Category Archives: raising children

At Your Wits’ End With A Screen-Obsessed Kid? Read This (Anya Kamenetz and Chloee Weiner)

This article is based on a podcast episode that appeared in National Public Radio’s Life Kit. It was published June 30, 2019. Anya Kamenetz and Chloee Weiner are NPR journalists.

Geoff and Ellie live in a suburban Chicago neighborhood that looks familiar from movies like Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — both filmed in the area.

They have three kids — Nathan, 5, Benji, 11, and Abby, 14 — and they’re worried that all three are too into their screens.

An all-too-common experience

Ninety-eight percent of families with children now have smartphones. Young children Nathan’s age consume over two hours of media per day on average, tweens take in about six hours, and teens use their devices for nine hours a day, according to the nonprofit Common Sense Media.

Technology overuse ranked as the No. 1 fear of parents of teenagers in a national survey last year.

As we sit in the family room, Ellie tell us how it feels to have a houseful of tiny electronic devices that travel with her kids into their bedrooms, to the table, in the car — everywhere.

“We’re the first generation of parents that has to do this monitoring,” Ellie says.

Case in point: Nathan, her 5-year-old, is tugging at her sleeve:


The problem with time-based rules

How did Geoff and Ellie get here? They are not hands-off parents, nor are they lacking in rules. In the kitchen, Ellie has posted color-coded schedules for all three kids, which show when each child is allowed to use screens.

But the kids don’t listen. They fight back and complain. And sometimes, with dad working full time, mom part time, and three kids with three different schools and three different schedules, the rules fall through the cracks. “Give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile and you’re in trouble,” Ellie says. “It’s exhausting.”

At one point, all three kids are sitting in separate corners on the sectional couch in the family room, each on his or her own device. Nathan, the little one, is playing on his iPad, totally hidden under a blanket — head and all. As I talk with Abby, Benji looks up and comments, “This is the most I’ve heard my sister say in a while.”

Ellie puts it this way: “I lost my daughter when I gave her the cell phone.”

I’ve brought an expert to observe and to give Geoff and Ellie some tips. Devorah Heitner has a Ph.D. in media, technology and society from Northwestern University and is author of the book Screenwise.

Heitner says she hears this kind of thing all the time. “I think all parents are like, ‘Can you just tell me how many minutes?’ Or I’ll go speak at schools, and people will say, ‘Can you just tell me the device I can use to fix the problem?’ ”

This misconception comes in part from the media, she says, and from companies — Apple, Google, Amazon — that advertise parental controls and settings as a magic solution.

Heitner and other experts do say to draw a bright line — and be a little authoritarian if you have to — over two times of day: bedtime and mealtime. Research says that more than two hours a day of screen time for young children doubles the risk of childhood obesity. Staring at screens can interfere with sleep, not only because of blue light but because of the emotional excitement of media content and the feeling of urgency about responding to messages.

But in general, Heitner advises that families like this one need to switch from monitoring to mentoring. Policing their kids’ device use isn’t working. They need to understand why their kids are using devices and what their kids get out of those devices so they can help the kids shift their habits.

The relationship between teens, screens and mental health is complex and multidirectional

The real lightning bolt of wisdom on this comes from the oldest child, Abby.

Abby, who has braces and a short crop of curly hair, is snuggled in a hoodie. She starts our conversation speaking softly, but when asked what she wishes grown-ups knew about the phone, she speaks right up.

“Taking it away won’t eliminate problems, ’cause it’s not the sole reason that they existed in the first place.”

Abby’s mom has sent her articles about research linking teen depression and suicide to screen use. A 2017 article in The Atlantic magazine — “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” — drew a link between negative trends in teens’ mental health and the rise of smartphones and social media.

But Abby has a point: The relationship between screens and kids’ mental and emotional health may not be so simple.

“[People always say] the iPhones are the only reason kids are depressed and can’t sleep and have all of these problems — not stress from school, from other people, from other things happening,” Abby says. “It’s never the only reason.”

More recently, a paper from Oxford University analyzed the same data featured in that Atlantic article — more than 350,000 participants in three huge surveys — and arrived at a different conclusion.

The negative relationship between teens’ mental health and technology use is real — but tiny, the researchers found.

“It is extremely, extremely small,” says Amy Orben, the lead author of that paper and two other related studies. “A teenager’s technology use can only predict less than 1% of variation in well-being. It’s so small that it’s surpassed by whether a teenager wears glasses to school.”

In Orben’s view, Abby is dead-on. As Heitner says, “If you hand a happy kid a phone, they’re not going to turn into an unhappy, miserable kid.”

Heitner does caution, however, that devices can “turn up the volume” on existing issues. Children who have special needs or mental health challenges are also more likely to have problems with screens.

This goes for Benji, the middle child. He has anxiety, ADHD and emotional disabilities, and he is prone to meltdowns. Heitner says, in cases like his, parents should consult a professional who knows the child, be it a psychiatrist or occupational therapist.

But there’s another side to that dynamic as well. Some children and teenagers who struggle with mental or emotional health may find that zoning out and playing a game helps them regulate their emotions and avoid meltdowns. For this family, for example, letting Benji bring his iPad allowed him to sit through his big sister’s eighth-grade graduation, and that’s a trade-off the family is willing to make.

And kids can use smartphones to connect with others and therefore feel better too.

In a national study of teens and young adults, Vicky Rideout, a longtime media-effects researcher, found no significant relationship between the young people’s self-reported mental health and how often they used social media.

The young people in the study who were depressed didn’t use social media more often — but they did use it differently, sometimes to feel better. “One of the things that teens are doing online is searching for information and tools to help promote their well-being,” Rideout says.

This has been Abby’s experience. “When you’re really upset, you can use your phone to distract yourself, or contact a friend who can help you, or use it to get your mind off the bad thoughts.”

How to strike a balance? To start, try mentoring, not monitoring

Heitner’s work emphasizes a concept that’s also put forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics in its guidelines for parents: media mentoring.

As opposed to monitoring — with charts, schedules and parental controls — mentoring means understanding the media that kids use.

“Mentoring is knowing the difference between Minecraft and Fortnite. Mentoring is looking at the emotional effects of playing in a competitive mode versus a collaborative mode,” Heitner says.

“It’s understanding that … what your kids are doing is part of their identity, whether it’s through the kinds of people they follow on Tumblr or the kinds of things they share.”

Abby, for example, follows YouTubers who talk about important issues — emotions, mental health, body image, self-esteem. It’s important that her parents understand what she is looking at so they can talk to her about it, share their own values and offer support if needed.

This goes double if your kids encounter stuff that is more questionable — porn, video bloggers with hateful messages or bullying or drama with peers online. Parents can’t step in and solve social problems, but they can be sounding boards for advice.

Look for the good in your kids’ media interests

For Benji, Minecraft is a social space where he plays with other kids and pulls pranks. He says he wishes his parents understood more about his screen use — “why it’s entertaining and why we want to do it. And also, for YouTube, why I watch other people playing games. When you watch sports, you’re watching another person playing a game! Why is it so different when you’re watching a person play a video game?”

Abby points out that as kids get older, having their own private worlds online is kind of the point. “There’s a language that teenagers have formed though memes — it would be hard to explain” to adults, she says. But Geoff, her dad, jokes with her about it: “There are things that I understand, even though I’m super old.”

