Teen birth rate hits new low

The teen birth rate has declined by 61 percent since its peak in 1991, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Between 2006 and 2014, the teen birth rate for Hispanics fell by 51 percent and for blacks by 44 percent, while the birth rate for white teens declined by 35 percent. Hispanic and black teens remain twice as likely to give birth.

Some think MTV's "16 and Pregnant" has discouraged teen pregnancy by showing its challenges.

Some think MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” has discouraged teen pregnancy by showing its challenges.

More teens “are taking advantage of innovations like long-acting injectable and implantable methods that can last years over a daily birth control pill,” writes Ariana Eunjung Cha in the Washington Post. And teens are “having less sex.”

For younger teens, there’s now peer pressure to be abstinent, says Veronica Gomez-Lobo, director of pediatric gynecology at Children’s National Medical Center.

Abortion rates have declined or stayed in the same in every state but Vermont, according to the Guttmacher Institute’s research, Cha adds.

One of the most interesting possibilities has been the popularity of MTV’s hit reality show “16 and Pregnant.” The struggles of the young moms in the show – who were often shown in tears—may have served as cautionary tales to millions of viewers their age. A study that came out in 2014 estimated that teen births dropped 6 percent in the 18 months following the show’s first broadcasts.

Others theorize that better sex education programs and the ability to research effective contraception online have contributed to the decline.

Good schools matter 

Families matter a great deal and schools very little when it comes to education, concluded the famous Coleman report, Equality of Educational Opportunity, 50 years ago. Coleman mixed up cause and correlation, writes Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby as part of Education Next‘s look back on the influential report.

Coleman “did not consider the possibility that advantaged children might have had high achievement precisely because their parents could choose good schools and ditch bad schools,” she writes.

Coleman believed teacher quality didn’t matter because measurable teacher characteristics, such as experience, education and vocabulary score, explained little of the variation in students’ achievement.

Parents always knew some teachers were better than others, writes Hoxby. These days, “numerous rigorous analyses of value-added demonstrate that teachers matter a great deal.”

Coleman failed to see that “good” families might be those who could discern which teachers were effective and get their children into those teachers’ classes. Thus, part of the apparent family effect was really a choose-effective-teachers effect.

(Before my daughter started kindergarten, I visited the two teachers’ classrooms and requested the one I liked the most. In later years, I networked with other parents to determine which teachers had the best reputations.)
Looking back, it is obvious that this early and voluntary desegregation was dominated by selection, that is, families’ own choices.Coleman also concluded that minority children achieved more when they had white classmates, Hoxby writes. But his study didn’t look at students randomly assigned to an integrated or all-black classroom. The data, from an era before desegregation orders, reflected “the sort of black families who were motivated and able to live in integrated neighborhoods.”

Hoxby attended voluntarily integrated schools in Shaker Heights, Ohio.  “Often, the blacks were professionals who already spent most of their working lives among whites, had white friends, and participated in mixed-race church and social groups. ”

Her research has found that “when students are randomly assigned to schools, it is the achievement and not the race of their peers that matters.”

Modern family

Will Saletan (@saletan) tweets: “My son was marked down 5 percent on a high school health test because he chose this ‘incorrect’ definition of family.”

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An alternative to the parent-teacher stampede

The New York Times has an article about the rush and frenzy of parent-teacher conferences. At Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, the yellow tape in the lobby was cut at exactly 1 p.m.; parents made a dash for the stairs in order to reach their appointment locations. (Apparently they made appointments in advance but had to traverse considerable distances from one appointment to the next.) The conferences themselves were no more than five minutes long. Other schools enforced a limit of three minutes per conference.

Are these rushed official parent-teacher conferences needed? Or rather, are they what’s needed?

At the elementary school level, the conferences are often less hectic, because students might have the same classroom teacher for English, math, and even social studies. Except for the “cluster” teachers, most teachers have a small or moderate student load. In high school, each teacher may have 170 students or more. In a school with high parent involvement, it’s difficult to fit all conferences in, so the strict time limits (often enforced by student patrols) become the norm.

I propose a different system.

Consider that some parents come with specific questions and concerns, while others (often the majority) wish to greet the teachers, meet them for the first time, or exchange a few informal words in person.

One parent-teacher night per semester could take the form of a reception. Teachers would greet parents, give a short presentation with Q & A, and talk informally (without privacy).

