Tag Archives: education

Social class divides the futures of high school students

There is new research from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), written up by Susan Dynarsky at the New York Times Upshot. The striking finding is that poor children in the top quartile on high school math scores have a 41% chance of finishing a BA degree by their late twenties — the same chance as children from the second-lowest quartile in math scores who are high-socioeconomic status (SES). Poor children from the third-highest quartile in high school math have graduation about equal to the worst-scoring children form the richest group. Here’s the figure:

upshot-math-ba

The headline on the figure is misleading, actually, since SES is not measured by wealth, but by a combination of parental education, occupation, and income. (Low here means the bottom quartile of SES, Middle is the 25th to 75th percentile, and High is 75th and up.)

One possible mechanism for the disparity in college completion rates is education expectations. Dynarsky mentions expectations measured in the sophomore year of high school, which was 2002 for this cohort. What she doesn’t mention is how much those expectations changed by senior year. Going to the NCES source for that data (here) I found this chart, which I annotated in red:

Print

Between sophomore and senior year, the percentage expecting to finish a BA degree or more decreased and the percentage expecting to go to two-year college increased, across SES levels. But the change was much greater for lower SES students. So the gap in expecting to go to two-year college between high- and low-SES students grew from 6 to 17 percentage points; that is, from 9% versus 3% in the sophomore year to 22% versus 6% in the senior year. That’s a big crushing of expectations that happened in the formative years at the end of high school.

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Why are women with advanced degrees having more children?

There are a few puzzles in the latest news on U.S. fertility trends.

Preamble

The issues behind fertility trends and patterns are complex, reflecting changing social and well as biological influences, and demanding careful attention to methods. Birth rates can be measured as annual events (such as the percentage of women having a birth in a given year) or as life-course outcomes (such as the percentage of women who reach age 45 without ever having a birth). Comparisons over time are confounded by changes in the composition of the population with regard to age, and some subgroups are subject to changing composition as a result of social or cultural, rather than biological, trends. For example, consider that a woman may spend the years from age 22 to age 43 as a college graduate, and then register an advanced degree at age 44. That means her births in the previous 20 years count among those with BAs, while her “completed fertility” would be counted among those with advanced degrees.

The news

It’s been a confusing few days for fertility-news watchers, so I’ll try to muddle it up a little more. I ran some numbers for a conversation I had with New York Times Upshot reporter Claire Cain Miller, which she reported under the title, “Births to Single Mothers Are Down, Except for Those 35 and Older.” I’ll show those here. They go along with the various headlines about Gretchen Livingston’s new Pew report, “Childlessness Falls, Family Size Grows Among Highly Educated Women,” reported by Brigid Schulte as, “Why educated women are having more babies.”

Here’s Miller’s chart, based on federal registered birth data. Note these are birth rates for women who aren’t married, which is not the same as the percentage of births occurring to women who aren’t married:

miller-unwed

For unmarried women of all ages except 15-17, birth rates increased from 2002 to 2007. As I’ve shown before for women overall, the trend shows the increasing delay of childbearing, with a steeper rise for women ages 30-34 than for those in their early 20s. After 2007, however, reflecting the recession, birth rates fell for all unmarried women except those ages 35 and up. The conventional explanation for this has been that individuals and couples delayed births when they were financially squeezed, but those running up against the end of their fertile years couldn’t delay without risking infertility.

To see how this is working for single women in particular (and single here includes those who are cohabiting), it’s helpful to break it down by age and education. Older women face the biological clock issue regardless of their education level, and women with less education had greater exposure to recession-related hardship. What I showed Miller was this chart, which I made from American Community Survey (ACS) data provided by IPUMS.org. The solid lines are all unmarried women ages 15-44 — red for less than BA, blue for BA plus — while the dotted lines are just the older subgroup, 35-44. This shows that the volatility is greatest for women without BAs. And there is no real recession decline for the 35+ groups:

unmarried births ACS 01-13.xlsx

Based on that, Miller wrote:

During the recession, the decline in single motherhood was entirely attributable to women without college degrees, according to census data analyzed by Philip Cohen, a sociologist at University of Maryland who writes a blog called Family Inequality.

These are “women for whom the hardships of single motherhood are most acute,” Mr. Cohen said. “This could be deliberate planning, or it could reflect relationship problems or economic stress undermining their family plans.”

