If families fail, what can schools do?

Who’s your daddy? asks Ian Rowe, a Fordham fellow, who leads two charter schools in the South Bronx. That’s the message on two mobile DNA testing labs that roam the neighborhood.

Education reformers believe that “a child born or raised in a low-income neighborhood should not be destined for a life of poverty,” writes Rowe. “But what happens when poverty is intertwined with widespread fatherlessness and family disintegration?”

Perhaps it is time to confess, somewhat reluctantly, that even the most high-performing schools are necessary but insufficient to overcome the challenges children face when they live in low-income communities in which family instability is the norm.

Poverty isn’t new, he writes. “In 1960, fewer than 5 percent of all births in the US were out of wedlock; today it’s more than 40 percent.”

Schools should teach children that their life decisions, such as finishing school, getting a job and marrying before having children, will affect their adult success, Rowe writes.


For children born into poor, single-parent families, preschool starts too late, concludes a paper by economist James Heckman and colleagues. Two 1970s’ experiments, which provided full-time care from cradle (eight weeks of age) to kindergarten, provided lasting benefits, they conclude.

Government-funded preschool has failed to deliver on promises of massive social benefits, counters Joy Pullman in The Federalist.

Now Heckman says it must “start at birth” to affect language development.

Advantaged children hear millions more words by the age of five than disadvantaged children, Heckman told NPR. The way to close the gap is “reading to the child, by encouraging the child.”

That’s what parents — especially married parents — do, writes Pullman. Yet, “two in five children” are “born into a kind of home that social scientists on both the Left and Right unanimously agree sets them up to fail.”

Happy Thanksgiving

Ravinia Elementary students sang We Gather Together every fall, at least in my day. I remember learning the meaning of “chasten” and trying not to hiss too much in “oppressing” and “distressing.”

Here’s a link to Thanksgiving History from Plimoth Plantation.

Have a good day.

Poor kids, weak families: What can schools do?

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which is said to explain the Donald Trump’s appeal to the white underclass should be “required reading for education reformers,” writes Robert Pondiscio in U.S. News.

Vance writes about his family’s “tradition” of poverty, now made worse by family chaos and drug abuse. His father abandoned him. His mother was a suicidal alcoholic who exposed him to a succession of stepfathers and boyfriends.

Despite “an almost religious faith” in hard work and the American dream, in his home town in Ohio is a place “where 30 percent of the young men work less than 20 hours a week and not a single person [is] aware of his own laziness.”

Most children do poorly in school. “We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents,” Vance writes.

Watching an episode of “The West Wing,” Vance is struck that “in an entire discussion about why poor kids struggled in school, the emphasis rested entirely on public institutions. As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, ‘They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that so many of them are raised by wolves.'”

Given a few years of stability by his Mamaw (grandmother,  the one who set Papaw on fire), Vance made it to the Marine Corps, Ohio State,  Yale Law and Silicon Valley. Most of those he grew up with remain poor.

Books about inner-city blacks, such as William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged and Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, “could have been written about hillbillies,” writes Vance, who believes “our government encouraged social decay through the welfare state.”

In his 2012 book Coming Apart, Murray writes about the economic, social and cultural poverty of the white underclass, writes Pondiscio. He also cites Random Family, “Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s 2003 book about two young women caught up in a suffocating web of destructive relationships, teen pregnancy, drugs, crime and general dysfunction in the South Bronx.”

If there is any theme that ought to have emerged from the fractious state of our politics and civic life in 2016, it is not how divided we are but how deeply and stubbornly obtuse we are about one another’s lives. There is a tendency to sentimentalize the lives of the poor, or to infuse poverty with a false note of tragic heroism. Vance seems aware of this himself, noting in his preface that his object is not to argue that working-class white “deserve more sympathy than other folks” but that he hopes readers “will be able to take from it an appreciation of how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism.”

In an interview with Rod Dreher, Vance says the poor should be seen “as moral agents in their own right,” not merely as victims of circumstance. Better public policy can help, he says, but not much.

That leaves us with the problem: If Mama ain’t functional (and Daddy’s  gone), ain’t nobody functional. What do schools do to help these kids learn?

To help the poor, give them money

To prepare children from low-income families for school success, U.S. policy and funding has focused on Head Start and universal pre-kindergarten, writes Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst. But research shows that giving more money to low-income parents is more cost effective, he writes.

The Earned Income Tax Credit, which raises the income of  low-income working parents, is more effective than providing free pre-K for four-year-olds, he writes. The chart also shows the modest effects of class-size reduction and Head Start.

