All in the family?

Liam Julian

The latest report from ETS, The Family: America's Smallest School, is packed with data that show how a child's educational achievement is correlated with his family situation. If the youngster grows up in a poor, single-parent home where books are scarce--well, it doesn't bode well for his performance in school.

Thus, the authors (including the estimable Paul Barton) conclude, we must not ignore the family.

Who's been ignoring the family?

Jump back forty years. Rowland Evans and Robert Novak's August 18th, 1965, Wall Street Journal column was all about the famous "Moynihan Report," which was all about the family. Evans and Novak wrote that "based on unexciting census evidence," Daniel P. Moynihan had constructed a study showing "that broken homes, illegitimacy, and female-oriented families were central to big-city Negro problems."

In 1965, of course, poverty was the focus, and Moynihan blamed systemic family dysfunction for a goodly share of poverty's prevalence in America. In the 21st century, we are blaming systemic family dysfunction for educational achievement gaps.

Just as Moynihan was right in 1965, the folks at ETS are right in 2007: family situations matter. But what we have learned since 1965--at least what we should have learned--is that government is ill-equipped to repair dysfunctional families in fundamental ways.

Over the past forty years, the poverty situation in America has improved significantly, but the nation's family dynamics have worsened. In 1965, about 25 percent of black children were born outside marriage. In 2005--billions of dollars and a Great Society later--that figure had increased to close to 70 percent. Overall, 40 percent of American children are now born out of wedlock.  

It's not that government hasn't tried to improve the situation, either. A bevy of mentoring initiatives, platforms, coalitions, policy briefs, and reports have yielded poor results. (The ETS report recommends more of the same: child care initiatives, more attention from politicians, expansion of Head Start, etc.)  Even drastic and intrusive government efforts--such as one that moved poor, urban families (most of which were headed by a single female) into middle-income neighborhoods--have done little to solve the problems.

So it doesn't seem right when the ETS report's authors suggest that the importance of families is largely ignored in policy discussions or when they write that there are "no excuses for recognizing these shortcomings and working to fix them" [sic]. Strengthening the American family has been one of the country's major policy goals for the last four decades--we've just been unable to accomplish it.

The authors contend that, to close achievement gaps, improving broken schools must go hand-in-hand with improving broken families. Such sentiments mistakenly conflate government's substantial ability to improve the dynamics of classrooms with its paltry methods for improving the dynamics of living rooms.

Focusing on schools offers greater hope. By removing students from unhealthy family situations for several hours each day and imparting to them useful knowledge and skills in a safe atmosphere, schools can do much good. Plenty of data show that kids who are statistically set up for failure can in some cases escape that fate through the work of fine teachers and principals.

It's impossible to disagree with the ETS report about the impact of families. But it's quite possible to disagree with its conclusion that government, and education policymakers in particular, should not ignore family dynamics. In fact, one can make a strong case that ignoring family dynamics is exactly what government should do more of--that it should focus its resources efficiently, on problems it actually has a decent chance of fixing.

Slowly but surely, the country is beginning to move in that direction. There is, for example, a significant push by several states (and presidential candidates) to provide high-quality preschool programs to low-income children, so that those children are not automatically handicapped in kindergarten because, say, their parents didn't read to them as 3-year-olds.

Such programs wisely seek not to change less-than-ideal family situations but to compensate for them.