Among older women who are unmarried, ages 35 to 39, however, the birthrate was 48 percent higher in 2012 than in 2002, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The increase was driven by college-educated women, according to Mr. Cohen’s analysis. “The delay in general fits a long-term pattern: that family formation is increasingly delayed until women are more established, spend more time in education and more time developing their careers,” he said.

This is tricky because of course single women without BAs do have higher birth rates, so it’s not like poor women just can’t afford to have children — but as a group they were affected more by the crisis. What that means is that a greater proportion of them were affected in such a way as to reduce their fertility than among other groups.

Falling childfreeness

Although it seems contradictory on the surface, this is consistent with Livingston’s headline: Childlessness Falls, Family Size Grows Among Highly Educated Women. Although my figure only shows single women, look at the BA-holding 35+ women: their birth rates rose about 50% from the beginning of the decade till the recession, from about 10 per 1000 to about 15 per 1000, a rate they held through the recession.

But Livingston’s data are “completed” cohort fertility — estimated by the number of children women have had when they’re surveyed in the ages 40-44. Here’s her rather shocking chart:

ST_2015-05-07_childlessness-01

My chart was annual birth rates. But hers is more interesting because it captures the life course more. What is it that is making women with advanced degrees have bigger families — and making fewer of them have no children at all?

There are several tricky things here, which I’ll show with data in a minute. They are:

  • The advanced-degree group has grown less select as it has grown — more women are entering this category. In particular, there are more Black and Hispanic women going beyond BAs, as well as presumably more women from poor backgrounds. So that might increase the birthrates of the group.
  • On the other hand, although marriage is more common among women with more education — and growing increasingly so — the proportion married among women going for advanced degrees has still fallen. Since married women have more children, this should lower fertility of higher-education women. (A quick check shows a slight decline in the proportion married among advanced degree holders under age 45 from 1990 to 2013, from 68% to 66%.)
  • Finally, as more women get BA degrees and go straight into additional schooling, the average age of women getting advanced degrees has fallen. That gives them more time to rack up births before hitting 44. (To make matters impossibly complicated, if they hold off on having children till they finish their advanced degrees, they will probably be younger when they graduate, as some graduate students with children might tell you.)

Remember that people make decisions about childbearing and education at the same time. If more women decide to get advanced degrees with the goal of having more children from a position of strength, then the statistics will show more women with advanced degrees having children — even if the decisions weren’t made in the order we assume.

It’s hard to get at this with the data we have. The population data we have on education and family characteristics doesn’t tell you when people got their degrees, which means those late 44-year-old medical school graduates are hard to pin down. Ideally, then, we’d have a measure of who is attending school, which would tell us who is on the way toward a degree. But the data from the Current Population Survey that Livingston used didn’t have measure of school attendance for people over age 25 until 2013. So I used the 1990 decennial Census and the 2013 ACS, which both have a measure of school attendance. Unfortunately, the 1990 Census doesn’t identify births, so I counted women as having had a birth if they were living in their own (or their husbands’) households with an “own child” age 0, which is not bad.

I took all the women ages 20-44 who already had a BA degree or higher, were attending school, and were living in their own (or their husbands’) households. In 1990 this was 3.4% of all women in that age group, and by 2013 it was 4.7% — a much bigger group. In 1990 3.5% of them had an infant, but that had increased to 4.6% by 2013. This is consistent with the Livingston finding that they are going to get advanced degrees and reach age 40-44 with more kids (if they experienced this birth rate difference every year, the completed fertility rates would be much higher for the later cohort).

Here are the breakdowns of the two cohorts according to the risk factors for childbearing I just described:

BAs attending school.xlsx

Notice: There are more in their prime childbearing ages (25-34), fewer married, and more Black and Hispanic. As it turns out, a regression analysis shows that the age change accounts for about a quarter of the increase in childbearing, while the change in marital status goes the other way about 8%, meaning they would have had even more kids if more were married. The race/ethnic effects are very small.

That also means the increase in fertility is not just compositional, the result of demographic changes. There is still an increasing tendency to have a child in this group, holding constant these factors. Adjusting for marital status and race/ethnicity, here are the predicted probabilities of having a birth in 1990 and 2013, by age:

BA-school-birth-pred

Although the younger average age is a big factor, then, there is also a higher chance of having a birth at every age for college graduates pursuing advanced degrees. Why?

