When the problems of America come out in the education systems

Two recent articles reminded me of what I wrote in the headline: for many Americans, the problems the country faces are part of the day-to-day realities of the local schools.

First, a report on a recent controversy in the schools in Shaker Heights, Ohio:

Yet in Shaker Heights, healthy race relations are a cornerstone of the community’s identity, the reason many choose to live here, a central organizing principle for the schools…

But the story of Shaker Heights shows how moving kids of different races into the same building isn’t the same as producing equal outcomes. A persistent and yawning achievement gap has led the district to grapple with hard questions of implicit bias, family responsibility and the wisdom of tracking students by ability level. Last school year, 68 percent of white 11th-graders were enrolled in at least one AP or IB course, but just 12 percent of black students were…

The racial tension coursing through the packed auditorium last November traced back to a tense exchange between Olivia and a veteran AP English teacher, Jody Podl, six weeks earlier. Olivia had been dozing in class, playing with her phone. Now, her first big assignment of the year was late. The teacher had admonished and embarrassed Olivia. Olivia’s mom fired off a three-page complaint, suggesting racism and charging bullying. The district put the teacher on leave to investigate.

Second, on enrolling students in New York City’s public schools:

The system that dominates our waking hours, commands our unthinking devotion, and drives us, like orthodox followers of an exacting faith, to extraordinary, even absurd feats of exertion is not democracy, which often seems remote and fragile. It’s meritocracy—the system that claims to reward talent and effort with a top-notch education and a well-paid profession, its code of rigorous practice and generous blessings passed down from generation to generation. The pressure of meritocracy made us apply to private schools when our son was 2—not because we wanted him to attend private preschool, but because, in New York City, where we live, getting him into a good public kindergarten later on would be even harder, and if we failed, by that point most of the private-school slots would be filled. As friends who’d started months earlier warned us, we were already behind the curve by the time he drew his picture of the moon. We were maximizing options—hedging, like the finance guy, like many families we knew—already tracing the long line that would lead to the horizon of our son’s future…

New York’s distortions let you see the workings of meritocracy in vivid extremes. But the system itself—structured on the belief that, unlike in a collectivized society, individual achievement should be the basis for rewards, and that, unlike in an inherited aristocracy, those rewards must be earned again by each new generation—is all-American. True meritocracy came closest to realization with the rise of standardized tests in the 1950s, the civil-rights movement, and the opening of Ivy League universities to the best and brightest, including women and minorities. A great broadening of opportunity followed. But in recent decades, the system has hardened into a new class structure in which professionals pass on their money, connections, ambitions, and work ethic to their children, while less educated families fall further behind, with little chance of seeing their children move up.

Many factors seem to come together in these circumstances:

1. The American belief that schools are the great equalizer or should be if they are not.

2. The expectation that parents should help ensure their kids do better than them.

3. The idea that the right education is needed to be successful in life (both for the kids and the parents).

4. A difference in opinion over whether American systems should provide equal opportunities or equal outcomes.

5. The public nature of schools where community tax dollars and identity come together in a local institution.

6. An American preference for local control thus that public schools can be responsive to local residents and leaders.

7. With declining trust in other major institutions, schools might be one of the few remaining institutions that provide hope.

8. Varying opinions on how schools should (or should not) address issues of race, class, and gender present in communities.

Put these all together and the stakes are high for local schools and conflict can arise. On one hand, this passion about a local institution may help guarantee its success. Even as Washington invokes depression, Americans can dive into and try to correct issues in their schools. On the other hand, all of these expectations plus larger social forces at work beyond the control of local districts or residents means flashpoints can be difficult to resolve. A number of the problems schools face are not just school issues; they are tough issues for the whole country to converse about and address. Every school district has to work to address community and national issues in ways that are desirable to local constituents while also considering wider standards and approaches.

Linking secularization and wealth

Political scientist Ryan Burge summarizes part of the sociological conversation about secularization and wealth at a national level:

If you take a course in the sociology of religion at any college or university, the professor will inevitably spend some time on what is known as secularization theory. This theory posits that as societies become more economically prosperous and obtain higher levels of education, the inevitable result is a movement away from organized religion and toward secularization…

ReligionandWealth

The conclusion from this graph is clear: the more economic prosperity a nation enjoys, the fewer citizens of that country say that religion is very important. There are a few outliers, however. China is in the bottom left portion of the graph, which means that based on the country’s economic output it should be more religious than it currently is, with the same occurring in Hungary.

