Parents Should Coach Academics as Seriously as They Do Sports

The New York Times, Motherlode Blog

By JENNIFER ARROW

 APRIL 9, 2014

Monica Almeida/The New York Times

It sometimes seems that the American success ethic stops at the schoolhouse door. We encourage ambition in youth sports and entrepreneurial enterprise, but our families are often suspicious of the value of scholastic competition.

If you told your neighbors you had little Seymour in gymnastics with an eye to the 2028 Summer Olympics, they’d likely laugh but agree it was important to start early with a lofty goal like that. Were you to tell the neighbors that Sofia was doing abacus training as preparation for the 2028 International Math Olympiad, conversation might simply stop, because, well, who does that?

We should. Quanyu Huang, a professor at Miami University of Ohio and the author of the new book “The Hybrid Tiger: Secrets of the Extraordinary Success of Asian-American Kids,” argues that a subtle shift in mind-set transforms the study hall from a demoralizing workhouse to sweaty training gym, where hours of toil pay off during the big fight. If to be a student is to be a warrior (not a prisoner or a victim), suddenly a million familiar sports metaphors apply: free throws and math problems become interchangeable signifiers of a rigorous and inherently worthy training regimen. And a great coach, either at home or at school, is a beloved ally rather than an suspect adversary.

Dr. Huang’s book asserts that Asian families begin with the end in mind, that the progression from preschool to graduate school is perceived as not dissimilar to the hero’s journey of monomyth, and that culturewide certainty of purpose is fundamental: “Education is a life-or-death struggle,” he writes. “Education is a battle of elimination won through selection and competition. … For Chinese and Chinese-American children, their introduction to education is the beginning of a lifelong battle that they must win at any and all costs.”

“Can you think of the last time someone told you a story that made studying long and hard seem heroic?”

Practically, “Hybrid Tiger” suggests that Chinese-American families are structured so that the children are considered star academic competitors and the parents have a significant but clearly secondary role as their devoted trainers.

Dr. Huang describes touring colleges with his son and observing unencumbered Chinese kids trailed by parents “loaded up like pack mules … allowing [the kids] to wander about entirely unburdened.” (One is reminded of Rocky Balboa in the ring, shrugging off his robe and handing it back to Mickey.)

Amanda Ripley’s book “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way” had a similar observation about the role of parents in promoting academic success:

Coach parents … spent less time attending school events and more time training their children at home: reading to them, quizzing them on their multiplication tables while they were cooking dinner, and pushing them to try harder. They saw education as one of their jobs. This kind of parenting was typical in much of Asia — and among Asian immigrant parents living in the United States. Contrary to the stereotype, it did not necessarily make children miserable. In fact, children raised in this way in the United States tended not only to do better in school but to actually enjoy reading and school more than their Caucasian peers enrolled in the same schools.

Khan Academy’s founder, Salman Khan, writing in One World Schoolhouse, also found power in the idea of coaches:

Have you ever noticed that some kids tend to loathe and detest their teachers but worship and adore their coaches? … I believe that a big part of the reason kids revere and obey their coaches is that the coaches are specifically and explicitly on the student’s side. Coaches are helping them be the best they can be, so that they can experience the thrill of winning. In team sports, coaches inculcate the atavistic spirit and focus of a hunting clan. In individual sports, the coach stands tall as the main if not the only ally. When kids win, coaches celebrate along with them; when they lose, the coach is there to comfort and find a lesson in defeat.

“Hybrid Tiger” itself is shot through with the kind of inspirational aphorism familiar to anyone who follows Dwayne Johnson, better known as the Rock, on Facebook: “Happiness is always connected to competition,” and “In order to win, one must be able to withstand suffering.” Dr. Huang also lays this on us: “Here are two ancient stories all Chinese children know: A man, whose name was Sun Jing, tied his hair on the beam that ran through his house when he studied, so that he would wake painfully if he began to fall asleep while studying. Another man, whose name was Su Qin, jabbed his hip with a needle to keep himself awake while he studied.”

