Better educated people more able to adjust to new health research

This finding from a study in the December issue of American Sociological Review has been getting a lot of attention: despite efforts to even out the effect more education has on health, higher levels of education still lead to better health outcomes. Here’s why:

Professor Richard Miech of the University of Colorado Denver and colleagues said data have showed for decades middle-aged adults with low education levels — high school or less — are twice as likely to die as those with higher education levels.

Miech’s study, published in the American Sociological Review, provides new understanding as to why death rates for less educated middle-aged adults are much higher than for their more educated peers, despite increased awareness and treatments aimed at reducing health disparities.

The researchers found as new causes of death emerge, people with lower education levels are slower to respond with behavioral changes, creating a moving target that often remains a step ahead of prevention efforts.

Despite efforts to reduce education-based mortality disparities, the gap remains because new health disparities counteract the efforts to reduce the death rates for those with less education — the causes of death have changed, rates have not, Miech said.

Translation: the world continues to change and certain groups are better positioned in society to take advantage.

The changing standards in dress for NBA players and its impact on social norms

One writer suggests that the current clothing styles of NBA stars is related to social norms for black men:

When David Stern imposed the league’s reductive dress code six years ago, all this role-playing, reinvention, and experimentation didn’t seem a likely outcome. We all feared Today’s Man. But the players — and the stylists — were being challenged to think creatively about dismantling Stern’s black-male stereotyping. The upside of all this intentionality is that these guys are trying stuff out to see what works. Which can be exciting. No sport has undergone such a radical shift of self-expression and self-understanding, wearing the clothes of both the boys it once mocked and the men it desires to be.

It’s not a complete transformation. Being Carlton wasn’t just code for nerd, it was code for gay, and the homophobia these clothes provoked still persists, even from their wearers. Once last year, Dwight Howard, of the Orlando Magic, wore a blue-and-black cardigan over a whitish tie and pink shirt to a press conference. When a male reporter told him it was a good color on him, instead of asking the reporter “Which color?,” Howard spent many seconds performing disgusted disbelief: Whoa, whoa. A moment like that demonstrated how hopelessly superficial all this style can be. The sport can change its clothes, but, even with Dan Savage looking over its shoulder, will it ever change its attitude? If Howard thinks compliments about his cardigan are gay, he probably shouldn’t wear one.

Still, something’s changed in a sport that used to be afraid of any deviations from normal. That fear allowed Dennis Rodman to thrive. Now Rodman just seems like a severe side effect of the league’s black-male monoculture. The Los Angeles Lakers officially recognize the man who was involved in one of the most notorious fights in sports history as “Metta World Peace.” Baron Davis, of the Cleveland Cavaliers, spent the summer in a lockout beard that made him look like a Fort Greene lumberjack. And Kevin Durant wears a safety-strapped backpack. If Stern was hoping to restore a sense of normalcy to the NBA, he only exploded it. There no longer is a normal.

Summary of the argument: in a big shift, it is now acceptable, and perhaps even cool, to be a wealthy black athlete who dresses like a nerd.

I could imagine several interpretations of this trend (and these would likely come from different groups of people):

1. A Marxist approach. David Stern has succeeded in pushing black stars to dress like preppy whites in order to further the economic interests of the NBA. This isn’t about allowing these stars to express themselves; it is about making them palatable to a white audience that buys tickets, corporate sponsorships, and drives TV ratings.

2. The clothes may have changed but there is not exactly overwhelming support for gay athletes or perhaps even for having more “feminine” traits.

3. There is a broader “star culture” or “celebrity culture” that transcends basketball and unites the broader entertainment industry. Star athletes today are not just physically unique; they are cultural celebrities and need to dress the part to fit in with their reference group.

4. Athletes today care too much about things like clothes and not enough about winning.

5. Black male culture was never that homogeneous. Using “The Fresh Prince” as the primary cultural example in this article is a limited perspective. The media and society might have one image but it is not necessarily accurate.

