Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Working Moms Ruined Education (Or Not)

During an education forum today, the governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant, blamed the "mediocrity" of American education on working moms. He said:
"I think both parents started working. The mom got in the work place."
Right. Working mothers. That's the cause of every problem, after all.

Bryant, seeing as how he's the governor of a state and all, surely has access to Google, so I wonder how he can make such a bold claim without doing an iota of even basic research. Here's what I was able to find out in just a few minutes (though the time I spent doing it was time taken away from being a constant presence in my daughter's life, so I probably ruined her forever. The horror.)

It's probably pretty obvious that I disagree with Phil Bryant, but what may not be obvious is just how vehemently I disagree with him on so many levels. Let's break them down

Everyone Has Complained About American Education . . . Always

The apparent "mediocrity" of American education is as much a part of American education as, well, education. As regular readers will know, I'm currently studying for my PhD exam, and that requires reading a lot of history of the teaching of writing. In so many of these texts--from Aristotle to Kitzhaber to Berlin--the lament of "kids today" is present and a driving force for "reform." It doesn't take long to realize that we have always complained about the generation coming up after us. We have always seen them as doomed to failure. We have always seen them as less capable than our own generation. 

In Rhetoric and Reality, James Berlin explains that colleges have been trying to say that high schools aren't preparing students well enough for decades and decades. In fact, using their measures, high schools have never prepared students well enough, if "well enough" means that they don't need any writing instruction once they enter college. This has never been the case. Ever. 

It is easy to blame education for all kinds of failures. This is not to say that there aren't problems in the current educational system (more on that in a minute) or that we shouldn't constantly try to make it better (more on that in a minute, too), but I think that any discussion of the "mediocrity" of American education is placed into the proper context. In this case, that means understanding that we have always considered it mediocre. There are no "good ole days." There are only romanticized misrememberings of times that never existed. 

Phil Bryant Is Statistically Wrong

First, let's take a look at when these horrendous, society-destroying "working mothers" became such a problem. I mean, obviously, making up 40% of breadwinners is a recent thing, but we can reasonably start blaming them for problems way before that. Generally, the 1950s are considered the height of the "ideal" housewife phase in American history, and it's all gone to hell since then (I'm paraphrasing, but this is pretty close to the arguments I've been hearing lately).

The truth is, though, that educational attainment has grown significantly since this "golden era."

In 1947, back when gender roles were working so well, only 33.1% of adults 25+ had four years of high school under their belt. By 1957, that number had risen to 41.6%. It continued to rise steadily from that point forward (1965: 49.0%, 1979: 67.7%, 1989: 76.9%, 1999: 83.4%, 2009: 85.3%). (Here's a link to the data I used to make that chart.)

To put that in perspective, consider the rise in women in the workforce over this same time period. In 1950, only 29.6% of women were in the workforce. By 2000, that had risen to 46.6%.

The fact of the matter is that education hasn't gotten more "mediocre" over the last half century. It has, however, gotten more accessible, and that means that we aren't simply educating an elite minority.

Which brings me to . . .

Education Should be Equitable and Accessible

Berlin discusses in his book the tension between those who see education as an egalitarian endeavor and those who see it as training for the elite. Berlin maps this tension between Harvard and Yale. In the early 20th century, Harvard broke ground by moving away from the classical education curriculum (Latin, Greek, etc.) and to a more elective and science-based system. Soon after, they also instated an entrance exam. This put pressure on high schools to change their curriculum as well so that their students would be prepared to enter this elite school. 

Other schools soon followed suit, moving away from the traditional coursework and into offerings that were more specialized and based in a positivistic epistemology (focus on that which could be proven through data). 

Yale was a holdout. Yale was one of the last schools to give up those traditional course offerings and move to an elective system. The administrators there quite simply believed in a different purpose for education. They saw it as a place for the few, the elite, the "geniuses" in society. While they were specifically talking about the role of colleges, this mindset could just be rolled back over the years. At one point, high school was seen as a place for the elite. There was no need for many people to go to high school, as the careers they were planning didn't require it. As that changed, more and more people moved forward. It's been said many times that the Bachelor's degree has replaced the high school diploma as a minimum requirement, and that often has some dire economic consequences, but--at its heart--that fact means that our attainment of educational goals have gotten better, not worse. 

