Monday, December 28, 2015

One Wrong Move

Back in November, Hanna Rosin started a ball rolling with her Atlantic cover story about the high rate of student suicides in Silicon Valley. Two high schools in Palo Alto have a 10-year suicide rate between four and five times the national average.

If students from wealthy families in one of the most affluent communities in the country are feeling driven to these sort of extremes-- what the heck can that mean.

And it's not just the issue of suicide. Rosin writes:

The rich middle- and high-school kids [Arizona State professor Suniya] Luthar and her collaborators have studied show higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse on average than poor kids, and much higher rates than the national norm.* They report clinically significant depression or anxiety or delinquent behaviors at a rate two to three times the national average. Starting in seventh grade, the rich cohort includes just as many kids who display troubling levels of delinquency as the poor cohort, although the rule-breaking takes different forms. The poor kids, for example, fight and carry weapons more frequently, which Luthar explains as possibly self-protective. The rich kids, meanwhile, report higher levels of lying, cheating, and theft.

Rosin pointed to huge pressure put on kids by their families, and Rebecca Rosen followed up with her piece, also at the Atlantic, "Why Affluent Professionals Put So Much Pressure on Their Kids."

Rosen's conclusion is that affluent professionals find their own position fragile, and their ability to pass that position on to their children non-existent.

All of this results in what the economists Garey and Valerie Ramey of the University of California, San Diego, brilliantly termed “the rug rat race.” As they wrote in a 2010 paper, “The increased scarcity of college slots appears to have heightened rivalry among parents, which takes the form of more hours spent on college preparatory activities.” In their findings, the rug rat race takes place primarily among the most educated parents, because there simply aren’t enough spots at elite schools for less-educated parents to even really have a shot, especially as the competition accelerates. It’s for this reason that the most educated parents spend the most hours parenting, even though they are giving up the most in wages by doing so.

If you're looking for one of the sources of the idealization of competitiveness that has leached into public education, well, here it is.

As one soccer parent told Friedman during her research on parenting in such a competitive culture, “I think it’s important for [my son] to understand that [being competitive] is not going to just apply here, it’s going to apply for the rest of his life. It’s going to apply when he keeps growing up and he’s playing sports, when he’s competing for school admissions, for a job, for the next whatever.” Friedman concludes, “Such an attitude prepares children for winner-take-all settings like the school system and lucrative labor markets.”

And the competition is all the more important because of the vast gap between the top tier and everything else. The gap between middle class and the wealthy elite is now a chasm, and by the time a child is eighteen, the feeling goes, his trajectory is already set. And while the wealthy elite cannot pass on, say, their legal practice, they are the only people with the resources to get their children every inch of extra help available. The private lessons, the personal coaching, the top equipment, the best technology-- only the wealthy can provide those necessary tools to land on the right side of Prosperity Gulch.

This echoes the work of Robert Putnam in Our Kids, in which he discusses how soft ties and social capital give wealthier children an extra edge. Wealthy parents can always pick up the phone and make a call. Wealthy parents can always apply some money to the problem. That ties us back to studies like the one from John Hopkins that shows how family and neighborhood cast a long shadow over a student's future.

What Rosin and Rosen underline is just how scared and worried the wealthy are-- just one wrong move and Little Pat will end up with a life that's Less, a life that's Not Good Enough. Little Pat will be a failure.

But if that's what the wealthy of Silicon Valley are thinking, what about the rest of us? Remember Richard Corey? The poem has two characters-- Corey and the ordinary people who narrate-- and its power doesn't just come from saying, "The rich have troubles you know nothing about." It also says, "If the most successful guy we can think of is that miserable, what hope do we have?"

And so that fear of failure, and the massive depth of what failure will mean, slowly leaches down into the whole system. It works its destructiveness in different ways. The children of silicon valley end up super-pressured, hammered into the shape their parents demand. But on lower levels of the economy, levels where parental units don't have access to every possible advantage, there is fear mixed with hopelessness.

For all the pressure Silicon kids feel, wealth gives them one other important advantage-- the Do-Over. Putnam and the John Hopkins study both highlight this-- how rich and poor kids both do drugs at similar rates, but poor kids are more likely to pay a huge price for being caught. When a rich kid screws up, Dad can make some phone calls, use some connections. The poor kid is just screwed. And yet Rosen and Rosin suggest that the rich kid pays in other ways, emotionally and psychologically.