Then there would be other established times over the course of the year (within or close to the edges of the school day) when parents could come in to speak with teachers one on one. These would be announced at the start of the school year so that everyone could plan.

Some might worry that the individual conferences would add to teachers’ already overloaded schedules. To the contrary: they could end up relieving teachers somewhat. Under the current system, parents and teachers must make any individual appointments at their mutual convenience; there are no prearranged slots for this. Sometimes the appointment takes place before 8 a.m., or between two classes, or during lunch. Sometimes the very scheduling takes more time than the appointment itself (lots of back-and-forth negotiation, cancellation, rescheduling, etc.). If there were a few prearranged appointment times, then parents and teachers would not have to worry about scheduling them; they’d just show up.

Of course, there would still be a need for some spontaneous and emergency meetings. But the non-emergency meetings (which are just as important) would have an allocated time. There would be room to discuss how to help students in need of greater challenge, or students with specific needs. Students could take part in and even initiate the conferences.

Also, such meetings wouldn’t necessarily revolve around report cards. Students, parents, and teachers could look over tests, essays, homework, projects, lessons, and more. They could discuss the concepts of the lessons as well as the students’ performance.

In short, you could meet students’ needs without the stampedes.

Hollywood can save our families — but won’t


MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” has increased searches for contraceptives and reduced teen births by 5.7 percent, a study concludes. 

Hollywood could “save our families” by changing story lines to promote stable, two-parent families, writes Megan McArdle on Bloomberg View. But don’t hold your breath.

Raising children the way an increasing percentages of Americans are — in loosely attached cohabitation arrangements that break up all too frequently, followed by the formation of new households with new children by different parents — is an enormous financial and emotional drain. Supporting two households rather than one is expensive, and it diverts money that could otherwise be invested in the kids. The parent in the home has no one to help shoulder the load of caring for kids, meaning less investment of time and more emotional strain on the custodial parent.

Extended families can help, but single parents have fewer relatives to call on, especially if the mother was raised by a single  mother, she notes. Government can’t make up for a missing parent. “Even in a social democratic paradise such as Sweden, kids raised in single-parent households do worse than kids raised with both their parents in the home,” writes McArdle.

The distance that matters in this case is not the much-discussed distance between the 1 percent and everyone else. Instead, it is the distance between the top 25 percent and the bottom 25 percent — between the people who still mostly live by the old injunctions to get married and stay married if you want to have kids, often while politely declaring that this doesn’t actually matter, and the people who are actually having their children in much more fragile and temporary relationships.

If Hollywood “believed that married two-parent families were overwhelmingly optimal, that would naturally shape what they wrote, in a way that would in turn probably shape what Americans believe, and do,” she concludes.

How schools can close marriage gap

Schools can promote marriage and upward mobility by preparing disadvantaged students for college or careers, writes Mike Petrilli. High-quality career and technical education (CTE) is a “solid pathway to postsecondary education and remunerative and satisfying work.”

“Middle-skill jobs” that require a vocational certificate or two-year degree pay well in fields such as health care and information technology, Petrilli writes. While European countries prepare 40 to 70 percent of young people for technical jobs, “we remain obsessed with the four-year college degree” in the U.S. Fewer high school students are concentrating in career and technical education here than 20 years ago.

A student at Oklahoma’s Ardmore High School, works on an assignment for his Biotechnical program, which is designed to lead to careers in fields like chemistry and microbiology. (Photo by Tom Fields/Oklahoma

A student at Oklahoma’s Ardmore High School, works on an assignment for his Biotechnical program. (Photo by Tom Fields/Oklahoma

“Career academies” — typically small vocational programs within large high schools — combine academic and technical training. A randomized MDRC study found career-academy graduates earned more, worked more and were more strongly attached to the labor market, compared to a control group, writes Petrilli.  The effect was strongest for black and Latino males.

Even more striking is that, years after high school, career-academy graduates were more likely to be married and living with their spouse than their peers in a control group.

It’s not clear whether they “developed skills that helped them form more stable relationships or became more ‘marriageable’ because of their stronger career prospects,” writes Petrilli.

Who’s responsible for poor kids?