Interpretation

The optimistic interpretation of rising fertility for women with advanced degrees is that the cultural and organizational context has changed the childbearing calculus. The husbands or partners of these women are more supportive now. And their workplaces — or the workplaces they anticipate entering — have grown more accepting of professional women with children. Some schools have childcare and lactation spaces for graduate students. So having children may seem more reasonable. It’s also possible — and this is not contradictory — that the growth of this group has been driven by those who are less narrowly focused on their careers. To be a woman pursuing an advanced degree in 1990 you had to be a little more of a pioneer than you do now, so that path may have attracted a different group of women.

On the other hand, this is consistent with an inequality story: that those with better jobs and economic security, and family stability, have a growing advantage when it comes to raising children. Looking forward, I worry that the logistics of successful parenting are becoming an insurmountable challenge for too many people who don’t have enough control over their work lives. If we don’t improve the situation with healthcare, childcare, and family leave, then we risk increasingly making children a luxury that fewer families believe they can afford.

We are trying to fit our rapidly evolving social lives within the relatively narrow biological limits of human reproduction. The inconvenient truth is that the biological prime years for reproduction are also essential years for developing our human capital and adult relationships. We need collective efforts in the form of social policy to manage this compression.

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Charter, private, and wealthy schools lead California vaccine exemptions

We need to know who’s driving this epidemic of non-vaccination so we can decide what to do about it. One key element of the pattern is that it’s a practice of groups, not (just) individuals. And one way such groups are organized and maintained may be by interacting in and around schools — hotspots for parenting fads and identity performance, as well as (one hopes) useful information.

Kieran Healy the other day posted some visualizations of California vaccine exemption rates across schools and counties — then dug deeper on school type here. While he was writing his second post I followed his links to the data and did some more descriptive work, adding some more information on school type and now poverty levels.

I used this California Department of Education data source for the free-lunch eligibility rates (2013-2014), and this California Department of Public Health data source for the vaccine exemption rates for kindergartners (2014-2015). The measure of vaccine exemption is the “Personal Belief Exemption (PBE), whereby a parent requests exemption from the immunization requirements for school entry.” Some of them got supposedly got counseling before making the request, while others further requested a religious exemption from the counseling — those two groups are combined here in the PBE rate. I weighted the analyses by the number of kindergartners enrolled in each school, so the rates shown are for students, not schools (this also helps with the outliers, which are mostly very small schools).

1. Runaway vaccine exemptions are problems of the private and charter schools

I don’t know what percentage of kids need to be immunized, for which diseases, for the proper level of community protection. But these distributions are very skewed, so it makes sense to look at the extremes. Here are three measures, for just under 7,000 schools: the mean percent PBE (the average percent exempt among each kids’ classmates), the percentage of kids in a school with no exempt kindergartners, and the percentage of kids attending schools with more than 5% exempt.

graph.xlsx

The average charter school kindergartner goes to school with classmates almost 5-times more likely to be non-vaccinated; and charter school kids are more than 3-times as likely to be in class with 5% or more kids exempt.

2. Schools with lots of poor kids have much lower exemption rates

The relationship between exemption rates and percentage of children eligible for free lunch is negative and very strong. Because there are so many schools with no PBEs, I used a tobit regression to predict exemption rates (I also excluded the top 1% outliers). Note the private schools are excluded here because the free lunch data was missing for them. Here is the output:

tobit

Just in case the zeros are data errors, I reran the regression excluding the zero cases (logged and not logged), and got weaker but still very strong results.

I illustrate the relationship in the next section.

3. The poverty-exemption relationship is stronger in charter schools

Charter schools have fewer kids eligible for free-lunch than regular public schools (43% versus 55%). However, although the relationship between poverty and exemptions is strong in both charter and regular public schools, it is stronger in the charter schools (the interaction term is almost 7-times its standard error). Here they are, showing the steeper free-lunch slope for charter schools (with a logged y-axis):

charter-lunch

Rich charter schools on average have the highest exemption rates, while poor schools — charter or not — are heavily clustered around zero (note it’s jittered so you can see how many cases are at zero).

Update: Here is the same data, for all public schools, presented more simply:

graph.xlsx

One interpretation of this pattern goes like this: Charter schools do not per se promote vaccine exemption. But because they are more parent-driven, or targeted at certain types of parents, charter schools are more ideologically homogeneous. And because anti-vaccine ideology is concentrated among richer parents, charter schools provide them with a fertile breeding ground in which to generate and transmit anti-vaccine ideas. That’s why, although richer parents in general are driving vaccine denial, it’s especially concentrated in charter schools. This seems consistent with the general echo-chamber nature of information sharing in cultural niches, and the clusering/contagious nature of parenting fads. (The same may or may not hold for private schools.) This could be totally wrong — I’m open to other interpretations.

