Nose to the grindstone

A week ago, Tom Friedman diagnosed the problem with American education and the reason why US kids are falling farther behind on international benchmarks of achievement:  We’ve become a nation of slackers.  

Are we falling behind because of a mediocre teaching corps and reform-resistant unions, or because “too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put in the work needed today to really excel?” asked the flat-world oracle of Big Thoughts, who goes on to argue that we haven’t given nearly enough attention to the latter.

Yesterday’s Times brought a 2,800-word preview of a new book that promises to unpack the mysteries of what might be called “anti-slacker matter.” The three-part recipe for success, write Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, explains the striking upward mobility of certain ethnic and religious groups.

The three ingredients of success, they write, are: the seeming paradox of both a belief in one’s exceptionality and a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough, along with a strong current of impulse control. Mix those three traits together, and you’ve gone a long way toward explaining the exceptional achievement levels in the US of, among others, Asian immigrants and their offspring, Jews, Cuban-Americans, and Mormons. This can be a dicey area to explore in today’s diversity-sensitive times, but such worries have never seemed to preoccupy Chua, who rocketed, controversially, into national view three years ago with her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

“It may be taboo to say it, but certain ethnic, religious, and national-origin groups are doing strikingly better than Americans overall,” write Chua and her husband and fellow Yale law professor.

They offer some striking examples: Of 830 admissions last year at New York City’s most selective, test-based exam high school, 620 went to Asians; Jews, who make up about 2 pecent of the US adult population, account for about one-third of all Nobel prizes won by Americans; in 1990, children of Cuban emigres were twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be earning more than $50,000 a year.

However, puncturing the whole idea of “model minorities,” write Chua and Rubenfeld, is the fact that the performance of groups rises and falls over time. Thus, a 2005 study found that third generation Asian-Americans performanced no better than their white peers. They say all of this suggests that there are strong “cultural forces” driving these patterns, not any sort of “innate, biological differences.”

To their credit, Chua and Rubenfeld identify downsides that accompany each of their three drivers of success, but their message is still clear: On balance, there’s no substitute for hard work.

–MICHAEL JONAS

BEACON HILL

Gov. Deval Patrick declares that the problems at the Department of Families and Children have presented an opportunity to “rethink and reinvigorate” the agency.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll wants to remove the city’s police and fire chiefs from civil service, giving the mayor more flexibility in hiring, the Salem News reports.

CASINOS

Casino operators will try to block an effort to put a question on the November state ballot that would repeal the casino law. John Nucci ponders the role of the gambling rollback question on the gubernatorial race.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

The Wall Street Journal previews the unilateral agenda President Obama will unveil Tuesday evening. Obama will focus on executive orders and administrative regulations, as the 2014 midterms are likely to keep Congress sharply divided.

The New York Times spotlights Sen. Rand Paul’s effort to push libertarianism into the mainstream.

Colorado ’s local marijuana prohibition movement swings into high gear.

Paul Krugman questions the paranoia of the super-wealthy, as taxes on the country’s top one percent of earners move back to pre-Reagan levels.

ELECTIONS

A pol is suing Roche Bros. for prohibiting him from soliciting signatures at the company’s supermarkets, the Lowell Sun reports.

The five Democrats running for governor share a stage to try to woo voters in Pittsfield.

Kimberly Atkins speculates about the possibility of a third Mitt Romney presidential campaign.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

A case against the Lucky 7 Internet cafes in Gloucester and Danvers should reveal whether the establishments are illegal gambling facilities or whether they are more like Chuck E. Cheese or Dave and Buster’s, the Gloucester Times reports.

Industries that rely on the US Postal Service want the Postal Regulatory Commission to rescind the two-year price increase that went into effect yesterday while postal officials want the hike to 49 cents for a stamp to be permanent.

EDUCATION

Female students at Stonehill College say they don’t feel safe after the third reported rape this semester and blame officials at the Catholic school for not doing enough to address and promote safe sex.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio pushes back in the great New York pre-K wars.

Potential presidential candidate Jeb Bush pens an oped for the National Review outlining the need for school choice, saying “The Ma Bell model of public education has failed.”

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Some smaller community hospitals are trying to cut down on the number of Caesarean sections they perform, which now account for one-third of births nationwide, citing risks and high costs for patients.

The verdict on the safety of all those no-cal and low-cal sweeteners, including “natural” ones, people are flocking to in place of sugar: Uncertain.

A study by Tufts Health Plan measuring nearly 100 factors for older residents in all Massachusetts cities and towns and Boston’s 16 neighborhoods unsurprisingly finds where someone lives plays a major role in healthy aging.

RELIGION

A mainstay church of Boston’s black community is in deep debt and struggling for survival.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Nantucket residents go up against Mother Nature to try and stop erosion from affecting their homes along a bluff.

Despite some gains in energy efficiency, Massachusetts’ energy grid still faces challenges, including weaning the state off coal-burning and dealing with a lack of infrastructure to import natural gas.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Peter Gelzinis appreciates the irony in US Attorney Carmen Ortiz — who owes her perch to the Kennedys — waging a war on Beacon Hill patronage.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

MEDIA

Ezra Klein , formerly the editor of Wonkblog at the Washington Post, moves on to Vox Media. Klein says he wants to create a website “that’s as good at explaining the world as it is at reporting on it.” An online job listing describes Klein’s project as “the world’s first hybrid news site/encyclopedia.” The Times’s David Carr questions why new Post owner Jeff Bezos isn’t bankrolling the venture.