You can read my reply online to Helaine Olen’s review of Madeline Levine’s new book, “Teach Your Children Well.”
“Teach Your Children Well” is in many ways an extension of the work and insights Levine shared with us in “The Price of Privilege.” She has sometimes been criticized for blaming parents or putting too much responsibility on them to solve the problems highlighted by the kids in her practice and I wonder if this volume will do much to lessen that criticism.
If you don’t want to read the whole diatribe here, you might want to take a look at my recent work, The Approximate Parent: Discovering the Strategies That Work with Your Teenager (Fine Optics Press, 2012). Here’s the spoiler: Dr. Levine’s work profiling the independent school world doesn’t make her work less applicable. The private school world (complexly) illustrates an intensification of the pressures that all American students are facing; it’s not that it solely reflects the problems of a privileged class of students and families, struggling with the ironic consequences of their own “successes.”
Race to Nowhere, Price of Privilege and Madeline’s latest work do all cover the same (stomping) grounds in Marin. Dr. Levine’s message is one for which I have a lot of sympathy. I consult with some of the same schools attended by the teens and families she’s addressing in Teach Your Children Well. But her earlier work (and this one, no doubt) will be criticized for not using a large enough sample from which to draw her conclusions. The rareified air of the private/independent school world is indeed a pressure cooker, regardless of geographic location in the United States. But I’m concerned that Madeline’s latest work will revive the same charge that the “faux crisis” of style over substance—“doing” school, rather than learning in school (a la Denise Pope)—must be solely about the independent (private) school world of privileged spoiled white children in America.
Maybe it’s the “rich kids” in private schools that are having more intense identity problems—feeling empty or not knowing quite what they love (and not having the time to find out), or having a hard time really committing to something outside themselves that isn’t for the purpose of a résumé. Maybe it’s the more privileged kids from affluent families that Levine profiles in both of her books that truly are having higher (skyrocketing) rates of depression and anxiety disorders and “crashing” during their first year away at college, unable to negotiate pressures and tasks that require the kind of autonomy they are often prevented (or stifled) from developing by being overindulged—getting so much, so easily, so soon.
Most of the studies on the state of education in America demonstrate, though, that that teens from affluent households just have different debilitating stresses and impediments to learning than their counterparts from less affluent families. But I assume most parents want to protect a child’s wish and will to learn, whether the family has enough money to live on or more money than they know what to do with. The issue at stake, though, is to figure out what your teenager’s barriers to learning are, so that you’re in a better position to choose the strategies that positively foster his or her development. Levine’s work will primarily help parents in similar sociopolitical locations understand more how to respond to the challenges raised by narrow notions of success in America. But that isn’t where we should drop consideration of her message(s).
The private school world serves only 10 percent of the nation’s students, and clearly has some privilege and advantage over the public school world that most American students attend. But it’s important to note that when considering achievement levels, there were no academic subjects reviewed in which even private school students rated much higher than 50 percent proficiency. Only half of American private school students rate near the “proficient” (or above) level of achievement and only 30 percent of public school students rate “proficient” (or above). Here’s what you are more likely to get, though, if you’re in the 90 percent of American children who attend a public school:
1) Double the risk of being victimized at or on the way to or from school;
2) Five times the risk of being threatened with harm at or on the way to or from school;
3) Double the risk of being a target of hate speech at or on the way to or from school;
4) Six times the risk of encountering a gang at or on the way to or from school;
5) Four times the risk of having to avoid certain places at school, for safety reasons.
According to the latest U.S. Census figures, compiled in 2010, of the roughly 16.6 million high school students, two public school students drop out of school every minute. If your child drops out of school, he or she is eight times more likely to end up in prison, half as likely to vote, and is unqualified for most jobs. Almost 70 percent of 8th graders can’t read at grade level, and 1 in 6 students is coming from a school district in a “high poverty” area. If your child is coming from this kind of school, he or she is almost 25 percent less likely to go to college, which means only earning 40 cents for each dollar earned by a college graduate. Most of the data suggest that there are, in fact, jobs available in America, despite the Great Recession.
However, there are millions of jobs available for which recent college graduates are not qualified. Current unemployment rates are almost four times higher for high school dropouts and two times higher for those who didn’t graduate from college. In terms of academic achievement, eight years after the ink dried on the No Child Left Behind Act, the United States ranked as the 25th country in math, 21st in science, and 17th in the world in reading.
The point here is that both the private and public school worlds are filled with children and teens struggling with the choices we’re making (or not making) as a nation. Levine’s new work is an important one. But if the takeaway message is that her sample is too small or not generalizable, its an inaccurate or misguided criticism. If the takeaway message is that its all on parents to solve this problem, that, too, would be inaccurate and misguided. Like most ineffective debates on education in America, solutions do not have to come from one or another place; they can and must come from everywhere. Levine argues that parents are often faster to implement solutions than larger entities like local, state or federal governments. That may be true, but parental actions aren’t occurring in a vacuum. Family and local-level action will eventually come up against public institutions and policies that may limit, oppose or enhance their efforts. It’s not and cannot be all on our parents to change the situation, because this is politically naive and usually only leads to parents feeling more burdened, overwhelmed and guilty than they already feel when confronted with the enormous difficulties of raising children. The personal difficulties Levine has raised in her two books are always political. And they’re not just about the 1%. Our children are the proverbial canaries in the coalmine. When some of our kids are hurting, we should want to pay attention to all of our kids…and ourselves.
Michael Y. Simon, LMFT
Psychotherapist and author of The Approximate Parent: Discovering the Strategies That Work with Your Teenager