Can you think of the last time someone told you a story that made studying long and hard seem heroic?

Dr. Huang’s thoughtful book makes a persuasive argument that, in light of the demands of our current cutthroat global economy, American parents may do well to think of themselves as cognitive coaches for their kids. We should look at the homework spread across the dining room table playing field and say with all appropriate gusto: “Game on.”

Jennifer Arrow is a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer who blogs about preschooling, afterschooling and children’s literature at Post-Apocalyptic
Homeschool
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Jonathan Martin and the Soft, White, Private School Question

The New York Times

By RON LIEBER
A report for the N.F.L. detailed harassment of Jonathan Martin, third from left, by Richie Incognito, second from left.Bill Feig/Associated PressA report for the N.F.L. detailed harassment of Jonathan Martin, third from left, by Richie Incognito, second from left.

N.F.L. lineman Jonathan Martin encountered a Miami Dolphins team culture that was sick at its core. But was his private-school upbringing partly responsible for his inability to cope with the locker-room bullying he encountered there?

“I figured out a major source of my anxiety,” he wrote to his mother during his ordeal, according to the 140-page report on his ordeal that an outside law firm released on Feb. 14. “I’m a push over, a people pleaser. I avoid confrontation whenever I can, I always want everyone to like me. I let people talk about me, say anything to my face, and I just take it, laugh it off, even when I know they are intentionally trying to disrespect me. I mostly blame the soft schools I went to …”

Then, in a message to his father a week later: “I suppose it’s white private school conditioning, turning the other cheek.”

These comments press all sorts of buttons for private school parents, who worry that by trying to buy their way up to what seems like a better education, they’re robbing their child of the hard knocks every kid ought to experience. By invoking race, Mr. Martin, who is African-American, seems to suggest that private-school culture stands for training or retraining students of color to be meek young adults who don’t speak up or fight back.

But what sort of softness was he talking about? And how exactly does “white private school conditioning” manifest itself?

Mr. Martin, who is 24 years old, and his parents declined to expand further on his words in the report. He attended the private John Thomas Dye School in Los Angeles for fifth and sixth grade. Ray Michaud, the headmaster there, also declined to respond to Mr. Martin’s comments, citing a school policy on talking about alumni and things they do or say after they leave.

Harvard-Westlake, which has produced many Hollywood stars and a handful of other professional athletes, was Mr. Martin’s next stop. “Harvard-Westlake simply offers our strong support for Jonathan Martin and his family during this difficult time,” its president and chief executive, Rick Commons, wrote by email. When I asked him whether his response was the very sort of other-cheek-turning that Mr. Martin described, he said that it was an “interesting follow-up” but did not comment further.

Both schools were willing to disclose some numbers in an effort to address the demographic charge specifically. At Harvard-Westlake, 19 percent of the student body receives need-based financial aid and 43 percent of students are not white. That compares favorably with national numbers that the National Association of Independent Schools tracks: Students of color make up 28 percent of the population at all private schools nationwide; 23 percent of students at member schools received need-based aid. John Thomas Dye is less diverse than average, with students of color making up 23 percent of its student body. Just 8 percent of them receive financial aid.

“Our schools are not the sort of impervious bastions of WASP culture and privilege that they were at the inception of independent schools,” said Caroline Blackwell, the vice president for equity and justice for the National Association of Independent Schools. “And so for a lot of people, they continue to have this idea that doesn’t really match the reality.”

These institutions like to be called independent schools nowadays, in part because “private” raises the question of just who they’re excluding. Independence speaks to their strengths, as they stand apart from the educational culture of test-taking and rigidity and, at their best, build close-knit communities centered around character as much as academic achievement.

Perhaps Mr. Martin was using “soft” as an antonym for “real,” as in the real world that private-school students might not encounter enough. But what would it mean for private schools to feel more real? Ms. Blackwell wondered about this, too. She is African-American and a product of private schools herself. She’s also made her career in them, working in the past as a counselor, admissions officer and multicultural affairs director, including 17 years at theUniversity School in Nashville. She ran the local human relations commission there before going to work for the independent schools association.