Northern European countries focus on supporting family incomes rather than providing preschool or pre-K, writes Whitehurst. “A policy midpoint” could be giving families more money, but limiting it to expenditures on their young children. He envisions something like food stamps.

In Finland, working parents of young children can choose from a variety of child-care providers or “opt to receive a financial subsidy that allows them to reduce their work hours in order to be home more with their child,” he writes. “They can also take unpaid leave.” The rate of enrollment in child-care centers is very low for children under four.

Teen birth rate hits new low

The teen birth rate has declined by 61 percent since its peak in 1991, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Between 2006 and 2014, the teen birth rate for Hispanics fell by 51 percent and for blacks by 44 percent, while the birth rate for white teens declined by 35 percent. Hispanic and black teens remain twice as likely to give birth.

Some think MTV's "16 and Pregnant" has discouraged teen pregnancy by showing its challenges.

Some think MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” has discouraged teen pregnancy by showing its challenges.

More teens “are taking advantage of innovations like long-acting injectable and implantable methods that can last years over a daily birth control pill,” writes Ariana Eunjung Cha in the Washington Post. And teens are “having less sex.”

For younger teens, there’s now peer pressure to be abstinent, says Veronica Gomez-Lobo, director of pediatric gynecology at Children’s National Medical Center.

Abortion rates have declined or stayed in the same in every state but Vermont, according to the Guttmacher Institute’s research, Cha adds.

One of the most interesting possibilities has been the popularity of MTV’s hit reality show “16 and Pregnant.” The struggles of the young moms in the show – who were often shown in tears—may have served as cautionary tales to millions of viewers their age. A study that came out in 2014 estimated that teen births dropped 6 percent in the 18 months following the show’s first broadcasts.

Others theorize that better sex education programs and the ability to research effective contraception online have contributed to the decline.

Good schools matter 

Families matter a great deal and schools very little when it comes to education, concluded the famous Coleman report, Equality of Educational Opportunity, 50 years ago. Coleman mixed up cause and correlation, writes Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby as part of Education Next‘s look back on the influential report.

Coleman “did not consider the possibility that advantaged children might have had high achievement precisely because their parents could choose good schools and ditch bad schools,” she writes.

Coleman believed teacher quality didn’t matter because measurable teacher characteristics, such as experience, education and vocabulary score, explained little of the variation in students’ achievement.

Parents always knew some teachers were better than others, writes Hoxby. These days, “numerous rigorous analyses of value-added demonstrate that teachers matter a great deal.”

Coleman failed to see that “good” families might be those who could discern which teachers were effective and get their children into those teachers’ classes. Thus, part of the apparent family effect was really a choose-effective-teachers effect.

(Before my daughter started kindergarten, I visited the two teachers’ classrooms and requested the one I liked the most. In later years, I networked with other parents to determine which teachers had the best reputations.)
Looking back, it is obvious that this early and voluntary desegregation was dominated by selection, that is, families’ own choices.Coleman also concluded that minority children achieved more when they had white classmates, Hoxby writes. But his study didn’t look at students randomly assigned to an integrated or all-black classroom. The data, from an era before desegregation orders, reflected “the sort of black families who were motivated and able to live in integrated neighborhoods.”

Hoxby attended voluntarily integrated schools in Shaker Heights, Ohio.  “Often, the blacks were professionals who already spent most of their working lives among whites, had white friends, and participated in mixed-race church and social groups. ”

Her research has found that “when students are randomly assigned to schools, it is the achievement and not the race of their peers that matters.”

Modern family

Will Saletan (@saletan) tweets: “My son was marked down 5 percent on a high school health test because he chose this ‘incorrect’ definition of family.”

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An alternative to the parent-teacher stampede

The New York Times has an article about the rush and frenzy of parent-teacher conferences. At Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, the yellow tape in the lobby was cut at exactly 1 p.m.; parents made a dash for the stairs in order to reach their appointment locations. (Apparently they made appointments in advance but had to traverse considerable distances from one appointment to the next.) The conferences themselves were no more than five minutes long. Other schools enforced a limit of three minutes per conference.

Are these rushed official parent-teacher conferences needed? Or rather, are they what’s needed?

At the elementary school level, the conferences are often less hectic, because students might have the same classroom teacher for English, math, and even social studies. Except for the “cluster” teachers, most teachers have a small or moderate student load. In high school, each teacher may have 170 students or more. In a school with high parent involvement, it’s difficult to fit all conferences in, so the strict time limits (often enforced by student patrols) become the norm.