Heitner reminds Geoff and Ellie that the distance they feel from their oldest is also a normal part of growing up. Ellie responds, “That’s a really important fact. I didn’t think of it that way. I just thought of it as it’s the phone’s fault.”

Work together as a family to make changes.

A few days later, Heitner gets on the phone with Geoff and Ellie.

She tells them to get the devices out of sight and out of mind more often. This goes for mom and dad too, she says. Her advice:

  • Ban devices at mealtime.
  • Take Abby’s phone away at night.
  • Impose more chores. Even the 5-year-old can put away his own toys, Heitner says. The older kids can do their own laundry and load and unload the dishwasher. Send the 14-year-old into the grocery store with a list. “It’s a source of self-esteem to get things done for the family and to be valued in the family.”
  • Introduce new interests. For Benji, Heitner says, set a goal this summer to try to reduce screen time and add something else in.
  • Try more screen-free whole-family activities like board games, a trip to the water park, or just a walk after dinner to get ice cream.
  • Ask Benji to monitor his own mood after he plays video games, say, on a color chart. Heitner says this can help him develop self-regulation skills. Instead of just fighting against the limits his parents set, “it would be good for him to start to see, OK, an hour is good, but two hours starts to make me a little crazy.”

Little changes, big differences

Two weeks later, we checked back in with Geoff and Ellie to see how things were going.

They said that they sat down with all three kids with “a bribe” — their favorite Ben & Jerry’s ice cream — to talk about making some changes to the screen-time rules.

Nathan, the little one, was pretty easy — he’s playing more with his toys now and reading books during snack time.

Benji has made the most progress. He tells us he has been reading a lot more. He found a book series he loves, Wings of Fire, about dragons.

He has advice for parents who want to help their kids cut back on screen time. “If you have kids who are interested in fantasy games, maybe they’ll like fantasy books, or if they’re interested in sports games or animals, maybe they’ll like realistic fiction.”

His parents say his mood is much better. They’re amazed.

Abby, the oldest, has been the toughest nut to crack. But she has been helping out more around the house and doing more projects like cooking.

She made edible cookie dough from a recipe she found online, and the whole family ate it together while watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — a bit of sanctioned screen time, because it counts as a whole-family activity.




Filed under raising children

The Problem with Too Much Screen Time And Too Little Privacy Is Parents (Anya Kamenetz)

Anya Kamenetz is an NPR education reporter and the author of “The Art of Screen Time.”

This appeared as op-ed in the New York Times, June 5, 2019

Parents this year were introduced to a goblin for the digital era: Momo, a bird-woman with an eerie grin who commanded the children who watched her videos on YouTube to harm themselves. The story turned out to be essentially a hoax, but it went viral in the first place because it seemed to validate a widely held belief: Our kids are in danger because of threats associated with the dark corners of social media and risk of addiction to phones and tablets.

The annual American Family Survey found last fall that “overuse of technology” had risen to the top of the list of concerns for parents of teenagers, above drugs, sexual activity and mental health. Viral headlines like “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” and books like “Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids” are resonating with parents. One of the authors of the original American Academy of Pediatrics “no screens before age 2” rule (it has since been softened) has written a book with the fearsome title “The Death of Childhood.” Screens are his main culprit.

The truth isn’t so simple. Smartphones and social media may be, in fact, transforming the experience of childhood and adolescence in some ways. But the hard (for many adults to hear) truth is that many of technology’s effects on kids have less to do with screen time per se than they do with the decisions grown-ups are making — many of which place children’s privacy at great risk.

First, there’s surveillance. Children are now under intense scrutiny from a young age, from platforms and advertisers, but also parents and other authority figures.

Many public schools use online gradebooks, and sometimes app-based communication systems like Class Dojo. Depending on their settings, these systems allow parents to instantly see the score on every quiz, and a record of every time their child is disciplined or praised. Family dynamics vary; these updates may be the catalyst to an important conversation, an invitation to hover or get overly involved in a child’s progress, or a prelude to harsh punishment.

Even more worrisome is the widespread use of software from large tech platforms like Google in the classroom. Some privacy advocates have expressed concern about how the data collected on students who are required to use these apps and email services to complete assignments might be used.

As I reported for NPR in 2016, GoGuardian, a form of school-based security software, monitors kids’ online searches on school-issued computers. Middle-school students who searched topics related to suicide, even at home, have been referred to mental health services by school webmasters. Benjamin Herold detailed in Education Week how private companies are monitoring student assignments, emails and even social media posts. Students have become accustomed to the surveillance. One wrote his concerns about a classmate acting strangely in a Google doc, and added profanity to make sure it was flagged by the automated system.

Meanwhile, just a few years since it became possible, checking in on your children as they surf the web and stroll to school is in many circles seen as the basic obligation of a responsible parent. The average age at which a child gets her own smartphone has dropped to 10.3 years. In other words, just as kids start to expand their physical boundaries and spend m ore time with peers, it’s suddenly become standard practice to equip them with a tracking device. The message could not be more mixed: You can spread your wings, sure, but we’ll be banding your ankle, using products like Circle at home and Find My iPhone when you’re out and about.

Then there’s “sharenting.Today, many children’s social media presence starts with a sonogram, posted, obviously, without consent. One study from Britain found that nearly 1,500 images of the average child had been placed online by their fifth birthday. Parents get a lot of gratification from telling kids’ stories online. Advertisers, and platforms like Pinterest and Instagram, get a lot out of it, too. Baby pics drive clicks. “Millennial moms are the holy grail,” one marketer told me.

It’s less clear what our children have to gain from their lives being broadcast in this way. Stacey Steinberg, a scholar at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, wrote in The Emory Law Review that parents’ rights to free speech and self-expression are at odds with children’s rights to privacy when they are young and vulnerable. “A conflict of interests exists as children might one day resent the disclosures made years earlier by their parents,” she noted.

This is especially true when the information is potentially damaging. Imagine a child who has behavior problems, learning disabilities or chronic illness. Mom or Dad understandably want to discuss these struggles and reach out for support. But those posts live on the internet, with potential to be discovered by college admissions officers and future employers, friends and romantic prospects. A child’s life story is written for him before he has a chance to tell it himself.

Even if you confine your posts about your children to sunny days and birthday parties, any information you provide about them — names, dates of birth, geographic location — could be acquired by data brokers, companies that collect personal information and sell it to advertisers.

Finally, there’s display and commodification. In 2018, the top earner on YouTube, according to Forbes, was a 7-year-old boy who brought in $22 million by playing with toys. It’s never seemed more accessible to become famous at a wee age, and the type of children who used to sing into a hairbrush in the mirror are often clamoring to start their own channels today.

What’s the harm? In most cases, none. Maybe even some benefits. But there are horror stories, too. YouTube’s algorithms make it easy to discover ever-more-extreme content, and videos starring children are no exception. Some channels have been taken down from the platform, and parents have even lost custody of their children for harassing and humiliating their own children in videos that earned millions of views. Or, you could post a completely innocuous video of your daughter doing cartwheels and a pedophile could comment with a time code of a particular split-second view as a signal to his fellows.