Matilde Ascencio holds her 18-month-old daughter Vitzal as she waits in line to receive food aid in a Chicago suburb. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The U.S. is not the land of opportunity for the children of poorly educated parents, writes social scientist Robert Putnam in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

When Putnam finished high school in 1959 in a small Ohio town, factory jobs provided steady paychecks for classmates who didn’t go to college. Now there are few steady jobs for workers with only a high school diploma.

“There’s such instability in the families of poor kids that 60 to 70 percent of them — of all races — are living in single-parent families,” Putnam told NPR’s Scott Simon. In the wealthiest fifth of families, only 6 percent of children are raised by a single parent.

If you have two educated parents, “you’ll have a larger vocabulary, you’ll know more about the world,” Putnam said, and such children will have “a lot of adults in their life that are reaching out to help them. They tell them about what it means to go to college.”

Not-very-educated single parents, short on time and money, are less likely to take their kids to soccer practice, dance class or church, Putnam found.

Sympathy for poor children isn’t enough, writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. We need to reintroduce social norms, such as what it means to be a good father.

These norms “were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another,” he writes. We don’t want to hold people responsible for their choices.

People born into the most chaotic situations can still be asked the same questions: Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?

Privileged people could do better too, Brooks concludes, though he’s not clear on how.

Liberals made a “historic mistake” 50 years ago when they rejected the Moynihan report’s warning “that the rise of single-parent households would make poverty more intractable,” writes Nicholas Kristof, also in the New York Times.

“From the wild Irish slums of the 19th-century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history,” wrote Moynihan. “A community that allows large numbers of young men to grow up in broken families … never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future — that community asks for and gets chaos.”

1-parent families hurt kids, but what can we do?

The sharp rise in single-parent families is linked to a widening education gap, write researchers in Education Next.

Fifty-five percent of black children and 22 percent of whites live in single-parent families.

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What can be done? “Encourage young adults to think more about whether, when, and with whom to have children,” writes Isabel Sawhill, author of Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage, in Purposeful Parenthood.

Strengthening education and job training so more young men are “marriageable” is important, Sawhill writes. So is persuading young people to plan their futures. “Where long-acting reversible contraceptives (or LARCs) have been made more affordable, and women have been educated about their safety and effectiveness, usage has climbed dramatically and unintended pregnancy rates have fallen sharply,” she writes.

Illustration by Bernard Maisner

Illustration by Bernard Maisner

Sawhill and Brookings’ colleague Ron Haskins have identified the “success sequence” for young people: Earn a high school diploma (or more), work full time and wait till you’re at least 21 and married before having a child. Ninety-eight percent of people who do this will live above the poverty line and almost three-quarters will reach the middle class. Three-quarters of those who miss all three success markers will be poor; almost none will be middle class.

Schools can discourage unwed, unplanned parenthood by providing career training and helping young people develop character traits such as drive and prudence, writes Fordham’s Michael Petrilli in How Can Schools Address America’s Marriage Crisis?

Young men who’d enrolled in “career academies” in high school earned more, worked more and were 33 percent more likely to be married as young adults, notes Petrilli, citing a controlled MDRC study. The effect was especially strong for minority males.

What killed Kevin Green?

Racial injustice?

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof sees “racial injustice” in the harsh sentence given to a 13-year-old black boy who shot a white woman in the face as part of a gang initiation and robbery.

Ian Manuel

Ian Manuel

Twenty-four years later, after years of painful surgeries to rebuild her mouth, the victim is advocating for her attacker’s release.

A white 13-year-old probably wouldn’t have been given such a long sentence, Kristof believes.

Would a white 13-year-old be seen as troubled, a candidate for rehabilitation, rather than dangerous? Maybe. I think many people would care about the crime rather than the skin color.

Ian Manuel was raised — badly — by a single mother addicted to drugs. Arrested 16 times, “he desperately needed help, but instead the authorities kept returning him to a dysfunctional home,” writes Kristof.

“We as a society failed Manuel early on, and he, in turn, failed us,” argues Kristof. “When you can predict that an infant boy of color in a particular ZIP code is more likely to go to prison than to college, it’s our fault more than his.”

Most black boys born in bad neighborhoods don’t commit brutal, senseless crimes. And most kids removed from their dysfunctional homes — typically placed with relatives or in foster care — do very, very poorly as adults. “Society” doesn’t know how to save boys like Manuel.