Friday, March 21, 2014

Shocking Data about Suspended Black Preschoolers

Tell me what's wrong with this sentence from an Associated Press article I found in The Seattle Times today: "Data to be released Friday by the Education Department's civil-rights arm finds that black children represent about 18 percent of children enrolled in preschool programs in schools, but almost half of the students are suspended more than once."

If you said it's wrong that black children are suspended extremely disproportionately to their percentages in preschool, well, the research certainly shows something's wrong somewhere.

If you thought the statistic might be questionable because of the way information was collected, you're simply a skeptic.

If, like me, you started screaming because the word "data," which is plural, was used as a singular, well, join a club of losers.  We who cannot tolerate heinous errors in grammar and punctuation are an elite group, destined to ongoing angst, as the culture posits (TV pundits), paints (signs and billboards) and publishes (print and online).

The journalists who wrote the article, Jesse J. Holland and Kimberly Hefling, repeat their egregious misuse of "data:"

"The data shows the disparities starting in the youngest of children."
"Overall, the data shows that black students of all ages are suspended and expelled at a rate that's three times higher than that of white children."
"The data doesn't explain why the disparities exist or why the students were suspended."
"The data shows nearly 5,000 preschoolers suspended once" out of one million children in public preschool programs nationally. (Half of those were suspended more than once.)

And Attorney General Eric Holder added, "Every data point represents a life impacted and a future potentially diverted or derailed."

The article quotes a variety of experts speculating about the source of the disparity, and doesn't refer further to the data. While it may be acceptable to say "the data," much better writing would call them simply "data" without inserting "the" first. Removing the extraneous "the" before "data" would alleviate the tendency to consider "data" singular. By the way, the singular of "data" is "datum."

What do we make of these data? Several quoted experts offered ideas. Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies for the Civil Rights Project at UCLA (my alma mater), suggests additional services would address bad behavior better than removal of problem children. "Almost none of these kids are kids that wouldn't be better off with some support from educators." He asserted that suspended children can't link their behavior to its consequence: "Kids just don't understand why they can't go to school."

No comment on those statements, but the issue of handling extremely problematic behavior remains.  Further research on the suspensions and expulsions might define categories of behaviors (by kids and others in the classroom) associated with such drastic responses. Once events that typically lead to suspensions are discovered, educators can design interventions to prevent or derail them.

One reason for the disparity mentioned in the article is that "get tough suspension and arrest policies in schools" start black kids on a "school-to-prison pipeline." But why are black children the only minorities affected? Hispanic/Latino students, who are 29 percent of preschool population, comprise just 25% of suspensions. Asians are 4% of preschoolers, and make up 1% of suspensions.  Even students of "two or more races," comprising 4% of preschoolers, produce just 3% of suspensions. Given these figures, is racism a useful explanation, or is the disparity linked to more specific aspects of transgressions?

One transgression I cannot overlook is misuse of singular versus plural. The gym teacher who, at the end of stretching, tells us to "roll up slowly, one vertebrae at a time," the realtor who cites his "single most important criteria," and the stargazer pointing out the "once-in-a-decade phenomena" share a special niche in "Eats Shoots and Leaves" hell, a crowded place since it's shared with apostrophe abusers.

I should mention that Associated Press has corrected its grammatical errors in its link for this story today. Counteracting that advance is the Seattle Times link. The print version carries the headline, "More black than white preschoolers suspended." The online story puts the lie to the canard that Seattlites are most literate by adding, " shows."  Aarrggh!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

"Ban Bossy" Campaign: Anti-Feminist but Worthwhile for Another Reason?

The "Ban Bossy" campaign and video, sponsored by Lifetime and Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" organization, tries to encourage young women toward leadership with the bizarre assumption that girls nix their aspirations because their friends call them "bossy."

After forty years of feminist culture, this is absurd. Kids call each other plenty of cruel names, and bossy is a mild one.  And girls surpass boys in school, creating a widening "college gap" causing concern that men will be left behind.

Even weirder than thinking "bossy" stops girls is that highly-admired women like former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Girl Scouts CEO Maria Chavez and Arianna Huffington (none of whom succumbed to the "b-word") consider it a threat. Another "Ban Bossy" endorser is Beyoncé, known to use distinctly non-feminist sex appeal to enhance her singing talents. "John Smith" from Los Angeles commented in the Daily Mail, "All she does is shake her rear in her underwear yet she is the mouthpiece for telling girls how to be?" Montana governor Steve Bullock is also a spokeshuman, with the quote, "Today's bossy girls are tomorrow's leaders,." suggesting bossiness as a prerequisite to high position. Still, if a campaign promotes considerate speech, then Brava.

After all, "bossy" is an objectionable epithet whether applied to a female or a male. Bossy people impose their wills on others. Bossy people don't consider or respect others' points of view. Bossy people take the position that they're, well, the boss, making you the subordinate. Maybe individuals should ban bossy not because it might cause some girl to quit grad school someday--but because name-calling is rude.

Part of the contention is that "boys don't get called bossy," because when they exert themselves over others, it's called "leadership." No, it's called "bullying," and there's even a government website to fight it. A 2010 summit was called by the Department of Education, and the Obamas hosted a 2011 White House Conference on Bullying Prevention.

This silly "Ban Bossy" campaign is actually anti-feminist, because it implies that women's own decisions and desires aren't good enough.

Feminism honors women's freely-made choices. And for the most part, mothers place their families over their careers. Brain research showing that women's hard-wiring inclines them differently from men has been compiled by accomplished women like Melissa Hines and Louann Brizendine. But the only acceptable definition of achievement for Lean In ladies is high rank in the male-dominated, public sphere, not serving in more private spheres caring for others. In other words, "leading" many is good. "Helping" a few is...disappointing.