The most egregious abuses are just the tip of the iceberg, though. For every moneymaking influencer, there are millions of less-successful stage parents and wannabes scratching for followers on YouTube and Instagram. They’re out there shoving cameras in children’s faces, using up their free time, killing spontaneity, warping the everyday rituals of childhood into long working shoots.

Forget Momo. When it comes to childhood and technology, we adults are the horror show.


Filed under raising children

Capitalism Camp for Kids (Brendan O’Connor)

Brendan O’Connor is a free-lance journalist. This article appeared in the New York Times Online May 22, 2019. *

At first, I was startled by this article. Now, I am not naive. I have many miles on my speedometer. Sure, I had heard of ambitious (and anxious) parents registering new-born infants in choice preschools. As a teacher and superintendent I saw up close, parents from all social classes who wanted special privileges for their children. So the recent scandal over wealthy parents buying their sons and daughters into top universities hardly surprised me. The dog-eat-dog struggle to get an edge for one’s child among so many other middle-income and affluent families elbowing one another to get to a higher rung on the credentials ladder is, I feel, the nightmarish version of the American Dream.

And then this article appeared on my screen on well-heeled families sending their kids to camp to learn the nuts-and-bolts of becoming an entrepreneur and fully apprised of how capitalism works on a daily basis.There are, of course, many districts that have established classes on financial awareness and, in nearly all districts, economics, both macro- and micro-, are taught. But these summer camps are another step, again led by educated elite who seek that precious edge over other competitive parents, toward the 1 percent of Americans. 

I don’t know about bolts, but I thought this was “nuts.”  Yet it so fits into the mystique that business culture and markets as solutions to all problems has had on U.S. schools for nearly four decades. So I present it to my viewers to see what they think.



Summer camp: It’s not just for campfires, crushes on counselors and crying alone in a bunk bed. Summer camp is also for capitalism.

Or at least it is for a growing number of children whose parents enroll them in workshops and sleep-away trips that focus on stimulating the entrepreneurial mind-set, enlightening youth about the importance of innovation, and imbuing the next generation with an appreciation for surplus value. Because really, what could be more fun?

Biznovator, a company in South Florida, offers a slew of camps, academies and programs that are designed to teach students about how to be businesspeople and innovators (biznovators!). That includes the weeklong “Kamp for Kids,” which this summer will be held at the Divine Savior Academy, in Doral, Fla. There, children as young as 8 will learn how to monetize their hobbies, interview local corporate executives, and shoot YouTube commercials for their prospective businesses.

It also includes the more advanced “Connect Camp,” for preteens and high schoolers, which is typically run at Florida International University. Campers get tours of places like a Starbucks corporate office or the Federal Reserve, and are tasked with analyzing problems facing various companies and industries. Days are broken up with stints on a ropes course and trust exercises, and students are encouraged to network during lunch, which is included in the cost of tuition. (Suggested topics of discussion, according to a schedule on the camp’s website, include “The Richest Kids in America” and “The Time is Now: Harnessing the power of this moment and taking action today!”)

A New York-based nonprofit, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, or NFTE, also runs in-school and summer programs for students in sixth through 12th grades. One of the offerings — called “BizCamp: Business Ideation and Crafting the Pitch” — includes classes on “Opportunity Recognition” and “Delivering Value to Customers,” and culminates in a pitch competition that is structured like an episode of the TV show “Shark Tank.” (Winners are eligible to compete in a National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge, also sponsored by NFTE.)

The goal of the organization — founded almost three decades ago with support from billionaire philanthropists, multinational banks and corporate consultants — has been, since the beginning, to “activate the entrepreneurial mind-set and build start-up skills in youth,” said Sophia Rodriguez, the director of research and analytics at NFTE. (“We actually pronounce it ‘nifty,’” she clarified.)

And because it is not enough to activate the entrepreneurial mind-set — one must measure it, as well — all NFTE students are assessed, by the end of their programs, on “noncognitive skills” and on something called the Entrepreneurial Mind-set Index. That exam, which was written in collaboration with Ernst & Young, one of the world’s largest accounting firms, and the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT, is meant to promote “a very talented pipeline of young people that employers desperately need and are increasingly not finding,” Ms. Rodriguez said.

“We look at NFTE youth as future model employees,” Ms. Rodriguez said. They currently reach about 25,000 students in schools and about 3,000 kids at camps in the U.S. “We’re talking about high school students, but we definitely see interest from our corporate partners on wanting to kind of leverage the learning that our young people are developing.”

Juan Casimiro, the founder and chief executive of Biznovator and a former Bronx public-school teacher, believes children are never too young to start learning about business. “For more than 31 years, I’ve been running entrepreneurship, innovation, leadership camps — typically during the summers,” Mr. Casimiro said. “When I got involved, it was harder to convince parents, funding sources, organizations, that kids can learn business very early. They couldn’t believe that a kid, at 10, can pick up these business principles and literally start their own little micro business.”

Now, Biznovator is piloting a Kamp for Kids program designed for children as young as four years old.

“Just like we teach kids how to dissect a frog in a biology class or lab, they should learn how to dissect a business plan,” Mr. Casimiro said.

The Cookie Monster

That children can learn about doing business at a young age comes as no surprise to the Girl Scouts, which offers 31 entrepreneurship-related badges and has long been defined by its focus on honing leadership skills. (Fourth graders can earn “Cookie CEO” badges, although they have to wait until sixth grade to earn the “Financing My Dreams” or “Marketing” patches.)

“I can’t even begin to tell you how many business owners tell me as adults that their inspiration to become an entrepreneur and business person started by selling Girl Scout Cookies,” Jessica Muroff, the chief executive of the Girl Scouts’ West Central Florida chapter, said.

And Girl Scouts aren’t just in the business of selling cookies. Now, many of the youth organization’s chapters offer a supplemental program called “Camp CEO,” wherein Scouts are paired with a female mentor for a weekend of team-building and skill-sharing exercises.

“It’s the whole spectrum of a woman in business: the challenges she had to overcome, personal branding, communication, etiquette, and then also teaching these girls how to have agency,” Ms. Muroff said. “Then we talk about finances.”

Camp Millionaire

Given that most young people aren’t going to grow up to be titans of industry, education in basic financial literacy is probably the most widely useful lesson these programs have on offer. Alicia Brockwell, the C.O.O. of an event space in Los Angeles’s Highland Park, runs a program called “Camp Millionaire” that is specifically meant to help families in her neighborhood deal with debt and financial pressure. The program’s mission statement is: “We want kids and teens to learn how to be financially savvy before they leave home so they move out, stay out and become responsible, contributing members of society.”

It’s now offered in a variety of locations and is promoted as a way to make financial literacy fun. “The idea is that if you can teach kids and teach the parents, you will now have a generation that won’t be hindered by the burden of debt,” Ms. Brockwell said.

Mr. Casimiro of Biznovator also sees entrepreneurship training as a path to financial literacy though, as well as a path to freedom, especially for students from low-income communities. “We’ve got to teach them that lesson, because what they’ve been exposed to is multigenerational thinking that government owes me something. We want to change that mind-set,” he said.

“Regardless of where and how you were born, with the right support, education, love, mentorship — kids starting with zero, let’s say, in poverty — can become extremely successful,” he said. “I really believe that.”