Obviously, both of those countries have a history that is closely associated with communism, which is the likely cause of their low levels of religiosity. On the other hand, the United States is clearly an outlier on this graph. It ranks as the most economically prosperous country in the dataset, but if it were going to be in the middle of the trend line, the overall level of religiosity should be very close to zero.

The takeaway lesson from teaching this in undergrad sociology classes is that the United States is unique in terms of religiosity. Then, the task of sociologists and other social scientists is to tease out why exactly this pattern holds for many industrialized countries and not others. Burge goes on to discuss one explanation from recent sociological research in the United States:

Taken together, the results from this sample tell a simple story: secularization is apparent for older generations of Americans, but for those born after 1950 there is no evidence that education leads to a decline in religious affiliation.

Of course, secularization is not just about wealth. As Norris and Inglehart argue, the more that governments or nations take on the role of providing existential security to residents, the less need residents have for religion.

Or, as a number of scholars have argued, the United States is an outlier for another reason: it has a unique religious market. Because of a lack of government involvement in state religion plus the protection for freedom of religion, religious groups have been free to compete. This competition leads to innovation and religious groups compete for attendees and resources.

 

Divorce down, marriage down, telling a full story

Recent sociological work highlights how looking past the initial findings – divorce rates are down in America – reveals a more complicated reality:

In the past 10 years, the percentage of American marriages that end in divorce has fallen, and in a new paper, the University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen quantified the drop-off: Between 2008 and 2016, the divorce rate declined by 18 percent overall…

The point he was making was that people with college degrees are now more likely to get married than those who have no more than a high-school education. And the key to understanding the declining divorce rate, Cherlin says, is that it is “going down some for everybody,” but “the decline has been steepest for the college graduates.”

The reason that’s the case is that college graduates tend to wait longer to get married as they focus on their career. And they tend to have the financial independence to postpone marriage until they’re more confident it will work. This has translated to lower rates of divorce: “If you’re older, you’re more mature … you probably have a better job, and those things make it less likely that you’ll get into arguments with your spouse,” Cherlin says…

Chen connects this trend to the decline of well-paying jobs for those without college degrees, which, he argues, makes it harder to form more stable relationships. Indeed, Cohen writes in his paper that marriage is “an increasingly central component of the structure of social inequality.” The state of it today is both a reflection of the opportunities unlocked by a college degree and a force that, by allowing couples to pool their incomes, itself widens economic gaps.

It would be interesting to see how many of those who might celebrate the finding that divorce rates are going down also discuss the reasons linked to financial stability, education levels, and inequality.

Take more conservative Christian churches as a possible example. Evangelical Protestants are often proudly in favor of marriage (between a man and a woman). They work hard to provide programs for families as well as classes and sermons about marriage and family life. They would generally be opposed to divorce or at least view it as less than ideal. But, having conversations about how marriage is less attainable for some Americans or the evolving idea that one needs to be financially independent before marrying might be less common. How often do topics of social class and inequality come up from the front in many congregations? Or, discussions could turn to why Americans do not make correct individual choices rather than focusing on social pressures and structures (financial independence, it is more acceptable to cohabit) that influence all Americans (including conservative Christians). Ultimately, the findings may not be that good for evangelicals: divorce is down because Americans are getting married less and cohabiting more. If they want to encourage more marriage, they would have to respond to these larger social forces at work.

Smoking as a marker of social class

Recent data shows who in America is smoking and who is not:

Among the nation’s less-educated people — those with a high-school-equivalency diploma — the smoking rate remains more than 40 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, rural residents are diagnosed with lung cancer at rates 18 to 20 percent above those of city dwellers. By nearly every statistical measure, researchers say, America’s lower class now smokes more and dies more from cigarettes than other Americans.

 

This widening gap between classes carries huge health implications and is already reshaping the country’s battle over tobacco control. Cigarette companies are focusing their marketing on lower socioeconomic communities to retain their customer base, researchers say. Nonprofit and advocacy groups are retooling their programs for the complex and more difficult work of reaching and treating marginalized groups…

When smoking first gained popularity in the early 20th century, it was a habit of the rich, a token of luxury dusted with Hollywood glamour. Then came the 1964 surgeon general’s report on its deadly effects, and during the next 3½ decades, smoking among the nation’s highest-income families plummeted by 62 percent. But among families of the lowest income, it decreased by just 9 percent.