6. Is examining how stars dress like nerds continuing a negative stereotype about nerds and the importance of education? Does the way LeBron James dresses change the culture’s views of nerds or does his celebrity still push a macho image tied to basketball competition and physical prowess or perhaps a stylish, sophisticated, and wealthy image?

In the end, the intersections here between athletes, race, gender, and fashion are fascinating to consider.

Fermilab closes Tevatron; what’s the effect on nearby suburbs and the Chicago region?

The need for the Tevatron, a particle accelerator, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, known commonly as Fermilab, has been drastically reduced after the construction of the Large Hadron Collidor in Europe. Therefore, the Tevatron is being shut down and Fermilab is looking to transition to new areas of physics research. My question is this: what effect this will have on the nearby suburbs and the Chicago region?

The article says that several local politicians want to keep research at Fermilab going:

Fermilab will still have star quality, and the estimated 2,300 scientists there will continue playing a critical role in particle physics. The lab could even re-emerge a few decades from now as the leader, officials say.

However, one daunting hurdle remains: obtaining what may be hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding that officials say is needed to guide the lab’s work into the next generation of research via two projects, known as Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment and Project X…

Over the decades, the cost of upgrades at Fermi could reach hundreds of billions of dollars, a frightening prospect in this troubled economy. But U.S. Reps. Randy Hultgren of Winfield and Judy Biggert of Hinsdale said the funding is crucial. On Wednesday, the two Republican congressmen held a round table on the underground particle-physics program at Fermi.

“I think basic science is the most important thing that will help us to compete in the global economy,” Biggert said. “We have to realize that basic science really drives industry and creates the jobs our children and grandchildren will enjoy.”

I assume most places would want to get federal money and remain competitive globally. The Chicago region, as a global city, needs research facilities like these.

But what about the local jobs and the greater impact on nearby suburbs? Several researchers, including Michael Ebner, have suggested that Fermilab played a crucial role in the development of the area. This 2006 overview of Naperville in Chicago sums up this perspective:

With the creation in 1946 of Argonne National Laboratory (near Lemont, about 15 miles southeast of Naperville) and the establishment, in 1967, of the National Accelerator Laboratory-now called Fermilab-in Batavia (about 15 miles northwest of town), Naperville was on its way to becoming “Chicago’s Technoburb,” as Lake Forest College history professor Michael Ebner later dubbed it. Bell Labs, Amoco, Nalco Chemical, NI-Gas, and Miles Laboratories were among the corporations that set up facilities in Naperville during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

In particular, Ebner argues that this facility plus Argonne National Laboratory meant that scientists and other staff moved to Naperville and then pushed for better schools. While Naperville was still relatively small in the 1950s and 1960s, this influx of educated residents gave the city a world-class educational system, helping to contribute to Naperville’s later growth. Here is one of the outcomes that could be tied to this from the Naperville District #203 website:

In the Third International Mathematics and Science Study-Repeat (1999 TIMSS-R), District 203 eighth graders achieved the highest score in science and sixth highest in mathematics among the 38 participating nations and consortiums worldwide.

I am somewhat skeptical of this argument. One, I’ve never seen hard figures that show how many Fermilab or Argonne researchers actually settled in Naperville. If these researchers also lived in other communities, did their school districts experience the same changes? Two, I haven’t seen evidence that these people directly influenced school changes in the community. Third, I would argue that the 1964 announcement that Bell Laboratories was locating a facility just north of Naperville was much more consequential in understanding Naperville’s growth.

Additionally, Fermilab has often been included in promotional materials as part of the Illinois Technology Research Corridor, providing the research and development foundation to the many notable corporations that have located along I-88 between Oak Brook and Aurora. This article from summer 2011 briefly recognized the impact of the corridor:

While the top-five states were unchanged from 2010, rankings 6 to 10 saw a few surprise movers. Illinois gained 8 spots (14/6) from last year, bumping Pennsylvania down to 7th place. What happened?

