A Missing Link for Improving Education

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy has said that “the nuclear family is the best form of governance known to mankind.” That notion has its critics, but it is increasingly shared by many across the political spectrum. Two recent books, for instance— Robert Cherry’s The State of the Black Family: Sixty Years of Tragedies and Failures and New Initiatives Offering Hope and Melissa Kearny’s The Two Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind—present evidence that family dynamics influence a child’s life chances more than any other factor, including formal education. Unfortunately, state-level educational assessments and the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) include no student information on family structure (for example, whether a student lives in a two-parent, single-parent, guardian, or foster household), making it harder to pursue data-driven educational interventions.

In our book, The Economics of Equity, we discuss state-level policy interventions to involve parents more effectively in their children’s education, to implement initiatives such as after-school programming targeted toward students most in need, and to help capable students of low socioeconomic status. These recommendations are especially important, given what we know about how students of low socioeconomic status spend substantially less time on educational activities outside of school. We cannot keep throwing more money at this problem; we have to address the root issue, which starts with the family. If schools could access data on family dynamics, they could craft more realistic parent-teacher-student-school responsibility agreements and create tiered intervention systems that take family capability and needs into account.

The good news is that this has been done before. For instance, one of us has written about how a school serving students from low-income families achieved Blue Ribbon status through the leadership of its principal. The principal’s key intervention was an afterschool program focusing on students with unstructured home environments. The principal was only able to make these determinations, however, thanks to teacher recommendations, not from an official database that tracked these kids’ home status.

Interventions based on students’ gender, race, class, learning disabilities, or English proficiency alone have led to many ineffective initiatives. Each of these characteristics is correlated with achievement gaps but is not their driving factor. In some cases, as with California’s new math requirements, officials are promoting initiatives that not only cost taxpayers dearly but also risk worsening achievement gaps.

Our book also summarizes the empirical evidence on charter and private schools, which have historically been better suited to parental involvement. Since parents must choose these schools, the schools can require a certain level of accountability from them. They can also create and adapt systems that meet parents’ needs without having to pass through the layers of bureaucracy and union battles common in public schools.

Unfortunately, the student data currently available to public school educators don’t help them address problems stemming from family status. Providing schools with data on family structure would give them a vital tool for addressing academic achievement gaps and improving educational outcomes.

Photo: martin-dm/iStock

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