Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Education and Affluence: Privilege and Burden

Paul Tough focused mainly on disadvantaged children in his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. His thesis is that our educational system is narrowly focused on cognitive progress on things that can be measured with a test such as math proficiency or reading comprehension. To be successful in life a student must combine cognitive skills with certain non-cognitive attributes like self-control, conscientiousness, self-confidence, and optimism. No matter how intelligent a student might be, learning to the extent of one’s ability will always be difficult, time-consuming, and subject to failure. The same could be said about succeeding in later life. One requires the persistence and self-confidence to recover from disappointment and keep trying. Many students acquire these non-cognitive skills in their family environment and do well in school and later life. Children from impoverished backgrounds are much less likely to acquire them in their environments. If they are to succeed, these non-cognitive skills must be provided to them as part of their educational experience. Tough provides examples of how this can successfully be accomplished.

Paul Tough’s ideas have been discussed previously in Education: Success, Failure, and Character, and in Poverty and Stress: The Ability of Children to Learn.

Tough also described concerns on the part of some educators that the children of the most affluent might also be lacking in certain necessary non-cognitive skills due to deficiencies in their upbringing. Surprisingly, some of these deficiencies arise in ways remarkably similar to those experienced by the children of the very poor.

Tough describes extended interactions with the staff of Riverdale Country School located in a wealthy area on the fringe of New York City.

"When you visit the school today, what impresses you first is its campus, the largest of any school in the city, twenty-seven rolling acres adorned with stone buildings and carefully tended lacrosse fields....it is the kind of place members of the establishment send their kids so they can learn to be members of the establishment. Tuition starts at $38,500 a year, and that’s for prekindergarten."

It is clear to the staff at schools like Riverdale that they are working for the parents of the students, not for a publicly determined school board. This arrangement can have deleterious consequences.

"Although they would almost certainly not express it this way, wealthy parents choose a school like Riverdale for their children, at least in part, as a risk-management strategy....for a school that has been producing highly privileged graduates for 104 years, it boasts very few real world changers."

There seems to be more focus on producing children who will conform to expectations for the children of the wealthy rather than on producing children who will excel in any given way.

This is the way the meritocracy propagates itself. God help us!

"Traditionally, the purpose of a school like Riverdale is not to raise the ceiling on a child’s potential achievement in life but to raise the floor, to give him the kinds of connections and credentials that will make it very hard for him ever to fall out of the upper class. What Riverdale offers parents, above all else, is a high probability of nonfailure."

This affluent milieu places great pressure on the children to avoid failure, and great pressure on the school staff to help them avoid failure. But isn’t the best lesson a child can learn that failure is something one can recover from and be able to keep trying? Isn’t that the way life works?

These pressures experienced by the children of the affluent are not without effect. Tough reports on the research of Suniya Luthar, a psychology professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Luthar performed a comparison of affluent, white tenth-graders with a cohort of mostly black, low income urban tenth-graders.

"To Luthar’s surprise, she found that the affluent teenagers used alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, and harder illegal drugs more than the low income teens. Thirty five percent of the suburban girls had tried all four substances, compared with just 15 percent of the inner-city girls. The wealthy girls in Luthar’s survey also suffered from elevated rates of depression; 22 percent of them reported clinically significant symptoms."

In another study in which Luthar followed middle school students over a several year period she reported the following results.

"About a fifth of these high-income students, she found, had multiple persistent problems, including substance use, high levels of depression and anxiety, and chronic academic difficulties."

There seem to be some similarities in the parenting patterns of the very wealthy and the very poor.

"She found that parenting mattered at both economic extremes. For both rich and poor teenagers, certain family characteristics predicted children’s maladjustment, including low levels of maternal attachment, high levels of parental criticism, and minimal afterschool adult supervision. Among the affluent children, Luthar found, the main cause of distress was ‘excessive achievement pressures and isolation from parents—both physical and emotional’."

The issue of substance abuse has arisen in several contexts of late. The use of addictive amphetamines as study aids is said to be prevalent at elite high schools and colleges. The use of addictive prescription pain killers as a means of escaping the tensions and disappointments of real life is also becoming more common.

Poverty can certainly be devastating for a young child. It is somewhat startling to learn that affluence can also be devastating for a child.

Perhaps some good old fashioned income redistribution would deliver each from their demons.

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