Why Some Races Outperform Others
Laurence Steinberg is the Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at Temple University. An internationally renowned expert on psychological development during adolescence, he is the author of more than 250 articles and essays on growth and development during the teenage years, and the author or editor of eleven books, including Adolescence the leading college textbook on adolescent development. A graduate of Vassar College and Cornell University, he was named as the first recipient of the Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize in 2009, one of the largest prizes ever awarded to a social scientist, for his contributions to improving the lives of young people and their families.
Question: Can you explain your research into why students are becoming less engaged in academic pursuits?
Laurence Steinberg: And a couple things emerged from that study that I think are really important for understanding American education policy. The first is that a very significant proportion of kids tell us that they're just going through the motions when they're in school; I mean that they're not engaged, that they're not trying their hardest, that they're bored. And clearly we are not challenging kids in American schools as much as we should. And you see this if you do international comparisons. We didn't in this study, but if you look at how much time kids spend on homework, for example, the average in our study -- and this is a figure that you see in lots of different studies -- is about four to five hours a week for a typical high school student. In Japan it's four to five hours a day. And so you see the difference in magnitude of how hard we push kids here in America compared to other places.
The other thing that we found was that parents and peers have a huge impact on kids' engagement in school, independent of what's going on in the classroom. And so kids who are raised in households where their parents practice better parenting -- the kind of parenting that has been called authoritative parenting, where they're firm, but they're warm, and where their parents are involved in their schooling, where they go school conferences and so forth -- those kids do better in school. At the same time, it's not just the home, because we also found that there's significant peer pressure on kids that makes a difference, and unfortunately, more often than not it's peer pressure to do not as well as you might. So a very high proportion of kids told us that they refrained from raising their hand in class to answer a question because they're afraid that their peers will make fun of them. And so we need to do something to transform the culture that says it's okay to be smart. You can also be cool in other ways, but it's also okay to be smart.
Now, perhaps the most controversial finding that we came up with had to do with ethnic differences in achievement. Across all of the schools that we studied, Asian-American kids were doing significantly better than white kids, and white kids were doing significantly better than black and Latino kids. And that's controlling for family income, it's controlling for parental education, it's controlling for other factors that might be correlated with ethnicity and that might have played a role in this too. And when we look at why that is, we see several important things. The first is -- this is a great question that one of my collaborators said; we have to put this on a questionnaire -- and the question was, what's the lowest grade you could get without your parents getting angry, right? So the Asian kids, it's an A-minus, all right? For the white kids, you know, it's more like a B. And for the black and Latino kids, it's somewhere, you know, around a B-minus or C-plus. So clearly there are different expectations in these households.
The second thing is that when we ask kids about the importance of schooling, we see really different patterns in how kids from different ethnic groups answer the question. Asian kids tell us that they are sure that if they do poorly in school, something bad will happen to them. They won't get a good job in life, all right? Black and, to a certain extent, Latino kids don't have that belief. So every -- all ethnic groups share the belief that doing well in school has a payoff. It's how they think about doing poorly in school that makes a difference. And the Asian kids do well in part because they're really afraid of what the consequences of not doing well are. And I think that comes back to the standards that their parents have set for them at home.
Question: Is the idea that being smart can lead to success taking hold at all among the youth?
Laurence Steinberg: Well, I don't know about how it's changed attitudes. It certainly hasn't done anything to kids' achievement, which has stayed pretty flat. So if you look at these tests that are given by the federal government year after year after year, I mean there's a little bit of fluctuation from year to year; there's been a little improvement in, I think, eighth grade math, something like that. But across the board, I think anybody looking at the data objectively would say that none of the things that we've tried to do in the last 30 years has made a difference. Achievement is lower now than it was in the 1970s, and -- that's partly what prompted us to do the study. We spend all of this money on school reform, and we're constantly having debates about it: how we train teachers, what we pay teachers, how much money we give schools, whether we should have big schools or small schools. People try to do all these experiments where they change these things. And it doesn't make a difference. It really doesn't make a difference.
I'm not saying that teachers shouldn't be well paid; of course they should be well paid. But that alone is not going to raise achievement among American students. Do schools need resources? Of course they need resources. But lots of research shows that there is a very small relationship between the resources that a school gets and the output that it produces in kids. And I think -- and I think if you look at projects like the Harlem Children's Zone, where they have attacked this problem as a community problem and not as a problem that's just located in the classroom, and they're seeing terrific results there. So our point in this book is that you really need to think about the whole context in which kids grow up and not just what takes place inside the classroom.
