Tuesday, April 27, 2010

School Districts v. School Excellence

Having grown up in an urban area, not known for its public schools (though there were some famously good ones), I was never exposed much to the concern with school districts that is familiar to most people. When we decided that we needed to move out of our home in Center City Philadelphia (aka downtown Philly), there were no obvious geographical specifications. All of our family on both sides live in other states; we had friends in every direction; and work and commute related factors were important, but not decisive. Since we’re crazy, we looked at a LOT of houses-- we must have seen about 130 houses in person during our quest; we’d regularly see 10 houses in one day (with two kids in two), and we looked at a wide range of suburban areas outside Philly. One of the things that often came up—with brokers, friends, and others-- was “what a great school district” a given house was in—and this was true for a bunch of places.

Now, I am a total sucker for educational concerns, and I care about the formation my children get from their earliest years, but after a while I started wondering—what does a great school district mean, exactly? Back when we were looking at houses, I did a little investigating into this…and now I’m trying to re-discover the criteria, but it’s not so easy to find out exactly what factors go into determining the coveted designation of a “great school district.” I have some questions (as usual) about what the label tells us and how useful it is. My husband grew up in a school district that is considered one of the best in New York State; he went to public schools K-12. While he thinks of himself as having received a fine education, there is nothing about it that particularly impressed him (I went to Catholic school K-12, so I can’t comment here). When we were looking at houses, my husband considered the school district issue primarily from a financial angle, as an indicator of house value. Basically, he explained, a good school district generally helps keep home values more stable. Highly-ranked school districts suggest that the area is in a decent socio-economic situation. Fair enough: I can see why realtors selling houses would talk about school districts to all buyers if that’s the case.

But what about the schools themselves? From what I’ve been able to figure out, the rankings indicate things like the percentage of children who are considered advanced for their grade level and the percentage of kids who are proficient—all judged by standardized tests. Standardized tests can be useful in their way, but many people—especially educators—are wary of them. It looks like the offerings of AP courses and other high level courses factor into the designation. But what does this really tell us? It seems much more likely to tell us about the neighborhood: how much money the parents have, and whether the parents are invested in the kids and are pushing them to succeed. There tend to be higher expectations on kids from affluent families: parents and others are more likely to think that their kids need to be educated through college and to make that possible from the get-go. Most parents who really care about education and can afford it get tutoring or other special help for their children; they help them to do well in the subjects that don’t come naturally to them. And it’s useful—especially but not only when figuring out where to live--to know what the community is like; is it supportive, and so forth. But the topic of “school district” sounds like it’s about the schools…when I’m not convinced it is. Seems to me, if you want to know about the schools, you need to visit them. What should you look for? There’s the rub!

Class size is a pretty obvious one—but doesn’t always tell you as much as you might think (Montessori classrooms, which I respect tremendously, tend to have a pretty big group of kids, yet run marvelously IMO). So what tells you that something is a great school? What *are* the measures?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Are You Sure You Want That? Choices, Strategies, and Happiness...

I just finished reading The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz (if you’re wondering when this supposedly-busy mom reads things like this, it’s at the gym, while on the bike--go figure). Schwartz teaches Psychology at Swarthmore College, and has a lot of great insights. The basic thesis of the book is that, for most people in our society today, choice is everywhere. And while choices have brought us many benefits, many of us are overwhelmed with choices an awful lot of the time. As a result of our overwhelmed-ness with choice, we have more difficulty making decisions (often feeling paralyzed when we have to choose); feel less confident and happy with the decisions we do make; and are generally less able to focus on the things that matter most to us (since we're so busy figuring out small things). He also speculates about the rates of depression in our society being related to (ironically) the amount of choice that people have. I find most of his points persuasive and compelling, and he makes some practical suggestions for breaking out of the habits that modern consumer culture tends to encourage in us.

One of the issues involved is how we approach the choices we make. Essentially, there are two types of people when it comes to choosing things: Satisficers and Maximizers (terms first coined by Herbert Simon in the 50’s). Satisficers approach purchases, etc., by looking to see if a given thing satisfies a set of criteria. Once they find something that does meet those criteria, they purchase (or decide). Maximizers, on the other hand, are always searching for "the best"-—with the inevitable problem of figuring out what that is. The more options that surface, the more possibilities (real or imagined) emerge, and the more difficult it is to choose. When maximizers do choose, the options they didn’t go for tend to stay in their minds, torturing them with imagined better-case-scenarios. Satisficers regularly report higher levels of satisfaction, and have an easier time dealing with decisions in their lives. Most people are a mix of strategies, but tend to lean more towards one strategy or the other. Schwartz suggests that the plethora of choices available to us tends to push us into habits of maximizing that are not helpful to anybody in the long run. At the end of the book, he incorporates some strategies for learning to satisfice more often, and for making easier, more happy-making decisions. He points out that it’s important for maximizers to realize that satisficing *is* maximizing, in that satisficing will make you a happier person with more time for the things, and people, you love.