It is remarkable how little one encounters smoking in wealthier communities compared to less well off places. Would smoking be one of the single best lifestyle indicators of someone who has less education? Imagine a game where you had to guess someone’s education/social class based on observing their normal behavior in public.

Thinking more broadly, perhaps the newest major marker of having more education and a higher social class is good health and the lifestyle associated with it, everything from gym membership to regular jogging to eating patterns to having intense outdoor sports/hobbies. It is not just smoking; these class differences go across a variety of conditions and behaviors.

A need to better understand why more education doesn’t lead to less religiosity among American Christians

A new Pew report looks at the relationship between education and religiosity:

On one hand, among U.S. adults overall, higher levels of education are linked with lower levels of religious commitment by some measures, such as belief in God, how often people pray and how important they say religion is to them. On the other
hand, Americans with college degrees report attending religious services as often as Americans with less education.
Moreover, the majority of American adults (71%) identify as Christians. And among Christians, those with higher levels of education appear to be just as religious as those with less schooling, on average. In fact, highly educated Christians are more likely than less-educated Christians to say they are weekly churchgoers.
There is a two part process with this data. First, it has to be collected, analyzed, and reported. On the face, it seems to contradict some long-held ideas within sociology and other fields that increasing levels of education would reduce religiosity. Second, however, is perhaps the tougher task of interpretation. Why is this the case among Christians and not other groups? What about the differences between Christian traditions? How exactly is religion linked to education – does the education reinforce religiosity or are they separate spheres for Christians (among other possibilities)? Data is indeed helpful but proper explanation can often take much longer.

Linking Tea Party support and residential segregation by education

A recent study suggests Tea Party support is higher in counties with higher levels of educational segregation:

McVeigh and coauthors, Kraig Beyerlein, Burrel Vann and Priyamvada Trivedi, examine why certain U.S. counties are conducive to the establishment of Tea Party organizations. Their statistical analyses show that even after accounting for many other factors, Tea Party organizations were much more likely to form in counties with high levels of residential segregation based on education levels, and that college graduates were more likely to indicate support for the Tea Party if they resided in a county characterized by high levels of educational segregation.

“Acceptance or rejection of the Tea Party’s views on the government’s role in redistributing wealth is shaped, to a large degree, by the extent to which those who have benefited from higher education are set apart in their daily lives from those who have not,” says McVeigh, who specializes in inequality, social movements, race and ethnicity.

“As the article explains, the commonly held view that individuals and families who are struggling to get by are undeserving of government assistance is reinforced when the highly educated have limited contact with those who have been less fortunate.”

I noticed this because that sneaky factor of residential segregation proves influential again. The average resident may not think about it much beyond the immediate value of their home or the nearby school district but where one lives can influence a lot about social life, including with whom you interact.

Of course, if your political perspective is that it is preferable to live in more uniform communities – stereotypically, small towns or suburbs – this may not be a problem…

“Who had richer parents, doctors or artists?”

NPR looks at how the jobs and incomes of parents influence the same outcomes among their children:

After some poking around, we figured out how to settle the argument. It allowed us to look at the same group of people in 1979 and 2010 — from a time when most were teenagers to the time when they were middle-aged and, for the most part, gainfully employed…

Who's doing better than their parents?

Based on this chart, it looks like the jobs of parents that are linked to better outcomes for their children require more education and are higher-skilled. This would seem to line up with findings from the Pew Economic Mobility Project about what traits are linked to upward social mobility:

This research reveals:

  • College graduates were over 5 times more likely to leave the bottom rung than non-college graduates.
  • Dual-earner families were over 3 times more likely to leave the bottom rung than single-earner families.
  • Whites were 2 times more likely to leave the bottom rung than blacks.

Additionally, Pew’s analysis examined the intersection between income and wealth, and found that the health of family balance sheets—including accumulated savings and wealth—are related to income mobility prospects. Households with financial capital, such as liquid savings or other readily available assets such as stocks, were more likely to leave the bottom of the economic ladder. In other words, movement up the income and wealth ladders was connected, and economically secure families were also the most likely to be upwardly mobile.

So in addition to parental education and the type of job one’s parent has, going to college, having two-income families, race, and wealth matter quite a bit. Overcoming these factors is not necessarily easy: “In fact, 43 percent of Americans raised at the bottom of the income ladder remain stuck there as adults, and 70 percent never even make it to the middle.”