Ask the grumpies: Retirement vs. college savings

Alice asks:

How do you decide at what income level to begin funding a 529? I know the mantra of ‘max out tax-advantaged retirement accounts first’, but that is a lot of money to put away (~30% of income) before starting any college savings…I assume we’ll be in the ‘squeezed’ middle on college, with too much income for aid but not enough to pay full freight outright. It seems that at least some dedicated college savings are worthwhile after 15-20% retirement savings, even if not optimal as far as taxes go…We’re assuming private or out-of-state public are in the cards, and want to avoid student debt. I’ve heard the ‘Roth contributions can be used’ chorus, but that won’t go far with current tuition rates.

TBH, if I had to do it all over again, I would max out retirement first instead of regularly contributing to 529s. Because of financial aid.  You can read about how our minds have changed on this topic via this cut of our archives, though I’m not sure we ever spelled out the history in one concise post.  (For an alternate cut, here’s the college tag.)

If you’d asked us this question when we started the blog, we’d have told you to make sure you were (getting any employer matches and) saving 15% of your income for retirement (more if you need catch-up savings– we’d have recommended you play with online retirement calculators to see whether or not you were on track) and then put a regular amount away for college with every paycheck.  We’d have told stories of how we knew people whose parents had spared no luxury (cds, cars, clothes, regular vacations to Hawaii, etc.) but then the kids couldn’t go to the fancy college they’d gotten into because their parents made too much money for decent financial aid and they had nothing saved.  And that’s not terrible advice– make sure you’re on track for retirement and then put money away for college to give your kids more options.  I don’t completely regret having taken it when the kids were younger.  Their college savings have grown at a nice clip, and it’s likely both will be on track to go to the private schools of their choice even without financial aid.

These days we’re much more attuned to the importance of College Financial Aid (Forbes Magazine has a great series on the topic– click here for the latest updates).  You can ignore this concern if you prefer to think of tuition as a donation to the school (which for us depends on the school… I’m always irritated at the fundraising letters we get from DH’s graduate alma mater given their endowment).  Will you be squeezed?  It turns out there are calculators for that, and those calculators depend a lot on how much money you have that can be tapped for college.  Formalized retirement savings (even the Roth savings) do not count for financial aid.  This Forbes article from 2017 is a little out of date, but should give you a good idea of how your income translates into financial aid (or not) for different types of schools.

To get an even better idea, you should pick a set of colleges that you could see your kid potentially attending, and spin through their financial aid calculators.  These individual aid calculators have become quite sophisticated and you can see how different colleges will treat your different levels of assets vs. income etc.  So you can run the counterfactuals to see that, for example, if my DH loses his job and makes no income, that won’t at all give us any more aid at Harvey Mudd (which is stingy for high-income folks and extremely expensive) or our local state school (which we could cash-flow), but would make a big difference at Harvard (which is generous up the income distribution).  (Here’s us doing those exercises and contemplating how much we would need to save for a set of private schools .  I just spun through the super simple Harvard calculator and for spendthrift high income folks with no savings, your kids can still get a scholarship at a joint parental income of 260K!  You can play with how hiding assets in retirement changes aid compared to having to report them like with a 529.  Note that Harvard is a bit of an outlier both in terms of generosity and how easy it is to use their calculator.)

Loans for college are not a terrible idea, especially if you can get subsidized loans.  You can put money away for retirement now and then take out loans for college that you can repay more quickly by contributing less to retirement later when the contributions will no longer count for college.  If you’re maxing out your retirement options today at 30%, then you can drop down to the match later when your children need the money.

Many people feel uncomfortable using money for purposes that they have not initially dedicated that money to.  For this set of people, putting money in a 529 is the only way to guarantee that a child will be able to go to something other than the cheapest college option.  If this feeling is acknowledged, however, and planned for in advance, I think it can be gotten around.  You can decide now what money you want to earmark now for college, put that in retirement funds instead, then take out loans and repay them later for the amount in question by putting less in retirement later and cash-flowing.

