We’re All Feeding at the Trough

In a week in which Peggy Noonan—Wall Street Journal columnist and former Reagan staffer—said that Mitt Romney looked like Nixon when grimacing under pressure, and high-profile conservatives bemoaned the dearth of details in a promised Romney/Ryan plan to eliminate tax loopholes, there wasn’t much room left for Romney to stumble. Then tiny liberal-leaning Mother Jones magazine posts  a secret video of a well-heeled fundraiser—in which Romney characterizes nearly half the voting public as deadbeats, freeloaders and mama’s boys—and Mitt is off-message once again.

It’s unclear if Romney truly believes GOP talking points about the growth of an entitlement society or if he’s mainly pandering to baser aspects of one wing of Republicanism. Rich Lowry—editor of the National Review—maintains that Romney sounds uncomfortable making these arguments: “[H]e sounds like the English-speaking German in a World War II movie who’s infiltrated American lines and is asked who won the World Series.” His responses aren’t natural or convincing. But like running mate Paul Ryan’s gross exaggeration of his marathon time, they do reveal something about character and world view. Noonan accused Romney of sounding like a shallow campaign operative and not like a sophisticated man seeking to lead a nation: “We are a big, complicated nation. And we are human beings…We are complex. We are not data points.” Both Noonan and Lowry—desperate to have a real national conversation about the entitlement society—each fear that Romney and his camp can’t deliver. And the rest of us watch with disgust as a bloc of very rich, out-of-touch Republicans transform the GOP into something that looks more like the Dixiecrats than the party of Lincoln.

His off-base and off-putting comments aside, there’s something else fundamentally wrong with Romney’s remarks about who gets government hand-outs. Like Shakespeare wrote in the 1590s, “…a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” What matters is what something is, not what it’s called. We are all on the dole.

A genuine discussion about American taxes and entitlement programs would be both illuminating and revealing. Although we are loath to admit it, one way or another, we all benefit from government programs or tax advantages.  It’s disingenuous to discuss entitlements—and take aim at the poor and the elderly—without admitting that the government hands over cash in the form of the bloated and unfair farm bill, college loans and grants, and huge ethanol subsidies. Fold in the Earned Income Tax Credit and home mortgage interest deductions, and the picture becomes clearer. As USA Today contributor, Kelly Phillips Erb, asserts, “subsidies come in many guises” and we don’t think of “our” tax breaks or special programs as hand-outs. Erb points out that the home mortgage deduction costs taxpayers four times as much as public housing assistance—and includes mortgage deductions on second homes and yachts. You can continue to take the mortgage deduction even if your income makes you subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax. Yet the home mortgage deduction doesn’t take a public drubbing. Similarly, the expanded first time homebuyer program didn’t come under attack, despite the $12.6 billion price tag. Clearly, in the entitlements game, what’s important is who’s getting the hand-out.

Now, there are entitlements and then there is Entitlement. A friend of mine—a wealth manager at a major multinational financial services firm—told me she thinks many of her clients believe that they “earned” their money from investments because they were willing to “take the risk” with their money. “What they don’t get,” she explained, “is that if they can afford to lose a million dollars or more on an investment, then it isn’t really a risk for them. They’ll still be able to house their family and feed their kids. Where’s the true risk in that?” In our wide-ranging conversation, she said that her clients play a game that most Americans don’t get to play: “There are all sorts of ways to legally shield their money, and there are investments they make that poorer investors get shut out of. The investment world is two-tiered.” She also told me, as she walked to her top-of-the-line Mercedes coupe, that she knew she wasn’t taxed enough.

Romney, like my friend’s clients, believes he made his money on a level playing field that did not involve entitlement. Although clearly a doer and a savvy investor, he is completely unaware of privileges received from his wealthy and politically connected father: “Everything I earned I earned the old-fashioned way.”  But put aside all the advantages he’s long-forgotten, including his elite prep school education and the fact that he had no college loans; let’s focus on today. If he popped his head up from the lobster salad at his tony fundraisers, he might be able to catch the news. Real wages, according to the Economic Policy Institute, have been stagnant for a decade. And ABC News reports that Americans work longer hours, take fewer vacation days and retire later than workers in the rest of the developed world. The jobless recovery means that most Americans are working harder, but it isn’t doing them much good. And by comparison, Romney’s measly 14% tax rate isn’t hitting him where it counts.

Not all the poor are noble, nor all the rich wicked, and the entitlement discussion should not be off-limits in this election. But  it should be both honest in tone and sweeping in scope, and it must do more than re-hash hackneyed notions about the poor taking “our hard-earned” money.