All this happens in an environment where, year after year, polls show, American young people are developing an increasingly unfavorable view of capitalism.

Future Koch Brothers of America

In Mr. Casimiro’s vision of capitalism, there aren’t winners and losers. “There are winners and there are learners,” he said. Students in Biznovator programs also always learn about the importance of philanthropic giving. “If you study most philanthropists, most of those guys were all entrepreneurs,” Mr. Casimiro said. Yes, there is a direct benefit, from a tax incentive perspective, for wealthy people to engage in philanthropy, but, he said, “I want to really believe that most are doing it for the right reasons — to change or impact the world.”

Take Charles Koch for example. The C.E.O. of a company he inherited from his father, Mr. Koch is likely one of the ten richest people in the world and has dedicated most of his adult life to giving his money away to causes in which he believes. Best known for building a network of wealthy donors and powerful political operatives to rival the Republican Party itself, Mr. Koch has also donated to NFTE.

In fact, Steve Mariotti, NFTE’s founder, joined Mr. Koch on the Libertarian Party’s National Executive Committee in 1977, where he rewrote the party’s platform, as Mr. Mariotti recalled in an essay for HuffPost about Ayn Rand.

Embedded in these programs is at least one contradiction: They promote entrepreneurship and leadership, but are also training kids to be good employees; to be innovators and disrupters, but also to be model office drones.

When asked whether NFTE’s programming is meant to inoculate children against the clarion call of socialism, Ms. Rodriguez demurred. “We’re pretty apolitical,” she said. “We definitely are promoting the entrepreneurial spirit in youth, but it’s not so much in order to promote capitalism versus socialism. I think it’s even bigger. It’s empowering the individual to feel like they can succeed no matter what the future looks like.”


  • I thank Janice and Sondra Cuban for sending me this article.



Filed under raising children

The Growth Mindset Problem (Carl Hendrick)


This appeared in Aeon, March 11, 2019

“Dr Carl Hendrick is the co-author of What Does This Look Like In The Classroom: Bridging The Gap Between Research And Practice (2017). He holds a PhD in education from King’s College and lives in Berkshire, England where he teaches at Wellington College. He is currently writing a book with Professor Paul Kirschner on foundational works in education research.”


Over the past century, a powerful idea has taken root in the educational landscape. The notion of intelligence as something innate and fixed has been supplanted by the idea that intelligence is instead something malleable; that we are not prisoners of immutable characteristics and that, with the right training, we can be the authors of our own cognitive capabilities.

Nineteenth-century scientists including Francis Galton and Alfred Binet devoted their own considerable intelligence to a quest to classify and understand human cognitive ability. If we could codify the anatomy of intelligence, they believed, we could place individuals into their correct niche in society. Binet would go on to develop the first IQ tests, laying the foundations for a method of ranking the intelligence of job applicants, army recruits or schoolchildren that continues today.

In the early 20th century, progressive thinkers revolted against this idea that inherent ability is destiny. Instead, educators such as John Dewey argued that every child’s intelligence could be developed, given the right environment. The self, according to Dewey, is not something ‘ready made’ but rather ‘in continuous formation through choice of action’. In the 1960s and ’70s, psychologists such as Albert Bandura bridged some of the gap between the innate and the learned models of intelligence with his idea of social cognitive theory, self-efficacy and motivation. One can recognise that there are individual differences in ability, Bandura argued, but still emphasise the potential for growth for each individual, wherever one’s starting point.

Growth mindset theory is a relatively new – and wildly popular – iteration of this belief in the malleability of intelligence, but with a twist. In many schools today you will see hallways festooned with motivational posters, and hear speeches on the mindset of great sporting heroes who simply believed their way to the top. These are all attempts to put growth mindset theory into practice through motivation. However a growth mindset is not really about motivation, but rather about the way in which individuals understand their own intelligence.

According to the theory, if students believe that their ability is fixed, they will not want to do anything to reveal that, so a major focus of the growth mindset in schools is shifting students away from seeing failure as an indication of their ability, to seeing failure as a chance to improve that ability. As Jeff Howard noted almost 30 years ago: ‘Smart is not something that you just are, smart is something that you can get.’

Despite extraordinary claims for the efficacy of a growth mindset, however, it’s increasingly unclear whether attempts to change students’ mindsets about their abilities have any positive effect on their learning at all. And the story of the growth mindset is a cautionary tale about what happens when psychological theories are translated into the reality of the classroom, no matter how well-intentioned.

The idea of the growth mindset is based on the work of the psychologist Carol Dweck at Stanford University in California. Dweck’s findings suggest that beliefs about ourselves can have a profound effect on academic achievement and beyond. Her seminal work stems from a paper 20 years ago that reported on a research project with schoolchildren that probed the relationship between their understanding of their own abilities and their actual performance.

In the experiment, a group of 10- to 12-year-olds were divided into two groups. All were told that they had achieved a high score on a test but members of the first group were praised for their intelligence in achieving this, while the others were praised for their effort. The second group were subsequently far more likely to put effort into future tasks while the former took on only those tasks that would not risk their initial sense of worth. Praising ability actually made the students perform worse, while praising effort emphasised that change was possible.

Dweck’s work suggests that when people believe that failure is not a barometer of innate characteristics but rather view it as a step to success (a growth mindset), they are far more likely to put in the kinds of effort that will eventually lead to that success. By contrast, those who believe that success or failure is due to innate ability (a fixed mindset) can find that this leads to a fear of failure and a lack of effort.

Imagine two children who are faced with taking a test on a tricky maths problem. The first child completes the first few steps but then hits a wall, and instantly feels demotivated. For this child, the small failure is incontrovertible evidence of simply not being good at maths. By contrast, for the second child, this small failure is merely a barrier to eventual success, and confers an opportunity to improve overall maths ability. The second child relishes the challenge, and works to improve – that child is displaying a growth mindset. According to the theory, the key to encouraging this disposition is to praise the effort and not the ability. By telling children that they are smart or intelligent, you are merely confirming the idea of innate ability, fostering a fixed mindset, and actually undermining their development. Dweck’s claims are supported by a lot of evidence, indeed she and her associates have spent more than 30 years exploring this phenomenon, including taking the time to respond to criticism in an open and transparent way.

Growth mindset theory has had a profound impact on the ground. It is difficult to think of a school today that is not in thrall to the idea that beliefs about one’s ability affect subsequent performance, and that it’s crucial to teach students that failure is merely a stepping stone to success. Implementing these ideas has been much harder, however, and attempts to replicate the original findings have not been smooth, to say the least. A recent national survey in the United States showed that 98 per cent of teachers feel that growth mindset approaches should be adopted in schools, but only 50 per cent said that they knew of strategies to effectively change a pupil’s mindset.

The truth is we simply haven’t been able to translate the research on the benefits of a growth mindset into any sort of effective, consistent practice that makes an appreciable difference in student academic attainment. In many cases, growth mindset theory has been misrepresented and miscast as simply a means of motivating the unmotivated through pithy slogans and posters. A general truth about education is that the more vague and platitudinous the statement, the less practical use it has on the ground. ‘Making a difference’ rarely makes any difference at all.