"Ban Bossy"-ites work on the anti-woman assumption that monetarily remunerative, visible positions of authority are superior to raising and educating one's own children, or traditionally female careers like teaching, nursing and childcare. That's why they're so desperate to push girls their way.

There's nothing lesser about women "leaning out" of the competitive workplace or positions of leadership. And after earning more diplomas than men, there's no reason why they'd suddenly stop dead in their career tracks due to name-calling that never stopped them before. It's ridiculous to suggest that women comprise 5% of CEOs and 17% of Congress (as Sandberg complains in an ABC network interview) because the rest of them were thwarted by childhood insults.

Instead, many highly-educated women are doing exactly what they want to do--working awhile, and then leaving competitive careers to nurture and enjoy their children's development. Or, they may pick jobs compatible with their interests, which could even be those brain studies predict. At the same time, more colleges and companies actively seek out women for fields where they're under-represented.

It's been a long time since Betty Fredan, but some people can't accept that sexism's passé and the Mad Men milieu is history. I've spent far too much time writing this, because ultimately the "Ban Bossy" campaign is merely a feel-good party for its supporters, and of little consequence to anyone else.

Sandberg's pressure just makes girls who aspire to traditionally female occupations or raising a family feel badly; they're wasting their potentials. The program could even backfire, causing young women inclined traditionally to scotch desired careers because they're afraid of being called "weak," "brainwashed," or "victim." Too bad girls aren't taught pride in who they are, instead of relentless indoctrination in the same old male standards underlying "Ban Bossy" beliefs.

It took me a couple of days to finish this post, and in the interim everyone and her sister has jumped on the "Ban 'Ban Bossy'" bandwagon. Nearly every blogger and columnist can find something to dislike about it, from its snooty position of privilege to its arrogant aim to change girls' careers. Writers think Beyoncé is a poor role model and that the campaign gives name-callers power. The whole thing seems like a vanity project for powerful women feeling guilty and unworthy that they made it. The effort reflects, to use my husband's term, the "Do-something Disease" run amok.  "Ban Bossy" is co-sponsored by the Girl Scouts (I'm a former member and leader), a group now floundering for something to sell beyond surgary snacks.

So I'm going to soften my stance, and reiterate that any effort to eliminate rudeness and infuse interchange with respect deserves support. Yes, ban "bossy" --and "idiot" and "stupid" and the panoply of crass epithets kids call each other.  Adults shouldn't get stuck on  whether girls ultimately choose leadership or jobs more in the background, but rather on the politeness and caring with which they encounter others every day.

Monday, March 3, 2014

"Frozen" Wins Oscars, Captivates...Looking back on my Mixed Review

The Best Animated Picture Oscar for Disney's "Frozen" is just the sweet icing for a movie I reviewed as lightly enjoyable but bearing subtle dubious messages, a puzzling plot and some scenes too scary for little kids.

 Giving the film a mixed review brought some nasty comments inconsistent with the gentle innocence one prefers to associate with "Frozen" fans. Among these are my darling neighbors and their friends, who regularly belt out the film's Best Song winner "Let It Go" together while carpooling to school. My neighbors saw "Frozen" five times and contributed to its $1 billion in sales, making it second-highest money-earner for the year behind "Iron Man 3."

Some of the comments I received on my less-than-raving review thoughtfully considered the psychological torment of a sister who completely shuts out her sibling despite continued begging for contact. Others thought I was slime for daring to question any aspect of a film they adore. "Frozen"'s popularity might simply convey that even with a weird plot and scary scenes, girls crave imaginative films that create bonds with their friends.

When my neighbors sing "Let it Go," they don't notice the perplexing message underlying Elsa unleashing her dangerous ice-creation powers--but it's still there. When someone has a destructive or harmful proclivity, is it really better to "let it go," or harness and redirect it? Elsa's exuberant expression of her freezing curse could spur viewers' "letting go" other destructive urges, like anger. It's doubtful kids understand a "soul spiraling in frozen fractals" but when it comes to tantrums, they might readily hear "Turn away and slam the door! I don't care what they're going to say--Let the storm rage on!"

But who's thinking about that? Caring parents, perhaps?

John Travolta's embarrassing botched introduction of Idina Menzel at the Oscars before she sang "Let It Go" is probably the most savored storm since the film's release. Clearly unnerved, Travolta called the Broadway star "the wick-ed-ly talented, one and only Adele Dazeem," unleashing a flurry of hilarious tweets that finally let adults squeeze some fun out of the film. Even folks who avoided the Academy Awards are chuckling from the ubiquitous loop online of Travolta's fail.

Though "Frozen" has its own fails, clearly the movie-going public disagreed with my take on it, or chose to ignore anything deeper than that first soft layer in the snow-pack. Better for families to go to Disney movies, and girls to giggle together munching popcorn in theaters than withdraw to the increasingly common physical isolation of video games and online relationships. I was surprised to see one of my "Frozen"-boosting neighbors engaged in a computer game where teen avatars are manipulated within a room by youngsters scattered around the world. These characters have fake money to spend on beauty products and clothes, certainly legitimate interests of 12-year-olds, but the platform on which they interact is pitifully disconnected from any real contact.

Theater movies provide an event, a shared experience that in themselves have value for participants. Beyond that, though, messages conveyed onscreen do matter. "Frozen" offers good ones with the dubious, such as younger Princess Anna's loyalty to her sister despite repeated spurning, and Queen Elsa's misguided withdrawal from Anna under the guise of dutiful obedience to her deceased parents' command. In this film, messages are mixed and muddled, which probably mutes their negative impact on the girls crooning "Let It Go" in the car on their way to school.