Education, health, women's issues and politics.
As the No Child Left Behind Act turns 10 on Sunday, the bill’s future remains uncertain, with Congress and the Obama administration divided over how to update the controversial law. Meanwhile, NCLB has been largely irrelevant to two of the major trends in national education policy-making over the past three years: the push to tie teacher evaluation and pay to student achievement data, and the move toward a Common Core curriculum in math and English. (The main lever pushing those changes is the Obama administration’s deployment of billions of federal grant dollars to states that agree to adhere to those priorities.) Nevertheless, NCLB has had a profound effect on what students experience in the classroom and on the way the American public talks about its schools. Here is my assessment of how NCLB has changed American education over the past decade, both for the better and for the worse.
A spotlight on the achievement gap. NCLB required states to collect and publicize data on student performance broken down by race, class, English-language learner status, and special education-status. As a result, it is no longer possible for the media or political elite to ignore the inequities in our education system. Unfortunately, there has been very little acknowledgement of the fact that gaps in academic outcomes have multiple causes—some of which are located within schools, but the vast majority of which can be attributed to the socioeconomic characteristics of students’ families and neighborhoods. Critiquing the law from a more conservative perspective, Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess point out that the laser-focus on gaps between rich and poor kids has detracted from attempts to provide gifted and talented students with more stimulating instruction.
An increase in standardized testing. NCLB required standardized testing in 4th through 8th grade English and math, which led to a narrowing of the curriculum as science, computing, the arts, and physical education were cut from the schedule in many high-poverty schools—those under the most pressure to demonstrate test score gains in basic skills. The Obama administration would like to address the issue of curriculum-narrowing by rewriting NCLB to also require test score growth in science, social studies, and other subjects. This would be better than doing nothing to change the law’s testing mandates, but would increase the number of hours and days schools spend on testing and test-prep. In practice, additional testing is usually unpopular with parents and teachers, potentially triggering a backlash to the entire notion of aggressive, federally-led school reform. Efforts to address the shortcomings of testing with more testing ignore the fact that—as in other historical periods when schools were asked to quickly raise test scores—there has been widespread evidence of an increase in cheating and tampering with test answer sheets since NCLB went into effect.
A sidelining of conversations about racial and socioeconomic integration of schools. There are reams of good research showing that “peer effects” matter for poor children’s academic achievement. Simply put, kids learn more when they attend classrooms that serve a mix of poor and middle-class students, in which teachers are less likely to be overwhelmed by the challenges of poverty. To acknowledge so much is not to deny that hundreds of schools nationwide effectively serve nearly-100-percent high-poverty student populations; indeed, we know such schools exist, but that they are astoundingly difficult to sustain and replicate over time. Public policy can help diversify classrooms by providing money for nearby poor and affluent schools and districts to work together, but NCLB did not do so. President Obama’s school turnaround programs have similary ignored the potential of integration, despite the positive track-records of voluntary, urban-suburban student swaps in the Hartford, Seattle and Milwaukee metropolitan regions. In those systems, suburban parents can choose to send their kids to high-performing urban magnet schools. The seats that open up in suburban schools are then made available to city kids.
A rhetoric of “failing” schools. Kevin Carey has fairly pointed out that NCLB is long on mandates, but short on actual punishments for schools that fail to meet their annual test-score targets. Even so, the media conversation around the law has generated a national consensus that our public education system is failing. The real story is more complex; even in relatively bleak public school districts like the one in Newark, NJ, there are pockets of true excellence.
A debate among urban parents. Although only 1 percent of eligible parents were able to take advantage of NCLB’s school choice provisions, the law’s promise to provide an “out” from failing schools has contributed to vastly increased political support for the expansion of the charter school sector. Thousands of inner-city parents are thrilled to remove their children from underperforming neighborhood schools and enroll them in charters, but for every family happy about school choice, there are several who lost charter school lotteries or never entered them in the first place—and who see the energy and funding in education reform steadily drifting away from traditional, neighborhood public schools. I interviewed some of these parents for my recent piece at The Awl on Occupy Wall Street and school reform. As I reported there, the move to shut down failing schools in New York, Washington, DC, and other cities has raised the ire of many urban parents, with focus groups and national surveys demonstrating that parents would prefer their children’s schools be flooded with additional resources and support, not closed.