If you open up doors to people who have not had access to education before, then there are bound to be some people who see it as "worse" as test scores drop and more remediation is needed in the classroom, but opening up education to everyone is a good thing, not a bad thing. We could have really high test scores if we only let people who already had every privilege and educational advantage handed to them attend school, but what good would that do our society as a whole?

Speaking of test scores. . . .

Test Scores Aren't Everything

Many who lament the "mediocrity" of American education cite dismal worldwide test scores to back up their claim. 

I am not dismissing these measures entirely, and I do think that we can learn a lot from other countries' educational models that can be applied to our own. 

As many studies have begin to show, innovation is often stymied in environments that focus on memorization and correctness. In other words, systems that produce great test scores don't always produce great thinking. China is facing this problem right now

A pedagogical approach that takes into account innovation, creativity, and multiple learning styles is often difficult to measure in hard data. 

That's not to say that there aren't problems in America's schools . . . 

Problems, Problems, Problems

I've just spent quite some time defending the American education system, and I do so sincerely. I am a product of public schools, and I believe wholeheartedly in public education. 

That said, I am also the mother of a little girl living in an unaccredited public school district. I also work in a community college teaching developmental education to students who are often coming out of high school unprepared for college. I know all too well the struggles that many (especially urban and rural) public schools are facing. 

There are real conversations that we need to have about educational access and achievement (especially along racial lines, which that Census data I waded through shows has always been an abysmal gap that we have still failed to close). 

What we don't need to talk about, though, is blaming these problems on working women, as it's quite clear that's not the problem. 


  1. Amanda Roberts-AndersonJune 4, 2013 at 9:10 PM

    "I've just spent quite some time defending the American education system, and I do so sincerely. I am a product of public schools, and I believe wholeheartedly in public education. "
    I'm glad to see an American defending American schools. Too often I see Americans completely bashing and wanting to overhaul the American school system based on worldwide test scores. After living in China and spending time in Chinese schools I can tell you that the Chinese system is one of the most broken, unfair, and grueling education systems in the world that actually fails to produce thinking, reasoning, functional adults. Many Americans and Brits who have children over here return to their home countries because the Chinese system is just so bad. It worries me to see more and more schools turning to a test-based system and becoming more Chinese. I'm not saying the American school system is perfect; of course it has areas it can improve. But using China as a model is the opposite direction it should be going.

  2. And the thing is, we KNOW what makes effective teaching. There is so much research that points to innovative classroom practices, individual attention, and creative methods of content delivery as the way to make creative, innovative, and informed thinkers. But those methods aren't easily put into little boxes and they're hard to regulate, so we keep trying to find some secret way to turn the hard work of complex, student-centered education into a straight-out-the-box, one-size-fits-all approach for simplicity's sake.

  3. AMEN! Thank you for a well researched and thought out look at the subject. We should be constantly striving for better, but that doesn't mean looking for someone to blame. Especially not the working moms like myself who help ensure our children have more opportunities than ever, despite not being the elite few who would have even a few decades ago. Kudos to the moms like mine, who kept striving to give their kids the college dream, the first generation to do so in our families.

  4. I'm a working mother of 2. My oldest just entered the public school arena this year for kindergarten. He excelled, and outperformed many kids of stay at home Moms. The thing is, both parents value his education. Both parents help him with homework. Both parents read with him. Both parents inject learning into everyday activities. Both parents encourage a natural love and talent for mathematics. Now that he's finishing this year and entering summer break we've put a lot of thought into how he can have fun this summer while not losing anything he's learned, and hopefully even going farther. We have workbooks we plan to do with him each day together. We got new fun books that teach site words when he doesn't know that's what he's doing, he thinks he's reading silly sentences. We have him help us figure out math problems that come up. We go to the museums, we watch educational programs. He has weekly trips to the library. He prefers factual based books to stories, though he enjoys those as well and often makes up his own. The trick will be improving his dismal handwriting, but we're still brainstorming. Preschool bro is also doing letter flashcard games, counting games, and educational activities. We count going up the stairs. We sing ABC's to time teeth brushing. They think we're just playing games, and enjoy it. No pushing, no worries for trying and not getting it perfect. No pressure. We try to show them learning is exciting.
    The point is they are not missing out on education because I work. We incorporate it into our every day lives every single day, as a family. Dad takes the responsibility seriously, it's not just on me. Dad ENJOYS teaching them. I believe there are things we can do as a nation to improve education. I believe there are more things we can do as a nation to foster a love of learning and a drive to excel. The tools are out there for people who are motivated. Stop blaming the evils on the world on me because I have to work.