And so, in different ways, children grow up on a razor's edge, imagining a world that will destroy them the moment they make One Wrong Move, raised by families that believe it, too. I'm also reminded of the work of Jessica Lahey, the teacher-writer whose book The Gift of Failure, has touched such a nerve with so many people. It has become a radical, revolutionary idea that children need to fail, that failure is a necessary part of growth, that you do not build muscles by having your parents lift weight for you.

But-- but-- let them fail??!! If they fail, that might be the One Wrong Move! It might be the moment that defines their downward spiral into failure and squalor and the child will end up living in a van by the river eating canned cat food warmed on a hot plate, alone and miserable and poor forever. They can't afford to fail. They can't handle failure.

Much of the ed reform movement has been a reflection of this mindset. We must set benchmarks, and we must get students to meet them because if they don't meet those benchmarks, they will be failures and the nation will fail and our national defense will be compromised and our international standing will disintegrate and our seat at the United nations will be moved to a van down by the East River. Everyone must be made to understand that if these third graders don't pass the super-duper Big Standardized Tests then that is a failure of epic and terrible dimensions.

I am more and more wondering how and when America turned into a nation so deeply steeped in fear (the same terrible fear has arguably turned Trump into a viable Presidential candidate), but it is killing our children. Some are raised in a bubble, repeatedly told through word and deed that they are not strong enough to face life and that all of their energy must go into building a protective shell. Some are raised out in the open, with no tools or assistance but repeated insistence that they must Grit Up and Get Tough. Even those who get those wealthy do-overs pay, as Rosin and Rosen suggest, by a look or speech that says, "I had to pay this price for you, because you can't hack it. If someone didn't bail you out, you'd be at the bottom of the barrel somewhere because that's what you actually deserve." Some learn that they must expect failure. And all of that is before we get to those who emerge from college, untested and untoughened, walking into the world and demanding their soft, protective bubble-- right now.

And all of this fearful vision of the world becomes increasingly self-fulfilling as we make the world harder and uglier and meaner. Instead of giving help where we can and lifting up people around us and designing our institutions to do the same, we let people flounder and sneer at them-- "You'd better toughen up, because this is how the world works." Well, shit, people-- this is how the world works if we decide to make the world work this way!

Yes, life comes with hard, unpleasant, painful challenges built in. But that's why we have a moral imperative not to add more hurt and trouble when we can help it. This does not have to be a world in which One Wrong Move ruins your life.

Let me tell you again, those of you who don't teach-- this is wearing on our children.

I know this is long, but I'm going to finish with a story. Just a couple years ago, I taught a class of juniors who were just so paralyzed with fear they couldn't do much of anything. These were honor students, the top students that my rural/small town high school had to offer. And they couldn't get past their fear-inflicted need to never do a thing unless they were sure it was right (because one way to avoid making One Wrong Move is to never move at all).

So one day, I kind of snapped. They were breaking my heart. So I dropped the lesson, and I got personal (and understand--if you told my students that you thought I was all warm and fuzzy, they would laugh at you). I said something along the lines of, "Look, I'm going to say some things about you, and if you think I'm getting it wrong and I don't understand, just stop me." I told them I thought they were afraid, that they were terrified that they were going to screw up and their life would be a disaster. Nobody said a word. So then I told them about some of my former students. (I have taught in the same small town for over thirty years, so I have seen pretty big sections of my student life stories.) I told them about several students who were sure they wanted to go to college for one thing and then dropped out and started over or switched schools or changed majors, and today they are living happy lives in rewarding careers. I talked about students who made terrible mistakes, like the one honor student who ended up running away from her husband with her drug dealer and ultimately serving time in prison-- after which she turned her life around, found new work, fell in love, and now has a fine family and a happy life. I talked about how, when my first marriage fell apart, I thought I was done and felt as if I had failed in every way that could possibly matter, and yet it turned out that I was a lot stronger than I thought I was.

And then I told them about themselves. I told them about how they were strong and smart and capable. I told them about how they had so much talent and brains and ability and value, and that they had good hearts and good heads and that they could trust themselves. I told them that no matter how carefully they planned, it was likely that a lot of things in their lives were not going to go the way they planned or expected, but that they would handle it and sometimes those unexpected twists and turns would bring huge rewards. I told them they would find their way. I told them that I really believed in my heart that they would all turn out okay. It's going to be okay. You can handle this. It's going to be okay.

Some bowed their heads. Some just sat. And some wept.

The point of the story is that the message I felt moved to deliver-- that they are strong, they are valuable, they can handle what happens next, they will be okay-- that's a message our children are hearing almost never from the culture. Instead, what they hear over and over is, "You are balanced on the edge of disaster, and if you make one wrong move, you will topple over into the pit, and knowing you, you're probably going to make that one wrong move."