Upper-middle-class alienation. Just beneath the surface of the national conversation, there is smoldering upper-middle-class resentment toward many of the priorities of No Child Left Behind and the entire federal school reform agenda. We see evidence of this anger in the viral popularity of the documentary Race to Nowhere: The Darkside of America’s Achievement Culture, and in the protest movement among (mostly) suburban New York State principals against value-added evaluation of teachers. Social movements need middle-class support to succeed, so the future of school reform depends, in part, on whether the majority of Americans believe that standards, testing, and accountability mandates will serve their own children as well as the children of the poor.
Peggy Orenstein writes in the New York Times today about how various toy stores and toy manufacturers are navigating the minefield of gender and play. Parents of young children often marvel that, despite their own egalitarian intentions, their kids are the ones who police traditional gender norms. Indeed, as Orenstein notes, studies of primate and human toddlers found that while both sexes enjoy stuffed animals and books, boys prefer cars and balls, while girls are drawn to dolls. I myself have an embarrassing childhood memory of being distraught when given the gift of a remote-control airplane; my parents had to remind me to say thank you and then encourage me to play with it—and, of course, it turned out to be a lot of fun.
Orenstein points to research finding that children raised in households that practice and preach gender egalitarianism make better romantic partners as adults. But there are other reasons to encourage girls especially to play with stereotypically male toys. Research shows that boys get their first computers at younger ages than girls, and are more likely to become expert at video and computer games and to play with toys (like Legos) that develop spatial reasoning skills. This matters because all of these childhood activities are correlated with eventually pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math—the STEM sector, which over the past decade has created three-times as many jobs as non-STEM fields. According to the Commerce Department, though women currently hold less than one-quarter of all STEM jobs in the economy, those who do work in STEM fields earn 33 percent more than women in non-STEM jobs.
Laura Reasoner-Jones is a Virginia elementary school computing teacher who enters teams of girls in FIRST LEGO League, in which children compete to construct and program robots. She says parents should actively encourage their daughters to get over the “ick” factor many girls associate with traditionally “boy” activities, such as interacting with machines and building things. “Girls should be encouraged to go out and take apart the lawn mower; take the grass off the blades and see how it works. Parents can start with that.”
Sylvia Martinez, an expert on educational technology, has written about how all children need to reinforce math and science concepts through “tinkering”—interacting with the physical world, as opposed to just learning at their classroom desks. (For example: collecting water samples to test pH levels, or reinforcing math concepts by learning basic computer coding.) It doesn’t work, Martinez says, “to explain everything to kids without them having any basis in experience. I’m trying to expand the idea of ‘tinkering.’ It’s not just going down to the basement and playing with stuff. You can play with data, ideas, equations, programming.”
Parents can foster this type of experimentation at home, but schools should also do their part. The problem is that in an age of increased focus on standardized test scores in reading and math, many schools are canceling computing and science courses or cutting down lab time.
“We’ve created math and science in school as very abstract,” Martinez says. “We’ve taken away a lot of hands-on experiences from kids in favor of testing. We’ve reduced a lot of science to vocabulary, where kids are being given vocabulary tests about the ocean instead of going to the ocean or looking through a microscope at organisms. If we taught baseball the way we taught science, kids would never play until they graduated.”
When schools fail to spark children’s interest in science, math, and computing, the result is that populations that have historically been drawn to those fields—the sons of college-educated parents—continue to excel, while girls and low-income kids lag behind. The toys kids play with at home matter, and so do the lessons children learn at school; in order to overcome overwhelming cultural conditioning to the contrary, both parents and educators should actively send the message that all children will have fun and learn a lot when they “tinker” in the physical and electronic worlds.