A growing number of recent studies are casting doubt on the efficacy of mindset interventions at scale. A large-scale study of 36 schools in the UK, in which either pupils or teachers were given training, found that the impact on pupils directly receiving the intervention did not have statistical significance, and that the pupils whose teachers were trained made no gains at all. Another study featuring a large sample of university applicants in the Czech Republic used a scholastic aptitude test to explore the relationship between mindset and achievement. They found a slightly negative correlation, with researchers claiming that ‘the results show that the strength of the association between academic achievement and mindset might be weaker than previously thought’. A 2012 review for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the UK of attitudes to education and participation found ‘no clear evidence of association or sequence between pupils’ attitudes in general and educational outcomes, although there were several studies attempting to provide explanations for the link (if it exists)’. In 2018, two meta-analyses in the US found that claims for the growth mindset might have been overstated, and that there was ‘little to no effect of mindset interventions on academic achievement for typical students’.

One of the greatest impediments to successfully implementing a growth mindset is the education system itself. A key characteristic of a fixed mindset is a focus on performance and an avoidance of any situation where testing might lead to a confirmation of fixed beliefs about ability. Yet we are currently in a school climate obsessed with performance in the form of constant summative testing, analysing and ranking of students. Schools create a certain cognitive dissonance when they proselytise the benefits of a growth mindset in assemblies but then hand out fixed target grades in lessons based on performance.

Aside from the implementation problem, the original growth mindset research has also received harsh criticism and been difficult to replicate robustly. The statistician Andrew Gelman at Columbia University in New York claims that ‘their research designs have enough degrees of freedom that they could take their data to support just about any theory at all’. Timothy Bates, a professor of psychology at the University of Edinburgh who has been trying to replicate Dweck’s work in a third study in China, is finding that the results are repeatedly null. He notes in a 2017 interview that: ‘People with a growth mindset don’t cope any better with failure. If we give them the mindset intervention, it doesn’t make them behave better. Kids with the growth mindset aren’t getting better grades, either before or after our intervention study.’

An enduring criticism of growth mindset theory is that it underestimates the importance of innate ability, specifically intelligence. If one student is playing with a weaker hand, is it fair to tell the student that she is just not making enough effort? Growth mindset – like its educational-psychology cousin ‘grit’ – can have the unintended consequence of making students feel responsible for things that are not under their control: that their lack of success is a failure of moral character. This goes well beyond questions of innate ability to the effects of marginalisation, poverty and other socioeconomic disadvantage. For the US psychiatrist Scott Alexander, if a fixed mindset accounts for underachievement, then ‘poor kids seem to be putting in a heck of a lot less effort in a surprisingly linear way’. He sees growth mindset as a ‘noble lie’, and notes that saying to kids that a growth mindset accounts for success is not exactly denying reality so much as ‘selectively emphasising certain parts of’ it.

Much of this criticism is not lost on Dweck, and she deserves great credit for responding to it and adapting her work accordingly. In a recent blog, she noted that growth mindset theory ‘is on a firm foundation, but we’re still building the house’. In fact, she argues that her work has been misunderstood and misapplied in a range of ways. She has also expressed concerns that her theories are being misappropriated in schools by being conflated with the self-esteem movement: ‘The thing that keeps me up at night is that some educators are turning mindset into the new self-esteem, which is to make kids feel good about any effort they put in, whether they learn or not. But for me the growth mindset is a tool for learning and improvement. It’s not just a vehicle for making children feel good.’

For Dweck, it’s not just about more effort, but rather purposeful and meaningful effort. And it’s not just in the classroom where she feels that the growth mindset is being misunderstood, it seems to be happening in the home too: ‘We’re finding that many parents endorse a growth mindset, but they still respond to their children’s errors, setbacks or failures as though they’re damaging and harmful,’ she said in an interview in 2015. ‘If they show anxiety or overconcern, those kids are going toward a more fixed mindset.’

Dweck might be right that the theory is not always well understood or put into practice. There is always the danger of disappointment in the translation from educational laboratory to classroom, and this is partly due to the Chinese whispers effect, whereby research becomes diluted and distorted as it goes through its journey. But there is another factor at work here. The failure to translate the growth mindset into the classroom might reflect a profound misunderstanding of the elusive nature of teaching and learning itself.

Effective teaching, at its best, defies prescription. The same resources and the same approaches that are successful in one classroom can be completely ineffective in another. In his book Personal Knowledge (1958), Michael Polanyi defined ‘tacit knowledge’ as anything we know how to do but cannot explicitly explain how we do it, such as the complex set of skills needed to ride a bike or the instinctive ability to stay afloat in water. It is the ephemeral, elusive form of knowledge that resists classification or codification, and that can be gleaned only through immersion in the experience itself. In most cases, it’s not even something that can be expressed through language. As Polanyi put it so beautifully in his book The Tacit Dimension (1966), ‘we can know more than we can tell’. As a contrarian colleague once said to me about his frustration with the increasing codification of the classroom: ‘Perhaps we should be brave enough to allow it to remain a mystery.’

Good teachers are like good actors, not in the sense that they are both artists, but in the sense that the best teachers teach you without you realising that you’ve been taught. If students get a whiff of being part of an ‘intervention’, then it is likely that the very awareness of this will have a detrimental effect. The growth mindset advocates David Yeager and Gregory Walton at Stanford claim that these interventions should not be seen as ‘magic’ and should be delivered in a ‘stealthy’ way to maximise their effectiveness – miles away from the standard use of motivational stories, posters and explanations of brain plasticity. As they put it in 2011: ‘if adolescents perceive a teacher’s reinforcement of a psychological idea as conveying that they are seen as in need of help, teacher training or an extended workshop could undo the effects of the intervention, not increase its benefits.’ Pedagogy is not medicine, after all, and students do not want to be treated as patients to be cured.

How students learn well can be very counterintuitive. You might think it is safe to assume that, once you motivate students, the learning will follow. Yet research shows that this is often not the case: motivation doesn’t always lead to achievement, but achievement often leads to motivation. If you try to ‘motivate’ students into public speaking, they might feel motivated but can lack the specific knowledge needed to translate that into action. However, through careful instruction and encouragement, students can learn how to craft an argument, shape their ideas and develop them into solid form.

A lot of what drives students is their innate beliefs and how they perceive themselves. There is a strong correlation between self-perception and achievement, but there is some evidence to suggest that the actual effect of achievement on self-perception is stronger than the other way round. To stand up in a classroom and successfully deliver a good speech is a genuine achievement, and that is likely to be more powerfully motivating than woolly notions of ‘motivation’ itself.

One reason for this might be the over-generalised picture of the growth mindset: it tends to be talked about as a global or general skill as opposed to a domain-specific one. Many interventions focus on kids having a kind of global attitude to their own intelligence that can then be transferred to any learning situation but this is rarely the case. For example, some students can have a positive mindset in maths but a negative mindset in history due to a highly variable range of factors. The idea that a workshop on the plasticity of the brain and some videos of famous sportsmen who have failed in the past can translate into a domain-general growth disposition is simply unrealistic.