I’m also happy to share my data on request, but I’m not posting it yet because when I tinker with it more I might make corrections.

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Cherlin interview, with my unsolicited responses

Lois Collins at the Deseret News has published a very nice interview with Andrew Cherlin around the release of his new book, Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America. Cherlin is a fellow member of the Council on Contemporary Families, and he is a committed truth-teller. I don’t have my whole review of his book yet, but I surely recommend it, although I disagree with him on some things.

Here are three excerpts from the interview, with unsolicited responses from me. I really don’t have a fundamental beef here, and the parts I’m not quoting are the parts I agree with more. But I think these bits are important, too.

DN: What happens to kids when their family life isn’t stable?

Cherlin: We know that kids who experience family instability tend to have more behavior problems and act out at school and at home. That’s especially true for boys. Having unstable family life seems to be more problematic for boys than for girls and more problematic in the emotional domains than in the acquisition of knowledge. So the trends we see matter for kids because unstable family life increases the risk of behavior problems and therefore decreases the rate of graduating from high school.

I understand that unstable family life is a risk factor for the problems he’s discussing. However, we have to keep it in perspective — how bad are the problems, what are their other causes, and what can we do about them? In this quote especially, he mentions decreasing high school graduation rates. But we know that high school graduation rates are much higher now than they were in the 1950s, when family life was much more stable. Here are the trends:

how are kids doing these days.xlsx

There was a period of stagnation for several decades, but since 2001 high school graduation rates are climbing again. This is at the same time that family instability has increased more or less continuously. So whatever the increased risks associated with that, at the aggregate level at least we have been able to overcome that effect. Solving problems like failure to graduate high school can come from reducing risk factors — like family instability — or by overcoming them through other efforts. The need to consider the costs and benefits of both approaches.

DN: What do we do about it? We’re not going to get everybody to go to college.

Cherlin: No, we’re not going to get everybody to go to college. But we could do a better job of educating people for the jobs that do exist. There still are some jobs in the middle of the labor market, such as in the health care field — I’m thinking of medical technicians or medical records specialists. I think we could do a better job of supporting education and training for people who are not going to get a four-year degree. I think education is a big part of the solution. I don’t think it’s the whole solution by any means, but it could help. I think we need to give up the dream of having a four-year college education for every American and realize that we might be better off training some people for reasonable-skill jobs that still exist in the job market.

I really don’t agree with this, but it’s become a popular thing to say. What about this trend suggests we are at some kind of ceiling?

college completion trends.xlsx

At less than 40%, I see no reason to assume we can’t send more people to college. There are two really bad reasons to think we can’t do more, which I wrote about at some length in this post. The first is that people aren’t smart enough to benefit from real college education. The chief purveyor of this idea is Charles Murray, who thinks we shouldn’t try to educate people beyond high school unless they have an IQ of 115 or higher. The second bad reason is the idea that the government just spends too much on poor people already. One purveyor of this idea is Brad Wilcox, who says, “the U.S. spends a ton of money and devotes unparalleled attention to college. But the reality is that only one-third of adults, even today, will get a college degree, a B.A. or B.S.” That’s just ridiculous — lots of countries send more people through college than the U.S. does:

college graduation rates OECD.xls

 

If young people knew they were going to college, many more of them would wait to have their kids. Which brings me to the last excerpt:

DN: Are there changes to be made on the culture side [to improve family stability]?

Cherlin: I’m not sure we can do things culturally. I think we need to try. I would acknowledge that others feel that, too. What might one do? We could try getting out a cultural message that says to young adults, ‘Don’t have children until you’re sure you’re in a lasting relationship.’ We’d have to make a cultural change in the acceptability of having children outside of marriage. That change has not been entirely positive. Could we have a social messaging campaign that tries to get young adults to postpone childbearing until they’re in a relationship, rather than going ahead and having kids outside of a stable relationship? Whether we can do that successfully, I don’t know, but I really think we ought to try.

This refers indirectly to the recent book by Isabel Sawhill, Generation Unbound, in which she argues for a cultural campaign to discourage childbearing outside of stable, long-term relationships. Of course, we have had non-stop cultural campaigns — formal and informal — pouring shame and stigma on single mothers (and fathers) for at least 30 years. I’m glad Cherlin and Sawhill are in favor of expanding the message beyond marriage to include stable relationships, but I think it amounts to much the same thing.

