Is it poverty or parenting?

Education reformers are accused of blaming schools for achievement gaps caused by poverty and inequality, writes Mike Petrilli on Ed Week‘s Bridging Differences.

If the issue is poverty, as in not enough money, then the solution is to give low-income families extra cash in the form of welfare, the Earned Income Tax Credit or a  minimum wage hike, he writes. But “research and experience” tells us that won’t erase achievement gaps. Kids who are born in poverty and grow up in poverty share certain traits:

 Most were born to single mothers, and their fathers have been absent from the start, or by the time they turn two or three;

Most of their mothers were teenagers or in their early 20s when they gave birth;

Most of their mothers have very little education—a high school diploma or less–and thus few marketable skills;

Many of their mothers suffer from mental illness or addiction or both;

More money might ease poor mothers’ stress or enable them to afford “marginally better childcare or preschool, or books, or educational games,” he writes.

But will it erase the huge gaps in early vocabulary development, non-cognitive skill-building, and other essential school readiness tasks between these disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers? Between these kids and their age-mates born into two-parent families? With highly-educated mothers and fathers? With parents who were in their 30s when they started families, instead of their teens?

To believe so, you’d have to put as much faith in cash transfers and social services as some reformers put in schools. You’d have to believe in miracles.

The issue isn’t just poverty, Petrilli argues. It’s parenting. Children are “growing up without fathers, and they are doing terribly,” especially black boys. Schools could provide “transformational” interventions that give children “the hope, confidence, and skills to find a different path.” If not schools, then what?

In absolute dollars, the U.S. child poverty rate isn’t much higher than the rate in Finland.


Source: “Poor People in Rich Nations: The United States in Comparative Perspective,” Timothy Smeeding, 2006

But the U.S. looks  very bad when it comes to fatherless families:


Source: World Family Map.


About Joanne


  1. It’s neither. It’s genes.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    The solution is simple. As part of the preventive emphasis of the Affordable Care Act, all young people should be reversibly sterilized. The procedure will be reversed when they show they are ready to raise successful children: graduated high school, over 18, with a job and/or in a stable monogamous relationship.

    Anything less is a band-aid that doesn’t address the root causes of failure in school.

  3. What percentage of poverty children are special education?
    What percentage have 2 or more unmarried adults in the household? It is quite common here for the dad to be in the household, just not when the school comes calling. More bennies that way.