau expert read this, in her local Post, she gasped - because it's not true. In the last 20 years it's gone down slightly.) Striking at our fears with these sensationally-inflated numbers, it's no wonder Dr. Sax had a packed session in the Post's chat rooms later that day.

Okay, now for a dose of reality. Let's tack some asterisks on to these authors' handiwork. We begin with 18 million people. But really, how many are we talking about?

* Let's call 25-years-old the "Worry Point." If you're 25 and living with your parents, they have a right to worry. Younger than 25? Not such a problem. College is more expensive these days (college tuition has gone up 350% in 20 years), so if you move home right after college so that you can use your job income to pay down your school loans - we're not going to criticize that.

So, how many of those 18 million living at home are under the Worry Point?

14 million!

In other words, these gaggle of authors are claiming to be experts on their army of 18 million, when there's only 4 million who we should actually be "worried" about.

I'm glad I brought up college right there, because that leads nicely into this next asterisk:

* If you are a single person attending college and living in a dorm, the Census Bureau counts you as living with your parents!

So if you're doing everything society wants you to do - (leaving home to go to school, getting good grades, preparing to launch) - these authors still count you as one of their 18 million pathetic losers.

Doesn't that sound kinda distorted? Yes, but let's have some sympathy for these authors, too. They need you - to beef up their numbers. Let's face it. The authors have already won this game. They've rigged it. The more of you who go to college, the more losers they get to count!

How many of those 18 million are being counted this way? Well, we know that in 2005, there were 16.7 million students in American colleges and universities. 10 million are under 25 years old. Hmmm ...

So if you're going to college, and you live in a dorm, you're categorized as a failure. Or, if you go to college and you live at home to save money, you're considered a failure. So where are you supposed to live?

* Of those 18 million, a full 3.6 million are Hispanics and Asians who don't consider it a failure that they are living in an extended family household. (2.8 million Hispanics and 800K Asians.) They actually prefer an extended family home. They come from countries where living with your parents isn't a stigma - it's normal. In other words, we intellectuals shouldn't worry about them either. Twenty percent of all 18-34 year olds were born outside the United States. This is rarely mentioned by the amateur demographers who want you to think all these 18 million Everkids have lots of discretionary income (no rent!) to spend on Playstations.

* Of those 18 million, a full 1.4 million already have their own children. They're living with their parent(s) to get help in raising the kid. Most of these 1.4 million are single women.

We admit - there are some people living with their parents and the parents wish they were on their own. But not 18 million. Not 4 million. Maybe half that. At most. Should we worry about them? Sure. But don't lie and tell the whole world that there are 900% more losers out there then really are.

Why do we condemn James Frey for exaggerating his drug use to sell his book, and we don't condemn other authors who exaggerate their numbers to sell their books?

In this way, good news is turned into bad news. The good news is, far more students are going to college than ever before. But who wants to buy a book full of good news? So they find some way to take these hard-working college kids and name them by some other demographic - and voila! They're a scourge on our society!

Did I just say "hard working"? I did. Did I mean to? - aren't these young slackers generally lazy? That's what everyone says. And they can't be working, because they are in school, right?

Welcome to the biggest asterisk of all.

* The kids - endlessly disparaged - are holding down jobs like we haven't seen in decades. Half of the students in school have jobs at the same time. (And almost half of those are full-time jobs!) They're not earning much, but that's not because they're not trying - the jobs available for them suck. As a point of comparison, let's match the average post-college slacker (age 22-24) against the industrious adult in his/her late 50s:
  • The % of people age 55-59 who have jobs right now is ... 65%
  • The % of people age 22-24 who have jobs right now is ... 69%
So why are we blaming everything on these kids! 90% of kids today have had a job by age 20.

Here's what I think is really going on.

You can't make fun of people anymore on the basis of their race, their gender, their nationality, or their sexual orientation. You can't make those jokes anymore, and journalists/authors certainly can't put down these categories of people. So the new technique of the last few years has been to make up a new demographic category, one not based on race or nationality - and trash them.

This fills a need that racism used to fill - the need to be mean, to pick on someone. To vent. To blame.