Students are most engaged when they are being supported through specific tasks to stretch their understanding beyond its current base, but ‘engagement’ doesn’t necessarily mean they’re learning anything. As the New Zealand education researcher Graham Nuthall showed in The Hidden Life of Learners (2007), ‘students can be busiest and most involved with material they already know. In most of the classrooms we have studied, each student already knows about 40-50 per cent of what the teacher is teaching.’ Nuthall’s work demonstrates that students are far more likely to get stuck into tasks they’re comfortable with and already know how to do, as opposed to the more uncomfortable enterprise of grappling with uncertainty and indeterminate tasks. The psychologists Elizabeth Ligon Bjork and Robert Bjork at the University of California, Los Angeles, describe such activities as ‘desirable difficulties’, which refers to the kinds of things that are difficult in the short term, but that lead to greater gains in the long term. These point to a range of strategies that are more prosaic and less attractive than growth mindset interventions – familiar strategies such as testing, self-quizzing and spacing out learning.

Clearly, something has gone wrong somewhere along the way between the laboratory and the classroom. The US education scholars Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan Lytle outline a fundamental problem with the education system. Teachers, they say in their book Inside/Outside (1992), are subject to top-down models of school improvement, and are often passive objects of study in the educational research that underpins those models:

The primary knowledge source for the improvement of practice is research on classroom phenomena that can be observed. This research has a perspective that is ‘outside-in’; in other words, it has been conducted almost exclusively by university-based researchers who are outside of the day-to-day practices of schooling.

In a very real sense, teachers have been given answers to questions they didn’t ask, and solutions to problems that never existed. It is not surprising that they feel subject to fads and theories about students that do not hold up to scrutiny. For example, the problem of how to plan lesson content to match the individual ‘learning style’ of students has now been proven to have been a waste of time, and a sad indictment of how much time and energy has been expended on theoretical interventions with little to no evidence to support them.

Recent evidence would suggest that growth mindset interventions are not the elixir of student learning that many of its proponents claim it to be. The growth mindset appears to be a viable construct in the lab, which, when administered in the classroom via targeted interventions, doesn’t seem to work at scale. It is hard to dispute that having a self-belief in their own capacity for change is a positive attribute for students. Paradoxically, however, that aspiration is not well served by direct interventions that try to instil it. Yet creating a culture in which students can believe in the possibility of improving their intelligence through their own purposeful effort is something few would disagree with. Perhaps growth mindset works best as a philosophy and not an intervention.

All of this indicates that using time and resources to improve students’ academic achievement directly might well be a better agent of psychological change than psychological interventions themselves. In their book Effective Teaching (2011), the UK education scholars Daniel Muijs and David Reynolds note: ‘At the end of the day, the research reviewed has shown that the effect of achievement on self-concept is stronger that the effect of self-concept on achievement.’

Many interventions in education have the causal arrow pointed the wrong way round. Motivational posters and talks are often a waste of time, and might well give students a deluded notion of what success actually means. Teaching students concrete skills such as how to write an effective introduction to an essay through close instruction, specific feedback, worked examples and careful scaffolding, and then praising their effort in getting there, is probably a far more effective way of improving confidence than giving an assembly about how unique they are, or indeed how capable they are of changing their own brains. The best way to achieve a growth mindset might just be not to mention the growth mindset at all.



Filed under how teachers teach, raising children, school reform policies

Strict and Nurturing Parents: Cycles in Child Rearing and Schooling

In 2011, Amy Chua laughed all the way to the bank at the fuss she kicked up about her tough-love parenting of daughters–no sleepovers–in “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”  Time magazine reported that her Wall Street Journal op-ed garnered over a million readers, 5000 comments, and an animation made in Taiwan. (video of Chua describing book is here).

For educated, financially comfortable non-Tiger Moms, however, the thought of giving up “Baby Mozarts,” chants of “well done” to build self- esteem, and, yes, even sleepovers–is too much.  In response to Tiger Moms, Ayelet Waldman said, developing empathy in children, nurturing them, and giving them room to decide things for themselves, while still achieving high grades and gathering awards, are traits that she and other non-Tiger Moms want to develop.

Competing ways of rearing children, of course is nothing new. Since the 17th century, ministers, mothers, and, later, physicians, and psychologists have written manuals to guide parents in raising children. My wife and I read Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care –the prevailing advice of the day–as each of our daughters were infants, toddlers, and when they began preschool and kindergarten. “Read,” of course, does not mean we followed the friendly and “use common sense” approach Spock advocated but it surely informed our parenting.

Historians have analyzed these advice manuals (see here). What they have found are basically two child rearing models that are similar to Tiger Moms and Guilty, Nurturing Moms.

I label them Strict Parent vs. Nurturing Parent. Of course, these models span a continuum and are not mutually exclusive. Many parents use hybrids of the two in their families. And just as obvious is that all parents presented in advice manuals are not white, middle and upper-middle class Moms and Dads. Race, ethnicity, social class, religion, and geography shape the views parents have as they enact Strict, Nurturing, and hybrids of each in parenting.

Strict parent model teaches children right from wrong by setting clear rules for their behavior and enforcing them through punishments, typically mild to moderate but sufficiently painful to get attention. When rules are followed and children cooperate, parents show love and appreciation. Children are not coddled since a spoiled child seldom learns  proper behavior. Children become responsible, self-disciplined, and self-reliant by following the rules and listening to parents.

Nurturing parent model teaches children right from wrong through respect, empathy, and a positive relationship with parents. Children obey because they love their parents, not out of fear of punishment. Parents explain their decisions to children and encourage questioning and contributing ideas to family decisions. Children become responsible, self-disciplined, and self-reliant through being nurtured and caring for others.

No surprise that these competing models of child rearing have been replicated in schools. Parents want their schools to be extensions of what is taught at home. Nor is it a surprise that the ideological and practical conflicts in schools today are anchored in these rival approaches to child-rearing.

In the early 19th century, for example, taxpayers, parents, and public officials saw public schools as proper places for the tenets of Protestant Christianity, steeped in Biblical views of parental authority, where teachers would teach that disobedience was a sin. Thus, raising children to respect authority, be self-disciplined, and know right from wrong–the Strict Parent model– was expected in one-room schoolhouses and, later, age-graded elementary schools. This dominant Strict Parent model of raising and schooling children was viewed as natural and, best for children and society before and after the Civil War.

In the late 19th century, another view  (history of progressivism schools PDF)  emerged challenging the religious-based popular model of child-rearing. The onslaught of industrialization, rapid urban growth, an emerging middle-class, and massive immigration spurred reformers to advocate a more “progressive” view of how best to raise and school children. Confined initially to manuals for middle-class parents, readers were urged to cultivate the innate goodness of children rather than dwell on their potential sinfulness. Parental love and example, not punishment, would produce respect for authority, self-discipline, and moral rigor in children.

For post-Civil War urban reformers who saw hard-working immigrant parents living in slums, traditional schools were inadequate. They got schools to expand their usual duties and take on nurturing roles that families had once discharged. Schools offered medical care, meals, lessons to build moral character including respect for authority and job preparation. Teachers were expected to develop children’s intellectual, emotional, and social capacities to produce mature adults who acted responsibly. This rival ideology became the progressive model of schooling.