Ms. Blackwell wondered, as many private school parents might have when they read Mr. Martin’s words in newspaper accounts of the league’s report, whether he was calling out the sort of deliberately constructed communities that many private schools specialize in creating — built on intense attention to children’s feelings and the imprinting of values that support a commitment to civility.

Schools like that are not much like the world that many parents live and work in, where people are disposable, loyalty no longer matters much and every person is scratching away for themselves. But those mothers and fathers don’t necessarily want their 9-year-olds going to school in it. “My experience of independent schools is one where a premium is placed on problem solving in civil ways — dealing with conflict in ways that prefer conversation and discussion as opposed to fighting and aggression,” Ms. Blackwell said. “We would teach students to be assertive without necessarily being aggressive.” If she’s right, that’s hardly turning the other cheek.

It’s not clear whether that sort of teaching went on at Harvard-Westlake or John Thomas Dye, since nobody there wanted to talk about it. But Ms. Blackwell doesn’t think it’s fair to ask the product of any school to serve as proof of its educators’ success or failure if the test is to withstand what Mr. Martin did. “Preparing kids for the vitriol and hostility of a locker room, that’s not our intention,” she said. “Nor is it the intention of public schools or other types of schools, regardless of where they are, to simulate the worst sort of cultural experience to see if the kids can endure.”

If you’re a product of a private school or a parent at one, what do Mr. Martin’s words mean to you?


 

Ron Lieber is the Your Money columnist for The New York Times. He’s currently on leave to write “The Opposite of Spoiled,” a book about parenting, money, values and raising the kinds of children all parents want to push out into the world, no matter how much money they have. He hosts regular conversations about these topics on his Facebook page and welcomes comments here or privately, via his Web site.

 

Abercrombie Protesters’ Plight Highlights Brand’s ‘Exclusionary’ Attitude

Kim Bhasin By Kim Bhasin of the Huffington Post

Posted: 06/04/2013

Abercrombie Protesters

Heather Arnet was escorted into the Abercrombie & Fitch headquarters in New Albany, Ohio, flanked by her contingent of 16 teenage girls. It was late 2005, and they were there to voice their discontent about a series of shirts that the company had unleashed on the market with text celebrating skinny blonde teenage girls while deriding brunettes and less-slender figures.

The shirts in question: “I had a nightmare I was a brunette,” “Blondes are adored, brunettes are ignored,” “Do I make you look fat?” and more.

Once inside, the group of protesters walked through a sea of cubicles and past towering images of men and women locked in embraces. The girls looked around in awe, wondering how strange it would be to work each day permanently surrounded by such images. Then, they entered a windowless conference room to plead their case that the fashion brand not demean people who do not fit its version of cool.

Arnet left convinced that their mission was futile.

“What we witnessed in that room that was so tangible was how deep the culture really is at Abercrombie,” said Arnet, reflecting on the experience nearly eight years later. “The only person who seemed empowered in that building was white and male.”

In recent weeks, Abercrombie has been thrashed by consumers, activists and the media for refusing to stock larger sizes for female customers and for controversial remarks made by chief executive officer Mike Jeffries in a resurrected interview with Salon in 2006. Jeffries said at the time that his brand targets the “attractive all-American kid,” forcing the company to issue an apology.

“A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong,” he told Salon. “Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

For Arnet, the chief executive officer of a Pennsylvania-based independent advocacy group called the Women and Girls Foundation, the current controversy feels familiar. In an interview with The Huffington Post this week, she described her own efforts to persuade Abercrombie executives to reexamine their values as a new set of activists are now heading to New Albany to discuss the retailer’s latest brush with protesters.

Abercrombie does have women in powerful positions at the top of its corporate hierarchy. Three of the four executive vice presidents at Abercrombie are women, along with two of the nine members of the company’s board of directors.

“Diversity and inclusion are key to our organization’s success,” reads a quote from Jeffries on the Abercrombie website. “We are determined to have a diverse culture, throughout our organization, that benefits from the perspectives of each individual.”

