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New York Times Room for Debate


Do Parents Care Enough About School?

February 09, 2014

By Kay S. Hymowitz

With inequality and social mobility the subject du jour and the American education system still floundering in mediocrity, the question on many people’s minds is how to give poor children a real chance at success. It’s an important discussion, but one frequently accompanied by the mistaken assumption that poor parents doom their children to a future behind a McDonald’s counter.

That belief could use some pushback. It is true that 43 percent of poor children stay stuck in the lowest quintile of the income scale. But that still means a good deal more than half do not. We know a few things about those who make it. They grow up with parents with high expectations for academic achievement. Their parents believe strongly in education as a path to later success, making it more likely that they’ll go to college, which in turn makes them 2.5 times more likely to move out of poverty. We know that their parents have kept things orderly at home; the more domestic "transitions" – new parental partners, stepparents or siblings – the more kids, especially boys, have academic and behavioral difficulties. We also know that if those homes have a television and video console, they are generally turned off.

Of course, higher-income parents are in a much better position to provide "enriching" experiences for their kids, things like visits to museums and theater, foreign trips, music lessons and perhaps even Mandarin-speaking nannies. They tend to have large vocabularies and experience with abstract thinking, which they can model for their children at breakfast and dinner. Their higher status social networks can also help when internships and summer jobs are needed for the college resume.

But beneficial as those enrichments are, they are not absolutely essential to making it. To take just one familiar example: the children of poor, low-skilled Chinese immigrants, most of whom do not speak English, are thriving in (public) school and the labor market. What explains their success? Families that provide stability and discipline while prizing academic achievement above all.

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