On Sunday, the New York Times published an op-ed critical of school choice policies in Washington, DC. As Matt Yglesias very fairly pointed out, the author, Natalie Hopkinson, failed to cite student achievement data to back her claim that residential segregation and the expansion of the charter school sector have left many DC families with only “mediocre” public school options. Thankfully, on Wednesday the federal government dumped a mass of new NAEP test score data from the nation’s largest cities, including DC. NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, is the gold standard in education research: the only exam overseen by the federal government and adminstered to a random selection of schoolchildren annually, with no rewards or punishments attached to corrupt the scores.
I spent this morning diving into the new NAEP numbers in an effort to paint a more complete picture of student achievement in DC over the past decade, which included the three tumultous years of Michelle Rhee’s chancellorship. While white, black and Hispanic children all made modest test score gains in DC since 2003, the Rhee agenda has not significantly narrowed achievement gaps between the various demographic groups, nor has it brought disadvantaged DC youth up to the national average scores for peers of their same race and class in other cities.
I’m going to focus this post on fourth grade math, since it seems to be the subject and grade level most suspectible to reform efforts. In DC since 2003, the black/white score gap remained constant, the poor/non-poor gap grew, and the Hispanic/white gap closed slightly.
Achievement gaps would be less disturbing in and of themselves if overall achievement levels were moderate or high. But what we continue to see in DC is that white students score well above both national and urban district averages for their race; black, Hispanic and poor children score well below national averages for their races and classes. This makes DC the city in the nation with the largest black-white student achievement gap.
If you are a white or middle-class family living in Washington, your child will likely attend a socioeconomically segregated neighborhood school or a higher-quality magnet, and will outperform her peers in suburban public schools. If you are a poor parent of color, on the other hand, your child will do worse in the DC public schools than he likely would have done in other urban or suburban districts. The NAEP data does not include charter school students, but the Washington Post reports that black and Hispanic children in DC charters score better on standardized tests than their traditional-school peers. The bottom line, however, is that there are far too few seats in high-quality charter schools to serve every disadvantaged child in Washington, and those left behind at neighborhood public schools continue to be shortchanged. Indeed, the district’s own data show experienced and highly-rated teachers more clustered than ever in affluent neighborhoods and schools.
In short, Michelle Rhee and her successor, Kaya Henderson, have presided over a landscape of modest raw test score gains. Meanwhile, the expansion of school choice in DC encouraged more white and middle-class families to send their children to public schools, and provided an escape route to some poor children who would otherwise have attended failing neighborhood schools. What Rhee and Henderson have not done is shrink ahievement gaps or guarantee to DC low-income parents that their children will receive at least an adequate, “average” education, no matter what school they attend.
Following up on its 2009 campaign comparing diaspora intermarriers to kidnapping victims, the Netanyahu government is now running PSAs warning Israelis living abroad against the dangers of marrying American Jews. In this ad, the American Jewish family Skypes with grandparents in Israeli, who are sitting in front of a Chanukah menorah. When grandma asks the little girl what holiday it is, she shouts, “Christmas!”, prompting garment-rending.
I don’t always agree with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, but he gets this exactly right:
I don’t think I have ever seen a demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews as obvious as these ads. I understand the impulse behind them: Israel wants as many of its citizens as possible to live in Israel. This is not an abnormal desire. But the way it is expressed, in wholly negative terms, is somewhat appalling. How about, “Hey, come back to Israel, because our unemployment rate is half that of the U.S.’s”? Or, “It’s always sunny in Israel”? Or, “Hey, Shmulik, your mother misses you”?
These government-sponsored ads suggest that it is impossible for Jews to remain Jewish in America. How else are we supposed to understand the “Christmas” ad? Obviously, assimilation and intermarriage are issues in America in ways they aren’t in Israel. Israel has other problems of course, such as the fact that many of its rabbis act like Iranian mullahs.…
The idea, communicated in these ads, that America is no place for a proper Jew, and that a Jew who is concerned about the Jewish future should live in Israel, is archaic, and also chutzpadik (if you don’t mind me resorting to the vernacular). The message is: Dear American Jews, thank you for lobbying for American defense aid (and what a great show you put on at the AIPAC convention every year!) but, please, stay away from our sons and daughters.