By World War I, then, these competing progressive and traditional ideologies constituted different faiths in the best way of raising and schooling children. These beliefs had become embedded in educators’ language and school programs thus creating a platform for subsequent struggles over what “good” schools were and should be. The “culture wars” since the 1960s over teaching reading, math, science, and other content in schools are variations of this century-long see-saw struggle of ideas over what ways are best to raise and school children.

And today, the struggle continues. Parents worry over what is the best way to rear their children and youth (see here and here) as they seek out schools that mirror their strict, nurturing, and hybrid views of what they say are “good” schools. From Montessori schools to Core Knowledge to KIPP parents choose schools that mirror their beliefs and values about child rearing. Child rearing and type of schooling are joined at the hip.




Filed under raising children, Reforming schools

The Way American Parents Think About Chores Is Bizarre (Joe Pinsker)

Joe Pinsker is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers families and education. This article appeared December 26, 2018.

The practice of paying children an allowance kicked off in earnest about 100 years ago. “The motivation was twofold,” says Steven Mintz, a historian of childhood at the University of Texas at Austin. “First, to provide kids with the money that they needed to participate in the emerging commercial culture—allowing them to buy candy, cheap toys, and other inexpensive products—and second, to teach them the value of money.”

These days, American children on average receive about $800 per year in allowance, according to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Kids, though, are usually not receiving money for nothing—the vast majority of American parents who pay allowance (who themselves are a majority of American parents) tie it to the completion of work around the house.

Parents’ preference for this setup has spawned an array of apps that let them dole out allowance money once chores are completed, and even pay for an individual chore. Homey, an app that’s effectively a digital chore chart, allows parents to issue payouts upon visual confirmation of finished chores and is used by 100,000 families. A similar app called BusyKid, which launched earlier this year and is used by 25,000 families, also lets children invest in the stock market with their allowance money. (These apps are just two of many new digital tools, including RoosterMoney, Current, and goHenry, for managing children’s money and teaching them about personal finance.)

Recently in The Washington Post, a writer distilled the argument for per-chore compensation in an article headlined “I Pay My Kids to Get Dressed, Do Homework and More. It’s the Best Decision I Ever Made.” A mother of two children with ADHD, she found it tremendously effective to induce her kids to stay on task with small payments of a dime or a quarter; she suggested other parents might find it effective to do the same. “In behavioral psychology, this is called positive reinforcement,” she wrote. “And it works.”

Does it? A range of experts I consulted expressed concern that tying allowance very closely to chores, whatever its apparent short-term effectiveness, can send kids unintentionally counterproductive messages about family, community, and personal responsibility. In fact, the way chores work in many households worldwide point to another way, in which kids get involved earlier, feel better about their contributions, and don’t need money as an enticement.

Suniya Luthar, a psychologist at Arizona State University who studies families, is skeptical of the idea of paying kids on a per-chore basis. “How sustainable is it if you’re going to pay a child a dime for each time he picks up his clothes off the floor?” she says. “What are you saying—that you’re owed something for taking care of your stuff?”

Luthar is not opposed to giving allowances, but she thinks it’s important to establish that certain core chores are done not because they’ll lead to payment, but because they keep the household running. “It’s part of what you do as a family,” Luthar says. “In a family, no one’s going to pay you to tie your own shoes or to put your clothes away.” Whatever the approach, she adds, it’s important to acknowledge that parenting is confusing and exhausting work, and it can be difficult to broker household labor agreements without ever resorting to bribery of some sort.

Luthar’s suggested approach to allowance is compatible with the regimen that the New York Times personal-finance columnist Ron Lieber outlines in his book The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart

About Money. He advises that allowance be used as a means of showing children how to save, give, and spend on things they care about. Kids should do chores, he writes, “for the same reason we do—because the chores need to be done, and not with the expectation of compensation … Allowance ought to stand on its own, not as a wage but as a teaching tool.”

This argument has its critics. Many parents may scoff at a system that tells kids the world will spit money out at them on a regular basis in exchange for nothing at all; in households that aren’t upper-middle-class or wealthier, such an arrangement might offend. (Lieber does account for this in his book, suggesting that parents who object to his methods might consider paying kids only for chores that solve problems they themselves identify in the household, or for periodic one-off tasks like washing a car or painting a room.)

Heather Beth Johnson, a sociologist at Lehigh University who studies families and wealth inequality, aligns more with the Lieber school of chore compensation (or lack thereof). “When we pay [kids] to do things that humans have always had to do as participants of communities and families,” she says, “it sends them some sort of a message that they are entitled to [an] exchange for these things,” as opposed to a message that they’re part of a household team and should contribute accordingly.Johnson considers the chores-for-allowance agreement to be of a piece with a broader custom in upper-middle-class households of paying children for things like doing well in school or taking care of siblings. She says that this sort of compensation can give kids the sense that they’re entitled to rewards for fulfilling basic responsibilities. “This isn’t happening in poor families,” she says. “They’re not like, ‘If you take care of your cousins, I’m going to pay you for it.’ It’s just expected that you would take care of your cousins if your cousins needed taking care of.”Johnson’s children—14-year-old twins and a 10-year-old—do not get an allowance. But they do get spending money from their mother as needed, as well as regular conversations about the work it takes to run a house. “Maybe my kids are just really strange,” she says, “but I really don’t have to say it more than once—I say, ‘Empty the trash,’ and they do it.”

But considering the way chores are undertaken around the world, it might be the allowance-earners who are the strange ones. David Lancy, a former professor of anthropology at Utah State University, has studied how families around the world handle chores, and he has observed a development of responsibilities in less well-off societies that looks little like the American way.

After about 18 months on the Earth, Lancy explained to me, children almost universally become eager to help their parents, and in many cultures, they’re brought in to the processes of doing housework. They may be incompetent little things, but they can learn quickly by watching. “Praise is rare,” Lancy says, “as the principal reward is to be welcomed and included in the flow of family activity.” Gradually, their responsibilities get ratcheted up according to their abilities and strength; they may start by carrying messages or small objects, and work their way up to food preparation or caring for siblings. “In effect, they ‘own’ a suite of chores which they carry out routinely without being told,” Lancy says. And they don’t assume they’ll be paid an allowance.

In an email, he made clear how this contrasts with American norms: “In our society—and I’d extend this to most modern, post-industrial nations—we actually deny our children’s bids to help. We distract them with other activities, we do our chores (meal prep) when they’re napping, we convey that their ‘helping’ is burdensome and, not surprisingly, the helping instinct is extinguished. Hence, at 6 or 7 when we think they’re ready to start doing chores or at least taking care of themselves and their ‘stuff,’ they’ve lost all desire to help out.”

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“You Can’t Be What You Can’t See”

David Kirp wrote the following review in the Washington Post of a recently published book by Milbrey McLaughlin–“You Can’t Be What You Can’t See.” Full disclosure: McLaughlin has been an admired colleague and friend of mine for decades. She  is Emeritus Professor of Education at Stanford University. 

David Kirp is Emeritus Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley,

A dozen years ago, while taking a walk with a friend on the miles-long beach at Point Reyes National Seashore in California, I learned a valuable lesson — two lessons, actually — about how research ought to be conducted.

“There’s this amazing study about the effects of preschool,” my friend told me, but I was dismissive. “The effects fade out quickly,” I responded, recalling the devastating 1969 Westinghouse study of Head Start.

