Fix public schools before child poverty


Children raised in families with higher incomes score higher on math and reading tests, on average. That is no less true in the Age of Obama than it was in the Age of Pericles.

But is parental income the cause of a child’s success? Or is the connection between income and achievement largely a symptom of something else: genetic heritage, parental attention and skill or a supportive educational setting?

In the days of Horatio Alger or David Copperfield, people laughed at the idea that a poor kid was inherently unable to succeed. But recently, the idea that money causes kids to learn has nearly gone viral. It is, in fact, the central claim of something called “The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education” (BBA), a group of influentials that includes leaders of the country’s two big teacher unions.

Saying income is decisive for learning, BBA ditches all school reforms unions dislike (merit pay, school choice, accountability and the like) in favor of redistributing income and providing expensive extra services for the poor.

The theory is that by adding a wide range of early childhood, in-school summer and after-school programs, and other supports like nutritional and medical services, you truly “combat poverty,” which then puts the kids in a better position to learn.

Yet there is little evidence that students learn less because their parents are poor. A recent Brookings study, for example, found that many things associated with poverty — single-parent families, lack of education and similar factors — do depress student achievement. But the distinctive impact of income itself is very small. In fact, even if the income of poor families could be raised by 50%, it would by itself have no more than a trivial effect on the child’s readiness for school, the study shows.

Any number of school reforms have larger impacts, including replacing poor teachers with good ones, providing parents with a choice of school and holding students and schools accountable.

In fact, if extra services are the solution, the problem would no longer exist. For decades, the federal government has been expanding summer school programs, after-school programs, Head Start, Medicaid and food stamps.

If the achievement gap between children from families of high and low income is widening for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of classroom education, the most likely culprit is the steep growth in single-parent families. In 1969, 85% of children under the age of 18 were living with two married parents; as of 2010, that had declined to 65%.

The impact on both poverty rates and educational achievement has been serious. According to sociologist Sara McLanahan, the chances of dropping out of high school increase from 11% to 28% if a white student comes from a single-parent instead of a two-parent family. For blacks, the increment is from 17% to 30%, and for Hispanics, the risk rises from 25% to 49%.

But just as BBA says little about fixing big-city schools, it has nothing to say about ways of preserving two-parent families. Instead, it wants to redistribute income or create more programs staffed by professionals who can be asked to join public-sector unions. That idea may have its appeal on days bonuses are announced by Wall Street investment houses, but the research evidence supporting them is negligible.

Our country will always have bright, successful kids raised by poor families. That, too, is as true in the Age of Obama as it was in the Age of Pericles.

This Op-ed appeared on the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Peterson, director of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His analysis can be read in full at

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