I’ll only add that in addition to being offensive toward American Jews, the ad betrays real ignorance about the conditions of American life. Not only are the vast majority of American Jewish children completely familiar with Chanukah, but the typical American school teaches all children about the holiday traditions of various faiths, from Christmas to Chanukah to Kwanzaa to Ramadan. Indeed, this is one of the real strengths and hallmarks of American public education, and something I reflected on a lot when I visited Finnish schools in December 2008, and saw classrooms full of Muslim immigrant kids learning Christmas songs, with no mention at all of other religious traditions.
This PSA is another sad reminder of the increasing cultural chasm between generally conservative Israeli Jews and generally progressive American Jews. A savvy Israel would be attempting to bridge this gap, not exacerbate it—but that would defy the increasingly ardent and aggressive religious-nationalism of the Netanyahu government.
Each year when the national teen birth rate statistics are released by the CDC, the media get very excited. This year the birth rate is down to about thirty-four births per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19, which Reuters attributes to the bad economy, better sex education and even cautionary TV shows like MTV’s Teen Mom. But just two years ago, when the teen birth rate rose slightly in twenty-six states, the media cited many of the very same factors: USA Today attributed that change to worse sex-education; pop-culture depictions of pregnant teens, such as the movi Juno; and celebrity teen moms, such as Bristol Palin and Jamie Lynn Spears.
I’d argue for spending less time peering at the year-to-year fluctuations in the teen birth rate and instead look at the big picture, which shows the United States has exponentially more teen moms than any other developed world nation.
*chart via the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy
We can only gesture toward the myriad factors causing this problem, but here are some likely ones: lack of knowledge about and access to affordable contraception (one in five sexually active teenage girls do not use any kind of birth control); lack of access to abortion-providers in 87 percent of American counties; increased immigration from nations where teen pregnancy is more the norm; and even high poverty rates that cause some girls to see motherhood as the only viable path to adulthood, since a college education and decent job are unavailable to them.
The good news is that the American teen birth rate has steadily decreased over the past seventy years, despite year-to-year ups and downs. The bottom line, though, is that the United States remains an outlier not only on the teen birth rate but on teen pregnancy and abortion, too, which occur far more often here than in European nations. Clearly, our hot-potato reproductive rights debate isn’t solving these problems, which is just one of many good reasons why we should ratchet down the politicization of this public health issue and take a common sense prevention approach, one that accepts that over 95 percent of Americans have premarital sex.
My Nation colleague Lee Fang has published a really fascinating investigative piece about the explosion in lobbying around K-12 for-profit virtual education, particularly targeting charter schools. This is a sector of the education world that’s very difficult to track, because every state has different, often vague laws about how for-profit companies can be involved in public education.
As of 2008, thirteen states allowed charter schools to partner with for-profit companies for facilities, seventeen states allowed partnerships for services and three states actually allowed for-profit companies to directly open a charter school. But even in states where for-profits are not allowed to hold a charter themselves, they are sometimes allowed to spin-off an affiliated nonprofit to hold the charter, which will then contract with the for-profit for services. (This is prevalent in Ohio). Here in New York, no charter opened after 2010 can be managed by a for-profit, but in Michigan, 80 percent of charters are for-profit.
What do for-profit education services for public K-12 schools look like? Sometimes they are online-learning classes or tutoring services offered to students enrolled in brick-and-mortar schools. Sometimes they are completely virtual schools, like the one described by Katherine Boo in her 2007 New Yorker piece about the collapse of Manual High School in Denver:
Ashley, who had been accepted into a small, competitive program at another public high school, was uneasy, too, and, anyway, there were flyers at Wal-Mart about a publicly funded online charter school a few blocks from home. One of the people involved with the program had been a Denver Nugget, and his daughter was the R. & B. singer India.Arie. Students did their work on the Internet, and it was graded by teachers in an office somewhere else. Plus, they could train to be nurses or doctors, or something; the details weren’t clear. Still, after a stressful year, the chance to stay near home, with Internet access and relational proximity to India.Arie, seemed soothing, so two of Manual’s star students changed their plans.
