kitchen table math, the sequel: in the leafy suburbs

Friday, June 22, 2012

in the leafy suburbs

Eighteen months into my job as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department, a foreign-policy dream job that traces its origins back to George Kennan, I found myself in New York, at the United Nations’ annual assemblage of every foreign minister and head of state in the world. On a Wednesday evening, President and Mrs. Obama hosted a glamorous reception at the American Museum of Natural History. I sipped champagne, greeted foreign dignitaries, and mingled. But I could not stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who had started eighth grade three weeks earlier and was already resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him. Over the summer, we had barely spoken to each other—or, more accurately, he had barely spoken to me. And the previous spring I had received several urgent phone calls—invariably on the day of an important meeting—that required me to take the first train from Washington, D.C., where I worked, back to Princeton, New Jersey, where he lived. My husband, who has always done everything possible to support my career, took care of him and his 12-year-old brother during the week; outside of those midweek emergencies, I came home only on weekends.

Last spring, I flew to Oxford to give a public lecture. At the request of a young Rhodes Scholar I know, I’d agreed to talk to the Rhodes community about “work-family balance.” ... What poured out of me was a set of very frank reflections on how unexpectedly hard it was to do the kind of job I wanted to do as a high government official and be the kind of parent I wanted to be, at a demanding time for my children (even though my husband, an academic, was willing to take on the lion’s share of parenting for the two years I was in Washington). I concluded by saying that my time in office had convinced me that further government service would be very unlikely while my sons were still at home.
Why Women Still Can't Have It All
by Anne-Marie Slaughter
Atlantic Monthy | July-August 2012
Anne-Marie Slaughter is talking about a phenomenon I never see addressed in popular articles about "balancing work and family": the teen years are the hard ones. Or can be. When I was young the feminist model was: stay home for 3 or 4 months while you're nursing, then go back to work. The demanding years were assumed to be a child's pre-school years; once the child reached school age, you were 'done,' in a sense. It made sense to work outside the home at that point.

That always struck me as wrong, even before I had kids. My question was always: so when your child turns 13 and goes sprong, where are you? Not that all children go sprong at age 13. C. didn't, and thank God for that. Nevertheless, plenty of kids do go sprong, and if you have more than one child, that would seem to raise the odds of your someday being the parent of a teenage kid who has come unglued.

So I like the fact that this high profile woman has actually spoken, out loud, about what happens to a high profile career when a teenager is in distress.

That said, I was struck by the list of problems Ms. Slaughter's son is having:
  • skipping homework
  • disrupting classes
  • failing math
  • tuning out adults who try to reach him
With the possible exception of the fourth item, all of these issues are school problems, requiring school solutions.

You can see this easily if you imagine a 14-year old student who has no parents, or, alternatively, has parents who are dysfunctional. When that student skips homework, disrupts classes, fails math, and tunes out helpful adults, who deals with it?

The school. At least, it's the school that is going to have to deal with the problems if they're to be dealt with at all. There's no one else. And, over the past ten years, some schools have come to see things just this way.

But word hasn't reached the leafy suburbs (Slaughter teaches at Princeton and presumably sends her boys to Princeton public schools.) Nominally high-performing schools believe it is up to parents to solve school problems. More accurately, nominally high-performing schools believe students don't actually have school problems. Students have student problems, which stem from the student's upbringing and genes and have nothing to do with the school one way or another. *

The problem with this philosophy is that parents can't solve school problems from home, no matter how engaged and well educated and emotionally stable they are themselves. Most obviously, parents can't fix disruptive classroom behavior from home. And while in theory a parent can make sure homework gets done, in practice it's not easy and in some cases it's not possible. (I've seen the not possible scenario firsthand.) Typically, parents have no idea what the homework assignments are or when they're due (echalk notwithstanding), and a parent who has no expertise in a subject can't tell whether her child actually did his or her homework property, or just wrote something down on paper.