But the way Arnet recalls her experience, that official message is quickly undermined by the reality inside the company’s headquarters: At her meeting, the men in the room did nearly all the talking, while dismissing the protestors as people who couldn’t take a joke. The two women present sat mostly silent, Arnet said. After the meeting, Arnet took away a clear message: Abercrombie was not interested in broadening its consumer base to those deemed uncool.

“The girls tried to push them to say whether they would move forward with this idea for a girl-empowering line,” said Arnet. “The A&F team declined to say anything specific or committal.”

Arnet’s visit to Abercrombie was the outgrowth of a “girlcott” she and her teenage volunteers had organized against the company five weeks earlier to protest several shirt designs they viewed as offensive to women. Abercrombie decided to pull the shirts, and then said the company would meet in person with Arnet’s group to discuss what happened and hear a proposal for a new line of shirts that would empower girls.

Abercrombie declined to comment for this story. But sources inside the company, who spoke on condition they not be named, said executives justified the controversial shirts on the grounds that they sold very well, reflecting that they were merely satisfying the tastes of their customers. At the time, it was simply the trend, sources said.

Once inside the conference room, the girls readied a laptop connected to a projector and beamed a PowerPoint presentation on a screen. They were nervous, Arnet recalled. This was a real boardroom, and they were about to come face-to-face with a throng of executives from a massive, multinational retailer. Abercrombie’s chief financial officer was going to be there, they were told.

The girls and their chaperones had talked at length about proper business etiquette, and they had all dressed in professional attire — suits and blazers — seeking to be taken seriously, said Arnet.

But when the cohort of Abercrombie executives sauntered in and took their seats, the girls were taken aback. The men mostly wore T-shirts, and some had on flip-flops, including then-CFO Michael Kramer.

According to the Salon story, nearly everyone at the Abercrombie headquarters wears flip-flops, Abercrombie jeans and a polo shirt or sweater, as part of the company’s easygoing culture. Jeffries wears the outfit around “campus” — which is what employees call the complex.

According to Arnet, the executives asserted that the designs at issue weren’t malicious, but merely humorous, effectively suggesting that the protestors should just lighten up. The shirts had gone through focus groups, and no one had a problem with them, they said.

Arnet stressed to HuffPost the lack of involvement by the two female executives in the room. Only one of them spoke, and all she did was “reiterate and confirm” what the men said, according to Arnet’s account. The fact that the women didn’t add to the conversation struck Arnet as bizarre, she said, given that the discussion was focused on the empowerment of women.

“It was clear to all of us that the white men in the room in corporate director positions were ‘in charge’ and that they had the alpha dog status,” said Arnet.

Zoe Finkelstein, one of the leaders of the girlcott, asked Vice President of Conceptual Design Meredith Laginess what she thought about the shirts. Laginess said she “agreed with Mike [Kramer],” who had defended the designs and had done most of the talking at the meeting. When pressed about her personal opinions, Laginess did not respond, according to Arnet.

The group presented their ideas for a new line that would empower girls — not divide and degrade them. Arnet said one of the teens, Maya Savage, told the executives bluntly: “I have never seen anyone who looks like me in your stores, or in any of your ads.”

The man in charge of diversity at Abercrombie, Todd Corley, had remained silent in the meeting until that point. He was asked by a colleague to address Savage’s gripe, so he pointed the teen to the company’s website, which had a link to a page where she could read all about Abercrombie’s commitment to diversity.

“I’m sorry, but I should not have to dig to find a link on your website to find a person that looks like me,” answered Savage, according to Arnet.

At the end of the meeting, the executives thanked the girls for coming in and assured them that they were taking the issue seriously. But in follow-up conversations, Arnet said the movement was largely dismissed.

“They ended up saying that it didn’t fit with their brand to have a girl-empowering brand of T-shirts,” she said.

