Who's your daddy? A question for education reformers

In the heart of the South Bronx, the neighborhoods served by the Boys Prep and Girls Prep public charter schools I lead, roam two ever-present twenty-seven-foot Winnebago trucks offering much needed services to the local community. Emblazoned with the words "Who's Your Daddy?" in graffiti-like lettering, these baby-blue vehicles offer convenient, mobile DNA testing to help residents answer basic questions like “Who is my father?” and “Is this my baby?” Its services have been featured on a VH1 reality show, and the company’s expanding fleet has made sojourns to D.C., Boston, and Chicago. The RV’s popularity is a symptom of the growing destabilization of American families—a harmful trend that threatens the homes and educations of our highest-need students, and that fellow school leaders must confront head-on.

It is a deeply held belief within the education reform community that a child born or raised in a low-income neighborhood should not be destined for a life of poverty as an adult. Poverty alone can't stop a great public school—one that has a strong principal, teachers with high expectations, and a rigorous, knowledge-rich curriculum—from producing exceptional student outcomes.

But what happens when poverty is intertwined with widespread fatherlessness and family disintegration? Perhaps it is time to confess, somewhat reluctantly, that even the most high-performing schools are necessary but insufficient to overcome the challenges children face when they live in low-income communities in which family instability is the norm. Poverty has always existed, but the institution of family has historically provided the buffer necessary for a poor child to move into the middle class or beyond.

In 1960, fewer than 5 percent of all births in the US were out of wedlock; today it’s more than 40 percent. And for many communities, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For example, in 2015, the Citizen's Committee for Children ranked New York City’s fifty-nine community districts across multiple dimensions of child well-being—economic security, health, housing, education, and issues specific to youths, family, and community. Consider these data:

  • At 59.3 percent, the child poverty rate in the Bronx’s Hunts Point—the city’s highest-risk community district—is more than nine times the 6.5 percent child poverty rate in Battery Park/TriBeCa—the lowest-risk community.
  • 75.5 percent of children in Hunts Point are in single-parent families, while in the Upper East Side, only five miles away, the rate is a mere 14.1 percent.
  • In the Mott Haven district of the Bronx, the teenage birth rate is nearly forty births per one thousand teenage girls. In Battery Park/TriBeCa, the rate is zero.

Nationwide, America is feeling the effects of the Great Crossover. For women as a whole, the median age at first birth (25.7) now falls before the median age at first marriage (26.5).

This explosion of out-of-wedlock births produces or reinforces pathologies that challenge even the most well-intended and well-funded social programs. Not surprisingly, associated educational outcomes are dismal. Even Waiting for Superman charter schools that can leap poverty and race in a single bound can't stop the speeding bullet of family disintegration.

Yet the importance of family instability in academic success is not a radical or new concept. In 1966, the U.S. Office of Education commissioned the landmark Equality of Educational Opportunity survey to study the “lack of availability of equal educational opportunities” for minority children throughout the United States. Better known as the Coleman Report, the 700-page study drew upon data from more than 645,000 students and teachers in 4,000 public schools across the country. One of its most controversial findings was that family background, not schools, explained most of the achievement gap between America’s white and black students.

As the report stated:

One implication stands out above all: That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.

Remarkably, the Coleman findings have stood the test of time for over five decades. A group of academics organized at Harvard even tried to disprove the report, but their collective re-analyses reaffirmed Coleman’s fundamental thesis: “Schools appeared to exert relatively little pull—explaining only 10 to 20 percent of the variability in student outcomes—while family background, peers, and students’ own academic self-concept explained a much larger amount.”

It must be said that a stable, two-parent home does not guarantee success. Nor does being raised in a low-income, single-parent household make failure a certainty. But overwhelming data and common sense suggest that family stability matters significantly in virtually every facet of a child’s future life. Consider President Obama’s 2013 speech on violence after yet another fatal shooting of a teenager in Chicago: “There’s no more important ingredient for success, nothing that would be more important for us reducing violence than strong, stable families—which means we should do more to promote marriage and encourage fatherhood.”

So why aren’t education reformers following the President’s lead and promoting strong families as the foundation for academic success? One concern is public backlash. President Obama took a lot of heat for mentioning marriage and fatherhood in that speech. Detractors accused him of blaming “age old stereotypes about black families” for gun violence, and criticized him for not focusing exclusively on structural inequalities like the lack of jobs, decrepit public housing, and failing schools that plague the black underclass.

I empathize with fellow education leaders who are hesitant to speak to these issues, fearing similar backlash from teachers and families, who might accuse us of judging the very people we are seeking to serve. Yet we can no longer ignore the data. Great schools have a role to play to confront the importance of family stability.

Take for example the three “norms” of American life that the Brookings Institute dubs the Success Sequence: (1) graduating from high school; (2) belonging to a family with at least one full-time worker; and (3) having children while married and after age twenty-one. Many readers have likely followed this sequence in their own lives. There is good reason to preach what we practice. Ninety-eight percent of Americans who follow the Success Sequence live above the poverty line, and 70 percent enjoy at least middle-class incomes, defined as 300 percent or more above that cutoff. For Americans who don’t follow the sequence, the picture is reversed.

Yet somehow this idea is still met with suspicion. Critics argue that the Success Sequence is so obviously self-evident that it is pointless to broadly promote it; contend it’s too offensive to single parents who didn't follow it; label it moralizing or victim-blaming; or worry it would shift the discussion too much to personal responsibility and detract from the urgent need to rightfully address institutional racism, improve public schools, or create more jobs in the inner city.

As a leader of a network of public charter schools dedicated to the idea that every parent—regardless of race, income level, or zip code—should have the power to choose a great public school for their child, I am proud of the work our sector has accomplished to make that choice more of a reality. In New York City alone, public charter schools now serve more than 100,000 scholars, with some schools dramatically shrinking the achievement gap in the highest-need neighborhoods.

However, even with this progress, a majority of New York's students still fail to read or do math on grade level. The education reform movement has made amazing strides, but the daunting gap between our aspirations and our current outcomes means that we need to broaden our sights beyond a purely academic focus.

Therefore, in addition to enhancing teaching and learning, we must also teach our scholars the importance of family formation by integrating these ideas into the high-quality, knowledge-based educational program that we already know benefits all children. Many schools, like Public Prep, are grappling with how best to address these issues. Maybe the term “Success Sequence” should be re-branded as the “Opportunity Pathway” to cement the idea that there are no guarantees in life. Instead, there are choices with rewards or consequences that create or inhibit opportunity.

Indeed, the Opportunity Pathway could be taught in a probability and statistics class, letting kids explore data indicating how a series of life decisions affect their likelihood of success in adulthood. Alternately, we could tap the rich body of American and world literature to spark discussion about the complex interplay among family, education, identity, happiness, and power. Many schools already encourage students to live by certain moral standards and core values (e.g., do the right thing even when no one is watching). This would be no different.

There is an old saying that sometimes we must shut our eyes in order to truly see. Confronting the daily challenges of poverty can obscure the underlying root causes that bring about these conditions in the first place. We educators must find the courage to teach our scholars this vital, explicit sequence of life choices that, if followed, would give two generations—our current students and their children—the best chance to live the American Dream. 

Ian Rowe
Ian Rowe is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute