Even in a country of sprawl and limited public life, there are plenty of places where people come in contact with many others

Watching reactions to the coronavirus in recent weeks presents a paradox connected to American social life and addressing contagious diseases: the country has pushed sprawl and private homes for decades and public life and community life is said to be in decline; yet, there are numerous spaces, public and private, where Americans regularly come together. And under the threat of disease, shutting down locations and/or quarantining large numbers of people would change social life dramatically even in an individualized, spread out society.

A few examples illustrate this well. One essential private space is the grocery store. Even in the age of the Internet deliveries and eating out, many Americans need to acquire food and other supplies for daily life. The experience of going to Walmart or another grocery chain is not necessarily a public experience – direct interaction with people there is likely limited – but the number of people who can cycle through a major store on a daily basis is high. Another semi-private space is churches. By choice, Americans attend religious services at a higher rate than most industrialized countries. Once there is a congregation of one hundred people or more, this brings together people who participate in a wide range of activities and go to a wide number of places.

An example of public spaces that would change dramatically are mass transit lines and transportation hubs. In a country where relatively few people take mass transit on a daily basis, there are a good number of Americans dependent on buses, trains, and subways and people who use multiple forms on a regular basis. Plus, the United States has relatively busy airports. A second example involves schools. Americans tend to think education is the secret to success and getting ahead and students from preschool to post-graduate settings gather in buildings to attend class and do related activities. For these students, school is about learning and social life, classrooms and lunchrooms, eating areas, and play or recreation areas. Schools and colleges can draw people from a broad set of backgrounds and locations.

Our public life may not be at the same level as it is in Italy; instead of sidewalk cafes, Americans can go through the drive-through of Starbucks. Perhaps this means it will be relatively easy for some Americans to quarantine or keep their social distance: many live in their private homes and have limited social interactions anyhow. At the same time, significant public health measures would change social life in ways that are noticeable and that some might miss. Indeed, could a national reminder of the social ties Americans do have lead to a revival in social interactions in times of more stability?

Why do children’s books spend so much time on infrastructure and construction yet there is little formal instruction on these topics later?

Yesterday, I walked to the nearest bank and watched some construction going on. The work appeared to involve digging underneath the side of a street, possibly to deal with a pipe or some kind of wire. I was struck that while many neighbors or drivers would find such a sight a nuisance, many kids would be fascinated.

Plenty of books for children involve infrastructure and construction. These books discuss vehicles, what is underground, and how items get from one place to another. The emphasis on big machines doing physical work and the mobility of it all seems attractive to kids. (I would guess much of this attraction is due to socialization.) But, if I think back to my schooling, we spend little time analyzing and discussing these basic systems that are essential to all of our lives: electricity and electrical lines, plumbing and sewers, Internet cables, roads and highways, pipelines, gas lines, railroads, trucking, waterways, airplanes and airports, and other crucial pieces of infrastructure. Why?

In many ways, it would not be hard to incorporate these topics into multiple subjects. The first example that came to mind would be a unit about railroads. These are essential for moving goods long distances. Various subjects could tackle aspects of the railroad. Plenty of history and geography to note. The natural sciences could discuss steam engines, coal, diesel engines, and how such heavy objects move. The humanities have a wealth of stories, poems, songs, and other works that involve railroads. Math could involve analyzing timetables or schedules. Language arts could involve writing promotional materials for railroads or describing particular historical events involving trains.

Without more formal instruction on infrastructure, American adults may not (1) think often about how we all need to contribute to maintaining and building infrastructure and (2) have a good understanding of how it all works (not just the infrastructure itself but also related industries and aspects of social life). In other words, a lack of attention paid to infrastructure in school and learning may just contribute to a public that does not want to address the infrastructure issues facing the nation today.

Successful Naperville also linked to stressed out teenagers

Naperville is not the only wealthy suburb to experience issues related to anxiety. Here is how one expert describes how community success can be related to worries:

Michelle Rusk, former president of the American Association of Suicidology, said when it comes to community pressure placed on teens to succeed and families to maintain the idealized “white picket fence” life, little has changed since she grew up in Naperville in the 1970s and ’80s…

Experts who work with Naperville students say they are treating more children experiencing signs of distress at a younger age…

Growing up in Naperville, Rusk, formerly known as Michelle Linn-Gust, said she heard stories of big houses with empty rooms because the owners couldn’t afford to furnish them or men who left their wives because they felt they weren’t making enough money.

People move to Naperville because it’s recognized as a great place to raise a family, but maintaining that image is challenging enough for adults let alone kids, she said.

In the 1990s, historian Michael Ebner argued Naperville was a “technoburb” – a suburb with a high number of high-tech and white-collar jobs – and this was accompanied by the development of high-performing schools. Naperville was not always like this; before the 1960s, Naperville was just a small town surrounded by farms.

But, is there a way to get out of this spiral of wealth, success, and anxiety and suicides? As Rusk noted above, Naperville is attractive in part because of its high-achieving environment. In communities like this with residents ranging from the middle-class to upper-class, families want only the best for their kids. Would residents and others be willing to give up some of the success to have better lives?

Inequality starts young: education opportunities for 3-year-olds

A new book by education scholars highlights the differences in what 3-year-olds are doing with their days:

Only 55 percent of America’s 3 and 4-year-olds attend a formal preschool, a rate far below China, Germany and other power players on the global stage…

Parents who can’t afford preschool typically leave their kids with a grandparent or someone nearby. Some of these informal child-care providers do offer rigorous educational activities, but others just leave kids in front of the television. The quality is more haphazard, and there’s a higher risk the option won’t work out. The book chronicles the awful experience of one low-income family in New York City that had to make 25 different child-care arrangements for their daughter by her fifth birthday.

The inequality that begins before kindergarten lasts a lifetime. Children who don’t get formal schooling until kindergarten start off a year behind in math and verbal skills and they never catch up, according to the authors, who cite a growing body of research that’s been following children since the 1940s. In fact, the gap between rich and poor kids’ math and reading skills has been growing since the 1970s. The “left behind” kids are also more likely to end up in lower-paying jobs…

Many of these initiatives have support across the political spectrum. President Trump’s first budget includes a proposal to start America’s first paid parental leave program. On the campaign trail, Trump also pushed the idea of expanding the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit to help make it more affordable for families to put their kids in quality preschool and childcare programs.

This would be a good example of how the Matthew Effect begins: small differences in younger ages lead to divergent outcomes and larger gaps later in life.

Bipartisan support for something? Better capitalize on this before polarization sets in.

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.

The decline in kids walking to school

Several experts talk about the issues with many fewer American kids walking to school compared to fifty years ago. The negative effects? Less exercise, less learning about active transportation, less exploration in and knowledge of their own neighborhoods.

I suspect many people will blame parents and kids for this and tell them to simply walk and stop being lazy/decadent/unnecessarily scared/etc. However, it is not as if many Americans regularly walk places outside of major cities and denser neighborhoods. Some of this may be due to comfort but other factors are involved including nicer vehicles, more fear about crime, more sprawl (particularly in the Sunbelt) which means further distances and fewer pedestrian-friendly streets, less emphasis on physical activity in daily life (which is not necessarily laziness but rather more sedentary lives overall), and a shift toward technology (starting with television) rather than active exploration. In other words, this is likely a multifacted problem that is not easily solved by simply “making” kids walk.

Inequality in American schools: students in certain states compare well with international leaders, those in other states do not

Where American students go to school matters as those in certain states score comparably to international leaders while students living in other states don’t do as well:

The average TIMSS score is a 500, and the test uses four benchmarks—low, intermediate, high, and advanced—to describe student scores. In math, two-thirds of U.S. states scored above the TIMSS average…

Massachusetts was the highest-scoring state in math, coming in behind four educational systems—Republic of Korea, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, and Hong Kong—and outranking 42 education systems. The lowest-ranking state, Alabama, outperformed only 19 educational systems…

In science, 47 states scored above the TIMMS average…

Massachusetts and Vermont outperformed 43 educational systems, while the District of Columbia ranked above only 14 educational systems. Singapore was the only education system to outrank all U.S. states.

This isn’t a new argument. The documentary Waiting for Superman raises a similar question: do we want children’s education to rest primarily on where they live, a factor over which they have little control? A Time story on education in Finland a few years ago suggested they had a different approach: raise rest scores and education overall by helping the students at the bottom. The United States and some other countries use the opposite approach where they provide resources to the best students to help them achieve even more. Both approaches can lead to higher average test scores but they would lead to different levels of variation in scores. In other words, how much of a gap between the higher and lower scorers is desirable for a society? Of course, this could go far more local than the state level. For example, some public schools in Chicago are among the best in the states while others in the city are among those that struggle the most.

This does reinforce an idea from urban sociology: where people do and can live makes a big difference in their life outcomes. Live in an area with generally more wealthy people and the outcomes are likely to be better.

More low-income students in suburban Chicago school districts

A number of suburban school districts in the Chicago area have experienced increases in the number of low-income students:

An analysis of Illinois State Report Card data for 83 school districts in the Daily Herald’s circulation area shows poverty rates rose an average of 18 percentage points from 2000 to 2012…In 2000, only East Aurora Unit District 131 and Round Lake Unit District 116 identified at least one-third of students as low-income. None of the 83 districts’ poverty rates were above 50 percent.

By last year, 23 school districts reported their low-income student populations exceeded one-third. And of those, 11 had poverty rates that topped 50 percent.The most drastic increase over that period came in West Chicago Elementary District 33, where the low-income population jumped to 76 percent from 23 percent. Superintendent Kathy Wolfe didn’t respond to requests for comment…

Eight of the top 10 districts in poverty growth are in DuPage County, where the Hispanic population rose 50 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to a 2011 report by the county’s Department of Economic Development and Planning. Over the same period, the number of county residents living in poverty doubled, U.S. Census data shows.

This is not surprising given the increase in poverty in the suburbs in recent years. Yet, it highlights two other issues:

1. Some suburban communities and organizations just don’t perceive themselves as communities where lower-income people live. Traditionally, American suburbs were places for the middle- and upper-class. And, it would be interesting to see how many wealthier Chicago suburb residents would be willing to move to suburbs that have a reputation for being more working- or lower-class. My prediction: few, particularly when articles like this highlight the challenges for suburban schools, a common selling point for suburbs.

2. These same communities and organizations haven’t always allocated or shifted resources to facing the issues that accompany poverty and lower incomes. Providing more resources for schools may be unpopular with many, both because it could mean increased taxes but also because it may mean less money for other local services.

Both of these are hurdles to overcome.

Sociologist on the growing achievement gaps between upper, middle, and lower-class children

A sociologist explains the “substantial” growing achievement gaps in recent decades among students of different classes:

One way to see this is to look at the scores of rich and poor students on standardized math and reading tests over the last 50 years. When I did this using information from a dozen large national studies conducted between 1960 and 2010, I found that the rich-poor gap in test scores is about 40 percent larger now than it was 30 years ago…

The same pattern is evident in other, more tangible, measures of educational success, like college completion. In a study similar to mine, Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski, economists at the University of Michigan, found that the proportion of students from upper-income families who earn a bachelor’s degree has increased by 18 percentage points over a 20-year period, while the completion rate of poor students has grown by only 4 points.

And why is this happening?

It boils down to this: The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school…

High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources — their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school — on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich.

In other words, it appears social reproduction is occurring through the schooling system. Sounds like the ideas of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who argued social class differences are reinforced by education systems, as well as sociologist Annette Lareau who suggests different classes have different parenting approaches. In the end, those who already have resources can put them to use in getting the best out of the system while those with fewer resources can’t keep pace.

The Common Core and college instruction

Here is a nice overview of how the new national Common Core standards for K-12 might intersect with college instruction and learning. Here are a brief overview:

Those adjustments, if the Common Core vision is realized, could transform dual enrollment programs, placement tests, and remediation. They could force colleges within state systems, and even across states, to agree on what it means to be “college ready,” and to work alongside K-12 to help students who are unprepared for college before they graduate from high school. In the long run, it could force changes in credit-bearing courses too, to better align with what students are supposed to have mastered by high school graduation. While the effects will be most obvious at public institutions of higher education, private colleges, particularly those with broad access missions, will feel the effects as well.

Still, although a few states have seized the standards to develop “P-20” systems — stretching from pre-kindergarten through graduate school — progress has been slow in many others. In 2010, as the standards were being developed, policy makers touted the effect they could have in bringing together K-12 and higher education. And they pointed out that the ultimate success of the standards, particularly beyond K-12, will depend on whether colleges are willing to change placement and remediation criteria and work together to determine what “readiness” really means.

In some cases, that’s coming to pass. Three years later, proponents for the standards are arguing that they have already changed the way K-12 and postsecondary education interact — at least by putting the leaders of each system in the same room together and forcing states to collaborate.

And there is a little bit of a disconnect between what high school teachers say they are doing and what college educators perceive:

ACT’s most recent survey, released last week, looked at the gap between high school and college expectations for students. It found that only 26 percent of college faculty thought that students entered their classrooms prepared for college-level work. High school teachers gave themselves much higher marks. Nearly all — 89 percent — said they had prepared their students well for college.

There is going to be a lot more discussion about this in the years ahead.