My friend was having none of it. “These kids have been followed into their 20s, and the impact has persisted — significantly more kids graduating from high school, going to college, staying out of jail and off welfare, earning more.”

As you’ve probably figured out, my friend was talking about the iconic Perry Preschool study. A few months later, a follow-up analysis found that these gains persisted into middle age, and when economists converted those life results into dollars-and-cents terms, they found a benefit-cost ratio that would turn Warren Buffett’s head. (In fact, it did turn the heads of Buffett’s children, who, when tasked by their father to identify a social investment comparable to his private-sector investments, zeroed in on early education.)

Lesson one — take a broad view of impact. Research on the effects of an education initiative typically looks only at later educational outcomes, but these investigators examined the impact of preschool on the totality of these children’s lives. What they found has transformed our understanding of why early education matters.

Lesson two — take the long view. Most education research adopts a short time horizon, rarely looking at the impact of a program beyond two or three years. But the Perry study lasted decades, and that made all the difference. Had the researchers ended the study after third grade, as so many studies of preschool do these days, they would have concluded that the Westinghouse report was right and that preschool’s effects dissipate. Only later — sometimes decades later — did the full significance of the program emerge.

It’s a long way from down-and-out Ypsilanti, Mich., in the mid-1960s to a violence-ridden Chicago neighborhood in the early 1980s. It’s also a long way from an iconic preschool program to a model out-of-school venture. But the big lesson to be gleaned from “You Can’t Be What You Can’t See,” Stanford emeritus professor Milbrey W. McLaughlin’s important new book about a K-12 program called CYCLE, which operated in Chicago from the 1980s to the mid-1990s, is much the same.

The book describes how a program that places a heavy emphasis on academics, if designed carefully and carried out thoughtfully, as CYCLE was, carries the prospect of rewriting the script of children’s lives, not just improving their grades or test scores. What’s more, the ripple effects from this experience persist for a lifetime, as accomplishments lead to more accomplishments, altering not only the lives of the participants but affecting their children’s fortunes as well.

CYCLE pitched its tent in the Cabrini-Green housing project. This was one of those high-rise war zones, plagued by gangs, that Alex Kotlowitz wrote about so memorably in “There Are No Children Here.” Jobs were scarce in this almost entirely black community. So were men; it was the women, mothers and grandmothers and aunts, who assumed responsibility for raising the children.

The public schools operated as dropout factories, graduating fewer than 30 percent of their students. Educators had bottom-of-the-barrel expectations for their charges, blaming the neighborhood for these dismal outcomes. Students who later transferred to better schools were jolted by the realization that they were years behind their classmates. When William Bennett, then the U.S. secretary of education, pronounced Chicago’s public schools to be the worst in the nation, these schools were the worst of the worst.

Out-of-school ventures have a decidedly mixed track record, especially those in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage like Cabrini-Green. How could it be otherwise? How could a program that filled a couple of hours of a child’s daily life make any difference in such an inhospitable world? But CYCLE bucked the odds.

Here’s why attention should be paid: About 90 percent of the youngsters who participated in its scholarship programs and mentoring activities graduated from high school, and about a third went to college. That’s astonishing, but what’s more astonishing still are the long-term reverberations.

The CYCLE alumni are now middle-aged, and the impact of the program continues to be felt. Among the alumni are two medical doctors, 11 with doctorates and a host of master’s degree holders. Most of the alums, McLaughlin noted, “live middle-class lives; they are teachers, social workers, small business owners, administrators, coaches.”

“The impressive accomplishments … show that the negative outcomes predicted for kids who grow up in concentrated poverty like Cabrini-Green … are not inevitable,” she wrote. “They result not from a so-called ‘culture of poverty’ but from a poverty of opportunities.”

Why did CYCLE succeed when so many programs with similar aspirations fail? And what are the broader implications of the CYCLE story for policy and practice?

Ask any professional who works with kids what has probably the most memorable impact on their lives and you invariably hear the same answer — what’s needed most is a caring, stable adult. When researching “Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Changing Children’s Lives and America’s Future,” I visited youth-oriented organizations with a solid track record such as YouthBuild and Diplomas Now. The refrain from the teens with whom I talked was the same: “They have our back.”

The core of the CYCLE program was its after-school tutoring program, and the volunteer tutors definitely “had their back.” There was no cookbook for them to follow, no set curriculum for them to inflict. Rather than trying to “fix” the students’ deficiencies, as so many social-service programs see their mission, the tutors took young people where they were and encouraged them to aim high. They became mentors as well as tutors, developing close ties to the students they spent time with, figuring out what would be most helpful, not to the group generally but to each individual.

Those relationships reached far beyond the realm of academic improvement. The tutors took the youngsters into their lives, introducing them to worlds they hadn’t imagined, making connections for them, building up what sociologists call social capital, giving them a dose of what middle-class parents provide for their own offspring. As one youth said, they became “our experienced friends.” When the kids’ lives took a wrong turn, CYCLE stood by them. “Never give up on a kid” was the program’s mantra.

“Dead or in prison by 21” is the fatalistic way many inner-city youths describe their future. But when adolescents are shown alternative pathways — summer jobs, college scholarships and the like — and given a solid chance to follow those pathways, they can seize the day. The corollary to “you can’t be what you can’t see” is that growing up in a place such as Cabrini Green need not be a life sentence.

Some of the CYCLE kids were part of an “I Have a Dream”-type program that guaranteed that, if they graduated from high school, they wouldn’t have to pay college tuition. This pledge mattered, of course, for it brought higher education within financial reach, but it was the encouragement from all sides, the constancy of adult support, that made the possibility of going to college seem real.

After spending a few years in the program, many of the CYCLE youngsters became junior staff, role models to the younger participants — “our gang of excellence,” a staffer called them. The kids they spent time with benefited from this attention, and the newly minted mentors benefited at least as much. They took their responsibilities seriously, collaborating on activities that would pique the kids’ interest and building a tight network of support. Three decades later, friendships among those staffers continue.

These relationships are what altered people’s lives. They are the “secret sauce.” But evaluators who are interested only in statistics — what percent of students graduated from high school or what percent enrolled in college? — miss this “soft” data.

As McLaughlin pointed out, “Without this long-term perspective, it is impossible to decide whether a life course has been transformed or only temporarily modified.” That vantage shows how graduating from college isn’t the only outcome that matters. Many of the program’s alumni who didn’t earn a college degree have built strong families and economically productive lives. Conversely, one college graduate, on paper a success story, became the consigliere to a Chicago gang.

CYCLE isn’t a model in the “replicate the model” sense. Rather, it’s a strategy. The core values are essential, but the specifics must vary with the needs of the community — what works in Chicago wouldn’t necessarily go over in Little Rock.

Community schools, which serve up an array of activities such as art and sports before and after school and during the summer, represent the next generation of out-of-school-time programs. Their number has increased rapidly in recent years, and the National Center for Community Schools estimates that there are 5,000 such schools nationwide.

Studies of community schools show that this strategy, when well executed, improves how students fare in school. To gauge the full effects of this strategy we need a long view, following the students in a program such as the New York City Children’s Aid Society’s community schools well beyond their school years.

Like CYCLE, these programs may well be changing the trajectory of children’s lives.


Filed under raising children