As Fang notes, online learning can be an important supplement to real-world classrooms; I think this is especially true for advanced high school students, who should be given the chance to jump ahead in the curriculum, perhaps through video lectures from college professors. The problem is that the studies we have of typical online learning outcomes haven’t shown very impressive results. Fang writes:
A recent study of virtual schools in Pennsylvania conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University revealed that students in online schools performed significantly worse than their traditional counterparts. Another study, from the University of Colorado in December 2010, found that only 30 percent of virtual schools run by for-profit organizations met the minimum progress standards outlined by No Child Left Behind, compared with 54.9 percent of brick-and-mortar schools. For White Hat Management, the politically connected Ohio for-profit operating both traditional and virtual charter schools, the success rate under NCLB was a mere 2 percent, while for schools run by K12 Inc., it was 25 percent. A major review by the Education Department found that policy reforms embracing online courses “lack scientific evidence” of their effectiveness.
So there’s good reason to proceed with caution, which is difficult to do when folks like Jeb Bush are traveling the nation advocating for absurd laws like one recently passed in Florida, which requires every single public high school student to enroll in at least one online course before graduation. This is certainly putting the cart—technological "innovation"—before the horse, which should be a quality education provided by effective teachers.
The average Mexican attends school for only eight and a half years. That's the equivalent of dropping out in middle school—before reading Shakespeare (or Cervantes), learning trigonometry or writing a sophisticated research paper.
Mexico, the next-door neighbor of the richest society in the world, ranks dead last among the forty-one countries that participate in the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment. About 40 percent of Mexican 15- to 19-year-olds are completely disconnected from civil society and the legitimate economy; they have dropped out of school and are unemployed.
I spent several days this week in Mexico City, on a trip for American journalists and policy professionals hosted by Grupo Salinas, the media, retail and banking conglomerate owned by Ricardo Salinas Pliego, one of Mexico's powerful oligarchs. Like the United States, Mexico is preparing for a contentious presidential election next year, and our group had the opportunity to meet with and interview several of the leading candidates.
The mayor of Mexico City, Manuel Ebrard Casaubon, a presidential candidate for the PRD
Shockingly, only one—Marcelo Ebrard Casaubón, the pragmatic, progressive mayor of Mexico City—identified the scant schooling of the typical Mexican citizen as one of the nation's foremost economic, social and cultural problems. The others, Josefina Vázquez Mota of the ruling center-right National Action Party, and Manlio Fabio Beltrones of the formerly authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), instead voiced an education reform agenda that seemed ripped from the pages of an American newspaper: Blame the teachers union.
Congresswoman, former education minister and PAN presidential candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota
Vázquez Mota, a former education minister, claimed that when it comes to education, "the major challenge has to do with the union doing their job." Beltrones, the Senate leader and a second-tier PRI candidate, complained that the union "has its own agenda" when the agenda should be "a quality elementary education for everybody." (We did not meet the current presidential front-runner, Enrique Peña Nieto of PRI, nor the candidate of the traditional left, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.)
I believe this type of thinking—lobbing rhetorical bombs at teachers unions while focusing solely on primary school education—is too modest for a nation as vibrant as Mexico, which enjoys tremendous geographic and cultural strengths, yet which faces stiff labor market competition from Asia, where countries like China and South Korea have prioritized educating their workforce.
To be sure, elements within the 1.5-million member Mexican teachers union have defended some horrifying practices, including the family inheritance and buying and selling of teaching jobs. But thanks to reforms instituted by President Felipe Calderón’s administration, those days are over. Vázquez Mota led the 2008 negotiations with teachers union leader Elba Esther Gordillo, who—like Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers—has embraced teacher quality reforms over the protests of some her own members. “For the first time in the history of education in Mexico, teaching positions are now assigned due to merit, and not for political reasons," Vázquez Mota told us. Mexican educators must now pass an exam before they preside over a public school classroom.