The only saving grace to all this? These people who are being criticized don't actually exist - not in the massive numbers that we're told.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Failure to Launch - Round Three

From Po:

Oh, we've had some fun this weekend. It's a bit of a convoluted story, so let me give you the short version first.


The author of the book Boomerang Nation, Elina Furman, didn't like Ashley Merryman's post of March 12th which pointed out there is no Boomerang trend after-all. (Boomerangs are youngish adults who move back home - fewer people are doing it over the last ten years, not more.) So on her blog this Saturday, Ms. Furman attempted a scathing rebuttal which only served to dig her hole deeper. In her rebuttal, she mysteriously did the following:

1. She failed to notice the fact that the March 12th post was written by Ashley (even though the very first two words of the post were, "From Ash:"). So Ms. Furman didn't attack Ashley. She attacked me, Po Bronson, misattributing every single word. Since Ashley and I commonly disagree on topics, attributing her words to me would be akin to mistaking Siskel for Ebert. When I pointed this out to Ms. Furman, she added an excuse to her blog: Ashley's byline was too small a font size! Except it was the same size you're reading right now. Can you read this?

In case Ms. Furman is reading along, I'm going to make the font of the next paragraph bigger, just for her.

2. Ms. Furman admitted that Ashley had done her research on Boomerangs, and admitted that Ashley was right - there are fewer people living with their parents, not more. But Ms. Furman argued the facts weren't important. This was a strange debate tactic, and one I haven't seen since 5th grade. It was a rather unique counterpoint. She clearly had contempt for Ashley being such a darn bookworm factotum, with all her boring census reports - you can sense the schoolyard disdain.

3. Ms. Furman objected to Ashley characterizing her as being in cahoots with the Viacom publicists for the film, "Failure to Launch." Then, she turns around and admits right out that she was, indeed, in cahoots with the Viacom publicists the last two months. In fact, she brags that it was her own idea to cross-promote her book with their film! She makes it clear that Viacom didn't approach her - she approached them. See! We're not in cahoots, because it was my idea, not theirs! ... No, I didn't see the logic of that argument either.

You can read Ms. Furman's intriguing blog post here


Enough of the gossip already! Because here's the thing. I think I like Elina Furman. Readers of my blog and books would argue, "But hey! You see the good in everybody! Can't you see this woman hates you!?" And they'd be right. Oh well. But I do like Elina. First, I admire every author who fights to write their books and finds ways to promote them. I approve of authors consulting for major corporations and brands - I really do, I'm not being sarcastic. Get your paycheck, and keep writing. She's a hard-working writer.

Second, I've recommended her book "Boomerang Nation" to many people who have had to move back in with their parents at age 27 or 34 after a layoff or a bad breakup. I've recommended it because it's the only book out there directly for these people, and it has plenty of handy tips in it. Mostly, the book makes these people feel less like a loser, and helps them understand they are not the only one who has had to do this. Any reader of WDILTP knows that families take many shapes, and this is one of them - a not uncommon one. If you've got a 32-year-old friend who is living with his parents, then buy him this book - and also send him the link to this post.

Because there are two VERY MAJOR cultural frameworks that most of the media-echo-chamber stories about Boomeranging have failed to discuss:

The first is what Ashley noted in her March 13th post - that our definition of what makes someone a "grown-up" has changed as we recognize the diversity of family types and experiences we have always had. Moving out of the home and having kids of your own isn't the benchmark anymore. I highly recommend clicking on that March 13th link. She has a funny list there of people who haven't grown up according to traditional standards - including Alan Greenspan and Barbara Bush.

The second thing you need to know is that a grown man who lives with his parents is considered a failure only in a few regions of the world - in North America, the United Kingdom, and the Nordic countries. The rest of the world doesn't value independence as something important or expected. They do not foster the notion that you need to separate from your parents or that you need to be on your own for awhile before you get married. In the rest of the world, when a grown man lives with his parents, you know what they call it? They don't call it "Boomeranging" and they don't call it "Failing to Launch." They call it "our extended family."

Sociologists call this topic "Home Leaving." For instance, in Italy, only 7 percent of young Italians have left home by the age of 25. You don't leave home until you get married - and even then maybe not. And even if you leave home, it might not be very far - 43% of married Italian couples live within one kilometer of the husband or wife's parents. In Ireland, 57% of young adults live with their parents. Sixty percent of young Japanese men in their 20s live with their parents; the figure is 80 percent for Japanese women in their 20s.

