As you might expect, Governor Romney expressed the belief, which I share, that student success is inextricably linked to parents in a litany of ways. As readers of this blog know, I recently had an Op Ed published in the Trenton Times (May 9, 2012) where I laid out 5 “lenses” through which we can evaluate the performance of parents in fulfilling their duties to their children in the area of education: health and welfare, resource acquisition, oversight, engagement, opportunities for enrichment, and values/advocacy. I absolutely share Mitt’s belief that parents are the single most important variable in student achievement, and though some students are able to overcome their parent’s deficiencies, it is clearly the exception.
Now before I get to my point about “Mitt the Urban Reformer,” I would like to say a word about parents, especially those in the inner city. Many of these parents themselves face challenges that compromise their ability to meet their child’s needs, while other parents seemingly elect to neglect their children. I believe that government can play a role in helping these parents, whether it is easing the path to home ownership, which gives families some equity they can use to help their child, or incentivizing the process by paying -either with cash or “in-kind”- parents that attend parent/teacher conferences or activities involving their child. These are but two examples. The important point again is the primacy of parent behavior.
If you accept the indisputable fact that a community is a collection of families, then we must draw the conclusion that a healthy, vibrant, successful school can only be sustained in communities where the majority of parents are meeting their child’s needs. In Harlem, we see the effort of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone- a non-profit community support group. We need to support families individually, but we must also support the environment that these parents’ children are going to be growing up in. The likelihood of suburban middle class suburban families, some of whom probably “fled” the inner city once they achieved some upward mobility, moving back into the cities is extremely remote.
Mitt Romney has made the family the centerpiece of education reform. Implicit in his advocacy for vouchers and choice is a belief that failing schools are at its core the result of communities dominated by “failing families,” leading to a failure in the schools to create a dynamic learning culture, thereby justifying a policy allowing for individual families to opt out of the local school and send their children elsewhere. Mr. Romney has to know that such a policy will have a limited salutary effect. If he is truly committed to a quality education for all, then consistency demands that he establish public policy that will increase the number of inner city families instilled with “middle class values” and committed to the education of their children. Vouchers and choice, in the absence of any true urban reform, is nothing more than a talking point; it will have no substantive effect on inner city schools or the challenges faced by the vast majority of children.
My challenge to anybody: If you give me demographic information about a community, I can almost guarantee you that I can predict student outcomes at that school. All I need to know is the following:
1) Percentage of home ownership in the community
2) Average family income
3) Percentage of single parent families
4) Average home values relative to a state average
5) Percentage of families receiving some form of State or Federal Aid
6) Percentage of families in poverty
Why can I make this challenge? Well the latest figures from New Jersey’s test scores show that the 100 worst performing high schools in the State are ALL from families in the lowest 2 District Factor Groups, a designation based on similar demographics. The correlation would seem rather strong, and rather distressing.