Like Beltrones, Vázquez Mota bragged that almost all Mexicans are now attending primary school, in part because of her party's Opportunidades anti-poverty program, which provides cash payments to low-income mothers who keep their children enrolled in school. This is certainly an accomplishment in a nation where half the population of more than 50 million people live in poverty. Thirteen million of these Mexicans are the destitute poor, residing in rural communities disconnected from modern technology and functional social services. To put food on the table, parents pull their kids out of school and put them to work, sometimes in the violent, underground drug economy.
But to truly fight this vicious cycle, small cash payments won't be enough. The priority ought to be connecting all poor children to a full twelve years of quality formal schooling, so they can strive for a middle-class lifestyle in our increasingly globalized knowledge economy. In order to do this, Mexico must continue to grow its economy and must fight poverty just as doggedly as it has fought the drug war—and hopefully more successfully.
An added challenge is creating curricula that are relevant, respectful and engaging for Mexico’s 10 million indigenous citizens, who are especially at risk for dropping out of school. Traditional, Catholic Mexico must also expand access to contraception and legal abortion, so that women can plan their family size and offer more opportunity to the children they have.
Teachers unions should modernize their practices, and in both Mexico and the United States, they are well on their way to meaningful reform. But the truth is, weakening labor protections for teachers will not, on its own, solve the international problem of educational inequality. Here in the United States, state budget crises are forcing schools to cut crucial programs and staff. In Mexico, many millions of children see their basic educations cut short well before they gain the skills necessary to live an economically stable life. Teachers unions have little control over these poor educational and macroeconomic conditions, and are not responsible for them.
Of the politicians I met in Mexico, only Mayor Ebrard Casaubón seemed to grasp that successfully reforming education would mean radically increasing access to many, many more years of formal schooling. In Mexico City, the high school graduation rate increased by 120,000 students over the past five years, and “now we want to reach twelve years of education” all across the country,” Ebrard Casaubón said.
This is ambitious thinking, but big ambitions are exactly what we need, worldwide, if we are to use education as a lever to move people out of poverty. Teachers union—bashing will never be enough.
Many college students who are initially drawn to math and science end up changing majors, reports Christopher Drew in a New York Times piece today. Why? In short, the classes are abstract, difficult and often large and impersonal, so it’s easy for those who are bored or struggling to fall between the cracks. Yet we know it’s a good idea to encourage students with any interest or aptitude at all in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields to stick with them. Over the past decade, three times as many STEM jobs were created as non-STEM jobs, and STEM workers were less likely to be unemployed. Economists expect those trends to continue over the next ten years.
Perhaps the easiest way to get more Americans into STEM is to close the massive gender gaps in these fields. According to an August report from the Commerce Department, women hold just 25 percent of STEM positions. In rapidly expanding careers like computer science, the news is even worse: today, women hold 27 percent of all CS jobs, down from 30 percent a decade ago, and account for just 20 percent of undergraduate CS majors, down from 36 percent in 1986. The trend lines are going in the wrong direction.
Surveys of high-tech professionals find that most trace their interest in STEM back to their early childhoods. So what can parents and schools do to make sure girls become passionate about math, science, and technology? Here are some ideas backed up by research:
Make sure your daughter has “tinkering” toys. Blocks, Knex, microscopes and model rocket kits will develop her spatial reasoning skills and encourage her to ask questions about the physical world.
Allow her to play video and computer games, and even program her own! Lots of computer programmers get started as kids, developing tweaks and work-arounds to their favorite games. Free software like ALICE allows both kids and adults to learn the basics of computer-game programming at home. And if your daughter is exposed to programming at an early age, research shows she is less likely to drop-out of those challenging freshman-year introductory math, computing, and engineering courses, because she understands how the concepts can be applied in the real world.
Ask your child’s teacher to make sure girls get equal time with classroom technology…even if boys push harder for computer time and girls seem less interested. Here are some great tips from a Virginia public school teacher.
