Good luck trying to succeed as a kid in America

Julia Steiny

If the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s most recent report had been an international comparison of test scores, the media would have gone berserk. Negativity certainly erupts when ODEC releases the results of their Programme for International Student Assessment test, since it generally shows U.S. students performing poorly compared with their peers in other industrialized nations. The PISA tests invariably get lots of press, with experts making dire predictions that our under-skilled kids and lackluster schools are taking us down to economic ruin.

ODEC is a Paris-based organization that collects and monitors statistics on 30 industrialized countries.

But ODEC’s most recent report, “Doing Better for Children,” examines child well-being, not test scores. Education data are included, but the focus is poverty, teen-parenting, environmental quality, and telling measures like whether kids have desks, calculators and other basic tools to do schoolwork at home. (Forty-eight percent of U.S. children do not. The ODEC average is 35.)

In short, by ODEC’s measures, the U.S. does a wretched job of caring for its children. The statistics are appalling. So why wouldn’t the press care?

Perhaps it’s because pundits rarely concern themselves with the dysfunctional families that produce the kids who score badly on tests. By averaging all U.S. children together, ODEC’s statistics mask the evidence that we, the social class, which includes pundits, take superb care of our children. Our kids are the ones who are most likely to be just fine. We don’t really want to think about those other families, because, well, if you don’t have anything nice to say …

Still, here is a sampling of ODEC’s stats:

Only Luxembourg (population 490,000) has families with a higher disposable income than the families in the U.S. On average, we’re rich people.

However, the U.S. has a sky-high rate of childhood poverty, topped only by Poland, Mexico and Turkey. Roughly 21 percent of America’s kids are born and raised under the poverty level set by the federal government, a ridiculously low threshold of $22,000 for a family of four. Do the math. You can’t live on that here. A more realistic measure would greatly raise the percentage of children in poverty. The average childhood-poverty rate among the ODEC countries was 12 percent. Unlikely countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic beat the pants off us.

The U.S. has high infant mortality rates, and high numbers of babies born underweight.

Particularly alarming is our high rate of teen births, the second worst rate after Mexico. Our rate is 50 births per 1,000; the ODEC average is 15.5. Our babies are having babies, forming new families very likely to be incompetent, and very likely to keep the cycle going.

And education? The educational achievement of our 15-year-olds is the seventh worst among the countries studied. But more upsetting is the measure of the gaps between the highest student achievers and the lowest, which for us is sixth worst in the comparison. In other words, if you’re a privileged American kid, and you can keep from wrecking your own self by getting spoiled and disaffected, you’re on track for a promising future.

Since the U.S. is a large country, in absolute numbers lots of American kids are succeeding brilliantly. In the last PISA test (2006), just under 70,000 American kids were deemed top performers. Finland may be the highest performing country overall, but it’s tiny, with roughly 1,000 academic hotshots.

So it’s by no means all of our kids who are going to wrack and ruin. But lots of them are. Many children fend for themselves, with poor family support, on track for truly dismal futures. Our burgeoning prisons are only one image of where that track sometimes leads.

So here’s what that report says to me: Help the families. Many American families are in trouble. Deep trouble. Half the parents divorce, if they marry at all. We are generations away from extended families or high-functioning faith-based or ethnic communities that could provide social safety nets, advice and respite for overwhelmed or clueless parents. In their isolation, many families get most of their parenting tips from TV’s powerful suggestions to spoil the children with shiny junk.

The schools resent the families’ disengagement, and for good reason. The public resents women having babies they can’t support, for good reason. We don’t like those families, and given our resentment, we leave it up to them to fix themselves.

But the time for resentment is past. The ODEC report shows us to be in crisis already.

In general, a kid is only as healthy as his family, only as high-functioning. Even if test scores were the gold standard of childhood health, our obsessive, narrow focus on the functioning of the schools is never going to yield the achievement we want.

The key to deep, lasting improvement of the schools would be to launch a companion effort to shore up the families, with reformed attitudes and policies. How have other countries reduced teen birth rates or, most critically, childhood poverty?

For that we’ll need some clear-sighted thinking about modern families, their needs and isolated circumstances. The other industrialized nations have policy strategies for supporting families, and they do far better than we do, including producing students with better test scores. The ODEC report references a number of documents outlining such national strategies. We should be looking to them.

And wondering why on earth we have so little interest in the people who are the most important in our children’s lives.

Julia Steiny, a former member of the Providence School Board, consults for government agencies and schools; she is co-director of Information Works!, Rhode Island’s school-accountability project. She can be reached at juliasteiny@gmail.com, or c/o EdWatch, The Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, RI 02902.

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