Friday, October 21, 2011

Becoming a Big-Time Writer

As I settle into my new job, I'm looking for ways to do more writing for a general audience. I've done writing I think is infinitely interesting and I hope also holds the momentary attention of like-minded SNAP wonks, for example; but I need to learn how to put my arms around other topics without squeezing the life out of them or using so many words (and parentheticals, haha) that nobody makes it to the conclusion. In short, I'm interested in getting out there and acquiring some journalistic skill and experience. The only issue is that I need a few provocative ideas. Here's what I've got so far--what do you think?

1. Related to my previous post on academic achievement and job expectations, I've found it interesting that, even internationally, as performance on standardized tests goes up, the percentage of kids expecting to go into medium- and high-skilled work goes down. (The opposite relationship is also true.) This is a surprising finding, and I'd like to investigate the possible causes and what they could mean for U.S. education policy. Why, when kids do poorly in school, don't they expect to be punished in the globalized job market?

2. Despite the fact that more than 4 in 5 Americans label themselves middle class, we don't have a good definition for what that means. Is being in the middle class just about income? Probably not--it's probably also about wealth, education, and job status. Is is also about political engagement, savings rates, and social networks? I think we could turn a (potentially boring) literature review into a provocative story about how Americans see themselves relative to their neighbors.

3. A number of writers and researchers have found that income equality breeds broader economic prosperity. In an age of ballooning CEO compensation (and severance) packages, I wonder if this is also true for businesses. Does more equitable pay all the way down the career ladder in a company result in more productive and successful firms? Can we add an economic argument to our equality-based case for more reasonable CEO pay?

4. After WWII, the GI Bill sent millions of veterans to the schools of their choice and paid for living expenses for their growing families while they studied. A survey of 10,000 veterans and nonveterans estimated that 20 percent of veterans who went to college wouldn't have done so if it weren't for the GI Bill. (Though I admit there were tens of thousands of women and minority veterans who were unjustly kept from the benefits.) Historically, the military seems to have served as a major engine for social mobility. But what about now? Can we still count on the military to train and educate Americans such that, upon putting down their guns, they can forge successful civilian careers or retire without worry?

These are some of my ideas, a few of them admittedly better fit for whole books or academic studies that online magazine articles. All of them are also the subject of others' study and writing. Still, I think asking any of these questions might bring forth interesting and timely answers. In the context of "broke" governments, political polarization, and a protesting "99 percent," I think deep research into any of these issues will unearth something new.

Photo credit to Opedagogen from

Are we studying for unemployment? OWS and education reform

The following is a reproduced version of my guest post on, the blog site of Amanda Ripley, author of The Unthinkable and The Smart Kids' Club (forthcoming).

A few days before my 6th-grade graduation in Richardson, Texas, my teacher asked us to write poems about the jobs we hoped to have in 10 years. In clumsy rhyme and loopy cursive, we proclaimed our intentions to become singers, pilots, doctors, race car drivers and pastry chefs. With the audacity of youth, I predicted my own success as an author, lawyer or architect. (I was keeping my options open.)

Mrs. Babb affixed a gold star to each page and lovingly pinned them to the bulletin board, silently affirming that yes, these jobs are waiting for you if you work hard. Not a single child prophesied his future as a barista, a telemarketer or a perpetual job-seeker.

Since then, I have graduated from college and been fortunate to find a job that allows me to use my brain and pay the bills. But some of my highest-achieving friends are still grasping for the very bottom rung of the career ladder.

We know that the Occupy Wall Street protest is partly a response to corporate greed, but I suspect it also reflects the disconnect between our aspirations and our reality. It feels like the engines of social mobility (namely education) are failing us. After talking with the protesters in Zuccotti Park, the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri described the sentiment this way:

“Growing up, we were told: You are special. You are brilliant. Go to school, get a degree, pursue what you love. Four years later, we are mired in debt. Jobless, with no prospects. This is not what it said on the motivational poster.”

It’s as if we are catching up to the data, which has for years shown a mismatch between our academic performance and our occupational aspirations. In its 2007 report Child Poverty in Perspective, UNICEF evaluated countries’ performance along 40 indicators of child well-being, six of which measured educational well-being. Among 25 “economically advanced” nations, the U.S. ranked 21st in educational achievement of 15 year-olds in reading, math and science. The U.S. also had higher drop-out rates than similarly prosperous countries. Of the 23 countries ranked, the United States ranked 21st in “percentage of 15-19 year-olds in full-time or part-time education.” In fact, the United States ranked second-to-last (20th of 21 countries) in child well-being overall.

But at the same time, U.S. kids trounced all others when it came to optimism about their careers. Just 14% of 15 year-olds surveyed said they expected to go into low-skilled occupations—the lowest rate in the world. Although many could not compete with average students elsewhere in core academic subjects, very few believed they would pay a price for this mediocrity. (By contrast, over half of Japanese 15-year-olds expected to be doing low-skilled work—while the country ranks fourth in overall academic achievement and has a lower unemployment rate than we do.)

Can we continue to peddle the American Dream in classrooms that don’t prepare students to compete in a globalized labor force? One anonymous blogger wrote on the “We Arethe99 Percent” tumblr page:

“I have a bachelor’s degree from a top-ranked liberal arts college and a master’s from an Ivy League university. After graduation, all I could find was a year-long internship that only pays about 1/4 of my living expenses. The fellowship ends in under three months, and I still don’t know if they plan to hire me on permanently.”

Occupy Wall Street is not just about deadlock, dysfunction and disenfranchisement. It is about our nation’s willingness to over-promise and under-educate. It is about the urgent need to finally get serious about making our education system worthy of our ambition.