Several months later, Abercrombie released a shirt that said “Brunettes have brains.”It was a far cry from the systemic change the girls were hoping for, said Arnet. After all, Salon published Jeffries’ now-infamous quote about the exclusionary nature of the Abercrombie brand less than two months after the girls’ visit.

“Ultimately it was disappointing that there wasn’t a sort of long-term change that happened,” said Arnet, as evidenced by the current uproar over Abercrombie. Instead, they offered nothing more than “vague promises for change.”

A Bullied 11 Year Old Speaks Out

Gallery

The Huffington Post <p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/65313147″>Caine Stands Up</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/thebullyproject”>The Bully Project</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p> This bullied 11-year-old has a powerful message for his school board: “You have the power to make the changes.” In recently promoted footage from 2011’s “The Bully … Continue reading

No Rich Child Left Behind

Opinion from The New York Times

Here’s some information on the disparity in educational performance between students from various socioeconomic classes.  Thankfully, Sacred Heart’s $3.5 million of financial aid helps make an outstanding education accessible to many.

By SEAN F. REARDON
Javier Jaén

 

Here’s a fact that may not surprise you: the children of the rich perform better in school, on average, than children from middle-class or poor families. Students growing up in richer families have better grades and higher standardized test scores, on average, than poorer students; they also have higher rates of participation in extracurricular activities and school leadership positions, higher graduation rates and higher rates of college enrollment and completion.

Whether you think it deeply unjust, lamentable but inevitable, or obvious and unproblematic, this is hardly news. It is true in most societies and has been true in the United States for at least as long as we have thought to ask the question and had sufficient data to verify the answer.

What is news is that in the United States over the last few decades these differences in educational success between high- and lower-income students have grown substantially.

One way to see this is to look at the scores of rich and poor students on standardized math and reading tests over the last 50 years. When I did this using information from a dozen large national studies conducted between 1960 and 2010, I found that the rich-poor gap in test scores is about 40 percent larger now than it was 30 years ago.

To make this trend concrete, consider two children, one from a family with income of $165,000 and one from a family with income of $15,000. These incomes are at the 90th and 10th percentiles of the income distribution nationally, meaning that 10 percent of children today grow up in families with incomes below $15,000 and 10 percent grow up in families with incomes above $165,000.

In the 1980s, on an 800-point SAT-type test scale, the average difference in test scores between two such children would have been about 90 points; today it is 125 points. This is almost twice as large as the 70-point test score gap between white and black children. Family income is now a better predictor of children’s success in school than race.

The same pattern is evident in other, more tangible, measures of educational success, like college completion. In a study similar to mine, Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski, economists at the University of Michigan, found that the proportion of students from upper-income families who earn a bachelor’s degree has increased by 18 percentage points over a 20-year period, while the completion rate of poor students has grown by only 4 points.

In a more recent study, my graduate students and I found that 15 percent of high-income students from the high school class of 2004 enrolled in a highly selective college or university, while fewer than 5 percent of middle-income and 2 percent of low-income students did.

These widening disparities are not confined to academic outcomes: new research by the Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam and his colleagues shows that the rich-poor gaps in student participation in sports, extracurricular activities, volunteer work and church attendance have grown sharply as well.

In San Francisco this week, more than 14,000 educators and education scholars have gathered for the annual meeting of theAmerican Educational Research Association. The theme this year is familiar: Can schools provide children a way out of poverty?

We are still talking about this despite decades of clucking about the crisis in American education and wave after wave of school reform.Whatever we’ve been doing in our schools, it hasn’t reduced educational inequality between children from upper- and lower-income families.

Part of knowing what we should do about this is understanding how and why these educational disparities are growing. For the past few years, alongside other scholars, I have been digging into historical data to understand just that. The results of this research don’t always match received wisdom or playground folklore.

The most potent development over the past three decades is that the test scores of children from high-income families have increased very rapidly. Before 1980, affluent students had little advantage over middle-class students in academic performance; most of the socioeconomic disparity in academics was between the middle class and the poor. But the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor. Just as the incomes of the affluent have grown much more rapidly than those of the middle class over the last few decades, so, too, have most of the gains in educational success accrued to the children of the rich.