In terms of using a Roth to save for college– there are a couple of wrinkles to doing that.  Drawing money out while your child is still in school can decrease your financial aid eligibility because some of that hidden money turns into income.   Here’s another post with more details on the pros and cons of Roth IRAs for college savings.  Note that these cons can be gotten around by delaying when you use the Roth until the child is close to graduation, assuming that doing so will not affect a younger child’s financial aid eligibility.  (And the principal rather than the earnings can be withdrawn after college is complete for no penalty.)

College is not cheap, and it may be worth saving 30% or more of your income now knowing that some portion of that is being saved for college (in terms of needing to save less than 15% of your income later) even if you’re not earmarking it.

Now, I noted that today we regret not having put the $500/month/kid in our kids’ 529s (not to mention mortgage pre-payments) in our retirement options instead.  The reason for that is that we are now high income and we are maxing out our retirement options (DH also has much less space to save than he did when he was working for the university).  Any money we save over that amount cannot be hidden from colleges.  There are a number of pricey schools out there that we will not get financial aid at should DC1 get in and decide zie wants to attend.  (DC2 may be better off in terms of financial aid since DC1’s tuition and living expenses will do a good job of eating all of those assets.)  We’ve paid off our house, have replaced DH’s car, will replace mine sometime in the next two years (Financial aid starts counting 2 years before college starts), and are renovating our kitchen, but even after all of that we will have assets leftover that could have been hidden in retirement accounts.  We could in theory buy a bigger house or I could get something other than a sensible car, but I guess I’d rather donate tuition to a university than make those changes.  (#richpeopleproblems)  (Note that if our income goes up more, then we can ignore all of this because we won’t be eligible at any asset-level, but if DH loses his job and our income is halved, then all of this becomes extremely important.)  Here’s our most recent recommendation of what order to save for multiple big financial goals, and here’s our recommendation of what vehicles to use.  Finally, if you haven’t opened up a 529, here’s our thoughts on which one to pick.

Grumpy Nation, what are your experiences with saving for college?

 

An unexpectedly high bill

The other week DH’s relative called DH at 10pm on a weeknight in a bit of a panic because kid #4 had signed up for community college next semester unbeknownst to him (she’s graduating a semester early and we are impressed with her initiative!) and the bill was due. Was our offer to pay it still valid? DH said sure, no problem, and we went back to sleep.

The bill turned out to be for $1,800!

So we said, we can pay this, BUT we think it’s really unlikely that you actually have to pay this much given that daughter #1 was free and #2 was something like $300/semester after financial aid. (This is more like the bill we would expect should one of them go to a 4 year school.)

Looking closer, it appeared that financial aid had not been included in the bill, even though they had done the FAFSA and everything else. Kid #4 also said two of her friends had gotten similarly scary bills. So something was messed up. (Also it turned out the deadline posted on the bill was a month earlier than the actual deadline!)

After several days of phone tag, DH’s relative finally got someone on the phone, but they said that they couldn’t talk financial aid with him, only with his daughter, even though she’s 17 and still a minor. She needed to come into the office to sign a bunch of forms.

So she went into the office, and instead of giving her forms, they emailed her forms. But they don’t have a printer, so she had to go back to the office (but the office’s printer cuts off the bottom of every page…). There was a lot more back and forth and in the end, the relative and his daughter both went into the office together. And a month later, everything got sorted out. All we have to pay for is books. Whew.

Our hope is that this daughter will get her SAT score up at least 10 points so she’s state school eligible and then go to a 4 year school (neither of her sisters finished their associates degrees because they dropped out after having babies and the oldest son didn’t start because he couldn’t drive himself… our hope is that maybe the 4-year college environment will be more appealing than dropping out… but we have learned we can only do so much nudging and we never truly know what the right thing to do is).  She’s interested in an education degree, but might change her mind.

So… I guess the moral is … if you get a bill that is way larger than expected, chances are something went wrong?

