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"Family and School Matter,"

by Krista Kafer Richard Rothstein is right. His new book Class and Schools underscores what researchers like James Coleman, Derek Neal and Christopher Jencks have been saying for decades: Life outside of school is the greatest predictor of success in school.September/October 2004 issue of Poverty & Race

Richard Rothstein is right. His new book Class and Schools underscores what researchers like James Coleman, Derek Neal and Christopher Jencks have been saying for decades: Life outside of school is the greatest predictor of success in school.

It should come as no surprise that adults’ decisions impact their children’s academic progress. A child born to married parents is less likely to have developmental delays or behavioral problems, repeat grades or be expelled. Parents who read regularly to their children will see them grow as readers. It is equally true that conflict and instability at home will seep into a child’s performance in the classroom.

Even, so, demography is not destiny, and Rothstein admits as much. However, he discounts the power of a good school to make a difference. He attributes the success of high-poverty/high-performing schools identified by The Education Trust, The Heritage Foundation and others to selectivity or statistical anomaly. He believes such models may serve a few but are not the answer for most.

His pessimism, however, is unfounded. Research shows that the greatest in-school predictor of academic success is the quality of teaching. What happens 33 hours a week, 180 days a year matters.

The late James Coleman, groundbreaking researcher on the primacy of socioeconomic influence, also found that Catholic and other private schools achieved greater academic results with poor students than public schools serving their peers. Similarly, albeit more recently, Harvard University’s Paul Peterson found poor black students using vouchers to attend private schools outperformed their public school counterparts.

Successful schools are not limited to the private sector. Educators are replicating public school models like KIPP Academies around the country because they raise achievement among low-income students. Whether public or private, such effective schools have much in common. Led by strong principals and talented teachers, these schools create an environment focused on learning and character development. They build a solid foundation in the basics before moving to higher-level material. Faced with many challenges, they often use a longer school day or school year to get the job done.

While a school can never fully fill the space left by a deprived home life, it can go a long way. Giving kids access to schools of excellence will make a difference.

Unfortunately, the author’s solution — to enact a host of new Great Society programs — is unlikely to make a difference. After almost four decades of Head Start, welfare, and federal academic and after school programs, there is little to show for the effort.

The focus has been in the wrong place. Since family is the greatest determinant of academic success, followed by teaching quality, these should be the focus of change. Policies that encourage marriage, parental responsibility and access to good schools will narrow the gap between poor students and their middle-class peers. A healthy family and a good school are what a child needs most.

Krista Kafer is Senior Policy Analyst for Education at the Heritage Foundation. krista.kafer@heritage.org
 
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