Before we can figure out what’s happening here, let’s dispel a few myths.

RELATED
A Look at the Data

75 ThumbnailGraphs highlight some of the trends described in this article.

The income gap in academic achievement is not growing because the test scores of poor students are dropping or because our schools are in decline. In fact, average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called Nation’s Report Card, have been rising — substantially in math and very slowly in reading — since the 1970s. The average 9-year-old today has math skills equal to those her parents had at age 11, a two-year improvement in a single generation. The gains are not as large in reading and they are not as large for older students, but there is no evidence that average test scores have declined over the last three decades for any age or economic group.

The widening income disparity in academic achievement is not a result of widening racial gaps in achievement, either. The achievement gaps between blacks and whites, and Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites have been narrowing slowly over the last two decades, trends that actually keep the yawning gap between higher- and lower-income students from getting even wider. If we look at the test scores of white students only, we find the same growing gap between high- and low-income children as we see in the population as a whole.

It may seem counterintuitive, but schools don’t seem to produce much of the disparity in test scores between high- and low-income students. We know this because children from rich and poor families score very differently on school readiness tests when they enter kindergarten, and this gap grows by less than 10 percent between kindergarten and high school. There is some evidence that achievement gaps between high- and low-income students actually narrow during the nine-month school year, but they widen again in the summer months.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t important differences in quality between schools serving low- and high-income students — there certainly are — but they appear to do less to reinforce the trends than conventional wisdom would have us believe.

If not the usual suspects, what’s going on? It boils down to this: The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school.

My research suggests that one part of the explanation for this is rising income inequality. As you may have heard, the incomes of the rich have grown faster over the last 30 years than the incomes of the middle class and the poor. Money helps families provide cognitively stimulating experiences for their young children because it provides more stable home environments, more time for parents to read to their children, access to higher-quality child care and preschool and — in places like New York City, where 4-year-old children take tests to determine entry into gifted and talented programs — access to preschool test preparation tutors or the time to serve as tutors themselves.

But rising income inequality explains, at best, half of the increase in the rich-poor academic achievement gap. It’s not just that the rich have more money than they used to, it’s that they are using it differently. This is where things get really interesting.

High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources — their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school — on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich.

With a college degree insufficient to ensure a high-income job, or even a job as a barista, parents are now investing more time and money in their children’s cognitive development from the earliest ages. It may seem self-evident that parents with more resources are able to invest more — more of both money and of what Mr. Putnam calls “‘Goodnight Moon’ time” — in their children’s development. But even though middle-class and poor families are also increasing the time and money they invest in their children, they are not doing so as quickly or as deeply as the rich.

The economists Richard J. Murnane and Greg J. Duncan report that from 1972 to 2006 high-income families increased the amount they spent on enrichment activities for their children by 150 percent, while the spending of low-income families grew by 57 percent over the same time period. Likewise, the amount of time parents spend with their children has grown twice as fast since 1975 among college-educated parents as it has among less-educated parents. The economists Garey Ramey and Valerie A. Ramey of the University of California, San Diego, call this escalation of early childhood investment “the rug rat race,” a phrase that nicely captures the growing perception that early childhood experiences are central to winning a lifelong educational and economic competition.

It’s not clear what we should do about all this. Partly that’s because much of our public conversation about education is focused on the wrong culprits: we blame failing schools and the behavior of the poor for trends that are really the result of deepening income inequality and the behavior of the rich.

We’re also slow to understand what’s happening, I think, because the nature of the problem — a growing educational gap between the rich and the middle class — is unfamiliar. After all, for much of the last 50 years our national conversation about educational inequality has focused almost exclusively on strategies for reducing inequalities between the educational successes of the poor and the middle class, and it has relied on programs aimed at the poor, like Head Start and Title I.

We’ve barely given a thought to what the rich were doing. With the exception of our continuing discussion about whether the rising costs of higher education are pricing the middle class out of college, we don’t have much practice talking about what economists call “upper-tail inequality” in education, much less success at reducing it.

