On Expectations

Two very interesting pieces from the New York Times on the expectations we place on our young people, on those who educate and nurture them, and on our governments. The statistics and minutiae relate to the United States, but the underlying themes and sentiments are, I think, equally relevant to the United Kingdom.

The first is by Thomas Friedman, who lays bare two oft-neglected reasons why educational outcomes in the United States are falling behind those of other countries – the fact that American children are much less willing than they were even in recent decades to put in the work to achieve at high levels, and the fact that their parents demand too little (or demand the wrong things) of the schools to which they are sent. Friedman quotes Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s recent speech to the National Assessment Governing Board’s Education Summit for Parent Leaders:

In 2009, President Obama met with President Lee of South Korea and asked him about his biggest challenge in education. President Lee answered without hesitation: parents in South Korea were ‘too demanding.’ Even his poorest parents demanded a world-class education for their children, and he was having to spend millions of dollars each year to teach English to students in first grade, because his parents won’t let him wait until second grade. … I [wish] our biggest challenge here in the U.S. was too many parents demanding excellent schools.

Imagine that. It would be wonderful to face a problem such as that faced by South Korea here in Britain. A nation full of parents – of all socioeconomic groups – so anxious for their children to succeed, to learn foreign languages, to get ahead from day one, that not only do they actively help their children to succeed academically, but also punish politicians who are perceived to stand in the way of that progress. In Britain, it seems that almost the opposite has taken place – government has rushed with great eagerness to throw money at the education system, with spending doubling in a relatively short period of time, while parents sit back and expect the entire job to be done for them. And those parents who do take a particularly active interest are looked down on by the rest and labelled “pushy parents”, while supposedly serious think tanks propose charging the richer and more astute parents to send their children to the same state schools that other children attend for free.

Friedman asks the following question, one which he hopes President Obama will take up in his upcoming State of the Union address:

Are we falling behind as a country in education not just because we fail to recruit the smartest college students to become teachers or reform-resistant teachers’ unions, but because of our culture today: too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put in the work needed today to really excel?

Ultimately, it is not all about government. It isn’t all about paying our taxes and sitting back and expecting the rest to fall into place automatically. It is difficult in Britain, because the tax burden is so heavy and the state so large that it is almost right to expect miraculous things from the government in all areas. But as a nation I believe we urgently need to dis-enthrall ourselves from the idea that government spending and government policy are the only lever available to improve educational outcomes.

He may have many powers, but he can't make your kids smarter.
He may have many powers, but he can’t make your kids smarter.

A revolution in personal responsibility and self-motivation would go such a long way. But who will have the courage to lead such a revolution, when the Conservative-led government, supposedly the champions of individual liberty and personal responsibility, is more inclined to protect parents from the potential consequences of their lazy parenting by erecting a pornography filter on the internet than to risk offending them by suggesting that they are derelict in allowing television and the internet to raise their children unsupervised?

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The second article is depressing in quite another way, and concerns parents who suspect that their child might be gifted. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz writes that an analysis of Google searches reveals that parents in the United States are much more likely to suspect their sons of being intellectually gifted than their daughters, and are more likely to worry about the weight of their daughters than their sons. In other words, even if children were to be magically shielded from the weight of expectations and stereotypes in society at large, some of the most pervasive and damaging ones – that girls should be pretty and slim, and boys intelligent – originate from much closer to home.

To wit:

Start with intelligence. It’s hardly surprising that parents of young children are often excited at the thought that their child may be gifted. In fact, of all Google searches starting “Is my 2-year-old,” the most common next word is “gifted.” But this question is not asked equally about young boys and young girls. Parents are two and a half times more likely to ask “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?” Parents show a similar bias when using other phrases related to intelligence that they may shy away from saying aloud, like, “Is my son a genius?”

And this:

What concerns do parents disproportionately have for their daughters? Primarily, anything related to appearance. Consider questions about a child’s weight. Parents Google “Is my daughter overweight?” roughly twice as frequently as they Google “Is my son overweight?” Just as with giftedness, this gender bias is not grounded in reality. About 30 percent of girls are overweight, while 33 percent of boys are. Even though scales measure more overweight boys than girls, parents see — or worry about — overweight girls much more often than overweight boys.

Parents are about twice as likely to ask how to get their daughters to lose weight as they are to ask how to get their sons to do the same. Google search data also tell us that mothers and fathers are more likely to wonder whether their daughter is “beautiful” or “ugly.”

If she's gifted then that's a bonus, but the real question is whether or not she is overweight.
If she’s gifted then that’s a bonus, but the real question is whether or not she is overweight.

Apparently these biases transcend socioeconomic group and political affiliation, and so the results cannot be neatly explained away along these lines.

While I probably should not be surprised at these findings, they still make for fairly sobering reading. Stephens-Davidowitz wonders whether there might be a measurable change in the statistics once a woman is elected president and that the eyes of the holdouts might then finally be opened to the intellectual equality of women, but I fear that just as the Obama presidency failed to usher in the post-racial American era, so the first woman president will struggle to overcome the inertia of this weight of expectation.

Two pieces on expectations. The expectations we hold for ourselves, our children and our government. Some food for thought as the weekend draws to a close.

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