Facts and Opinions are not the same thing: Part 2

Part one from five years ago at the private school where they do not teach untruths about the civil war but still do not understand the difference between objective statements and opinions.

As promised, DC1 ended the semester being tested on the idea that the cause of the civil war was not reaaaaalllly slavery, but state rights.

I read out the reasons for the civil war given by the southerners who withdrew from the union.  They are PRETTY CLEAR that it was about slavery.  On top of that, South Carolina was pretty pissed off about NY getting to keep its state right of not allowing people to be property in its borders so that Southerners couldn’t take slaves with them to do business in NY.

Then DC1 said, “people have a lot of different opinions”.

And that led to a really lengthy discussion about what is an opinion and what is an untrue statement of fact.  DH and I threw around a lot of terms like “subjective” and “objective”.  Also “hypothesis”.  We talked about climate change.

It drives me nuts that people label incorrect statements as “opinions” and don’t seem to understand the difference between objective truths (which are true no matter what we believe, but sadly cannot always be tested) and subjective opinions.  (“Can an opinion ever be wrong?” DC1 asked. “Sure,” I said, “Saying ‘Eggnog is the best drink in the world’ is an example of a wrong opinion.”)  And this is codified in the South through the K-12 system and reinforced by Fox News.  It is in the airwaves.  I hate it.  And I don’t want to have to add it to my stats class, but maybe I should.

Last year I asked my grad students if we should spend some time on what is “fake news” and they all said no, they understood.  This year they’re not as sure.  Last year “fake news” really was fake– spewed out by what we now know were Russian bots.  This year Republicans have labeled reputable news organizations as “fake news” so it’s more confusing.  On top of that, even formerly reputable news organizations like WSJ have been taken over by ideologues so there’s a lot of crud coming out.  (NYTimes has always had a contingent of crud, and NPR started to kind of suck a couple of years ago.)

How do you all deal with the difference?

Ask the grumpies: if I want to give my kids a huge amount of money as young adults, how should I do it?

Sandy L asks

Should I buy my kid a house or pay for tuition?

Student loans can be deferred etc. if the kid is paying their own way they may be more serious etc.

Tuition. The pay your own way thing is BS. Here’s our deliberately controversial post on that topic. You can compromise by having them pay their own extras (clothing, meals out, etc). Then they’ll have the same experience of learning how to budget and not living high on the hog but without the huge amounts of debt at the end.  Also, note that if you’re paying tuition directly, it isn’t subject to the gift tax.  “Under current IRS rules, a payment made directly to an educational institution to pay for the tuition of a student does not count as a gift to the student for gift tax purposes, ” according to fastweb.

Buying a child a house could lock the kid in place and create additional expenses.  A house is a lot of responsibility when you’re just starting out, and trying to deal with selling and repairs on top of job searching and dating and hobbies and anything else that young people do might be more hassle than help.  (And if the kid decides to sell the house in order to pay off hir education, basically you’ve just given realtors a bunch of transaction fees and paid gift taxes for nothing.)  If you’re only talking about providing a downpayment, that’s even worse because a mortgage is a big fixed expense and the kid might not be able to sell very easily if the house goes underwater and they get a job elsewhere.

What do you think Grumpy Nation?  Any experiences with either?

Ask the grumpies: How to save for multiple kids’ 529s?

First Gen American asks:

Once our mortgage is done again, we’ll swap that out with a 529 auto deposit option that comes out of both paychecks….which brings me to another question…Should we funnel a ton now into older kid and worry about younger kid later (he’s 4 years younger) or should we fund both at the same time now? I’m assuming we can roll over older kid’s excess into younger kid if we over deposit but then if we die before kids do, an uneven distribution would screw things up for kid 2. Not sure what to do yet.

I have also spent some time thinking about this.  I am not sure it actually matters that much.

Yes, if you have too much money for kid #1, you can easily transfer the leftover amount to the second child.  (An added wrinkle–if you undersave for DC1, will you take from DC2’s account?  You can, but would you be willing to?)

