Monday, August 20, 2012

Madeline Levine on "hyperparenting"

If you're a high-profile therapist writing an advice book, the first thing you should do is ask yourself what your selection bias is. Do your clients perhaps disproportionately represent certain demographic groups (i.e., those who can afford to pay you) with certain types of real or perceived psychological problems (i.e., problems that drive them to pay you)?

The next thing you should ask is whether, when you venture out of your field into complex new areas like education, you actually know what you're talking about.

Madeline Levine's Teach Your Children Well is the latest in a series of advice books (c.f., The Over Scheduled Child, Einstein Never Used Flashcards, or Levine's earlier The Price of Privilege) that assume that a certain (to them) highly conspicuous, highly competitive subsector of American parents represents all of us. It's also the latest in a series of books and articles in which the author makes assumptions about the American education system without taking a close look at current trends.

Levine, who was just interviewed today on WHYY's Radio Times in Philadelphia, thinks we're pushing our kids too hard academically. Evoking scenarios of parents trying to pressure their four year olds to read books and their adult children to become surgeons rather than mechanics, she argues that our kids would do better, even academically, if we stopped pushing them so hard. Like so many people who think our schools are overly academic, she blames the relentless testing of No Child Left Behind, and evokes the later starting age (age 7) of schools in Finland as responsible for the much greater academic achievements of Finnish students.

It doesn't occur to Levine that, for the majority of us whose kids attend public schools, the low bar set by No Child Left Behind tests have watered down the academic standards, such that ever fewer kids are being pushed academically at school. It doesn't occur to her that, when parents decide to push their kids extracurricularly, it's often to make up for the growing academic deficiencies in their classrooms.

Everyone who wants to cite Finland as a reason to stop pushing kids academically should read these paragraphs from a 2008 Wall Street Journal article:

Visitors and teacher trainees can peek at how it's done from a viewing balcony perched over a classroom at the Norssi School in Jyväskylä, a city in central Finland. What they see is a relaxed, back-to-basics approach. The school, which is a model campus, has no sports teams, marching bands or prom. 
Finnish high-school senior Elina Lamponen... spent a year at Colon High School in Colon, Mich., where strict rules didn't translate into tougher lessons or dedicated students, Ms. Lamponen says. She would ask students whether they did their homework. They would reply: " 'Nah. So what'd you do last night?'" she recalls. History tests were often multiple choice. The rare essay question, she says, allowed very little space in which to write. In-class projects were largely "glue this to the poster for an hour," she says. Her Finnish high school forced Ms. Lamponen, a spiky-haired 19-year-old, to repeat the year when she returned.
Forced to repeat the year? This doesn't sound like Teaching Your Children Well. Perhaps Levine should think twice about whether we should be emulating Finland.


cranberry said...

I think one's reaction to the book depends upon the local community. I've read the first third of the book, and skimmed the rest.

I do see the "hyperparenting" Levine laments in our community. By the high school years, it's entirely focused on college admissions, not academics. Kids are doing community service, competitive athletics, extracurriculars, etc. I think they "work" with tutors on SAT prep, and to make high grades, but I don't detect a significant interest in education for its own sake, at least in those parents aiming for the most elite schools.

FedUpMom said...

cranberry, I'm with you. I haven't read this book, though I've read Levine's previous book, and it's an accurate description of what I see around me.

For me, the winning argument is that we could become MORE serious about our kid's academic learning while inflicting LESS stress and taking up LESS of their time. Ask any homeschooler!

FedUpMom said...

I think we need to be very careful to define terms. Levine complains about the stress of academic overload, and she's right. I'm in a similar demographic to the one she's familiar with, and I see stressed-out kids all the time. The stress is caused by school, so it's "academic" in that sense.

Now, that doesn't mean that the schoolwork is academically rigorous or intellectually challenging. These are separate questions.

Katharine Beals said...

The problem I have with Levine's take (as it came across in her interview) is that she's conflating parents who are pushing their kids academically with parents who are pushing their kids through the kinds of college admissions resume stuffing and test prepping that cranberry is talking about (and I see, too).

Many parents have sound reasons for pushing their kids academically, beyond what's (not) happening at school (I'd call most of the stress coming out of school "busy work"--and social stresses-- rather than "academics").

Levine's book would be strengthened if she focused more sharply on the latter group of parents, which has no sound reasons for what it's doing.

While I see plenty of parents gaming the admissions system, I have yet to encounter a parent who is pushing a reluctant 4-year-old to read, or complaining when his/her child chooses mechanics over surgery. I'm sure such parents exist, but I suspect they are a much smaller group than Levine suggests.