Meanwhile, not only are the children of the rich doing better in school than even the children of the middle class, but the changing economy means that school success is increasingly necessary to future economic success, a worrisome mutual reinforcement of trends that is making our society more socially and economically immobile.

We need to start talking about this. Strangely, the rapid growth in the rich-poor educational gap provides a ray of hope: if the relationship between family income and educational success can change this rapidly, then it is not an immutable, inevitable pattern. What changed once can change again. Policy choices matter more than we have recently been taught to think.

So how can we move toward a society in which educational success is not so strongly linked to family background? Maybe we should take a lesson from the rich and invest much more heavily as a society in our children’s educational opportunities from the day they are born. Investments in early-childhood education pay very high societal dividends. That means investing in developing high-quality child care and preschool that is available to poor and middle-class children. It also means recruiting and training a cadre of skilled preschool teachers and child care providers. These are not new ideas, but we have to stop talking about how expensive and difficult they are to implement and just get on with it.

But we need to do much more than expand and improve preschool and child care. There is a lot of discussion these days about investing in teachers and “improving teacher quality,” but improving the quality of our parenting and of our children’s earliest environments may be even more important. Let’s invest in parents so they can better invest in their children.

This means finding ways of helping parents become better teachers themselves. This might include strategies to support working families so that they can read to their children more often.. It also means expanding programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership that have proved to be effective at helping single parents educate their children; but we also need to pay for research to develop new resources for single parents.

It might also mean greater business and government support for maternity and paternity leave and day care so that the middle class and the poor can get some of the educational benefits that the early academic intervention of the rich provides their children. Fundamentally, it means rethinking our still-persistent notion that educational problems should be solved by schools alone.

The more we do to ensure that all children have similar cognitively stimulating early childhood experiences, the less we will have to worry about failing schools. This in turn will enable us to let our schools focus on teaching the skills — how to solve complex problems, how to think critically and how to collaborate — essential to a growing economy and a lively democracy.


Sean F. Reardon is a professor of education and sociology at Stanford.

For Young Latino Readers, an Image is Missing

Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times

Third-grade students at Bayard Taylor Elementary in Philadelphia. Educators say children need more familiar images.

By
Published: December 4, 2012, The New York Times

PHILADELPHIA — Like many of his third-grade classmates, Mario Cortez-Pacheco likes reading the “Magic Tree House” series, about a brother and a sister who take adventurous trips back in time. He also loves the popular “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” graphic novels.

Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times

 

At Bayard Taylor Elementary in Philadelphia, three-quarters of the students are Hispanic. But Mario, 8, has noticed something about these and many of the other books he encounters in his classroom at Bayard Taylor Elementary here: most of the main characters are white. “I see a lot of people that don’t have a lot of color,” he said.

Hispanic students now make up nearly a quarter of the nation’s public school enrollment, according to an analysis of census data by the Pew Hispanic Center, and are the fastest-growing segment of the school population. Yet nonwhite Latino children seldom see themselves in books written for young readers. (Dora the Explorer, who began as a cartoon character, is an outlier.)

Education experts and teachers who work with large Latino populations say that the lack of familiar images could be an obstacle as young readers work to build stamina and deepen their understanding of story elements like character motivation.

While there are exceptions, including books by Julia Alvarez, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Alma Flor Ada and Gary Soto, what is available is “not finding its way into classrooms,” said Patricia Enciso, an associate professor at Ohio State University. Books commonly read by elementary school children — those with human characters rather than talking animals or wizards — include the Junie B. Jones, Cam Jansen, Judy Moody, Stink and Big Nate series, all of which feature a white protagonist. An occasional African-American, Asian or Hispanic character may pop up in a supporting role, but these books depict a predominantly white, suburban milieu.

“Kids do have a different kind of connection when they see a character that looks like them or they experience a plot or a theme that relates to something they’ve experienced in their lives,” said Jane Fleming, an assistant professor at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in early childhood development in Chicago.

