Trends: Did Rap, Crack or TV Kill Reading?
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People my age are prone to what I call geezerisms, such as: What’s the matter with kids these days? Why aren’t schools good like they used to be? Where can I get a really thick milkshake? Stuff like that.
You don’t often run into these outbreaks of cranky nostalgia in educational research, but one has surfaced recently. Several prominent scholars have suggested that teenage reading for pleasure, and verbal test scores, plummeted after 1988 because of the rise of rap and hip-hop music and an increase in television watching.
Changes in youthful cultural tastes and habits always push us senior citizens into rants about declining values, so I wondered whether the researchers -- many of them in my age group -- were giving into one of those recurring bromides that the new music is terrible and will turn our society into a garbage dump.
I couldn’t sustain that argument because the scholars involved (including Ronald Ferguson, David Grissmer and Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom) are brilliant people whose work always meets the highest standards of professional inquiry. I was trying to decide how to sort this out when University of California at Los Angeles sociologist Meredith Phillips, one of my favorite writers on student achievement, came to the rescue with an intriguing take in a chapter of a new book, “Steady Gains and Stalled Progress: Inequality and the Black-White Test Score Gap,” edited by Katherine Magnuson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University and published by the Russell Sage Foundation.
I Googled Phillips. None of the little stories on her reveals her age. But her photo suggests she is no geezer — maybe in her 30s, if that. So she likely doesn’t share my generational bias and, sadly for some of us, her review of the literature suggests there is less to the notion of rap, crack and TV killing young reading habits than my age cohort might assume. (Ferguson comments on this issue in his own chapter in the book.)
One key source of data is the National Assessment of Educational Progress Long Term Trend samples (known to fans as the NAEP-LTT). It shows that 37 percent of black 13-year-olds said they read for pleasure almost every day in 1988. But by 1992, only 15 percent of kids in that category read for pleasure that often. Reading for pleasure by white kids that age also declined, but by only eight percentage points.
That still is a problem for me. Phillips’s chapter and the book focus on the changing achievement rates and habits of African American students because the topic is the black-white test score gap. But white teenagers, I must emphasize, also consume the new music and TV, and are also not reading nearly as much as they ought to.
Phillips frequently casts doubt on the notion that changing tastes and habits are affecting reading by citing other data that seem to contradict the NAEP-LTT. She notes, for instance, that the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS) shows no evidence that black students did less pleasure reading in 1992 than in 1988, or that black students did relatively less pleasure reading than white students.
The year 1988 is important because the gap between white and black student reading and math scores stopped narrowing at that point and began to widen. Magnuson and Waldfogel asked scholars to try to explain this, and filled the book with their answers. (Recently a new narrowing of the gap has begun, giving Magnuson and Waldfogel an opportunity to do another book.) All of the chapters are interesting, but those familiar with my tastes know I am always going to focus on the low-brow pop culture issues, and leave the rest for more refined intellects, thus my interest in Phillips’s chapter.
She gives more credence to data showing that the reading habits of 17-year-olds changed after 1988. She effectively counters the notion that increased TV watching might have had an effect by showing that black youths after 1988 did not increase their TV hours (which, I might add, are horrendous for all American teens—about two hours a day). White teenage TV watching declined a bit after that year, but Phillips notes that could be explained by their increased play with computers and video games.
Music, however, may have had an impact, as evidenced by an increase in disciplinary sanctions of black students from 1988 to 1994. “The data for 17-year-olds are consistent with the theory that rap music’s popularity affected older black adolescents’ disciplinary experiences at school,” Phillips wrote. “One possibility is that rap music led older black adolescents to become more defiant and aggressive at school. Another is that older black adolescents adopted styles of dress or expression associated with gangsta rap, which got them into more trouble at school because school officials came to perceive them as more oppositional.
“A third possibility is that the popularity of rap music had little to do with these trends in behavior problems but was instead a response to trends in other conditions in black communities. As Grissmer and his colleagues noted, the black teenage murder rate soared in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Increases in black students’ disciplinary problems may have been part and parcel of a more general trend of increased violence, possibly associated with the crack epidemic.”
Phillips keeps digging, and when she does, as often happens in such research, she finds evidence that suggests the trend she is studying might not have actually occurred. “One might expect that increased teenage violence would lead students to feel less safe at school, which in turn might affect their academic achievement,” she wrote. But then she examines the results of another survey called Monitoring the Future, and she finds that, “although the estimates are imprecise, they show no consistent trend in black students’ perceived safety or in the black-white gap in perceived safety.”
Eighth-graders who read more for pleasure have higher reading scores in 10th grade, she concluded. One of the studies she analyzes suggests that black students spent less time reading for pleasure after 1988. But in the end, she cannot give us geezers our hoped-for confirmation that those youthful pastimes are a blot on the American landscape, since only one of the four studies she looked at shows this trend.
What really hurts our case is the nature of that one study showing a decline in reading for pleasure, the NAEP-LTT. It reflects questions posed “to only around 100 African American 13-year-olds” and “another 100 African American 17-year-olds.”
Phillips wrote: “Such small samples make it impossible to describe national trends in these variables with any reasonable degree of certainty.”
Sigh. I admire her scholarship, but to some of us who like to vent, this is a big disappointment. I imagine, however, that we will soon find something else to complain about.
-- Jay Mathews
Washington Post editors
| February 5, 2009; 3:55 PM ET
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