Question: What particular efforts should be made to enhance the potential educational success of underprivileged kids?
Laurence Steinberg: Well, you know, the fact that underprivileged kids do so poorly in school is a huge, huge problem for society, with tremendous implications for our economic future. And the gap between the rich and poor has grown considerably, and that trickles down to achievement; it's not just in terms of family income. The way that we finance schools I think is misguided, and disadvantages kids from poor neighborhoods. So certainly unhinging school financing from property taxes, which would allow us to redistribute tax income in a way that would be more equitable, would certainly be something that's important. A second thing is this issue of standards. We just don't hold kids in poor neighborhoods to the same academic standards that we hold kids in wealthy neighborhoods to. And so when kids in poor neighborhoods get promoted from grade to grade, or graduate from school, it's often a sham. I mean, often their diplomas are meaningless. I mean, there are kids with high school diplomas in this country who can read no better than at a fifth-grade level. And so we have dismissed that population of young people as being not important enough to really care about. We also need to do a better job at engaging their families in their schooling. A lot of their parents, of course, had their own problems in school, and so they're more reluctant, they're more uncomfortable showing up in school because it was an uncomfortable place for them when they were kids. So we need to think of better ways of getting parents involved in their kids' educations.
Question: What steps should we take in education to equip our kids to better compete in the global economy?
Laurence Steinberg: Well, I think that we can make schools more challenging, for starters, so that kids are pushed harder and come out with better skills and more knowledge than they are right now. I'm somebody who favors national exams and having national standards. I believe -- I may be off by one country or so -- but I believe every industrialized country in the world except the United States has national standards for kids' achievement. So I think allowing education to be kind of a local issue is part of the problem because it allows districts to set their own standards. We've moved away from that a little bit, but there's been huge rebellion against that, and people have spoken out against performance-based evaluations of kids. I think it's a good thing to do. You know, the major objection to it is that it forces teachers to teach to the test, and that they're not doing things in the classroom that are creative or that promote critical thinking. Well, if that's the case, we need to design better tests. I mean, there's no problem with teaching to the test if the test is measuring something that you want kids to achieve. So I think there are a number of things that we could do to improve academic achievement among American kids.
A psychologist explains the latest research into education disparity.
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- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
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- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
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Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.
- An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
- Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
- Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
The plica semilunaris<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3NDg5NTg1NX0.kdBYMvaEzvCiJjcLEPgnjII_KVtT9RMEwJFuXB68D8Q/img.png?width=980" id="59914" width="429" height="350" data-rm-shortcode-id="b11e4be64c5e1f58bf4417d8548bedc7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The human eye in alarming detail. Image source: Henry Gray / Wikimedia commons<p>At the inner corner of our eyes, closest to the nasal ridge, is that little pink thing, which is probably what most of us call it, called the caruncula. Next to it is the plica semilunairs, and it's what's left of a third eyelid that used to — ready for this? — blink horizontally. It's supposed to have offered protection for our eyes, and some birds, reptiles, and fish have such a thing.</p>
Palmaris longus<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzQ1NjUwMn0.dVor41tO_NeLkGY9Tx46SwqhSVaA8HZQmQAp532xLxA/img.jpg?width=980" id="879be" width="1920" height="2560" data-rm-shortcode-id="4089a32ea9fbb1a0281db14332583ccd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmaris longus muscle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> We don't have much need these days, at least most of us, to navigate from tree branch to tree branch. Still, about 86 percent of us still have the wrist muscle that used to help us do it. To see if you have it, place the back of you hand on a flat surface and touch your thumb to your pinkie. If you have a muscle that becomes visible in your wrist, that's the palmaris longus. If you don't, consider yourself more evolved (just joking).</p>
Darwin's tubercle<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgxMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0ODUyNjA1MX0.8RuU-OSRf92wQpaPPJtvFreOVvicEwn39_jnbegiUOk/img.jpg?width=980" id="687a0" width="819" height="1072" data-rm-shortcode-id="ff5edf0a698e0681d11efde1d7872958" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Darwin's tubercle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> Yes, maybe the shell of you ear does feel like a dried apricot. Maybe not. But there's a ridge in that swirly structure that's a muscle which allowed us, at one point, to move our ears in the direction of interesting sounds. These days, we just turn our heads, but there it is.</p>