Some of this advice goes against the grain of the trend toward technophobic parenting and schooling: the idea that children shouldn’t engage with computers, video games or iPads until they are 12 or 13. I happen to disagree, in part because we need to close gender, race and class disparities in access to technology and to high-tech jobs. All things in moderation.
Even in liberal, cosmopolitan New York City, sex education is controversial—at least in the media.
Last week, the New York Post published a breathless article about the city’s new comprehensive sex ed curriculum, which will be rolled out this spring for middle and high-school students. According to the Post, some unspecified number of “parents” are feeling “furor” at the following “bawdy” homework assignments:
· High-school students go to stores and jot down condom brands, prices and features such as lubrication.
· Teens research a route from school to a clinic that provides birth control and STD tests, and write down its confidentiality policy.
· Kids ages 11 and 12 sort “risk cards” to rate the safety of various activities, including “intercourse using a condom and an oil-based lubricant,” mutual masturbation, French kissing, oral sex and anal sex.
Regarding this last assignment, an October 18 New York Times op-ed by two authors affiliated with the hard right American Principles Project borrowed the “parental rights” rhetoric of the Tea Party to claim that teaching seventh-graders that kissing and petting are less risky than oral sex or vaginal intercourse violates parents’ right to control what their children hear about “sensitive issues of morality.” Although the city plans to allow parents to opt their children out of lessons on how to use contraception, parents should be able to remove their kids from any part of the sex ed curriculum they choose, the authors argued.
The research consensus on sex ed is clear: the vast majority of abstinence-only programs, which tend to portray all premarital sexual activity as sinful and unhealthy, have no record of delaying sexual intercourse. The one abstinence program that does successfully delay sexual initiation has little in common with its peers; instead of portraying sex in a negative light, it focuses on teaching kids about sexually transmitted infections such as HIV and herpes. Meanwhile, students who receive comprehensive sex ed, which includes lessons on how to obtain and use contraception, are more likely to use protection when they do have sex, and less likely to become pregnant.
But the never-ending sex ed wars aren’t really about what “works” in terms of keeping kids healthy and preventing teen pregnancy. As sociologist Kristin Luker demonstrates in her excellent book When Sex Goes to School, a person’s position on sex ed is a proxy for a deeper set of questions: whether or not one supports the changes in gender and economic norms that have brought women into the workplace, delayed the average age at marriage and allowed couples to experience sex without the burden of pregnancy, through the use of hormonal birth control. “Abstinence-only education,” Luker writes, “rejects the core principle on which the harm-reduction model is based: that each individual should decide for himself or herself what is proper sexual behavior. Instead, it substitutes a single value for everyone, namely, no sex outside (heterosexual) marriage.”
The problem with this ideology is that it is based on a fantasy. Ninety-five percent of Americans have premarital sex, and the average age of sexual initiation is 16 for boys and 17 for girls. These numbers have remained remarkably consistent since the early 1960s. What has changed is the particular risks facing our inner-city youth. According to the Guttmacher Institute, since the 1980s, the number of urban, minority youth reporting sexual initiation before the age of 15 has increased. In one 2001 study, 31 percent of urban minority boys and 8 percent of urban minority girls reported having sex in seventh or eighth grade. By the end of tenth grade, a majority of both the girls and boys reported that they had sex.
It is exactly this population that the New York City sex ed curriculum was crafted to reach. And though teaching middle-schoolers about safe sex is eternally controversial, the evidence suggests that for a significant portion of our urban youth, seventh grade is actually too late to begin having these conversations, since they are already sexually active.
A sex ed curriculum based in reality acknowledges these risks and attempts to mitigate them. And since there’s no evidence at all that comprehensive sex-ed hastens children’s sexual initiation, there is little downside. After all, even the most progressive sex ed curriculum teaches kids that delaying sex is the only 100 percent effective method for preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
Are women inherently more peaceful than men? And are women’s interests always united when it comes to debates over war and peace?