As to math, teaching math has got to be the school's job, period. It doesn't matter what emotional problems a student is having; the school has to teach math to struggling students, too.

Affluent schools won't be good schools until they ask themselves Richard DuFour's question: "What will we do when students aren't learning?"Ask, and answer.

the leafy suburbs: School Reform Moves to the Suburbs by Mike Petrilli

* True of the bullying issue, too. Bullying is something kids do, and parents are responsible for kids, so parents need to stop their kids being bullies. Not sure what this means for parents of the child being bullied, of course. 

36 comments:

Allison said...

---how ***unexpectedly*** hard it was to do the kind of job I wanted to do as a high government official and be the kind of parent I wanted to be, at a demanding time for my children (even though my husband, an academic, was willing to take on the lion’s share of parenting for the two years I was in Washington


would any human of average intelligence or above said out loud

how unexpectedly hard it would be to do the kind of job I wanted to do as a high government official and be the kind of mountain climber i wanted to be for the 2 years i was in washington?


how unexpectedly hard it would be to do the kind of job I wanted to do as a high government official and be the kind of concert pianist i wanted to be for the 2 years i was in washington?


how unexpectedly hard it would be to do the kind of job I wanted to do as a high government official and be the kind of orchid cultivator i wanted to be for the 2 years i was in washington?

those are just hobbies, albeit time consuming, but they would not be manageable with that career. parenting can't be dropped the way a hobby can.

Catherine, you may have a point about schools, but this woman's cognitive dissonance borders on insanity. there's a friggen reason state dept officials put their kids in boarding school.

if the people who we need to start arguing for schools being accountable for school issues are this detached from reality, no wonder schools aren't listening. the unhinged can't tell the sun from the moon, they certainly can't articulate how a school should be accountable for the behavior of a student while on school grounds during school hours.

Anne Dwyer said...

Catherine said, "That always struck me as wrong, even before I had kids. My question was always: so when your child turns 13 and goes sprong, where are you?"

I bought the whole feminist thing, hook, line and sinker. You were way ahead of me. I had no idea a kid could go sprong....until mine did. But way before mine did, I had a special needs kid. And that totally disrupts your word/life balance.

Grace said...

This is a fantastic perspective on a much-discussed article. Yes, it does seems that both parents and schools in the leafy suburbs believe that the question, "What will we do when students aren't learning?" should be addressed mainly to the parents and NOT to the schools. What's wrong with the home environment? Why isn't the student going to after-school help, as if after-school help is going to make up for what's apparently not going on during regular class hours.

BTW, in our leafy suburb only 62% of students graduate ready for college and career. It must be the parent's fault.
New York high school graduation rates are up, but college readiness is down

lgm said...

I was lucky. My company moved out of the US just as I realized one son was not a daycare child & a dear colleague's teen suicided. I knew I had to switch jobs anyway, to something where I wasn't on call 24/7. Friend is still convinced >15 years later that having a parent home after school would have made a difference. Very hard to find employers who will allow female engineers to job share although many are willing.
Teaching in public school-- not acceptable politically, see Lou Gerstner's experience with the proposal to fast track some ex-tech employees into p.s. teaching.

lgm said...

My placement discussion here w/a dept chair was very clear - his people are not expected to get the instruction done in class unless it's honors/AP/College lvl. Students are to come for 'help' during their study hall. Works well for regent's lvl students who have multiple study halls, but those seniors taking FL, math, and science dont have a study hall. My kid pretty much failed English this yr because his teacher would not instruct in class and his free periods didn't coincide with hers. I think this is a gimmick to reduce the number of classes that a teacher has to teach; ie another full employment ploy.

Amy P said...

"My kid pretty much failed English this yr because his teacher would not instruct in class and his free periods didn't coincide with hers."

Just out of curiosity, what does "would not instruct in class" look like?

Jen said...

