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.

Obama Syndrome – Tom Friedman’s Diagnosis

Tea Party Protest - Barack Obama

In his latest New York Times column, Thomas Friedman succinctly puts into words what many centrists and probably nearly all frustrated liberals will immediately identify as one of the Obama administration’s biggest political failures thus far into his first term – Obama’s inability to properly sell his accomplishments, and their failure to prevent these accomplishments from being distorted and turned into electoral liabilities by the Republican opposition.

Friedman complains:

Barack Obama is a great orator, but he is the worst president I’ve ever seen when it comes to explaining his achievements, putting them in context, connecting with people on a gut level through repetition and thereby defining how the public views an issue.

True, though this is an age old complaint about Democratic politics – the inability to remain cohesive and on-message, and to deliver a point that is consistent, compelling, and easy to repeat and digest.

On what is perhaps Obama’s signature first term accomplishment – however imperfect it may be – reforming the US healthcare system, Friedman delivers the kind of blunt, incontrovertible smackdown of Republican talking points that make people like me want to shout out in agreement and kiss the screen:

“Obamacare is socialized medicine,” says the Republican Party. No, no — excuse me — socialized medicine is what we have now! People without insurance can go to an emergency ward or throw themselves on the mercy of a doctor, and the cost of all this uncompensated care is shared by all those who have insurance, raising your rates and mine. That is socialized medicine and that is what Obamacare ends. Yet Obama — the champion of private insurance for all — has allowed himself to be painted as a health care socialist.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. It’s painful that anyone should have to school the Republican party, the self proclaimed champions of fiscal conservatism, in such basic economic concepts as the free rider problem, but if someone has to do it then there is no one who can do so with more style than Tom Friedman. I’m not sure that I have it in me to hear one more Tea Partier lambasting Obamacare and lamenting that the US now has a socialised healthcare system and that he is being made to pay for his neighbour’s keep, without just straight up asking him “well, what the hell do you think you were doing before, idiot?”

And on the somewhat topical subject of government spending and deficits:

Finally, how did Obama ever allow this duality to take hold: “The Bush tax cuts” versus the “Obama bailout”? It should have been “the Bush deficit explosion” and the “Obama rescue.” Sure, the deficit has increased under Obama. It was largely to save the country from going into a Depression after a Bush-era binge that included two wars — which, for the first time in our history, we not only did not pay for with tax increases but instead accompanied with tax cuts — plus a 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill that we could not afford, then or now. Congressional Democrats also had a hand in this, but the idea that Bush gets to skate off into history as a “tax-cutter” and not as a “deficit buster” is a travesty. You can’t just blame Fox News. Obama has the bully pulpit.

The way in which Democrats managed to lose control of the narrative and allow the party who led America into two unfunded wars, a round of unfunded tax cuts and an unfunded expansion of Medicare (oh yes – socialised medicine, too) to reclaim any credibility whatsoever in terms of economic understanding or fiscal responsibility will forever astound me. And Friedman is right, Obama has the bully pulpit. He, his team and his spokespeople should have been sending out the right message from the start, and not have allowed themselves to have been forced to play defense.

To be fair – and as Friedman notes – sometimes actions speak louder than words, and in several notable instances the Obama administration’s actions have been as much of a reason for disappointment as the selling of their message. For me, the almost unforgivable failure of the Obama administration was the failure to embrace and push forward the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan, which enjoyed considerable support (if not quite enough to mandate an up-or-down vote in the House and Senate) and which would have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that Obama was serious about medium term deficit reduction. The Obama administration’s reticence on this point enraged many a centrist Obama supporter, and led blogger Andrew Sullivan to declare:

My own view, however, is that Obama badly bungled this by not embracing his current position in the State of the Union and pummeling the GOP with it for months. Bowles Simpson was his commission after all, and yet he dropped it like a stone and pandered to his left when he had a perfect moment to pivot to the debt question. Giving the GOP any credibility on debt by offering nothing of real $4 trillion substance until last week may well be seen as Obama’s greatest mistake in his first term. Now that he has finally offered it, his ability to maintain the high ground on a fair measure to tackle the deficit is much reduced from his January possibility. This is not a meep-meep moment. And it could easily have been, if Obama had shown, yes, courage sooner … On this score, leading from behind has been pretty much a disaster. And there is no longer much time to lead from the front.

So there are problems here of action as well as messaging. I don’t yet believe that this is cause for panic – as I have laid out in previous posts, I am very confident that given his opposition, Obama is heading for a likely landslide reelection victory. But an administration – and a party – that fails to create and stick to a positive narrative on so important a topic, deserves their fair share of woe.

But unfortunately it is not just President Obama and his administration that suffer as a result of their baleful communication efforts. For with every day that passes without a compelling, effective message from the administration about achievements won and plans for the future, the unrepentantly unreformed party of George W. “two unfunded wars” Bush and Richard “deficits don’t matter” Cheney will seem to more and more people like a potentially viable alternative to run the show again.