by James A. Bacon
Last night my wife and I engaged in an annual ritual of the school calendar. We went to Douglas Freeman High School to meet our son’s teachers and learn about the classes he’s taking. This was not a social event. We know very few Freeman families. Our motives were pragmatic. We wanted to arm ourselves with the information we need to be good parents. What is expected of our child academically? How much homework will he have? How can we keep track of his grades? How can we communicate our concerns, if we have any? We want our son to succeed academically because we want him to get into a good college. We also want him to develop the habits of self discipline and iniative that will stand him in good stead as an adult.
Many other parents there last night undoubtedly were thinking the same things. Here’s what surprised me, though. I’d guess that parents of only half the students showed up. Assuming the average class has about 25 kids, one would expect twenty-five parents (or even more, if both father and mother attended, as my wife and I did) to come meet each teacher. But few of the classes we visited were more than half full. While a few parents might have been working late, or were traveling out of town on business, or didn’t have access to a car, or had some other practical reason for missing parent’s night, it’s also likely that some of them didn’t care enough to bother.
And that brings me back to one of the big themes I’ve been hammering on the past couple of weeks in my analysis of Virginia Standard of Learning scores: the role of culture and the role of socio-economic status in influencing the pass rates for SOL tests. I made a huge mistake in the beginning of the analysis. Correlating the performance of Virginia school divisions with the percentage of students classified as “disadvantaged,” I found that 57% of the variability in SOL scores from division to division could be attributed to socioeconomic status. I then proceeded to slice and dice the other 43% in an effort to determine how much of the variability could be attributed to “cultural” factors, as opposed to inequitable distribution of resources or even to the quality of local school leadership.
What parent’s night reminded me is that social-economic status and culture are entwined. Typically, embedded in the truism that academic success in K-12 school is highly correlated with socio-economic status is the assumption that greater household income is what makes the difference. I don’t deny that income is a factor. Affluent parents can buy their kids more books. They can send their kids to summer enrichment programs. They can hire tutors. They can seek help if their child has mental health issues. Without question, all those things make a difference. But they’re trivial compared to the day-in, day-out discipline of going to class, paying attention and doing the homework.
The correlation between academic success and socioeconomic status is complex. The fact is, some people value education more than others do. Some people are willing to make bigger financial sacrifices, spend more of their own personal time and undergo more stress and angst to ensure that their children maximize their educational opportunities.
Anyone who has been a parent to an adolescent male knows exactly what I’m talking about. Parenting takes a lot of effort. It’s easy to let your kid skate by with Cs. By contrast, it can be exhausting to bird-dog your kid every day to enforce rules about watching TV and playing on the computer — basically, banning them from doing the things that adolescent males like to do — and cracking the books instead. Kids argue. They throw tantrums. They sneak behind their parents’ backs. If moral suasion and positive reinforcement don’t work — and frankly, they’re pretty weak compared to the allure of Call of Duty or Halo, or the party culture of sex, alcohol and drugs -- the only recourse is running a household police state of constant surveillance.
In the liberal/progressive worldview, it’s the money, or lack of it, that explains a child’s socioeconomic success later in life. If a kid grows up in an affluent household, odds are he or she will be an affluent adult. If a kid grows up in a poor household, odds are that he or she will be poor. As I acknowledged before, access to money can ease stress and lack of it can increase stress. But it’s not the money they have growing up that makes upper middle-class kids successful in life. It’s the values they are raised with. It’s the time and effort their parents put into raising them. Indeed, spoiling a kid with too much material wealth — big allowances, a new car on their 16th birthday, trips to Europe — can breed a sense of entitlement and destroy their initiative. Conversely, a kid who grows up poor and hungry but with the right values, is far more likely to succeed financially.
Socio-economic status is associated with higher academic achievement in significant part because the values and character traits that contribute to successful careers and the accumulation of wealth also contribute to higher academic performance. The values come first, the money follows. That’s why some kids raised in poverty succeed in rising above their circumstances. That’s why some affluent kids become spoiled, find no sense of purpose and fall below their potential. Parenting is hard — that’s why kids from stable, two-parent households have an advantage over kids from broken homes, or kids whose fathers play no role in their life.
Economic determinism doesn’t get us very far in understanding why some kids excel in school and others fail. We have to dig deeper if we want to figure out what it takes to give every child a chance in life to succeed.