I have to be a bit of a devil's advocate here. Why is it that teachers are expected to do what parents here are saying they can't do?
That is, parents can't get one or two children to, say, do homework and study at home for a bit, whereas a teacher who has them for 45-50 minutes a day (or twice that every other day if block scheduled) is not only supposed to teach but also supposed to motivate them enough to do the homework and studying?

If parents find it hard with one or two kids, imagine the impossibility of having 100-160 kids! How, in reality, are teachers supposed to be able to reach out to all the special needs among that group -- and extend that beyond the classroom as well?

I'm not saying they shouldn't try and I'm not saying that some teachers aren't far more successful than others, but it's really, really about time that the people on the bottom of the heap in terms of systemic influence stop blaming each other and start looking at how the system is run.

Grace said...

Re not instructing the class, I recently overheard some high school kids talking about the different math teachers. (This was after they had learned what teachers they get next year.:

"X is a horrible teacher - he doesn't teach. He puts stuff on the board and makes us figure it out."

"Y is a great teacher - he actually shows us how to do it."

nicoleandmaggie said...

OMG, you are SO right.

I didn't realize until our own kid turned out to not be in the "middle 80%" that by choosing to live in the town with the high performing schools rather than the town with the diversity (and lower mean) that the high performing schools do not think they should have to do *anything* because they have the test scores. They will not budge, they will not even talk to you. The other town, otoh, is willing to talk, to be accommodating, and welcomes parental involvement.

Of course, 5 years ago, we bought a house in the high performing town. So our son is going to private school, where they actually teach him stuff. And there's a group of parents who bought the most expensive houses in the most expensive zone in the high performing town because of those high test scores who complain to me about how bored their kids are and how the school says it's something wrong with the kids.

And you're absolutely right, those items listed are exactly things that happen when a kid has a lousy teacher or is outside that middle 80% and isn't getting accommodations and differentiation. That really *is* a school problem, not a mommy being away problem. You're brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Catherine-

But as part of the Common Core implementation, it is the leafy suburbs under assault. To go after what is working to get equity.

http://www.invisibleserfscollar.com/who-is-really-in-charge-the-school-board-the-super-the-accreditors-or-unesco/

is a post I wrote yesterday after figuring out just how limited the school boards are now even when you get get members. Since I wrote that I have gotten confirmations again that the hands are tied.

Part 2 is what the accreditors and some UN initiatives called the Bologna process are pushing on higher ed.

Using participation in the federal loan program as blackmail for change.

Just a heads up on why everyone's school boards don't work and the district supers think they aren't answerable to anyone. Apparently including school board members in a minority bloc.

Anonymous said...

Nicoleandmaggie:

See this article :

Glen said...

Ah, Langley High. That's where I attended my prom, back in leafy Fairfax County.

SteveH said...

My reaction is that there are all sorts of parenting issues and you can't view it mainly through the lens of two parents working. If your job prevents you from being any sort of involved parent, then that's another issue. Many couples work and provide good parental support. Even then, kids can go weird. Kids can go weird when one of the parents is home. I've seen some parents who take a very hand-off approach to their kids, whether they work or not. My wife and I both work, but we've watched every detail (maybe too much) of our son. We never would have ignored the warning signs this author mentions.

I see affluent parents who have some kids who don't graduate from high school. They take a natural, hands-off approach. They complain about the teenage years as if there is nothing they can do about it. They give their kids way too much freedom and too few expectations. I think if parents compared child-rearing notes, they would see some vast differences, and that some child issues would become very clear - having nothing to do with whether parents work or not.

My impression is that KTM regulars are not at the natural development end of the spectrum.

Anonymous said...

The sense of entitlement in this post is breath taking. To get a feel for the problem try replacing "these issues are school problems, requiring school solutions" with "these issues are government problems, requiring government solutions".

Why is it obvious that parents can do nothing about a disruptive child who skips out on homework and tunes out adults? More to the point, why is it obvious that the government is the solution? And yes, public schools are government entities. It's a parent's job to teach children that they are not the center of the universe. They have no right to interfere with the education of others or to be disrespectful to anyone, adult or child. They have responsibilities, including homework.