As it turns out, Illinois’ improvement is the result of the amount of scientific grant money awarded to the state — $185 million to be exact — from the National Science Foundation to the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign.

While many know the state for politics and sports, Illinois’ Technology and Research Corridor is a major scientific hub in northeastern Illinois, linking intellectual capital and corporate innovation.

Big name companies such as Motorola Solutions and Mobility, Boeing, and Telephone and Data Systems spacer among others are headquartered in Illinois in large part to benefit from the concentration of technical expertise.

I assume the state of Illinois, the city of Chicago, DuPage County, and nearby suburbs would like Fermilab to continue to be scientifically relevant as this brings in federal money, jobs, businesses, and educated residents. Whether the transition Fermilab makes to new research areas also includes these benefits for nearby communities remains to be seen.

More educated people attend church more

One common idea is that people (or societies) that are more educated will move away from religious beliefs. However, several recent sociology studies suggest that more educated people are more likely to attend church:

While overall church attendance has declined slightly in the United States in recent decades, a new study says attendance at religious services among white Americans who did not go to college has fallen more than twice as quickly as it has among more highly educated whites.

The study, released Sunday by the American Sociological Association, draws on decades of data from the General Social Survey and the National Survey of Family Growth to conclude that “moderately educated whites,” defined as people with high school degrees, attended religious services in the 1970s at about the same rate as whites with degrees from four-year colleges. In the last decade, however, they attended much less frequently…

The research shares some conclusions with a recent study by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor whose findings contradicted the common myth that less-educated people are more religious. That study, released in early August, concluded that a college degree does not make a person less religious, but that more education does make people more accepting of the validity of religions other than their own. Both studies used data from the General Social Survey, which is an ongoing survey of American’ attitudes and behaviors that began in 1972.

This is a reminder that social class, made up of influential factors like education, impacts religious life, an area that some believe should be more of a private matter.

This fits with some thoughts I heard at the ASA meetings in Las Vegas that there seems to be two trajectories in American life: a middle/upper class life built upon education and a working/lower class life built upon traditional values.

I wonder how this would look from the religious congregation side: have more congregations been deliberately seeking more educated members who have more resources and are more open-minded? This makes pragmatic sense but not religious sense.

A final thought: how much of this is driven by increasing education levels of conservative religious group that in the past were less educated (evangelicals, fundamentalists, etc.)?

“Opportunity hoarding” in suburban schools

Two education researchers argue that suburban schools have practiced “opportunity hoarding”:

While urban schools’ not keeping pace with suburban schools is an acknowledged problem, few have studied the causes of the discrepancies. John Rury and Argun Saatcioglu, professor and assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies, recently published an article in the American Journal of Education showing how some suburban school districts gained advantages, thereby excluding them from some others. “Opportunity hoarding,” a term coined by sociologist Charles Tilley, claims that a group that gains advantages tends to work to maintain them.

“Basically, it’s rules of exclusion,” Rury said of the term. “Many suburbs are almost a textbook case of people doing that. They are often marketed as ‘exclusive neighborhoods.’”

Suburban schools have not always had advantages over their urban counterparts. Rury and Saatcioglu studied census data from 1940, 1960 and 1980.

“In the ’40s, urban schools were it. They were the best schools,” Rury said. “Forty years later, it was just the opposite.”

This would fit with a larger story of suburbanites escaping the problems of the city after World War II.

This overview makes it sound like the researchers propose a zero-sum game: if suburban schools have more resources, city schools necessarily have less. Is this necessarily the case? And what evidence is there that suburban schools and communities don’t want to give up their school’s advantages – a resistance to forms of property tax sharing? How could suburbanites be convinced that giving up their own advantages, such as better schools, is worthwhile?