I propose a different system.

Consider that some parents come with specific questions and concerns, while others (often the majority) wish to greet the teachers, meet them for the first time, or exchange a few informal words in person.

One parent-teacher night per semester could take the form of a reception. Teachers would greet parents, give a short presentation with Q & A, and talk informally (without privacy).

Then there would be other established times over the course of the year (within or close to the edges of the school day) when parents could come in to speak with teachers one on one. These would be announced at the start of the school year so that everyone could plan.

Some might worry that the individual conferences would add to teachers’ already overloaded schedules. To the contrary: they could end up relieving teachers somewhat. Under the current system, parents and teachers must make any individual appointments at their mutual convenience; there are no prearranged slots for this. Sometimes the appointment takes place before 8 a.m., or between two classes, or during lunch. Sometimes the very scheduling takes more time than the appointment itself (lots of back-and-forth negotiation, cancellation, rescheduling, etc.). If there were a few prearranged appointment times, then parents and teachers would not have to worry about scheduling them; they’d just show up.

Of course, there would still be a need for some spontaneous and emergency meetings. But the non-emergency meetings (which are just as important) would have an allocated time. There would be room to discuss how to help students in need of greater challenge, or students with specific needs. Students could take part in and even initiate the conferences.

Also, such meetings wouldn’t necessarily revolve around report cards. Students, parents, and teachers could look over tests, essays, homework, projects, lessons, and more. They could discuss the concepts of the lessons as well as the students’ performance.

In short, you could meet students’ needs without the stampedes.

Hollywood can save our families — but won’t

MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” has increased searches for contraceptives and reduced teen births by 5.7 percent, a study concludes. 

Hollywood could “save our families” by changing story lines to promote stable, two-parent families, writes Megan McArdle on Bloomberg View. But don’t hold your breath.

Raising children the way an increasing percentages of Americans are — in loosely attached cohabitation arrangements that break up all too frequently, followed by the formation of new households with new children by different parents — is an enormous financial and emotional drain. Supporting two households rather than one is expensive, and it diverts money that could otherwise be invested in the kids. The parent in the home has no one to help shoulder the load of caring for kids, meaning less investment of time and more emotional strain on the custodial parent.

Extended families can help, but single parents have fewer relatives to call on, especially if the mother was raised by a single  mother, she notes. Government can’t make up for a missing parent. “Even in a social democratic paradise such as Sweden, kids raised in single-parent households do worse than kids raised with both their parents in the home,” writes McArdle.

The distance that matters in this case is not the much-discussed distance between the 1 percent and everyone else. Instead, it is the distance between the top 25 percent and the bottom 25 percent — between the people who still mostly live by the old injunctions to get married and stay married if you want to have kids, often while politely declaring that this doesn’t actually matter, and the people who are actually having their children in much more fragile and temporary relationships.

If Hollywood “believed that married two-parent families were overwhelmingly optimal, that would naturally shape what they wrote, in a way that would in turn probably shape what Americans believe, and do,” she concludes.

How schools can close marriage gap

Schools can promote marriage and upward mobility by preparing disadvantaged students for college or careers, writes Mike Petrilli. High-quality career and technical education (CTE) is a “solid pathway to postsecondary education and remunerative and satisfying work.”

“Middle-skill jobs” that require a vocational certificate or two-year degree pay well in fields such as health care and information technology, Petrilli writes. While European countries prepare 40 to 70 percent of young people for technical jobs, “we remain obsessed with the four-year college degree” in the U.S. Fewer high school students are concentrating in career and technical education here than 20 years ago.

A student at Oklahoma’s Ardmore High School, works on an assignment for his Biotechnical program, which is designed to lead to careers in fields like chemistry and microbiology. (Photo by Tom Fields/Oklahoma

A student at Oklahoma’s Ardmore High School, works on an assignment for his Biotechnical program. (Photo by Tom Fields/Oklahoma

“Career academies” — typically small vocational programs within large high schools — combine academic and technical training. A randomized MDRC study found career-academy graduates earned more, worked more and were more strongly attached to the labor market, compared to a control group, writes Petrilli.  The effect was strongest for black and Latino males.

Even more striking is that, years after high school, career-academy graduates were more likely to be married and living with their spouse than their peers in a control group.

It’s not clear whether they “developed skills that helped them form more stable relationships or became more ‘marriageable’ because of their stronger career prospects,” writes Petrilli.