Now pass me some of that lobster salad.

Boy troubles, Part II: Solutions?

Once, during a prep period, I visited a 7th grade language arts class and eavesdropped on a conversation about the pros and cons of single-sex education.  As it turned out, both boys and girls adamantly opposed it. The boys didn’t think they could survive in school without the girls. They believed girls were naturally smarter; they needed the girls’ academic assistance and nurturing to help them behave. The girls said it was their job to “look after” the boys and help them succeed. The boys needed them. This was not just one nutty conversation in an unusual class; I’ve heard similar comments from my middle school students over the years. As a parent of both a boy and a girl, this alarms me.

This untenable situation—boys not succeeding in school and feeling stupid as a result—is dreadful for boys and girls, and it begins early in their academic lives.  As Peg Tyre writes in The Trouble with Boys, “For many boys, the trouble starts as young as 5, when they bring to kindergarten a set of physical and mental abilities very different from girls.” She notes that parents of preschoolers often observe that girls tend to have neater handwriting, are apt to be more language fluent than boys, and sight-read more words. Although preschool boys have a tendency towards better hand-eye coordination, they do not have accompanying fine motor skills, and they often find it physically more difficult to use a pencil. On average, it is simply who boys are at this tender age, but as Raising Cain coauthor Michael Thompson has said, “Girl behavior becomes the gold standard. Boys are treated like defective girls.”

For many teachers, including me, this has been our fallback position despite the best of intentions. We want boys to succeed. Mimicking their studious, quiet and attentive female peers seems a proven path to achievement.

A major step towards solving our boy troubles would be for parents, caregivers, and educators to acknowledge that boys are not somehow deficient and immature. I cringe when I considered how often in my career I’ve heard—or have uttered, “Boys just mature later than girls—that’s why they struggle in school.” We could turn this thinking on its head: “Girls’ brains just mature unnaturally early—that’s why they don’t use their bodies as much.” It sounds absurd, right? And yet it highlights deeply ingrained thinking about our children and how they perform in school.

We also need education officials to admit there’s a problem. Teachers often feel alone in battling the gender gap because—well—they are. The United States is not the only western nation struggling with this serious issue, but it stands alone in its unwillingness to admit there’s a problem. As Richard Whitmire—author of Why Boys Fail—explains, unlike Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, “the U.S. Department of Education has yet to launch a single probe into the problem.” Teachers—who have tried to close the gender gap through their own innovation and ingenuity—are working in the dark. There is no comprehensive plan to guide them, and American teachers don’t have the government-sponsored research that other nations employ.

One thing the Aussies, Brits, Canucks and Kiwis have all concluded, according to Whitmire, is that “the world has become more verbal, and boys haven’t.” On average they lack the necessary literacy skills to thrive in the Information Age. We must engage boys as successful readers and writers in elementary school, but pushing them to read on the girls’ schedule may not be the solution. Instead, re-thinking the classroom environment could help.

Teachers and librarians have made huge strides towards ensuring that all students see reading material that reflects their interests and sensibilities. This unconsciously signals to all children that they should feel at home in school. Parents must work with teachers to reinforce their child’s reading interests at home. This partnership is critical. But beyond reading material, there are ways in which we can make our schools and classrooms incubators of success for all our students—regardless of gender.

Breaking up the curriculum into smaller, more manageable chunks seems to help boys stay organized. Shorter, fast-paced lessons and hands-on, project-based activities play to boys’ strengths and tend to include more movement and less sitting. Teachers also report improvement in boys’ behavior and performance when they make their classrooms “sitting-optional”; students may choose to stand at their desks. Judicious recess breaks throughout the day also help all high-energy students to re-charge and re-focus. Thankfully, the Vermont departments of Education and Health advocate against removing a student’s recess as a discipline technique.

The elephant in the room, of course, is single-sex lessons or classes. Some teachers who divide their classes by gender for some lessons or subjects see noticeable improvements in the boys’ performance—and no diminishment in the girls’ achievement. Until there’s guidance from the top, teachers will continue cobbling together their own New Deal, and like Roosevelt’s plan to tackle the Great Depression, some initiatives will work and others will fail. But teachers and administrators need support and encouragement from their communities to try new approaches.

The other day, between bouncing off the wall and driving me up one, my son suddenly stopped to discuss the spatial layout of our house: “Mama! This upstairs hallway is actually over the dining room. Isn’t that neat?!” I nearly burst into tears from my love for him. We need to be with our children in their moments of revelation, and we must make school a place where all students revel in discovery.