I have several points of disagreement. The first is over the idea that single people shouldn’t have children. Yes, on average children of single parents have more of some kinds of problems than children of married parents, especially problems related to shortages of money and time. But we also know that many children of single parents do fine — it’s not moon-shot difficult, it’s tough-challenge difficult. Given that, do you really want to tell a 20-year old woman who has no prospect of finishing college and no “stable relationship” that she should just postpone having children? Till when? Most people think having children is one of the most important things they will ever do, it’s a goal in life, it literally gives life meaning (I recommend Children of Men). For those of us with money, power, and privilege to tell poorer people that they should just shelve this fundamental source of purpose and meaning in their lives because it will be difficult and might inconvenience us just rubs me the wrong way.

My second point of disagreement is less visceral and more practical. I don’t see how this is going to work. There is no evidence, especially not with promoting marriage. Sawhill and Wilcox like to point to the campaign to prevent teen pregnancy, but that’s mostly misplaced (as I wrote here): the teen birth rate is mostly down because women are postponing births at all ages — because they have better opportunities, especially for education and careers. So rather than continue to promote the idea of “doing things culturally,” which has a proven record of failure, why not promote higher education, which we know we can do successfully, and which has demonstrated effects on delaying childbearing, increasing family stability, and improving the economy?

If we can promise people access to an affordable college education I would be much more willing to encourage them to delay having their children. That would be useful, practical advice — not empty moralizing.

 

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Santa’s magic, children’s wisdom, and inequality

Eric Kaplan, channeling Francis Pharcellus Church, writes in favor of Santa Claus in the New York Times. The Church argument, written in 1897 and barely updated here, is that (a) you can’t prove there is no Santa, so agnosticism is the strongest possible objection, and (b) Santa enriches our lives and promotes non-rationalized gift-giving, “so we might as well believe in him.” That’s the substance of it. It’s a very common argument, identical to one employed against atheists in favor of belief in God, but more charming and whimsical when directed at killjoy Santa-deniers.

All harmless fun and existential comfort-food. But we have two problems that the Santa situation may exacerbate. First is science denial. And second is inequality. So, consider this an attempted joyicide.

Science

From Pew Research comes this Christmas news:

In total, 65% of U.S. adults believe that all of these aspects of the Christmas story – the virgin birth, the journey of the magi, the angel’s announcement to the shepherds and the manger story – reflect events that actually happened.

Here are the details:

PR_14.12.15_Christmas-05

So the Santa situation is not an isolated question. We’re talking about a population with a very strong tendency to express literal belief in fantastical accounts. This Christmas story is the soft leading edge of a more hardcore Christian fundamentalism. For the past 20 years, the General Social Survey GSS has found that a third of American adults agrees with the statement, “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word,” versus two other options: “The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word”; and,”The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.” Those “actual word of God” people are less numerous than the virgin-birth believers, but they’re related.

Using the GSS I analyzed the attitudes of the “actual word of God” people (my Stata data and work files are here). Controlling for their sex, age, race, education, political ideology, and the year of the survey, they are much more likely than the rest of the population to:

  • Agree that “We trust too much in science and not enough in religious faith”
  • Oppose marriage rights for homosexuals
  • Agree that “people worry too much about human progress harming the environment”
  • Agree that “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family”

This isn’t the direction I’d like to push our culture. Of course, teaching children to believe in Santa doesn’t necessarily create “actual word of God” fundamentalists. But I expect it’s one risk factor.

Children’s ways of knowing

A little reading led me to this interesting review of the research on young children’s skepticism and credulity, by Woolley and Ghossainy (citations below were mostly referred by them).

It goes back to Margaret Mead’s early work. In the psychological version of sociology’s reading history sideways, Mead in 1932 reported on the notion that young children not only know less, but know differently, than adults, in a way that parallels social evolution. Children were thought to be “more closely related to the thought of the savage than to the thought of the civilized man,” with animism in “primitive” societies being similar to the spontaneous thought of young children. This goes along with the idea of believing in Santa as indicative of a state of innocence.

In pursuit of empirical confirmation of the universality of childhood, Mead investigated the Manus tribe in Melanesia, who were pagans, looking for magical thinking in children: “animistic premise, anthropomorphic interpretation and faulty logic.”

