Opinion

The Age of Anxiety? Why More Educated Millennial Parents Are Telling Researchers They Want to Know How Their Kids Measure Up in School vs. Their Classmates

By Conor Williams | December 11, 2018

Americans may be fond of thinking of education as the great equalizer, but there’s new evidence that millennial parents don’t all think the same about precisely how schools do that work. Last week, the firm Echelon Insights and the Walton Family Foundation released a fascinating report — one of the first of its kind — on millennial parents’ preferences and priorities related to education. The whole document is interesting, but one table gave me pause. In their national survey of 800 parents, the researchers found some sharp distinctions on the information that parents of differing education levels want from their children’s schools.

Asked, “When it comes to standardized assessments that your child may take in school, which of the following do you think would be helpful to you as a parent?” nearly half of millennial parents with graduate degrees said they wanted to know “how my child stacks up to the average in his or her school.” The percentage was essentially the same for millennial parents with bachelor’s degrees. By contrast, just one-quarter of millennial parents with a high school degree or less thought that information would be helpful. The numbers were similar for knowing how kids measured up against “county or district” averages. Parents with lower levels of education were much more likely to want test data on what their children were struggling with, what skills they were missing, and what help they needed.

It’s striking: privileged, highly educated parents appear to be much more concerned with whether or not their children are keeping up with the Joneses. What is it about extra years of education that so sharpens their elbows? Why should a B.A.-holding dad be so much more concerned about putting his daughter in a local context than a dad who finished his education with a high school diploma?

I have an idea, and it has to do with your son’s English horn lessons.

But first: Consider how young parents’ views of school and its purpose in the United States have been shaped by wage stagnation, dramatic increases in college costs, and regionalized access to economic opportunities. They’ve needed more education than their parents just to have a shot in the U.S. economy, and they’ve had to pay more for it. They entered the workforce — and their peak reproductive years — in a moment of skyrocketing inequality and uneven access to upward mobility. They launched careers and families in a society with a disintegrating middle class.

Those are choppy seas for charting a life’s course. Young parents today have had a tough time setting up their careers and families. They have every reason to suspect that these trends will continue, that their children will have it harder still. They have ample reason to be more anxious about how their child is performing relative to the other children in their community. It feels like there won’t be as many economically secure spots for them in the future — nor as many accessible paths to reach them. Of course they’re anxious about keeping up with the Joneses. Of course they’re thinking of school quality in terms of measuring their kids against their peers.

Now: about that English horn. Almost no one plays it. But your kid — lucky boy — does. That’s a relative bit of privilege he’ll have that will set him apart from the pack of peer-competitors when the glossy college publicity magazines hit your doorstep (or your inbox, etc.). While the Joneses’ kids are huffing and puffing to distinguish themselves amid gaggles of trumpeters, your kid will be honking his way into Harvard.

This is how privilege works, whether it’s whiteness, wealth, gender, or (usually) a combination of much of the foregoing. It replicates itself by using those unearned bonuses to develop others, like educational credentials that are seen as 1) earned, and 2) absolute measures of skills.

Insofar as you sit on the lucky side of various inequities, this thinking becomes intuitive. In the United States, it’s not generally permissible to explicitly reward someone for these unearned advantages. White men may receive outsize shares of money, power, respect, and resources in the United States, but we, as a country, would prefer not to believe — let alone say out loud — that we’re rewarding them for their whiteness. They didn’t earn that. No one ever bootstrapped their way to whiteness.

As such, most privileged parents spend their lives seeking ways to convert their children’s unearned advantages into respectable, earned advantages. When it comes to education, this eventually boils down to finding her the most prestigious possible relative placement in terms of achievement and credentialing. That’s why credentialed parents are concerned to know how their children stack up against their peers. They want to be sure that the kids are in line to accumulate some postsecondary privilege — ideally at Princeton.

Your mileage as to what we ought to do about this will vary. Should we snark at these nervous elites? Should we spotlight the ways that their anxieties about prestige, privilege, and status are toxic to educational equity, public education, and the noblest American ideals? I have done both of these things. But given the structural pressures pushing parents this way, we probably shouldn’t expect much from persuasion.

Perhaps the extension of economic pressures up the American socioeconomic ladder opens up new political possibilities. Many white, highly educated parents are struggling to access traditional ways of translating their privileges into direct advantages for their children. These families are less likely to be able to purchase homes, let alone homes that grant them schools full of other children bearing the markers of privilege. Might they be newly willing coalition partners in efforts to detach school access from the ability to pay for housing nearby? Or — bear with me, hold your giggles — might they welcome meaningful efforts to establish quality affordable and/or public housing in cities with dynamic labor markets?

Of course, the perception of loss in a moment of scarcity rarely elicits broad-minded, equitable, generous thinking from the privileged. So, while I’m dreaming, I’d also like a pony, a time machine, a serious international effort to address climate change, and — I guess — some English horn teacher recommendations.

Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation provides financial support to some of Conor Williams’s work at The Century Foundation and to The 74.

Conor P. Williams is a fellow at The Century Foundation. Previously, Williams was the founding director of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. He began his career as a first-grade teacher in Brooklyn. He holds a Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University, a master’s in science for teachers from Pace University, and a B.A. in government and Spanish from Bowdoin College. His two children attend a public charter school in Washington, D.C.

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