Boy troubles

Over the past 4 years I’ve become accustomed to the taste of crow. Parenting does that to a gal.  A long-ago undergrad course—the Psychology of Women and Girls—comes back to haunt me like Marley’s Ghost. The professor asserted that boys were, in fact, biologically, developmentally, and psychologically different from girls. The class—mostly childless 20-somethings—vehemently disagreed. Admitting there were significant differences between the sexes felt akin to accepting sexism as unalterable. We’d read Carol Gilligan’s groundbreaking In a Different Voice and passionately believed that gender differences were primarily the result of socialization and environmental factors. We were certain education and intentional socialization could erase the differences and the resulting gender bias. Now I have a 4 ½-year-old son, and each day I experience just what that professor contended all those years ago: Boys and girls are different and they sometimes need different things in order to be successful. Why is this so controversial?

By just about every measure, boys are falling significantly behind girls in educational success. Both Michael Gurian’s The Minds of Boys and Richard Whitmire’s Why Boys Fail recount the grim news. Boys are much more likely to be tagged as learning disabled, diagnosed with ADHD, and placed in special education. They are disciplined at staggering rates. Nationwide, regardless of demographic factors, they significantly lag behind girls in the grades they earn, the awards they receive, their scores on achievement tests, and their high school and college graduation rates. This all translates into what Whitmire calls their “flagging ambitions”: Women greatly outnumber men in college and graduate programs. A long-time educator confided in me recently, “The whole educational system feels rigged against boys right now. They don’t have a chance.” This is a remarkable shift since the mid-1990s when David and Myra Sadker’s Failing at Fairness warned that girls were misunderstood and neglected in schools. Societal sexism certainly persists, and yet many more girls than boys successfully navigate our education system. It is time to candidly admit we have boy troubles.

There’s a dizzying collection of explanations for why boys are lagging behind. Some advocates claim video games and more “screen” time are to blame. Others point to male hip hop culture and its purported denigration of education. Predictably, feminists are blamed—again—for their vociferous advocacy of parity of opportunity for girls and boys. The sheer number of women elementary school teachers has also been identified as detrimental to boys in need of male role models.  Although this problem surely has multiple sources, some explanations are more convincing than others.

Schools have changed over the last decade. In my column I’ve written about the dramatic makeover of kindergarten. Under pressure from both No Child Left Behind and parents who want easily measured achievement, classrooms have shifted away from doing, playing, and moving. Students sit a lot more; this is coupled with dramatic reductions in elementary school recess. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the average American elementary student enjoys just 26 minutes of daily recess–including lunchtime. A friend with three young daughters once remarked after a few hours with my son, “Wow! He is in constant motion. My girls have adventures, but they’re all from the neck up.” We often insist that boys stay still and quiet when their brain chemistry does not allow them to do that. As Peg Tyre—author of The Trouble with Boys—explains, “Sometime in the first trimester, a boy fetus begins producing male sex hormones that bathe his brain in testosterone for the rest of his gestation.” That exposure to testosterone wires the male brain differently and affects its development. New studies show that male brain chemistry causes boys to play and learn differently than girls. Although it’s true that sitting and attending for long stretches of time is not great for girls either, many more are able to do it and even thrive in this learning environment.

In addition to fewer opportunities for students to move their bodies, No Child Left Behind has changed the educational climate in schools. The push for more standardized testing in literacy and math in the name of “accountability” has resulted in many boys being pushed to learn to read before their brains are developmentally ready.  Language-dense math programs—and the shift away from rich but time-consuming hands-on activities—also put boys at a clear disadvantage. According to Tyre, “These new pressures are undermining the strengths and underscoring the limitations of what psychologists call the ‘boy brain’—the kinetic, disorganized, maddening and sometimes brilliant behaviors that scientists now believe are not learned but hard-wired.”

When I examine my own teaching, I wish I’d done some things differently for my male and high-energy female students. Although former colleagues can attest to the raucousness in my classroom and my quest to employ Howard Gardner’s ideas about multiple intelligences, I didn’t see a crucial underlying subtext in our society, and by extension, in our schools. Boys are often treated as a force to be controlled—not a welcome dynamism to be celebrated. Let’s face it: It is incredibly difficult to effectively shepherd and educate a room full of turbo-charged children. (I can barely manage my own two Huns.) And it can feel impossible to balance the different needs of young boys and girls when there are so many other demands placed on teachers. But we’ve got to figure it out. A generation of young men needs us to.