A quick check on the internet suggests that the 529 does not automatically go to the child who is named on its behalf– you can name a beneficiary.  It is also something that you can talk about with an attorney for a trust if you do not have a successor that you trust not to just liquidate it at a loss.

We have target-date accounts for our children in their 529s, so it makes sense in terms of risk to fund them separately.  That means DC1’s account has less risk in it right now (a larger bond to stock ratio) than DC2’s does because DC1 is closer to college.  But I’m thinking of them as separate buckets and we’re aiming to fully fund 4 years at a private school given that we’re not expecting much financial aid.

If you’re not thinking of them as separate buckets, then you might want to think of it as if you are going to “retire” and you know you’re going to be alive for 8 years after “retirement” and then suddenly “die” (if you’re planning on funding post-college education, or your DCs might take more than 4 years to graduate, then you might want to add some years to that).  What kind of investment portfolio would be optimal in that scenario?  It’s going to depend on your risk aversion, but you probably could pick a single fund that would fit your risk preferences given that scenario.

In terms of how we’re funding, I don’t actually think that our method of putting in $X/month to each child’s fund is necessarily optimal.  It would make better sense while we have excess cash to put in lump sums right now and stop contributing later (allowing for more tax preferred earnings).  But $X/month/kid is predictable and is easy to fiddle with should our situation change.

The important thing that gets brought up in the comments when we talk about this kind of situation is the perceived fairness of the situation by the kids.  Pick some rule that seems fair for both kids and stick to it.  If you have to make adjustments, make sure that you adjust for the other kid as well.  For us, we’ve decided that fully funding tuition without loans is what we consider fair, so we will be ignoring the actual costs and financial aid for the schools.  Our kids will get college paid for by us no matter what college they choose.  Other people choose a specific dollar amount (though I hope they adjust it for inflation!), or may have a rule like, “we will pay up to the cost of state school X”.  What you don’t want to do is pay full freight for one kid and force the other to take out loans for the full amount because that can lead to them writing about how you don’t love them on money forums, and nobody wants that.

Grumpeteers– How do you think First Gen should save for two kids’ college?

Programming for kids

I think there’s a part one to kids programming from a couple of years ago, but I cannot find it anywhere in the archives, so maybe it was a discussion in the comments section of another blog.

Computer programming is fun and extremely important.  Even as a social scientist, having a modicum of programming knowledge makes life a ton easier.  Doing statistics requires data cleaning and statistical programming knowledge.  Just knowing what is possible — being able to think in a way that allows programming to make life easier– means big efficiency improvements.  And that’s just social scientists.  Engineers and scientists often have to deal with much more complex coding structures.

Added to that, having a good background in programming also means that your code is much easier to read, understand, and to pick up later and figure out what the heck it was you were doing.  I can usually tell when someone has programming background because they do useful things like comment their code or put carriage returns between sections or indent their code properly when doing loops.  I *wish* more of the people I work with had programming backgrounds!  (She says, after spending a day putting in comments, carriage returns, and tabs so as to be able to read a program before adapting it for this year’s dataset.)

Anyhow, our first foray into programming a couple of summers ago was to try out Scratch.  Scratch was a lot of fun, but it’s more of a toy that teaches some programming structures (ex. loops) than actually teaching programming technique.  I know there’s a lot of thought that playing is the right way to go with programming, and I’m not against playing at all, but there’s a *lot* to be said for getting good technique in while you play.

So now that DC1 is 8 and has spent a couple of summers playing with Scratch, we decided to try something more systematic in.  After some amazon searching, we settled on Python For Kids: A Playful Introduction to Programming. We didn’t want to make this a chore like DC1’s homework books (which sometimes cause angst) and we didn’t want a time limit like piano practicing, so we just said ze has to do some each day, but as much or as little as ze wants.

So far it seems to be working out.  It takes the best parts of Logo (remember the turtle who made boxes?) and combines them with Python.  DC1 is pretty excited about it, and occasionally asks DH for help.  If you don’t have a professional programmer in your house, the same publisher also makes a Python book for parents, Teach Your Kids to Code.

