If You're Reading This, Then the Bad News Probably Doesn't Apply to You . . . or Does It?

Robert D. Putnam (the Harvard social scientist of Bowling Alone fame) has a new book, titled Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis , which details how the "opportunity gap" between richer kids and poorer kids has widened to a disturbing level; he begins the book with the stories of people from his high school class in Port Clinton, Ohio in 1959 and these carefully chosen anecdotes (from a wealth of research, described in the appendix) illustrate how social class didn't have that much of an impact on the future of these graduates, and then Putnam makes his way to the present, where a much different system is in place; the book is full of studies, scissor charts, statistics, and actual stories of indicative families and their children . . . and the indications are that schools are not to blame, kids are not to blame, biased tests are not to blame, and race is not to blame . . . the problem is money, and if you're a parent who can afford to live in a good school district, and you have the time and money and perseverance enroll your kid in extra-curricular activities, and you have the time to talk to them about school and homework and their lives-- to parent like a member of the upper class-- then your child is on track to achieve great things . . . but if you're not, then the news is downright awful; here are some random things that struck me . . . but I suggest you read the whole thing, even though if you've made it this far into this sentence, then you are probably on the greener side of the opportunity gap; the book is too dense to summarize, but I think it's something about which both rich and poor people should be informed:

1) we are now very likely to marry someone of the same social class, which is a change since mid-century, and this exacerbates the widening social class gap;

2) the competitive pressure in the best schools often comes from the general atmosphere created by a select group of parents and students, and pervades the school . . . some of the best schools are actually trying to put the brakes on this ultra-competitive environment, because, as Kira says, it puts kids in "robot mode" and they can't enjoy anything, but this kind of school does breed academic and extracurricular success, and these kids go on to succeed in college . . . for a fascinating example of this, read the New York Times article about a high-performing school down the road from me (West Windsor-Plainsboro) that is trying to ease the pressure on students, because they are so stressed out, but the superintendent is meeting resistance from about half the parents, mainly from the Asian community, who want school to be intense and stressful, so that they insure that their children are on the right side of the gap;

3) involvement extracurricular activities is "strongly associated with a variety of positive outcomes during the school years and beyond" and rich kids are taking part in them and poor kids are not-- for a variety of reasons, including lack of transportation, work, sibling child care, pay-to-play programs, and general inaccessibility . . . and, interestingly, "the extracurricular activity most consistently associated with high academic achievement is sports," so the stereotype of a dumb jock is absolutely incorrect . . . in fact, the only negative about participating in sports that could be found amidst a myriad of positives was that sports "is often correlated with excessive drinking (but not drug use)"

4) there is a scary statistic about test scores and social class, while-- predictably-- high-scoring rich kids graduate from college at a high rate (74%) and low scoring poor kids graduate from college at a very low rate (3%) the frightening thing is that high-scoring poor kids are less likely to get a college degree (29%) than low-scoring rich kids (30%) which is a serious blow not only to the American Dream, but to the quality of our work force . . . we're not letting a lot of potentially smart people into the pool;

5) this opportunity gap is happening just as much within racial groups as it is on the whole, which is a clear indicator that it is social class and not prejudice and racial bias that is most culpable for these results;

6) growing up in an impoverished neighborhood doesn't just make you more likely to get mugged, or be in a gang, it actually affects your ability to trust others-- something critical to succeeding in the workplace, and in college; it inhibits your ability to make weak social connections and to acquire informal mentors, which are of great necessity; and it leads to anxiety and obesity . . . perhaps due to lack of parks, inaccessibility to sports programs, and because of noise and chaos, so because our society is so segregated now by social class, kids who grow up in a poor neighborhood are disadvantaged when they come out of the womb;

7) we could be setting up a dire situation, political scientist William Kornhauser sees this disenfranchised class as the precursor to "demagogic mass movements, such as Nazism, Fascism" because there is little political involvement from poor kids-- they don't have role models, and politics isn't discussed, the government is viewed as corrupt, byzantine, and impregnable;

8) Putnam ends with a chapter called "What Is To Be Done?" and he suggests a number of ways to shrink the gap, but they will be difficult to institute . . . he believes good teachers need to be lured to bad schools, and the only way to do this is with money, he believes the poorest people need even greater tax breaks, strong anti-poverty programs, an end to pay-to-play, and more importantly, these kids need to be able to live in wealthier areas, or at least go to school in such areas-- but this isn't completely feasible and will meet with political backlash (he really doesn't mention the politics of this situation, other than to say that the wealthy participate in politics far more than the poor, and if we really believe that this is our country and these are all "our kids," then you can't responsibly ignore the problem) and he suggests long-term solutions such as trying to restore working-class wages and instituting early childhood education and better child-care centers and more support for working parents (we're ranked among the worst countries in the world with regards to child care) but, given the political climate of our country, I don't see much attention being paid to this problem in the near future, and the consequences are awful for everyone, these kids will be a drag on the economy, an expense to our health care system, have difficulty in the working world, and have very little chance to advance in social class . . . and while some people will find solace that their own kids are not among these children, what they fail to realize is that the economy and the quality of life in our country is not a zero sum game, if these kids succeed, everyone succeeds . . . neighborhoods succeed, businesses succeed, schools succeed, the real estate market succeeds, and so while the bad news might not apply directly to your kids, and they may be on the road to success, in the end those left behind are going to be everyone's problem.


zman said...

Happy New Year!

rob said...

i like this new 'pamphlet of dave' approach.

and this: "what they fail to realize is that the economy and the quality of life in our country is not a zero sum game, if these kids succeed, everyone succeeds" is essentially liberal economic philosophy stripped to its essence. i believe i'll make it into a bumper sticker. that, or, 'i got your trickle down right here'.

Dave said...

that bumper sticker would wrap around your car! the second possibility would work really well on a 1991 subaru . . .

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