Tough Mudder for Tough Mothers

Our vacation could have started better. After hours of our toddler daughter vomiting in the airport hotel, a deafening siren sounded at 2 a.m. It continued to blare, interspersed with: “We have a reported  emergency. Please stand by for further instructions.” No further instructions ever came, and my four-year-old son asked a remarkably astute question: “If it’s an emergency, why aren’t we leaving?” We imagined every terrifying scenario—while our daughter continued to vomit. Around 3 a.m., the alarm ceased, and we heard: “This was a system malfunction. We apologize for any inconvenience.” This beginning was a harbinger of things to come, and we soon realized we’d gone about our trip preparation all wrong. Traveling cross-country with two small children—through four airports and on three flights, lasting twelve hours in one direction and twenty-six in the other—is decidedly not a vacation. It is more akin to running a Tough Mudder, without the glory.

Started by former British counter-terrorism agent Will Dean, Tough Mudders grew out of his “frustration with unimaginative and repetitive marathons, triathlons, mud runs, and other adventure runs,” according to the Tough Mudder website. These 10-12 mile events—designed to be mentally, physically and emotionally challenging—include such savory obstacles as fire walking, swimming in near freezing water, and sprinting through a field of live wires. As a distance runner myself, I take issue with Dean’s outright evasion of the challenge of a monotonous marathon. It is a bit of a wimp out, frankly, that Mudder runners don’t have to deal with the tedium of mile after relentless mile—all the while knowing you’re not actually going to win the race.

Like preparing for a Tough Mudder, I must mentally prepare myself to fly. I used to refer to myself as a “white knuckle flyer” because of my acute fear, but I’m really a “bare knuckle flyer”; I beat my fear into submission in order to get on a plane. My fear is not unfounded. My maternal grandfather, John J. Couchman, a talented gauge inspector at the Watervliet Arsenal near Albany, NY was killed in a plane crash in March of 1972—only a few miles from his home. Oft-repeated statistics (about how it is much safer to fly than to drive) simply don’t help soothe my flying anxiety. His early death moved plane crashes from merely theoretical to horrifyingly real, so logic just doesn’t help get me on the jet. Instead, I gear up and prepare for battle. My poor spouse endures my plane crash nightmares in the weeks leading up to any trip; once we’re on board she must bear with my disquiet over every patch of turbulence or unexpected “ping” or “knock”. On this particular trip, my daughter’s pre-flight sickness and the freaky emergency alarm did not aid my poor nerves. I wasn’t adequately prepared to test my strength, stamina and mental grit.

My second mistake was in thinking that flying is still the glamorous and thrilling activity it used to be, in say 1950 when only 17 million travelers passed through American airports. Many of today’s 650 million passengers (who shuffle along wearing flip-flops and clothes that look suspiciously like their pajamas) are inevitably in my way on the moving walkways while I sprint—with kids in tow—to make an insanely tight connection to a horrifying small prop plane on the opposite end of the concourse. As a runner, I knew I could sprint to make connections. But I didn’t factor in that my dashing and weaving—around stationary travelers on moving walkways—would necessarily involve hauling all the parenthood accoutrement. (My sincerest apologies to that poor guy in Denver who I whacked with a diaper-stuffed totebag.)

Although a Tough Mudder’s challenges are daunting, they are entirely expected and anticipated. Not so the trials on our trip. I did not expect the broken plane, the missed connections or the extra night in Denver. Nor did I anticipate the excessive turbulence on the hopper from WY to CO—or my stomach’s  acute response to it. My lost purse, our missing baggage, the hour-long wait to re-book our flights and the airport shuttle that simply wouldn’t come were all additional, excruciating obstacles. But I also did not expect the revitalizing camaraderie I discovered along the way.

Here we are, a nation divided. Political parties and super PACS spend gobs of cash convincing us to hate one another. And yet.  A stranger saw my anguish over my lost purse and ran alongside me through the Denver Airport to help me find the plane that was about to leave with my bag still on it. And yet. A gate agent marched out onto the tarmac and literally knocked on airplane doors to retrieve my purse. And yet. A minimum wage food service worker—without being asked—calculated the optimal use of my food vouchers to make sure I’d have enough food for my kids in case we got stranded again.

Our family’s Mudder did everything the real events promise. We tested our limits, and learned the strength of our team.  But more importantly than “unlocking a true sense of accomplishment” as advertised by Will Dean, I emerged from my trip with an unforeseen kinship with my fellow countrymen. This affinity is what will enable me to get on the plane again next time so my children can spend time with their grandparents. I know my own grandpa would have liked that.