We have allowed our school system to be overrun with an intent to find and weed out losers, instead of a system designed to lift up every student and help each one find the strength to win. Remember drivers' ed, when your teacher told you to keep your eyes on the road and not the ditch, because you will go where your vision is focused. We need to stop focusing on failure. We need to stop devoting mental energy to the wrong moves and focus on the right ones.

Most importantly, we need to work for and demand a world fit for humans. No, I don't want a fuzzy world with no sharp edges in which no hard things ever happen. That's not real. But we should demand a world in which young men and women don't feel that failing a test or losing a sporting event is the figurative End of Their Life, and we should continue to demand a world in which men and women don't feel they are in danger of being shot down because someone thought they made one wrong move. We don't need to demand a world that is all fluffy bunnies and rainbows, but it doesn't seem like to much to demand a world that doesn't just grind up our children.

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies- God damn it, you've got to be kind. 
                                      -- Kurt Vonnegut


  1. I wonder if the stronger job market and the fall in the percentage of high school grads going to college will have an effect on this hyper competition among elite families. If the economy stays strong, then I predict that getting into colleges of their choice will be easier for most students this spring than it was 5 years ago.

  2. This is a very powerful essay, Peter.

  3. That was a wonderful piece to read. The pressures put on children, parents, and teachers has become ridiculously destructive and demoralizing.

    I do hope and feel change will come.

    Love your blog.

  4. Maybe when all the benefits of our society started flowing to the 1%, everyone else got scared because there's less and less for the rest of us.

  5. Beautiful essay. In and out of school, they're given to understand that the world is terrifying, and that they have got to stay SAFE, and the way to do this is to get SUCCESSFUL, namely, RICH.
    I think the gap between rich and poor is horrifying, but I'm not even sure that's behind this fear. People are worried about not *winning.* As you say, Peter, it's really the competitive principle turned into a moral culture.
    Ironically, this may explain why kids are showered in shallow affirmations - not only at school, but in TV shows, motivational posters, clothes, etc. It's just like the frantic encouragement we shout to people who are hanging on to the edge of a cliff: "For god's sake hang on! You can do this!!!!" They all get that this is Stuart-Smalley-type encouragement, the kind you dish out to the doomed. And it freaks them out.

    1. Oh how I wish my kids were showered with affirmations at school. I'd even take shallow affirmations at this point. Being educated in a system that seeks out the failures and names them loudly makes it very visceral to kids that are exactly what they are labeled.

  6. What matters is that kids are happy and feel at least one person loves them and has their best interests at heart. Period. Powerful essay.

  7. Very powerful essay. What this and so many of your other posts reveal is that as a society, we do not have a strong concensus on common sense. So much of what you promote should be common sense. The cause of our crises should be obvious. Brave New World was meant to be a cautionary tale, not a blueprint.

  8. Excellent article. There is information on brain development and how the brain grows the most when it learns from a mistake.

    I am a teacher but I climbed out of poverty. The article is centered around fear and some good stats but it also needs to be differentiated from facing real fears (kids in poverty Need to protect themselves so carry weapons) while the rich kids are brainwashed and have very little actual real life experience versus the sheltered life of middle class families. Then the school system is quite gentified with little compassion for the kids in poverty and the real life choices they make to meet their needs. The rich kids have access to better drugs, alcohol, and safer places to experience the effects and yet these kids have very little real needs but the one thing missing from both is community. For rich kids their community is often found a the shopping mall, poor middle schoolers often hang out there until they realize the mall wasn't built or designed with them in mind. But what we don't realize is how our consumerist lives are effecting the greatest gift we can offer: our children. We need to turn our school communities into learning commmunities, in order to do that we must take a deeper look at our own consumption stats.

    There are great programs out there but as that wage chasm has grown we must take time to analyze the system and put the real resources back into a schools: its people!

    Please understand that many schools are doing amazing things to close the chasm but we are stuck in a greater chasm: the usurpation of our public taxes to private testing companies. Ask your district how many employees could be hired with the amount of money spent on tests, trainings, equipment, and testing adminstrators?

    1. The best estimate I could find is that standardized tests cost about 1.7 billion dollars a year, or about one quarter of a percent of public school spending. The source is here:

    2. My only pushback is your idea (I think) that rich and middle class kids don't have "real life experience." That's the same attitude I hear from condescending friends and family who tell me that, because I am a teacher, I don't understand the "real world" of private enterprise.