Instead, she found “no evidence of spontaneous animistic thought in the uncontrolled sayings or games” over five months of continuous observation of a few dozen children. And while adults in the community attributed mysterious or random events to spirits and ghosts, children never did:

I found no instance of a child’s personalizing a dog or a fish or a bird, of his personalizing the sun, the moon, the wind or stars. I found no evidence of a child’s attributing chance events, such as the drifting away of a canoe, the loss of an object, an unexplained noise, a sudden gust of wind, a strange deep-sea turtle, a falling seed from a tree, etc., to supernaturalistic causes.

On the other hand, adults blamed spirits for hurricanes hitting the houses of people who behave badly, believed statues can talk, thought lost objects had been stolen by spirits, and said people who are insane are possessed by spirits. The grown men all thought they had personal ghosts looking out for them – with whom they communicated – but the children dismissed the reality of the ghosts that were assigned to them. They didn’t play ghost games.

Does this mean magical thinking is not inherent to childhood? Mead wrote:

The Manus child is less spontaneously animistic and less traditionally animistic than is the Manus adult [“traditionally” here referring to the adoption of ritual superstitious behavior]. This result is a direct contradiction of findings in our own society, in which the child has been found to be more animistic, in both traditional and spontaneous fashions, than are his elders. When such a reversal is found in two contrasting societies, the explanation must be sought in terms of the culture; a purely psychological explanation is inadequate.

Maybe people have the natural capacity for both animistic and realistic thinking, and societies differ in which trait they nurture and develop through children’s education and socialization. Mead speculated that the pattern she found had to do with the self-sufficiency required of Manus children. A Manus child must…

…make correct physical adjustments to his environment, so that his entire attention is focused upon cause and effect relationships, the neglect of which would result in immediate disaster. … Manus children are taught the properties of fire and water, taught to estimate distance, to allow for illusion when objects are seen under water, to allow for obstacles and judge possible clearage for canoes, etc., at the age of two or three.

Plus, perhaps unlike in industrialized society, their simple technology is understandable to children without the invocation of magic. And she observed that parents didn’t tell the children imaginary stories, myths, and legends.

I should note here that I’m not saying we have to choose between religious fundamentalism and a society without art and literature. The question is about believing things that aren’t true, and can’t be true. I’d like to think we can cultivate imagination without launching people down the path of blind credulity.

Modern credulity

For evidence that culture produces credulity, consider the results of a study that showed most four-year-old children understood that Old Testament stories are not factual. Six-year-olds, however, tended to believe the stories were factual, if their impossible events were attributed to God rather than rewritten in secular terms (e.g., “Matthew and the Green Sea” instead of “Moses and the Red Sea”). Why? Belief in supernatural or superstitious things, contrary to what you might assume, requires a higher level of cognitive sophistication than does disbelief, which is why five-year-olds are more likely to believe in fairies than three-year-olds. These studies suggest children have to be taught to believe in magic. (Adults use persuasion to do that, but teaching with rewards – like presents under a tree or money under a pillow – is of course more effective.)

Richard Dawkins has speculated that religion spreads so easily because humans have an adaptive tendency from childhood to believe adults rather than wait for direct evidence of dangers to accumulate (e.g., “snakes are dangerous”). That is, credulity is adaptive for humans. But Woolley and Ghossainy review mounting evidence for young children’s skepticism as well as credulity. That, along with the obvious survival disadvantages associated with believing everything you’re told, doesn’t support Dawkins’ story.

Children can know things either from direct observation or experience, or from being taught. So they can know dinosaurs are real if they believe books and teachers and museums, even if they can’t observe them living (true reality detection). And they can know that Santa Claus and imaginary friends are not real if they believe either authorities or their own senses (true baloney detection). Similarly, children also have two kinds of reality-assessment errors: false positive and false negative. Believing in Santa Claus is false positive. Refusing to believe in dinosaurs is false negative. In this figure, adapted from Woolley and Ghossainy, true judgment is in green, errors are in red.

whatchildrenthink

We know a lot about kids’ credulity (Santa Claus, tooth fairy, etc.). But, Woolley and Ghossainy write, their skepticism has been neglected:

It is perplexing that a young child could believe that his or her knowledge of the world is complete enough to deny the existence of anything new. It would seem that young children would understand that there are many things that exist in the real world that they have yet to experience. As intuitive as this seems, it appears not to be the case. From this perspective, development regarding beliefs about reality involves, in addition to decreased reliance on knowledge and experience, increased awareness of one’s own knowledge and its limitations for assessing reality status. This realization that one’s own knowledge is limited gradually inspires a waning reliance on it alone for making reality status decisions and a concomitant increase in the use of a wider range of strategies for assessing reality status, including, for example, seeking more information, assessing contextual cues, and evaluating the quality of the new information.