The most effective charter schools work to replace this sense of entitlement with a sense of personal responsibility. Parents and students sign pledges holding themselves to high standards of behavior and promising to ensure that assigned work is completed.

Parents who are responsible for their children's behavior is nothing new. It's what my parents did for me and what I have done for my children.

Jen said...

I just met up with someone I hadn't seen in a while. Older child doing very well, taking a break from college to pay down loans. Has a good job, has been advancing well, lives on own, in a steady relationship, etc.

Next child has had no end of problems. Has good friends but attracted to "bad" kids. Drugs, running away, alcohol, mental health issues, etc. Parents very involved, doing everything they can to straighten child out. Have just over a year left where they can legally wield influence over child. Have been very proactive.

These parents are involved, pushed education, know kids' teachers, talk to the school, make sure homework is done, have fairly strict rules and keep track of kids, assign chores and expect them to be done. Basically, everything you would want them to be doing.

Worked on first kid. Didn't on second kid.

As this person said yesterday, "I used to think it was only bad parents who had kids that went in such a wrong direction."

It's easy to think that your child's successes are due to you and that your child's failures are due to _________ (bad teaching, society, spouse, genetics). Truth is it can be any and all or none of those things. And that the amount of control we have is similarly up in the air and diminishes with each year of age they gain!

hush said...

Fantastic post, you absolutely nailed it. Thank you.

Catherine Johnson said...

It's a parent's job to teach children that they are not the center of the universe. They have no right to interfere with the education of others or to be disrespectful to anyone, adult or child. They have responsibilities, including homework.

OK, turn it around again.

What about the other students in the classes that are being disrupted?

Their parents can't do anything about the disruptive kid; he's not their child.

Their parents can't do anything about the class being disrupted; they're not at school.

Whose job is it to protect the non-disruptive kids?

That was actually going to be my next post.

Catherine Johnson said...

The most effective charter schools work to replace this sense of entitlement with a sense of personal responsibility

Last I checked, charter schools were government schools.

Catherine Johnson said...

Allison - boarding schools around these parts costs around $55K/year.

Nobody in government service can afford that.

The only people I know who have kids in boarding school are very, very affluent.

Catherine Johnson said...

Friend is still convinced >15 years later that having a parent home after school would have made a difference. Very hard to find employers who will allow female engineers to job share although many are willing.

oh, boy

So, so sad

We know of a family where the father closed his medical practice in order to be home full-time for his adult son (early twenties).

The son killed himself.

This young man had made it through an excellent and demanding high school, had made it through college, had worked .... and was in his 20s, which typically means more ability to control impulses, including suicidal impulses, I assume.

I can't remember what specifically happened in the end...the son took the car to go to the club and exercise (something like that? Or to run some errands?)

On a different but related subject, I strongly believe we need mental hospitals and group homes for people with severe and/or dangerous mental illness.

One adult can't watch another adult 24/7.

There's got to be relief.

Allison said...

Allison - boarding schools around these parts costs around $55K/year.

Nobody in government service can afford that.

Catherine, I wasn't saying she should or could afford it. I was saying it was the standard solution for a couple centuries now. The point was Why it was the solution.

It's not that difficult to comprehend the tradeoffs necessary for this kind of career. this is denial.

Jen said...

But Allison, I think that's her bigger point. If people with the best educations and the most public interest spirit, etc. etc. can't have children or at least not have them and raise them the way they'd like to, well, is that the way we want our society to go?

Do we want the marginally employed and the uninterested to have all the children while the smartest and the motivated realize they can only do one or the other?

I'm guessing that she's not asking for an all or nothing solution or a female v. male solution, but some way that we can reconfigure the work world, *especially* if both parents are going to have to be in it to, say, afford college for the kids without massive debt.

lgm said...

>Just out of curiosity, what does "would not instruct in class" look like?