The paradigms he introduces have a huge array of applications, but I kept thinking as I read the book how much it applies in my life. Funnily, I don’t have a problem satisficing when it comes to many of the big things (getting married, children, etc.) but I can become overwhelmed with choices about what to have for dinner or what shoes to buy my kids. When it comes to our children’s upbringing, too, there is an unbelievable pressure to maximize, which may explain a lot of the insanity out there. Just talking to a friend today, we discussed how the decision about whether, where, and when to send your child to pre-school can seem like a life or death decision. I suspect that we all need to take a big dose of sanity pills: we need to clarify for ourselves what the criteria that NEED to be met really are, and stop sweating the small stuff that goes into unhealthy (and crazy-making) maximizing.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Whom Can You Trust?

I’m generally not a worrying kind of mom. An inquiring one, but not one naturally prone to sleepless nights wondering whether my kids will be abducted or get irreversible brain damage from lead poisoning. But I don’t want to be na├»ve, either—I know people like me often underestimate real dangers that are out there. So, after one-too-many sane mothers expressed concern over the potential link between vaccines and autism and my first son was born (boys having a much higher likelihood of autism); my ears started to prick up on the issue. I recalled an issue of Cookie where they did an interview with a mother who was also a pediatrician—Cara Natterson, MD. Dr. Natterson authored a book called Dangerous or Safe, where she goes through the research on a whole host of issues—basically, dangers that your children may be exposed to in everyday life. She hits up all the big ones I know: plastics (and the PVC connection), vaccines (linked to autism), milk (possibly connected to various problems; dietary and other) and so on.…there are chapters devoted to a wide range of potential dangers.

Natterson sets the book up very nicely: for each chapter, she explains the issue at hand and why there is cause for concern; she then details the research, concluding with her assessment both as a doctor, and as a mother: she explains what she herself has done with her kids. Her discussion is thorough; her writing style is familiar and clear; her conclusions seem reasonable. And yet, I found myself curiously dissatisfied after reading the chapters that most interested me. It reminds me of one of my father’s dictums: that if you want to judge an encyclopedia, you need to read an entry addressing something you know something about--since you’ll be a lot more critical and able to appraise the value of what is presented in that section. At the end of the chapter dealing with the Autism-Vaccine link, Natterson notes that she had her own children vaccinated on the regular schedule, but that she “held her breath” each time they got their shots, given some of the stories she had heard. While it’s honest and direct, this is not confidence inspiring to me, as a newly-anxious mother.

Ultimately, it seems like the problem with a lot of these mom-worry issues is that you’re not sure whom to trust. And in a world where we’re not sure we trust our own childen’s doctors, why should I be sure I can trust someone else’s--even if she's also a mom? Ultimately, her book seems to be in a Catch-22 type of situation: we desperately need a book like this for the same reason we aren’t ready to accept the conclusions someone else has drawn for us.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Short Term Self Esteem, Long-Term Failure

Studies suggest that kids who are told they’re smart end up being slackers and grade grubbers….

Well, it’s not quite that bad. But NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children (written by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman) leads off with a great piece. In fact, I have a feeling I’m going to be coming back to NurtureShock a lot, here and elsewhere. It’s just the kind of book I love: written with a certain contrarian spirit (dispelling myths about parenting), but without an obnoxious vibe, the authors raise a lot of practical applications from contemporary research –and there are even more that you can think about on your own. “The Inverse Power of Praise”--the title of the first chapter-- documents in intelligent detail some of the consequences of telling kids they’re great a little too often. One of the reasons the authors focused on this issue is that it’s such a conspicuous part of most loving parents’ approach to their kids: tell ‘em early, and tell ‘em often, how great they are. But there is a dark underbelly to affirming your child in the usual sense. Telling a child she’s smart causes problems, because she doesn’t know how or why she’s smart, and so when her abilities fail her, she thinks she’s a failure.

Basically, the more parents and teachers encourage a child’s self esteem on the basis of innate talent and the less they focus on work, the more afraid the kids become of taking risks, the more focused they are on rank, and the more debilitating they find failure. ”Smart” kids learn not to persevere when they’re told they’re bright all the time; when they meet challenges, they cave. Kids who were praised for effort did statistically better on a difficult test given to them after an easy test; kids praised for ability, on the other hand, declined in performance. Essentially, when you tell kids that they did well because they’re just smart, they don’t know how to account for their ability; failure and success then becomes things beyond their control: something that happens to them, not something they can-and should—really work at.

Praise itself is not bad, but if you want it to be useful, it’s better to be specific—and focus on areas where a child can make a clear effort; it’s a bad idea to tell a kid repeatedly how smart he is without making a specific note of the skills that he has developed and what he can work on more.

Bronson, a father himself, discusses his efforts to put his research into practice at the end of the chapter. He notes how difficult it was for him to do so and suggests that it’s because praising our kids is part of the way, in today’s culture, that parents express unconditional love. It’s a great insight, and says a lot about the way we respond to our children. It’s interesting, too, to think about things where we want to instill a sense of identity rather than progress. For example, I’ve been telling my girls since they were little that they’re beautiful. That is something I want them to think they don’t need to work at…But I’ll keep my eyes peeled for studies suggesting the contrary!