These are just some of the intriguing questions brought up by a new PBS documentary series, Women, War, and Peace, which is airing Tuesday evenings in October. Last week’s episode, I Came to Testify, tells the story of the 1998 Kunarac case, in which sixteen brave women testified at The Hague against Serbian military officers who presided over the systemized sexual slavery of thousands of Bosnian women and girls. The case marked the first time an international body declared rape a crime against humanity.
“Rape has always been an undercurrent of war. People talk about raping and pillaging,” says US Kunarac prosecutor Peggy Kuo in the film—noting that even so, sex crimes were left off the docket at the Nuremberg trial of Nazi war criminals, despite ample evidence of mass rape in concentration camps. “I had heard that in Nuremberg there was a discussion of whether to bring up the subject of rape,” Kuo recounts, “and somebody made a comment: ‘We don’t watch a bunch of crying women in the court room.’ ”
Indeed, until late in the twentieth century, female victims were denied recourse for the special, gender-specific suffering they endured during times of war. The result of downplaying conflict-related sexual violence was that not only war but peacemaking and reconciliation, too, were coded as activities to be conducted by men.
The second film in the series, airing tomorrow night, is the award-winning and absolutely bracing documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which tells the story of Liberian feminist peace activist Leymah Gbowee, one of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners. Gbowee led a movement that united Liberian Christian and Muslim women to bring about an end to her nation’s blood-soaked civil war, in which male militias vied for control of Liberia’s mineral deposits, deploying drugs and sexual violence to terrorize local populations and recruit young boys as soldiers.
Wearing white, thousands of Liberian women lined the streets to pray, sing, chant and protest for peace. Their message was a powerful one—that as mothers, they would no longer tolerate their sons being drafted into a violent conflict that led to the mass rape of their daughters. When the female activists were excluded from peace talks in Ghana, they stormed the meeting, forcing a compromise that led to the exile of disgraced Liberian president Charles Taylor and the election of Africa’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this month.
The success of Gbowee’s movement has inspired a wave of international calls for women to act as peacemakers in conflict zones around the world. The argument is that female activists are more likely to be nonviolent and to be viewed as sympathetic on the world stage, in part because they can wrap their calls for peace in traditional, nurturing rhetoric about motherhood. Nicholas Kristof has argued that Palestinian women, for example, might have the best shot at bringing about an end to Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank.
As inspiring as these stories are, however, we cannot assume that women in every global conflict zone share any specific approach to peace. Next week’s episode of Women, War, and Peace takes place in Afghanistan, and follows several female politicians and activists as they resist the Taliban’s efforts to exert political power and roll back gains for women and girls made since the U.S. invasion in 2001. The documentary, Peace Unveiled, is narrated by Tilda Swinton, and unfortunately presents a totally lopsided view of the Afghan political situation. Hillary Clinton is presented as a heroine who must resist domestic calls to end the American occupation, “which could set women back. … For Afghan women caught between war and the prospect of peace with the Taliban, the road ahead is a hellish one,” Swinton says.
Indeed, Afghan women exposed to Taliban death threats for working outside the home or sending their daughters to school live between a rock and a hard place: war at first opened up opportunities for Afghan women and girls, but then led to an increase in violence and warlordism, with civilians caught in the crosshairs. Many girls’ schools that opened in the wake of the US invasion are now closed, as families are too scared to enroll their daughters. Afghan president Hamid Karzai has signed into law several disturbing pieces of legislation, including one that made rape legal within marriage and required women to get permission from their husbands to work.
These developments have led Afghan feminist politician Malalai Joya and other activists to call for an end to the US occupation—yet voices like Joya’s are excluded from Peace Unveiled, in favor of a more simplistic narrative that the US military presence in Afghanistan protects women’s rights.
I wish PBS’s Women, War, and Peace had looked more closely at debates among women about how to end wars. While women disproportionately bear the burdens of authoritarian regimes and violent conflicts, women are just as politically complex as men, and must juggle the same competing demands of family, ethnicity, religion, and political power when evaluating how to make peace.