Goosebumps<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNzEyNTc2Nn0.aVMa5fsKgiabW5vkr7BOvm2pmNKbLJF_50bwvd4aRo4/img.jpg?width=980" id="d8420" width="1440" height="960" data-rm-shortcode-id="8827e55511c8c3aed8c36d21b6541dbd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Goosebumps. Photo credit: Tyler Olson via Shutterstock<p>It's not entirely clear what purpose made goosebumps worth retaining evolutionarily, but there are two circumstances in which they appear: fear and cold. For fear, they may have been a way of making body hair stand up so we'd appear larger to predators, much the way a cat's tail puffs up — numerous creatures exaggerate their size when threatened. In the cold, they may have trapped additional heat for warmth.</p>
Tailbone<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQwMjc3N30.nBGAfc_O9sgyK_lOUo_MHzP1vK-9kJpohLlj9ax1P8s/img.jpg?width=980" id="9a2f6" width="1440" height="1440" data-rm-shortcode-id="4fe28368d2ed6a91a4c928d4254cc02a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Decade3d-anatomy online via Shutterstock<p>Way back, we had tails that probably helped us balance upright, and was useful moving through trees. We still have the stump of one when we're embryos, from 4–6 weeks, and then the body mostly dissolves it during Weeks 6–8. What's left is the coccyx.</p>
The palmar grasp reflex<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMyMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjY0MDY5NX0.OSwReKLmNZkbAS12-AvRaxgCM7zyukjQUaG4vmhxTtM/img.jpg?width=980" id="8804c" width="1440" height="960" data-rm-shortcode-id="67542ee1c5a85807b0a7e63399e44575" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmar reflex activated! Photo credit: Raul Luna on Flickr<p> You've probably seen how non-human primate babies grab onto their parents' hands to be carried around. We used to do this, too. So still, if you touch your finger to a baby's palm, or if you touch the sole of their foot, the palmar grasp reflex will cause the hand or foot to try and close around your finger.</p>
Other people's suggestions<p>Amir's followers dove right in, offering both cool and questionable additions to her list. </p>
Fangs?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Lower mouth plate behind your teeth. Some have protruding bone under the skin which is a throw back to large fangs. Almost like an upsidedown Sabre Tooth.</p>— neil crud (@neilcrud66) <a href="https://twitter.com/neilcrud66/status/1085606005000601600?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hiccups<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sure: <a href="https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG">https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG</a></p>— Stephen Roughley (@SteBobRoughley) <a href="https://twitter.com/SteBobRoughley/status/1085529239556968448?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hypnic jerk as you fall asleep<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">What about when you “jump” just as you’re drifting off to sleep, I heard that was a reflex to prevent falling from heights.</p>— Bann face (@thebanns) <a href="https://twitter.com/thebanns/status/1085554171879788545?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script> <p> This thing, often called the "alpha jerk" as you drop into alpha sleep, is properly called the hypnic jerk,. It may actually be a carryover from our arboreal days. The <a href="https://www.livescience.com/39225-why-people-twitch-falling-asleep.html" target="_blank" data-vivaldi-spatnav-clickable="1">hypothesis</a> is that you suddenly jerk awake to avoid falling out of your tree.</p>
Nails screeching on a blackboard response?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Everyone hate the sound of fingernails on a blackboard. It's _speculated_ that this is a vestigial wiring in our head, because the sound is similar to the shrill warning call of a chimp. <a href="https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN">https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN</a></p>— Pet Rock (@eclogiter) <a href="https://twitter.com/eclogiter/status/1085587006258888706?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Ear hair<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Ok what is Hair in the ears for? I think cuz as we get older it filters out the BS.</p>— Sarah21 (@mimix3) <a href="https://twitter.com/mimix3/status/1085684393593561088?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Nervous laughter<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">You may be onto something. Tooth-bearing with the jaw clenched is generally recognized as a signal of submission or non-threatening in primates. Involuntary smiling or laughing in tense situations might have signaled that you weren’t a threat.</p>— Jager Tusk (@JagerTusk) <a href="https://twitter.com/JagerTusk/status/1085316201104912384?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 15, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Um, yipes.<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sometimes it feels like my big toe should be on the side of my foot, was that ever a thing?</p>— B033? K@($ (@whimbrel17) <a href="https://twitter.com/whimbrel17/status/1085559016011563009?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Global inequality takes many forms, including who has lost the most children
- A first-of-its-kind study examines the number of mothers who have lost a child around the world.
- The number is related to infant mortality rates in a country but is not identical to it.
- The lack of information on the topic leaves a lot of room for future research.