Do you use programming or programming techniques for your work or hobbies?  Any suggestions for introducing people to coding?

School districts, housing, and having a grade-skipped kid

So, DC1 is grade-skipped by two grades.  Ze is in a private school.

That means that we have no idea what grade ze is going to be in next year when ze goes to public school in a new state.

Which means we’ve been calling around a lot.

And getting a bizarre range of answers about how schools would determine grade level for DC1 in our situation.  How big a range?

1.  DC1 starts in 3rd grade, period.  Then the teacher observes for 6 weeks.  Then a team including the principal discusses the situation and most likely keeps DC1 in 3rd grade, even though ze would be the oldest non-red-shirted kid in the grade.

2.  It’s up to the principal.

3.  The administration would assess DC1 to determine what would be appropriate.  If ze is ready for 5th grade, that is where ze would go.  In additional to educational components, they will assess emotional and social components.  Writing it out this way makes it sound a lot nicer than how they sounded over the phone, which hit both DH and me with a lot of bad memories about our childhood, with the emphasis on emotional/social.  (Because if you’re out of synch with your same-age peers, you’re failing at emotional/social which means they won’t let you skip… Catch-22.) (#2 is still mad about people not letting me skip a grade for social reasons… guess what, I didn’t have friends in school ANYWAY so at least I could have learned something… grumble.)  (#1 would have had friends if she’d been grade skipped.)

4.  Need to take educational documentation including letter from teacher/principal and report card.  The documentation will be reviewed by school administration.

5.  Based on age it would be 4th grade (different cut-off date?), but school records indicating completion of 4th grade would allow DC1 to be placed in 5th.

6.  Ze would be placed in 5th grade automatically.

7.  Ze would be placed in 5th grade and then given a placement test for homogeneous math grouping placement.  Bring materials to help teacher/administration work with DC1.  Would need special reasons to be placed in a grade below 5th.  (“Is it because you’re calling from the South [and worried that a blue state education would be too advanced]?” the confused administrator asked.)

8.  Skip approved with proof of why skipped for special reasons.

So we’re narrowing down our search to #4-8, mainly because #3 gave off such negative vibes.  #7 sounds great, but has very few, if any, houses, mostly apartments and the apartments are interspersed with undergraduate housing.  So we might look out there, but not until we get closer.  #6 is a substantial commute for me and very suburban… not unlike where we live now.  #5 has fifth grade in middle school, not elementary school like all the other districts in the area.  #4 is a pretty good bet in terms of houses, commute times, and walkability, but I’m a bit nervous about where they would really place DC1.  Still, they have some really nice (not cheap!) houses and the commute is great.

I guess the moral is that different places do things widely differently, sometimes even in a smallish geographic area?

Ask the grumpies: Best school environments for gifted children?

Sarah asks:

What does the research say about the best school environment for gifted children?  We are looking at kindergarten options for the 2015-2016 school year for our child and I cannot find any conclusive research about what would be best for him – we feel paralyzed.

Back story: At 4.5 our child tested at a highly gifted level in math (~4th grade level) and simply above average in reading kindergarten-1st grade level).  He responds the best in the classroom setting when there is structure and order, but needs to be constantly challenged, otherwise there are some minor behavioral issues.   We have the ability and time to supplement at home, but our preference is to minimize that in order to allow him as much time to be a kid. The three options are all public schools and within the same district:

1. Skip kindergarten and send him directly into 1st grade at a solid school.  This school also has a system of individual differentiation that allows children to “walk” up grade levels for specific subjects; up to two grade levels ahead, I believe.  This is the only chance we have within the district to skip a grade, so it is now or never.

2. Attend the excellent “gifted” school.  This school doesn’t cater to gifted children specifically, but rather works at an advanced pace, ~ 1.5 years ahead.  The class moves together as a cohort, with some differentiation within that specific class, mostly in reading.  My impression is that  the school benefits bright children, but that outliers get left behind – my child being an outlier in both reading (low end) and math (high end).