The teacher hands out an assignment, typically a 5-7 page paper on one or two lit books. The class time is used for other things - going over vocab words, going over basic comprehension questions on a different book, never anything to do with a paper, such as how to develop a thesis or a paragraph. Topics re: literary devices such as 'how does the author use setting to advance the plot' will never receive any instructional time. The student is expected to grab a prep book or a literary criticism book and figure that out for himself. The school does not own any of these books - students have to hit the public library.

AmyP said...

lgm,

Oh dear. Wouldn't it be better to computerize that lower-level stuff and do "higher order thinking" in class? I thought that was supposed to be the good part that teachers were just panting to be able to do in school?

Allison said...

jen, I didn't suggest any "solution".

the notion of a "solution" is the "we want our cake and to eat it too" notion. it's false.

No one gets a "solution". Everyone makes tradeoffs. That is reality. The employed, the unemployed, the rich, the poor, all make tradeoffs. Some have less opportunity to trade than others, but none have infinite resources of time. no one can be in 2 places at once.

Nor did I say the problem was women working, or two career households, or having children.

The specific problem that Catherine suggested having solved was a kid rebelling, solved by a school. That's absurd. The problem the author wanted solved was the problem of having tradeoffs. Also absurd. To think otherwise is denial.

Catherine Johnson said...

I was saying it was the standard solution for a couple centuries now.

And I'm saying I find that extremely difficult to believe for contemporary State department employees.

The period in which women became candidates for such positions is the same period during which boarding school became unaffordable for all but the very rich.

Catherine Johnson said...

The specific problem that Catherine suggested having solved was a kid rebelling, solved by a school. That's absurd.

So...I may have to go back and rewrite.

As far as I can tell, I have not "suggested" that the school can solve the problem of having a kid rebel.

I am stating outright, not suggesting, that the school can and must deal with problems that are manifesting themselves **inside the school,** regardless of their origin.

Catherine Johnson said...

No one gets a "solution". Everyone makes tradeoffs. That is reality.

That is a truism.

The question is: what are the tradeoffs **specifically,** and, if we don't like the tradeoffs, what tradeoffs would we prefer?

lgm mentions job sharing for female engineers; II personally think that's a better trade-off than highly educated women having to give up employment in order to raise children who are outside the 'middle 80%' full-time.

Now, the mechanisms for getting to job sharing may impose more costs than we might like, but that is another issue.

Catherine Johnson said...

the Bologna process

uh-oh

SteveH said...

"I am stating outright, not suggesting, that the school can and must deal with problems that are manifesting themselves **inside the school,** regardless of their origin."

I mentioned elsewhere that schools can't create systems that cause problems (full inclusion) and then point their fingers at parents and society. It's not the job of parents to help make their pet ideologies work. Then again, it's not the job of the school to try to solve non-academic issues. Schools can enforce behavorial standards, but that's different than trying to fix those problems.

Schools want full inclusion for non-academic reasons and then they point their fingers at others because it affect academics. It makes it easier for them to not separate the variables; to not understand whether a problem is curriculum, pedagogy, or social issues.

Catherine Johnson said...

right - and that's another issue, which is that schools in my experience - and in the famous Galen Alessi study - typically don't analyze the student problems they face.

Alessi looked at 5000 students referred to school psychologists and found that the psychologists made the following determiniations:

* The curriculum caused 0% of the referred problems:
* The teaching practices caused 0% of the referred problems;
* The school administration caused 0% of the referred problems;
* The home environment caused 10-20% of the referred problems;
* The child caused 100% of the referred problems.

My position is that when a student is having trouble learning (or behaving) the school should do two things:

a) analyze the situation to see what role the school may be playing in the student's problems
b) do everything in its power to help the student learn (and/or behave) regardless of the source of the problem

Even when the problem **is** 100% coming from the student, the school has to teach that student and induce that student to manage himself in class (or place him in a separate setting if self-management isn't possible).