The comment about the switch from the good schools being in the city to the suburbs reminds me of the book Schools Betrayed: Roots of Failure in Inner-City Education. This text looks at what changed in the Chicago Public Schools between 1940 and 1960, emphasizing the increasing segregation within these Northern schools.

“The Marginalization of Marriage” report says marriage is helpful in achieving the American Dream

A new report from the Brookings Institute, written by one conservative sociologist and one liberal sociologist, suggests that marriage is helpful for achieving the American Dream:

To be sure, not every married family is a healthy one that benefits children. Yet, on average, the institution of marriage conveys important benefits to adults and children. This advantage may be due to the greater stability of the marriage bond, or to the kinds of people who choose to marry and to stay married, or to qualities associated with the institution of marriage (such as a greater degree of commitment and investment in family life). Let us assume that all of these factors play a role. The fact is that children born and raised in intact, married homes typically enjoy higher quality relationships with their parents, are more likely to steer clear of trouble with the law, to graduate from high school and college, to be gainfully employed as adults, and to enjoy stable marriages of their own in adulthood. Women and men who get and stay married are more likely to accrue substantial financial assets and to enjoy good physical and mental health. In fact, married men enjoy a wage premium compared to their single peers that may exceed 10 percent. At the collective level, the retreat from marriage has played a noteworthy role in fueling the growth in family income inequality and child poverty that has beset the nation since the 1970s. For all these reasons, then, the institution of marriage has been an important pillar of the American Dream, and the erosion of marriage in Middle America is one reason the dream is increasingly out of reach for men, women, and children from moderately-educated homes.

This strikes me as an odd defense of marriage. This reasoning is very pragmatic: because marriage is successful in helping people reach the American Dream, therefore, people should look for such relationships. I could imagine several objections to this argument:

1. There are better reasons for defending marriage as an institution. Tying marriage to a particular successful life sequence could take the emphasis away from the relationship and move it to acquiring particular material possessions, life chances, and statuses. Ultimately, it seems to me that the current debate around marital practices in the United States comes down to moral beliefs.

2. Perhaps the notion of the American Dream is changing. Just because this has worked in the past doesn’t mean that this is what Americans want to pursue in the future.

3. There are other notable reasons for the growing inequality and rise in child poverty in the United States over the last few decades.

All in all, I imagine this report could generate a significant amount of debate.

Quick Review: Waiting for Superman

I recently watched the documentary Waiting for Superman, a film that received a lot of media attention after it was released late last year. It does try to take on an important on-going problem: how to improve American schools? This is an issue that one can hear average citizens, politicians, college professors and others discuss frequently. Here are my quick thoughts about this film’s take on the issue:

1. The framing of the issue in the opening and conclusion of the film is quite effective. Toward the beginning, we meet several students who want to go to the better schools (often a magnet or charter school) in their school districts. But since they are not alone and these schools are attractive to many families, the students have to go through a lottery. At the end, we see the results of the lottery. This is the question that is raised: should a child’s educational opportunities be left to chance in a lottery? Get into one of these elite schools and life will likely be good; not get in, and children can be doomed to terrible schools that are termed “drop-out factories.”

2. While the documentary hits on some possible reasons behind the problems of American schools (No Child Left Behind, bad neighborhoods, tracking), the main emphasis here is on two things:

2a. Teachers are a problem. The idea pushed by the documentary is that the bad teachers need to be replaced and unions resist this process. Michelle Rhee, the attention-getting superintendent of the Washington, D.C. schools is followed as she tries to make a deal with the union involving merit pay for the good teachers. Interestingly, we don’t really see evidence from districts where teachers are not as unionized – does this help improve student performance?

2b. Parents deserve choices in schools. This involves magnet or charter schools within districts plus other operations such as the Harlem Children’s Zone and KIPP schools.

2c. I wish they had put these two ideas together more: so how do teachers operate within these “better” school settings? How are teachers trained and encouraged within these settings? What exactly about these schools boosts student performance – is it just the teachers?