3. Start kindergarten at a solid school that specializes in math and science. This school has one of the better math programs in the district and does a decent job allowing for differentiation within the classroom.

The district makes it incredibly difficult for children to change schools once they commit in kindergarten, so the pressure is on to make the right decision the first time

This one is easy… from a research perspective.  A Nation Deceived (soon to be updated with A Nation Empowered!) talks about the research base for the different options.  Also the Iowa Acceleration Scale that you can take discusses things that make acceleration a better or worse option (parents caring about sports being a big negative, for example).  (This post talks about my favorite books from the endless # I read when we were originally facing these problems: https://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2011/03/04/reading-books-on-giftedness/ )

From a practical perspective, not as simple.

IIRC, research would say that a gifted school with like-ability peers is best for the average gifted kid, followed by acceleration and/or single-subject acceleration, followed by I think differentiation and then pull-out.  But that’s on average.  Individual situations are rarely average.

What we’ve been doing is we’ve been looking at all of our options and making decisions on things like teacher quality, how well the schools understand basic concepts of gifted education/are willing to work with people, etc.  Teacher quality and administration with a positive attitude can be far more important than school type.

If you haven’t visited these three schools, visit them.  Ask them what they would do for your son in his situation.  Ask them what they do when children have already mastered the material.  Ask them how they handle squiggly kids.  Ask them any and all of your concerns and listen to not just their specific answers, but how they deal with the questions.  Do you feel that these are people you could work with if you needed to?

Also, as you’ve done, think about ability to make changes if you decide your decision was the wrong one.  Even if you can’t change schools easily, you can undo acceleration if necessary.

Honestly, all your choices sound like promising choices on the surface.  One full skip plus individual subject skipping is great.  Gifted schools can be great (and a gifted public boarding school could be a really great choice a decade from now, or one of the fantastic magnets in your city).  Math and science schools can also be good targets for gifted kids both because of their focus and because they often attract like-minded kids.

But the devil is in the details– how good are the teachers, how accommodating is the administration?  For example, our local math and science charter has enormous K-3 classes… it does not give a good education for those years.  Some gifted schools really just function to be white oases in minority-majority cities and thus get heavily watered down and end up not serving gifted kids at all; others are. as you note, more inflexible with outliers than non-gifted options.  Being accelerated has benefits (academically and socially), but there’s something amazing about being able to be with other gifted kids your own age if your city has a large enough population to support that.

I will note that a lot of kids will not be reading at all in kindergarten and will not be at quite 1st grade level in first.  Unless you suspect a learning disability (which I wouldn’t at this point, but I’m not an expert), then I would guess that that reading ability is going to shoot up over the course of the next year.  I strongly recommending getting a pile of Cam Jansens (possibly a few Nate the Greats and similar books– the librarian can help you) and as many Magic Treehouse books as you can get your hands on soon after.  Non-fiction books are also really popular at this age (Magic School bus is a good series, but really anything by Scholastic at this reading level is fascinating depending on the kids’ interest.  Dinosaurs?  Planets?).  Reading for fun is still being a kid!  So I wouldn’t be too worried at this point about the difference between math and reading skills– the reading will really just skyrocket once your kid finds something worth reading.

With luck, all of these will be as wonderful choices in reality as they sound and it will be impossible to make a bad decision.  If it were my kid (or if your kid were my kid…), I wouldn’t be able to decide based on these descriptions and DH and I would visit and go with our gut instinct.

Good luck!

Grumpy Nation:  What are your thoughts?  For those of you with choices, how did you make schooling decisions for your kids?

Ask the grumpies: Class size research

Fiona McQuarrie asks:

Just curious whether you have any opinion on the Hoxby class size research (in Connecticut) that Gladwell discusses.

Here’s an interesting summary of class size research from Brookings.  It is worth reading if you’re interested in the topic.

There’s a lot of stuff going on with class size research (it is, in fact, the topic going through the Stock and Watson undergraduate econometrics textbook because it has been attacked through most standard econometrics methods).