++++++

That said, I think it's also a good idea for the school to work with parents as much as possible when problems arise.

As I've mentioned, we've had two kids in special ed, and their teachers (and administrators) do exactly what I've mentioned above.

When things have gotten harry at school, our kids' teachers have consistently asked us how things are going at home -- precisely for the purpose of determining whether the problems are coming specifically from school.

If the problems are showing up on both fronts, we all then know that the situation has deteriorated, which means that Ed and I then turn to our kids' psychiatrist for help.

Meanwhile, the school program continues. No matter how bad things get, our kids' teachers (and administrators) have carried on teaching them.

The same principle holds for kids who aren't classified.

A student who is having significant problems for whatever reason ***still needs to learn math.***

Allison said...

but she didn't say "my options for juggling dual careers and parenthood were poor; financially, we couldn't manage boarding school."

she said she found it unexpectedly difficult to live up to her own image of parent and high power govt official while working and living hundreds of miles from home at least 5 days a week while having teenagers.

I brought up boarding school to say that adults used to know how time consuming parenting a teen was, and how time consuming various careers were, and they knew to outsource.

She said she didn't know these things might be difficult to do in parallel. this isn't a problem solved by job sharing.

To your claim that you just want the schools to control school problems, the four items you list have 3 non school items. Only the class disruption issue is a school problem. Skipping class or homework is not something a school can stop. A school can set the expectation that doing it has unpleasant consequences and doing it has pleasant ones, but that'S it. There are plenty of kids who will prefer the negative-to-you consequences for a whole variety of reasons. they can't make a kid not fail math if a kid wants to fail. And if these things are happening as a protest or out of depression or anger, then that is beyond their control to fix.

Allison said...

A student who is having significant problems for whatever reason ***still needs to learn math.***


having problems is not the same thing as refusing to attend class, read the book, do the work. a kid could easily be having problems that make those things difficult or interfere with positive school behaviors, yes. and the school should incentivize those behaviors as best it can.

but a teen who is choosing anti school behaviors and is uninterested in how detrimental they are, isn't someone a school can teach. when a kid prefers to be stoned every day than to attend math class, the school has little ability to teach, and their responsibility is to protect the remaining students who are trying to get educated.

momof4 said...

Regarding trade-offs, I recently read (AMA data) that 25% of women physicians either work part-time or are not working at all. Given that about 50% of med students are now women, that will change the physician availability issue. This is especially true in primary care, which is chosen by most women. It was about 5 years ago that over 50% of the surgeons (large majority are men) were over age 55. In one surgical specialty (maybe more, I don't know), 10% are over 70.

lgm said...

>>but a teen who is choosing anti school behaviors and is uninterested in how detrimental they are, isn't someone a school can teach. when a kid prefers to be stoned every day than to attend math class, the school has little ability to teach, and their responsibility is to protect the remaining students who are trying to get educated.

This scenario is handled here by putting the student on home-bound instruction while the parents decide how they are going to carry out their responsibilities. The instructor visits for about an hour daily, giving instruction and leaving packets.

momof4 said...

I shouldn't have posted until after a cup of coffee. The reason I mentioned the physician data was that the much-youngest of a women physician friend's three kids was having serious problems, both emotional and academic, and she admitted that she felt that a significant portion of the problems had been aggravated (possibly caused) by their patchwork quilt of child care arrangments. Both parents are physicians and she had given up a very demanding specialty to do non-clinical work, because even with her husband's more regular hours, they couldn't manage the older kids' schedules and the youngest, as well. Since both were government employees, they depended on au pairs (as opposed to more expensive options), who were not always as reliable as advertised.

With more two-demanding-career families, this issue is not going away, and schools are affected. I am in no way absolving them of any responsibility, because I agree with the previous posters that their ideology-driven decisions often create more problems than they solve. Full/radical inclusion, fuzzy/flawed curriculum, weak/inefficient instructional methods etc. all have real problems.