Most of the world does not think it's good to physically leave your family. In China, 65% of married couples live with the husband's parents - that's in the rural areas. In the cities, it's still 32%. In Germany, 90% of adults live within an hour's drive of their extended family.

Meanwhile, in Denmark, a whopping 75 percent of young people will leave home by the age of 25. The numbers are similar for England and the United States. The contrast between our little island and the rest of the world isn't a matter of degrees - it's a radically alternate custom.

So when American journalists write about how so many young American adults are failing to grow up because they are living with their parents - that's a very myopic and culturally-biased judgment.

Consider also that the huge rise in immigration over the last 20 years has come from countries that value sticking with your family. So if you look at the statistics on who is living with their parents - which is a big figure, some 18 million American youngish adults - consider the likelihood that a huge chunk of those are immigrant extended families. Not guys who look like Mathew McConaughey.

My point is, if you are an American living with your parents at age 28 - you're not a loser. The rest of the world would consider you normal.

The reasons we created the Factbook on Family is that we routinely see journalists quote statistics while failing to consider how that statistic has been shaped by the steady flow of people who come from a different culture. Almost all American journalists are college educated individuals who have moved out of their family's home, and so these journalists consider this "normal" and "right." These journalists then condemn broad swatches of people who have always lived differently - unaware they're even making a cultural faux-pas.

The merit to "Boomerang Nation" was that it didn't accuse Boomerangers of failing to grow up. The book rightly says, "you're not alone." I never had a beef with Elina Furman, because I liked the respect she showed to people undergoing this confusing transition. Our beef was with the other journalists who covered the topic and expressed sneering disdain at Americans who live with their parents.

The last two years, the press has been on a roll, attacking us for failing to live on our own. Meanwhile, remember all those sensational stories a few years ago about the death of the extended family? How we no longer live together, et cetera, and how terrible that is?

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Week's Recommended Reading

From Ash:

Here are links to a few of the particularly interesting articles we've found on family issues in the past week.

Same Sex Marriage

On March 30, 2006, Associated Press reported that the Massachusetts Supreme Court had ruled that homosexual partners from states that prohibit same-sex marriage cannot come to Massachusetts and get married there, even though it is legal in that state.

African-American Life In the U.S.

Recently, there've been several long pieces that have effectively portrayed how differently African-American families live from those of Whites and other ethnic groups, i.e. significantly fewer marriages, lower educational attainment, higher unemployment for black men, etc. None of these are particularly groundbreaking -- sociologists have been quietly saying versions of this for decades -- but the facts they report have been too often underreported in the mainstream press. So it's nice to see these at the top of the "most popular" article lists. Take a look at:

"Marriage is for White People," Joy Jones' Washington Post article on her personal experiences and larger sociological aspects of the low rate of marriage for African American women.

Eric Eckholm's New York Times feature, "Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn," an overview of how poorly black men are fairing academically -- and specifically that they are drop-outs who cannot (or won't) find work.

And a subsequent piece in the Times, "A Poverty of the Mind," Orlando Patterson's op-ed about why black men are failing in academics and employment. (This was my favorite of these articles -- but I admit that's because I just happen to agree with him. I've seen too many black kids throw away the rest of their lives to be "gangstas" (because they think that society thinks they're cool) or they spend all their waking hours dribbling balls on a basketball court, waiting for NBA scouts that are never going to come.)

And we just had to include this one . . . .

(And, no, it isn't an April Fools Joke: this is a real news item.)

You thought the Ambien-related sleep-driving was bad. On March 28, 2006, Associated Press reported that, after taking some sleeping pills, a Muslim man in India accidentally sleep-divorced his wife. Apparently the poor man was talking in his sleep, and said "talaq" three times. But that means "I divorce thee," and in the Muslim tradition, that's all it takes for a man to divorce his wife. Word got around that his wife of eleven years was worried about it. The village elders decreed that yes, it was a valid divorce, and that they must live apart for 100 days and remarry. But the husband won't move out, and the couple is now being ostracized by the village for their refusal to recognize their own divorce.