2d. I also wonder how all of this might be scalable. Later, the documentary talks about raising expectations for children and Bill Gates talks on-camera about having the right “culture” in the schools. How might this fit into the idea about American schools being more of a competition-based system versus a country like Finland that pursues more equal outcomes across the spectrum of students?

3. Even though most of the documentary is about inner-city schools, it also follows one “average” suburban girl and the suggestion is made that even suburban schools are not doing that well. This is backed up with data showing that American students are the most confident among a group of OECD nations but their scores are behind those of many nations. Additionally, it is suggested that these suburban schools are not preparing students well for college where a good number find that they need to take remedial courses. Since many Americans likely are influenced by school district performance as they look to move, what exactly is going on in these suburban schools that needs to be fixed? Outside of the exemplar schools held up in the movie (magnets or charters, KIPP, Harlem Children’s Zone), are there any good schools? Is the whole system so broken that no school can really succeed?

Overall, I was a little surprised by the message and who I have seen support it: improve the pool of teachers (and fight the unions!) and offer parents and communities more choices of schools that are more effective in providing educations. Considering what I often see blamed as the problems of schools, No Child Left Behind or funding disparities, this is a change of pace.

At the same time, I wonder about whether these two solutions are really the answer. Are they band-aids to the issue or would they really solve educational problems in America? I keep coming back to the idea of residential segregation, the concept describing how races and social classes live apart from each other. Life chances are better for people growing up in wealthier, more educated settings but of course, these people can buy their way into such settings and avoid others. Would school districts near me, say in Naperville, a suburb that takes great pride in its schools, really go for the idea of charter or magnet schools? Do they even really need them?

At the very least, this documentary raises some interesting issues and a different perspective on a problem for which many wish to find a solution.

(This film was well-received by critics: it is 89% fresh at RottenTomatoes, 99 fresh out of 112 total reviews.)

Finland schools: raising the overall educational scores by helping the students with the most troubles

There is much angst in the United States regarding the education system and how its students compare to those of other countries. Time presents a different kind of model in Finland (which they oppose to “tiger mothering“) where there is less concern for stardom and more interest in helping the lower kids succeed:

In the ’80s, Finland stopped “streaming” pupils to different math and language tracks based on ability. “People in Finland cannot be divided by how smart they are,” says Laukkanen. “It has been very beneficial.”…

“Finland is a society based on equity,” says Laukkanen. “Japan and Korea are highly competitive societies — if you’re not better than your neighbor, your parents pay to send you to night school. In Finland, outperforming your neighbor isn’t very important. Everybody is average, but you want that average to be very high.” (See 20 back-to-school gadgets.)

This principle has gone far toward making Finland an educational overachiever. In the 2006 PISA science results, Finland’s worst students did 80% better than the OECD average for the worst group; its brightest did only 50% better than the average for bright students. “Raising the average for the bottom rungs has had a profound effect on the overall result,” says MacIsaac.

This is an interesting statistical point as there are two ways a country could go about raising the mean. Instead of trying to raise the average score by putting resources into the gifted or smartest students, the strategy in Finland is to instead raise the bottom group to a higher point.

From reading this article, it sounds like this is possible because of a particular set of cultural values that prizes community or equity over competition. Of course, some might argue that this might not be great for society: where are the next innovators or geniuses going to come from if they aren’t pushed harder? But one could argue on the other side that more help and success for the lower students (who used to be shunted off into lower track classes) helps limit later societal problems and instead promotes a more well-rounded and less bifurcated work force and citizenry.

