On parents and school success, again

We need research into the process that make some people fail schools (and much less research on why some other people are failed by schools).

Nothing new for many of us in this summary of sociological research:

“Family income is now nearly as strong as parental education in predicting children’s achievement.” (Reardon 2011: 5)

Note the “now” for a study that essentially tells us that not much has changed since the Coleman report.  This rhetorical move may be what attracted the New York Times who highlighted the study at least twice since it was published.

I missed Reardon’s study when it was published, as well as the first editorial essay published in the Times about it.  The April 27th “Opinionator” piece by Reardon is thus not quite “news” but it does confirm the trend about what is to count as “fit to print” knowledge.  Reardon himself, as an academic sociologist on the faculty of the School of Education at Stanford, of course knows that what he is observing is not a new phenomenon and his paper is a good source for a brief history of the sociological research on family and school performance.  I will use the paper the next time I teach my course on family and education.

His contribution, as he summarizes it in the original paper, is:

As the income gap between high- and low-income families has widened, has the achievement gap between children in high- and low-income families also widened? The answer, in brief, is yes. The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five years earlier (2011: 4)

In the paper he summarizes four possible reasons in more than ten pages of text.  In the Opinionator piece, this is summarized into a few paragraphs Reardon summarizes as follows:

It boils down to this: The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school. … One part of the explanation for this is rising income inequality. … Money helps families provide cognitively stimulating experiences for their young children because it provides more stable home environments, more time for parents to read to their children, … High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources … on their children’s cognitive development … They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich. (Reardon http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/27/no-rich-child-left-behind/

I am not sure of the “much more important” part of the explanation.  When I teach all this, I then ask the students to read Jack Goody (Production and reproduction on bilateral devolution, 1976) and/or Bourdieu on marriage strategies (1977 [1972]: 30-71) while making the point that in each epoch/historical moment/culture the rich and powerful have to adapt their strategies to the local conditions they find themselves in–just as the poor must do.  Thus, in Euro-America at least, marriage strategies have become obsolete.  Production and reproduction of wealth and privilege know require schooling strategies.

So, the question is figuring out in more exact details what it is that the rich do in a world where sanction by schooling is essential.  Would-be reformers attempting to counter the strategies of the rich must develop analytic understandings of school sanctioning that is at least as good as the practical understandings of the rich.  It is on this point, as McDermott and I have argued in many different ways, that social scientific writing has failed.  Reardon, like generations of sociologists before him (since, at least, Moynihan), places “cognitive development” (of the individual child) as the mediation between strategies (stable homes, reading to the child, etc.) and material success.  The school is treated as an altogether impartial umpire in the race to the top.  Given a fair umpire, then it is only training before that will distinguish the talented who wins the race from the talented who does not.  Thus Reardon’s policy suggestions: “improve preschools and child care,… improve the quality of our parenting [so that] parents become better teachers themselves.”

These, of course, were the suggestions that were made to Lindon Johnson and led to a plethora of Great Society programs in the 1960s.  The failure of these programs in closing achievement gaps may be that they were badly designed or under funded.  It may also be that cognitive development is not the key.  What if the key is in manipulating the umpire? (e.g. distracting him at the beginning of the race, blinding her to a move that should have penalized the racer, etc.).  We are well aware of the moves the rich and powerful make to gain advantage in college admissions.  We suspect these moves can also “help” a child enter a prestigious pre-school.  But there may be other mechanisms that are much less direct and yet effective in making large scale policies in favor of greater cognitive development altogether irrelevant if the goal is closing the gap (the policies may have other positive effects).  We need research into the process that make some people fail schools (and much less research on why some other people are failed by schools).

Reardon makes the point that the problem is not with schools that are failing.  It may be that it has to be with schools that are failed…

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