The “realization that one’s own knowledge is limited” is a vital development, ultimately necessary for being able to tell fact from fiction. But, sadly, it need not lead to real understanding – under some conditions, such as, apparently, the USA today, it often leads instead to reliance on misguided or dishonest authorities who compete with science to fill the void beyond what we can directly observe or deduce. Believing in Santa because we can’t disprove his existence is a developmental dead end, a backward-looking reliance on authority for determining truth. But so is failure to believe in germs or vaccines or evolution just because we can’t see them working.

We have to learn how to inhabit the green boxes without giving up our love for things imaginary, and that seems impossible without education in both science and art.

Rationalizing gifts

What is the essence of Santa, anyway? In Kaplan’s NYT essay it’s all about non-rationalized giving — for the sake of giving. The latest craze in Santa culture, however, says otherwise: Elf on the Shelf. According to Google Trends, interest in this concept has increased 100-fold since 2008. In case you’ve missed it, the idea is to put a cute little elf somewhere on a shelf in the house. You tell your kids it’s watching them, and that every night it goes back to the North Pole to report to Santa on their nice/naughty ratio. While the kids are sleeping, you move it to another shelf in house, and the kids delight in finding it again each morning.

Foucault is not amused. Consider the Elf on a Shelf aftermarket accessories, like these handy warning labels, which threaten children with “no toys” if they aren’t on their “best behavior” from now on:

elfwarning

So is this non-rationalize gift giving? Quite the opposite. In fact, rather than cultivating a whimsical love of magic, this is closer to a dystopian fantasy in which the conjured enforcers of arbitrary moral codes leap out of their fictional realm to impose harsh consequences in the real life of innocent children.

Inequality

What does all this mean for inequality? My developmental question is, what is the relationship between belief in Santa and social class awareness over the early life course? In other words, how long after kids realize there is class inequality do they go on believing in Santa? Where do these curves cross?

santaclass

Beyond worrying about how Santa rewards or punishes them individually, if children are to believe that Christmas gifts are doled out according to moral merit, than what are they to make of the obvious fact that rich kids get more than poor kids? Rich or poor, the message seems the same: children deserve what they get. Of course, I’m not the first to think of this:

santapoormeme

Conclusion

I can’t demonstrate that believing in Santa causes children to believe that economic inequality is justified by character differences between social classes. Or that Santa belief undermines future openness to science and logic. But those are hypotheses.

Between the anti-science epidemic and the pervasive assumption that poor people deserve what they get, this whole Santa enterprise seems risky. Would it be so bad, so destructive to the wonder that is childhood, if instead of attributing gifts to supernatural beings we instead told children that we just buy them gifts because we love them unconditionally and want them — and all other children — to be happy?

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Telling the boys and girls how to tell the boys from the girls

From Reddit comes the story of an assignment given to high school students in a sex education unit of health class in Columbus, Ohio (as reported in the Dispatch).

The introduction reads (typos included):

Appreciating Gender Differences: Often there are many stereotypes attached to being male or female. Yet male and female together keep our species alive! Through knowing and appreciating the many differences in brain development and psychological processes of males vs. female one learn to accept and appreciate the differences.”

Then there’s this graphic:

stereotypeflyer-cutout

Yes, boys and girls in the class all got the same handout, with the normal human described as “you” and the one in the dress labeled “she.”

After the graphic is a list of questions for the students to ponder in an essay, such as, “How might knowing these differences influence and impact an intimate relationship you might currently have or develop in the future?”

In her defense, the teacher naturally told the Dispatch that the point was to just “stimulate conversation.” But nothing in the assignment suggests the stereotypes might not be anything but true. None of the essay questions cast doubt on the facts presented.

Consider revising the text like this:

Appreciating Gender Similarities: Often there are many stereotypes attached to being male or female. Yet male and female together keep our species alive! Through knowing and appreciating the many similarities in brain development and psychological processes of males vs. female one learn to accept and appreciate the similarities.”

That could be a useful opening to a unit on gender and development for high school sex education (without the graphic).

Where did this come from?

The teacher said it came from “an outdated book.” With the power of Google image search, you can follow this image around the Internet, where it has been used by a lot of people to illustrate supposedly funny-but-oh-so-true stereotypes, like “Hilarious differences between men and women,” and on pages with sexist aphorisms such as, “A woman worries about the future until she gets a husband; a man never worries about the future until he gets a wife,” and on relationship advice pages, with conclusions such as, “If we understand this basic fundamental, there will be better relationships … steadier !!,” and even “Real, Honest Female Advice” for men who want to “start having unbelievable success with women.”