Chicago newspaper reaction to Mayor Daley in Wheaton

After attending Mayor Daley’s speech on campus yesterday (my thoughts here), I was intrigued to see how the local newspapers portrayed the talk. Here are the headlines:

1. Daley: We’re a ‘country of whiners’Chicago Tribune with the story on the Clout Street blog.

2. Together, we’re strong, Daley tells suburbsDaily Herald.

3. Daley: U.S. is a nation of “whiners”Chicago Sun-Times (just repeating an AP story).

4. Daley reviews tenure as mayor during event at Wheaton College –

The fourth headline seems most accurate to me while it is not surprising that the Daily Herald would emphasize the suburban angle. If you do a quick search on Google News, it appears that the “country of whiners” line seems to dominate the headlines.

This is interesting: Daley’s quote about being a “country of whiners” was in response to a question at the end about how America could get back on the right track. Throughout his talk, he said Americans needed confidence, we needed to push ahead in new directions (like Chicago has in the past), and that we need to continue to compete, particularly in the field of education. But the “country of whiners” quote seemed to a less-guarded comment.

In my opinion, the primary message of the talk was about education and Daley’s role in trying to reform it. The Daily Herald ran a separate story about this emphasis on education. While the “country of whiners” line might be a good soundbite, the bigger question we could be asking is whether the Chicago Public Schools have improved in Daley’s 22 years as mayor.

And I still haven’t seen any mention of Daley’s final line of the day when asked by a student what he thought of Jay Cutler. Daley said something like (paraphrase here), “Both Jay and I get beat around by the media.”

Mayor Daley on campus

Influenced by his connection to former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was on the Wheaton College campus today for a lecture and fundraiser. Daley gave the kind of speech you might expect at the end of a politician’s career: he highlighted his successes and how much he enjoyed being a public servant. Here are a few things that he said:

1. Chicago is a world class city. He cited a few recent publications (Standard and Poors, Foreign Policy) that have called Chicago a top ten world city.

2. Chicago has been successful because it was “never afraid of changing” and “never lived in the past.”

3. About government spending: the federal government doesn’t have to balance its budget while other forms of government (state, counties, municipalities) do. Government spending has to level off. To help America move forward: we “need confidence,” we need to move away from being “a country of whiners,” and we can compete if we all sacrifice a bit for the common good.

4. Daley said his biggest issue to face was the education system and he hopes the improvement of this system is his enduring legacy. When he first became mayor, he helped stop social promotion. The Chicago schools today teach Chinese, Russian, and Arabic to compete on the world stage. Teacher’s unions have a responsibility to give more (he cited their 6 hour contractual work day while also saying he knows lots of good teachers and he is not blaming them). He said, “education is the cure of all the social ills we have.”

5. The success of Chicago has always been a public-private partnership. He cited Millennium Park as an example. This is what is behind his efforts to make connections with China so that Chinese businesses will see Chicago as the friendliest American city to them.

6. He said he had worked with mayors in the Chicago region, throughout the state, and around the world to discuss common issues. He said numerous times that the common issues they face are not partisan issues.

7. When asked what advice he would give to Rahm Emanuel, he said something to the effect of don’t give advice to people if they don’t ask for it.

Seeing him in person, I was reminded that he can be quite funny, personable, and can connect with a crowd as an “everyman.” He consistently illustrated his larger points with personal stories and interactions he had. His policy recommendations seemed fairly centrist: better education, government has to add value or other contract out or privatize certain services, working together across the region is necessary, government has to work with business leaders to get things done, elected officials and all government workers (teachers, police/fire, etc.) have to work for the people. He told a number of jokes and also several times mentioned advice he had received from his father.

Some other issues were not addressed: the population loss in Chicago in the 2000s, the perception that the city has a crime problem (even though crime has been down – I thought he might highlight this as a success), budget problems in Chicago and where the money from privatization has gone (parking meter deal, the Skyway), corruption in city government, persistent segregation and inequality, the limited number of public housing and affordable housing units (even with the notorious projects, such as Cabrini-Green, being closed), Daley’s legacy of building (outside of mention of Millennium Park and Chicago as a world leader in “green roofs”), whether Chicago’s educationally system has improved dramatically or significantly, and regional issues that need attention such as congestion and expanding O’Hare.