A couple of important things to note about external validity for these studies:

1.  Natural experiments (and, indeed, standard experiments) are only as externally valid as the experiment itself.  That means that a study that finds an effect on kindergarteners is not going to necessarily say much about high school students.  We know a lot about class size and K-3, we don’t know so much about middle grades or higher.  This particular experiment is on 4th and 6th grade.  It argues that it gets cumulative effects of class size by cohort size, but when a cohort is expected to be a certain size, districts may plan differently by moving bad teachers to small cohorts and good teachers to larger cohorts etc.  They may do the same with aides when deciding where to make a class-size split, or they may make specific decisions about where to put the problem kids or whether to do tracking or clustering.  That kind of planning would completely wash out the effect in a way that you would not see if all classes were restricted to a certain size because of a policy change.  That kind of planning is more likely to be going on in the type of natural experiment that Hoxby examines in this study.

2.  Class size decisions are not made in isolation.  A policy asking for extra money from the federal government to reduce class size is going to provide different results than a policy that is forced to take that extra money out of another budget.  Generally, research suggests that, believe it or not, most schools are doing the best that they can with the budgets that they have.  When you give them an unfunded mandate, outcomes are hurt in ways that they wouldn’t be if you gave them a funded mandate.  Hiring more new teachers and buying portables while taking money away from other programs may end up having a negative effect even if smaller class-sizes are beneficial.  The type of natural experiment Hoxby is looking at is one of these situations– the budget isn’t changing based on class-sizes, they get the same $/kid whether they’re in a large cohort or a small cohort.  The only thing that changes is the expense from economies of scale (whether they need one teacher/classroom or two).  That’s a different situation than one in which expenses for everything else stays the same but the district gets extra money to hire more teachers and buy portables.

So, do Hoxby’s results mean that class size is unimportant?  No.  They just show that it seems to be unimportant in the type of situation that she’s studying, one in which variations in elementary school class-size are caused by variations in cohort size.  That’s why there’s a large literature on this topic– the answer is different in different situations.  We need a lot of experiments and natural experiments to get the full picture.

Side note:  Caroline Hoxby is one of my personal heroes.  If I ever decide to give up this academia thing, I’m totally going to beg her for an RA job.  She is an amazing economist.  Also, rumor has it (aka multiple of her coauthors has mentioned) that she is one of those people who sleeps 4 hours/night every night because of low sleep need.

So… a hypothetical behavior problem

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you have an amazing wonderful DC1 who has been incredibly well-behaved for all 7 years of hir short life.  (Except during brief times when ze has been under-challenged, and occasionally when hanging out with hir favorite extended family relatives.) Hypothetically this 7 year old is in 3rd grade at a private school.

And during the first half of third grade at this private school, the then-6 year old was a complete and total angel.

But something about age 7 changed things.  DC1 tries really hard to be good, but is easily distracted.  Ze doesn’t always listen to hir teachers.  Ze tries to be silly in ways that are disruptive to the class.  Ze doesn’t show hir teachers the quiet respect that ze used to just last semester.  Ze starts forgetting to hand in hir homework.  It isn’t an every day problem, but it is becoming an every week problem.  DC1 also doesn’t always listen to hir parents and even occasionally talks back(!).

Third grade is a little difficult in this school– they start having more electives and different teachers early.  It isn’t like K-2 where there was one teacher for all subjects except art, music, PE, French, and Spanish.  There’s different teachers for the different subjects, with the maximum of two overlaps.  DC1 is really only having problems with two of the teachers (or rather, two of the teachers are having problems with hir– the other teachers probably deal with the misbehavior better).  Our first thought was that maybe ze was bored and has been acting out, but the class that gets the most notes home is the one that ze always talks about and is learning the most in (the teacher seems to be teaching the advanced students at middle or high school level, which is thrilling to DC1, and also mentos and coke are involved).