    3. TE, this piece looks at a report from Software and Information Industry Association put the amount at $2.5 billion in 2012-2013. Brookings is unlikely to be a reliable source for any such information.

    4. Unknown, I'm sure rich and middle class kids have all sorts of real life experience, though it may look different form the experience of their less-wealthy counterparts.

    5. Whether 1.7 or 2.5 billion, does that figure include all the test prep, the "aligned curriculum", the ed tech. the consultants, and everything else that goes along with standardized testing, or is that just the cost of the tests themselves?

  9. Peter thank you for this essay. You might find this discussion of usefulness of failure from the perspective of an artist/illustrator interesting.

  10. While my attention is not typically held on such a long blog, it was worth the wait. Well said with much cited research. Thank you

  11. This is an excellent read, thank you for sharing. My favorite section that made me cry:

    "Remember drivers' ed, when your teacher told you to keep your eyes on the road and not the ditch, because you will go where your vision is focused. We need to stop focusing on failure. We need to stop devoting mental energy to the wrong moves and focus on the right ones."

    Just yesterday when my sixteen year old was learning to ice skate for the first time in his life, I noticed that his head was pointed down at the ground and he could not find his center of gravity. I kept reminding him, "It's just like when you drive, look ahead at where you are going, your body will know what to do." Once he looked ahead, he made progress, just a little, but it was progress and next time will be easier.

  12. How fortunate those fear-filled high-achievers were to have you as their teacher. Wise teachers can do a great deal to to temper social and family fear-of-failure messages. I encountered a good number of them in my public education, as did my [now-grown] children.

    What can begin souring the whole mix is when school administration's fears begin to dominate a school system. I saw this happen in ours soon after the 1999 Columbine incident. For the next five years or more there were numerous instances of suspensions for absurdities such as a silly cartoon that featured a gun, an overheard cafeteria conversation using the word 'exploding', etc-- often targeting students who were special-ed, 'different', &/or simply male. All examples of the heavy hand of administration untempered by wisdom, humor, or even common-sense, overriding the input of teachers and parents. The administrators' fears immediately spread to students, who understand the ground beneath their feet has shifted from sensible assessment of a situation to the unpredictable whims of fearful adults.

    By the time those fears began to subside, NCLB was in full swing, introducing fears of school closures and teacher firing via student performance on standardized tests. Even in high-performing schools where such consequences were remote, this cinched into place the sense for all that the system's foundation would now be determined by the fearful whims of remote administrators.

  13. Here is an article by Valerie Strauss mentioning some of the additional costs involved with testing:

  14. Oh my. This is the despair I will myself to ignore from time to time to stay in my classroom. Comment to my colleagues the day before break: "We have ruined these children." My school has an even split 50/50 highly privileged and Dickens London poor. I swing between them from one block to the next. The Both groups lack aspirations, curiosity, frivolity, silly risk taking, and simple joy. God help us this is what happens when the piggies are weighed on a scale of numbers. Whatever do they have to look forward to if its just ledger sheets?

  15. Thank you. So many students and their parents desperately need to hear this.

    God bless.

  16. Some are fortunate; other's night mares can frighten them enough to deter this for themselves. Ah! There are those who are not able to understand Fully this will really happen in their lives. With this InAbility to grasp the truth for themselves, vision is clouded IF there is any vision and they Dive into what appears the only solution

  17. I agree completely with your points. Here's one ray of hope: the Next Generation Science Standards have a "Science and Engineering Practices" strand, so interwoven in most science class lessons will hopefully be engineering processes that by their nature teach resilience in the face of initial, supposed failure. Kids learn through engineering that first attempts often do not work as expected, and that they have the inner resources to deal with it. Great life lesson!

  18. I think this fear of One Wrong Move is contagious. Obama and Arne Duncan suffer from this disease and have enshrined it in our national educational policy. They got it from their friends.

    One of my siblings, who lives in a wealthy town, has had a nearly fatal case since her children were first born. When her first child was about to enter ninth grade, she called me (a teacher) to inquire what AP classes my niece should be enrolled in. I laughed out loud, and told her none, on the basis that a 14 year old couldn't possibly be "advanced" is any college-y way. But all her social group were passing along the absurd notion that the children would never get into a good school otherwise. When the same young woman began college, my sister actually called the registrar to protest that a required class was on the schedule with a meeting time of 6:00 PM. She felt her daughter needed to rest at that time, after her afternoon field hockey practice (she had an athletic scholarship)!

    It's nuts.