It always has the same typo (“Figure Our Her Needs”). I can’t find an original use, or any serious attempt at educational use, but I’d love to know who came up with it.

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Policy, politics, and promoting education versus marriage

Here are three ideas I disagree with:

1. Most people aren’t smart enough to make going to college worth it.

Maybe the best-known purveyor of this idea is Charles Murray, who argued in his 2008 book Real Education (offshore bootlegged copy here) that the “consensus intellectual benchmark” for understanding real college-level material is an IQ of 115, which by definition is only 16% of the population — but probably only 10% are really, truly smart enough (and efforts to improve education at lower levels to prepare more people for college are futile, so don’t even think about spending more on education, because so many people are “born lazy“).

2. We’ve done so much for poor people, it’s time for them to do something for themselves.

This is clearly related to idea #1, insofar as the government spends billions of dollars educating people for college — and subsidizing the colleges they attend — who could instead just work hard and enjoy life in a job requiring less education. But it extends to all kinds of social welfare and anti-poverty programs, as illustrated by the exasperated people in the policy establishment from Brookings to Heritage.

3. Poor women should get married before they have children.

This idea is pervasive, as I’ve discussed many times under the single mothers tag, in response to people blaming single mothers for rising inequality, poverty, low upward mobility, and crime.

One response

Here I offer one response to these three ideas combined. It is possible to increase access to college education, which would increase stability and opportunity for poor people and their children.

In demography, there is a long-running debate over whether there is a biological limit to human longevity, and whether and how fast we may be approaching it. Regardless of the ultimate answer, so far it’s clear that projections based on an inevitable tapering off of increases in life expectancy have repeatedly proved wrong (here’s a review and a recent paper). The same might be said of college education. Here is the trend in 25-34 year-old U.S. civilians with at least a BA degree, from Census numbers:

college completion trends.xlsx

There was more talk about hitting the limits of college access 10 years ago, but even then it was increasing rapidly among women. Yes, we can and should improve college education. But I see nothing here to suggest a ceiling approaching. Still, people keep assuming that expanding education isn’t feasible.

For example, while Murray holds forth on the intelligence limitations among the poor, his colleague Brad Wilcox argues for a cultural press on those with less than a college degree:

They can go down the road of not having marriage as the keystone to their family formation, family life, or we can hold the line, if you will, and try to figure out creative strategies for strengthening marriage in this particular middle demographic in the United States.

In addition to upscaling their deficient values, however, couldn’t we also move them out of the less-than-college category altogether? Not so fast, says Wilcox in a recent interview:

On the education front, the U.S. spends a ton of money and devotes unparalleled attention to college. But the reality is that only one-third of adults, even today, will get a college degree, a B.A. or B.S. We can do a lot better in both funding and focusing on vocational education and apprenticeship training.

Really, America, be reasonable: Our “ton of money” is “unparalleled.” Don’t set your sights too high. Who do you think you are, anyway, Poland (college graduation rate: 53%), Ireland (46%), or Portugal (41%)? From OECD numbers:

college graduation rates OECD.xls

I know expanding college access (the real kind, not the for-profit kind) suggests expanding a broken financial aid system, and the economic returns aren’t guaranteed, but for my purposes it’s not just about getting a better job. People who go to college — and those who know they are going to go to college before they do — usually delay having children, not because some moralizing think tank tells them it’s wrong, but because they’re trying to rationally sequence their lives. Of course, married couples have relatively low poverty rates, but even for parents who aren’t married, higher education sure helps. From the American Community Survey via IPUMS.org:

H8.xlsx

Trying to get more poor people to get married is both offensive and useless. But increasing access to higher education is both uplifting and useful. The choice between early birth with low education and later birth with higher education is not hard to make, but unless it’s feasible — with a readily apparent, practical, path toward completion — there is no choice to make.

The increase in college education has already helped keep child poverty levels from rising as marriage rates have fallen. Among women old enough to have finished college (ages 22-44) the percentage of babies born to mothers with college degrees (married or not) has increased from 23% in 1990 to 35% in 2010. From the Current Population Survey via IPUMS.org:

H8.xlsx

Promoting marriage among the poor is a moralizing salve for the self-esteem — and anti-tax self-interest — of pious elites, with zero proven success in helping anybody poor. Promoting access to higher education is good policy and good politics.

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