Our second thought is that this particular teacher punishes kids a lot because last semester DC1 was always talking about the other kids getting into trouble in class.  At a Christmas function, the teacher had remarked to us how well behaved DC1 was compared to most of the other students.  (Not anymore, apparently.)  The next thing we heard about it, a quarter later, DC1 got a negative report card with a lengthy list of infractions.  Another teacher also commented on the report card that DC1 had been disrupting hir class more than once.  We asked DC1 about each of the items, but ze couldn’t remember any details, but did mention that ze had gotten into time out after school that day but couldn’t remember why, or even which class.

So, in theory, we sat down with DC1 and brainstormed ways to address every single one of hir infractions.  For example, DC1 was to pretend that the teacher controlled an electro-magnet keeping hir rear end in the chair.  No touching other students except at recess and in PE.  Devoting a special folder to the problem class that ze took home and to class every single day.  And so on.  All of these got rewritten into an apology letter to the teacher.  We also sent a parent note apologizing, explaining DC1’s list, and asking to be notified as soon as any future disruption occurred.  Also we sent a book on classroom management that we’d both found helpful.  A smaller apology about class disruptions went to the other teacher.  In the mornings we went over the list on the drive to school every day for a week.

And things were fine for a little while.  Then ze started forgetting homework assignments again.  Specifically ze had cryptic assignments written in hir assignment notebook (ex.  “mentos and baking soda”) and could not remember what ze was supposed to do (watch videos?  bring mentos and baking soda to class?).  So DH called the school to set up an appointment.  Instead he got a phonecall back from the teacher.  She explained that those cryptic assignments had been extra credit (since DC1 always finishes hir homework in the class), and that DC1 wasn’t so bad that a conference was necessary.

DH took DC1 in to the pedi to get hir hearing checked.  Just in case.  It was fine.

Then, a week later, a note requiring a parent signature came home.  DC1 had caused another class disruption.  After some memory prodding, ze recalled that there had been a fan on in the classroom and it was so cool talking into the fan that ze had ignored the teacher’s instructions, hadn’t gotten in hir seat, and hadn’t stopped when asked.  The teacher wanted a p/t conference and left an email address.   We signed the sheet and sent it back with DC1, but not in the special folder because ze has forgotten to bring it home.  Several days later, I noticed that the signed sheet was still in DC1’s backpack and the special folder had still not been brought home.

We also noted that, despite REPEATED reminders and warnings from us, and multiple picking out special sesame sticks treats at the grocery store for the express purpose of being brought to snack, DC1 had stopped bringing/eating afternoon snack.  The problem class in question turns out to be the last class of the day.  So more brainstorming about how to remember to pack and bring a snack (this week:  strawberries).  Because DC1 really is a pill when ze has low blood sugar.

The last note home was a week ago.  The teacher hasn’t emailed back with a time for a conference.  DC1 did hand in the paper.  Ze hasn’t gotten in trouble again, yet.

I ordered How to talk so kids will listen from the library, and it was not helpful, as apparently DH and I are already perfect parents.  (We already do what it says to do except the parts where their codicil warnings note that some kids may be super irritated by those specific suggestions.  Interestingly, I felt super irritated by their first chapter that was telling me that we did things that we do not do and felt things that I do not feel.   Ironic!)  In their illustrations of how to behave, we’re already the “Gallant” side.  (There must be parents who are more the “Goofus” side, but just reading those depictions made me cringe.)  So yay us, but completely and totally not useful for our current situation.

[Side-note:  My mother says she’s a bit relieved that DC1 is getting in trouble, as ze has been preternaturally good.  She was a little worried there was something wrong.]

So, for the tl;dr set….

When your 7 year old starts acting like a 7 year old and is in a situation where the teacher can’t really handle 7 year olds acting like 7 year olds, and the 7 year old really wants to behave more like a 10 year old… How do you help that 7 year old listen more, respect hir teachers more, get distracted less, and remember to bring hir stuff places?

Any ideas?  Because we’re out of them.  Right now the best we’ve got is, “This too shall pass.”  But it would be nice to be able to do more than just wait it out.