Are the suburbs the heart of the anti-Common Core movement?

The claim here that backlash to the Common Core is based in the suburbs may be true but lacks hard evidence:

Now, amid all the backlash, an unlikely subculture appears to be emerging in the anti-Common Core world: suburban parents. Even U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has taken note of the trend, who last November told a group of superintendents that “white suburban moms” were resisting the implementation of the Common Core. His theory? “All of a sudden … their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

I happen to live in a middle-class suburb outside of New York City—one that could easily be considered the capital of “white suburban moms.” And I’m realizing Duncan was on to something: Their wrath is real, and it’s based largely on misperception and widespread fearmongering perpetuated by the Tea Party skeptics and anxious state policymakers…

So, why are suburban parents suddenly taken with test anxiety? Duncan reasoned that “white suburban moms”—and, presumably, dads as well—fear their children will perform poorly on the Common Core tests. But based on my conversations with parents and school administrators, as well as my observations of local school-board meetings, I believe parental fears are broader and more complex than Duncan made them out to be.

A typical suburban parent, like all parents, has an intense, natural instinct to protect his or her kids. We parents are hard-wired to protect our babies from the unknown—and for the most part, this is a good thing. After all, protection of offspring and suspicion of outsiders have kept the human species alive for millions of years. But this instinct sometimes takes parents in the wrong direction. Just look at the anti-vaccination movement: Though the instincts of anti-vaccination parent activists are pure, their actions have resulted in what’s arguably a public-health crisis in the country.

Many parents view the Common Core and the accompanying tests as a threat to their ability to keep their kids safe in a hostile world. Suburban parents, who are known for being particularly involved in their kids’ education and traditionally enjoy a good deal of influence on district policymaking, are frustrated by not being able to convince their local school boards to alter the standards or testing requirements. They worry that they won’t be able to help kids with homework, because the new learning materials rely on teaching methods foreign to them. They worry that, ultimately, their kids will be unemployed and living in the basement in their 20s…

Tea Party conservatives and suburban parents might not have a lot in common, but they seem to increasingly share a distrust of bureaucracy, so-called experts, and federal rules. The sources of their opposition, of course, are entirely different: For Tea Party conservatives, it’s about ideology; for parents, it’s about protection. Politics makes for strange bedfellows, indeed.

Does that mean urban and rural areas are the ones supporting the Common Core? Here is why this argument without much evidence bothers me: it sounds like the decades-old suburban critiques that haven’t changed all that much since the mid-1900s. It is easy to stereotype all the suburban population as white, conservative, individualistic, unable to see past their own interests. There is some evidence that would seem to fit with this argument: the exurbs tend to vote Republican, wealthier suburban communities (those likely with better schools) tend to be whiter, American suburbs have been all about raising children for a long time, and suburbs idolize local control in all sorts of areas. Yet, the suburbs were never that monolithic and certainly aren’t now with increasing non-white, poorer, and immigrant populations. Do inner-ring suburban parents view the world the same way as exurban parents?

If this story wanted to be more accurate, it might go a few directions:

1. Use some data. There certainly has to be some survey data regarding opinions on the Common Core. Many national surveys include a measure for living in urban/suburban/rural areas.

2. Don’t paint all suburbanites with broad strokes and instead limit the claim to certain groups. Perhaps the author is really talking about wealthier parents. Or moms. Or suburban conservatives.

Reminder to journalists: a blog post garnering 110 comments doesn’t say much about social trends

In reading a book this weekend (a review to come later this week), I ran across a common tactic used by journalists: looking at the popularity of websites as evidence of a growing social trend. This particular book quoted a blog post and then said “The post got 110 comments.”

The problem is that this figure doesn’t really tell us much about anything.

1. These days, 110 comments on an Internet story is nothing. Controversial articles on major news websites regularly garner hundreds, if not thousands, of comments.

2. We don’t know who exactly was commenting on the story. Were these people who already agreed with what the author was writing? Was it friends and family?

In the end, citing these comments runs into the same problems that face web surveys done poorly: we don’t know whether they are representative of Americans as a whole or not. That doesn’t mean blogs and comments can’t be cited at all but we need to be very careful of what these sites tell us, what we can know from the comments, and who exactly they represent. A random sample of blog posts might help as would a more long-term study of responses to news articles and blog posts. But, simply saying that something is an important issue because a bunch of people were moved enough to comment online may not mean much of anything.

Thankfully, the author didn’t use this number of blog comments as their only source of evidence; it was part of a larger story with more conclusive data. However, it might simply be better to quote a blog post like this as an example of what is out on the Internet rather than try to follow it with some “hard” numbers.

Whether Facebook increases the number of divorces

You might have seen certain figures bandied about how often Facebook is cited in divorce cases: this story says, “Two-thirds of the lawyers surveyed said that Facebook was the “primary source” of evidence in divorce proceedings.” But is it fair to then say that Facebook is a primary driver of divorce proceedings? Carl Bialik says the numbers are more complicated than many news stories would lead you to believe:

Some lawyers do say that they see Facebook playing a bigger role in divorce these days, that doesn’t mean the site destroys marriages…

“Correlation is not causation,” Thomas Bradbury, professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote in an email. “Divorce has been around for a long time, long before these sorts of possibilities were present; the newly available information does add a new flavor to relationship maintenance and dissolution, but I don’t think it changes the basic processes that underlie change and deterioration in relationships.”…

These issues are symptoms of a larger issue in divorce research: “It’s very hard to separate out the causes” of divorce, says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist and divorce researcher at Johns Hopkins University.

“To do this kind of research requires a huge amount of persistence,” said George Levinger, professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Massachusetts.

Part of the reason is that it is hard to pinpoint a single reason or even a set of reasons for any marital split…

Some researchers have asked divorcees why they divorced, and gotten conflicting results from men and women. Others have looked for factors that predict whether couples divorce. “There are many social, cultural, and behavioral predictors of divorce,” W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, wrote in an email.

Other academics examine couples’ behavior, seeking clues that might predict marital dissolution.

It sounds like this a more complicated methodological issue that still needs to be worked out by researchers: how exactly can one identify the primary cause or causes of divorce? Just because Facebook is mentioned as contributing to a divorce does not mean that it causes the divorce. As you might expect, Facebook itself says this argument is silly:

A spokesperson for Facebook said: “It’s ridiculous to suggest that Facebook leads to divorce. Whether you’re breaking up or just getting together, Facebook is just a way to communicate, like letters, phone calls and emails. Facebook doesn’t cause divorces, people do.”

It is no surprise that lawyers would want to use Facebook data for a divorce case (or other types of cases such as fraud – one example here). Facebook is often fairly public information and people often post on there without thinking about the potential consequences of sharing such information. It would be interesting to hear more about how this data from Facebook is presented in court and the reactions to it from both judges and the participants in the case.

But I wonder if these sorts of figures and ideas about Facebook and divorce have gained notoriety because they may fit some larger narratives about privacy and information sharing on Facebook as well as voyeurism on the Internet. These figures from lawyers could be presented as evidence that people lead dual lives, one in the offline world and another one in the real world. Whether this is actually the case doesn’t matter as much; what does is that the hot company of recent years, Facebook, can be linked to negative behavior.