She and Sandy Ruvalcaba Carrillo, an elementary school teacher in Chicago who works with students who speak languages other than English at home, reviewed 250 book series aimed at second to fourth graders and found just two that featured a Latino main character.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, which compiles statistics about the race of authors and characters in children’s books published each year, found that in 2011, just over 3 percent of the 3,400 books reviewed were written by or about Latinos, a proportion that has not changed much in a decade.

As schools across the country implement the Common Core — national standards for what students should learn in English and math — many teachers are questioning whether nonwhite students are seeing themselves reflected in their reading.

For the early elementary grades, lists of suggested books contain some written by African-American authors about black characters, but few by Latino writers or featuring Hispanic characters. Now, in response to concerns registered by the Southern Poverty Law Center and others, the architects of the Common Core are developing a more diverse supplemental list. “We have really taken a careful look, and really think there is a problem,” said Susan Pimentel, one of the lead writers of the standards for English language and literacy. “We are determined to make this right.”

Black, Asian and American Indian children similarly must dig deep into bookshelves to find characters who look like them. Latino children who speak Spanish at home and arrive at school with little exposure to books in English face particular challenges. A new study being released next week by pediatricians and sociologists at the University of California shows that Latino children start school seven months behind their white peers, on average, in oral language and preliteracy skills.

“Their oral language use is going to be quite different from what they encounter in their books,” said Catherine E. Snow, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. “So what might seem like simple and accessible text for a standard English speaker might be puzzling for such kids.”

Hispanic children have historically underperformed non-Hispanic whites in American schools. According to 2011 data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a set of exams administered by the Department of Education, 18 percent of Hispanic fourth graders were proficient in reading, compared with 44 percent of white fourth graders.

Research on a direct link between cultural relevance in books and reading achievement at young ages is so far scant. And few academics or classroom teachers would argue that Latino children should read books only about Hispanic characters or families. But their relative absence troubles some education advocates.

“If all they read is Judy Blume or characters in the “Magic Treehouse” series who are white and go on adventures,” said Mariana Souto-Manning, an associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, “they start thinking of their language or practices or familiar places and values as not belonging in school.”

At Bayard Taylor Elementary in Philadelphia, a school where three-quarters of the students are Latino, Kimberly Blake, a third-grade bilingual teacher, said she struggles to find books about Latino children that are “about normal, everyday people.” The few that are available tend to focus on stereotypes of migrant workers or on special holidays. “Our students look the way they look every single day of the year,” Ms. Blake said, “not just on Cinco de Mayo or Puerto Rican Day.”

On a recent morning, Ms. Blake read from “Amelia’s Road” by Linda Jacobs Altman, about a daughter of migrant workers. Of all the children sitting cross-legged on the rug, only Mario said that his mother had worked on farms.

Publishers say they want to find more works by Hispanic authors, and in some cases they insert Latino characters in new titles. When Simon & Schuster commissioned writers to develop a new series, “The Cupcake Diaries,” it cast one character, Mia, as a Latino girl. “We were conscious of making one of the characters Hispanic,” said Valerie Garfield, a vice president in the children’s division, “and doing it in a way that girls could identify with, but not in a way that calls it out.”

In some respects, textbook publishers like Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are ahead of trade publishers. Houghton Mifflin, which publishes reading textbooks, allocates exactly 18.6 percent of its content to works featuring Latino characters. The company says that percentage reflects student demographics.

Students should be able “to see themselves in a high-quality text,” said Jeff Byrd, senior product manager for reading at Houghton Mifflin.

But Latino education advocates and authors say they do not want schools to resort to tokenism. “My skin crawls a little when this literature is introduced because people are being righteous,” said Ms. Alvarez, the author of the “Tia Lola” series, as well as “Return to Sender.” “It should be as natural reading about these characters as white characters,” she said.

At Bayard Taylor, another third-grade teacher, Kate Cornell, said that she would love to explore more options featuring Hispanic characters. “It would be more helpful as a teacher,” she said, “to have these go-to books where I can say ‘I think you are going to like this book. This book reminds me of you.’ ”