Children of Hands-On Parents Do Better in School; Media Misses the Message Within the Message

November 21st, 2011 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The willful blindness of the mass communications media to society’s  problems brought about by the erosion of the American family is nowhere more evident than here (New York Times, 11/20/11).

Thomas Friedman, in his op-ed piece takes on the generally poor state of American primary and secondary education.  He does so using a comparative study of the achievement levels of American students versus those of students of 13 other
countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  That study – the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) – went further than previous ones;  it not only measured student performance, but correlated that with parental involvement in children’s education.  It gathered data on parental involvement by interviewing 5,000 parents.

And, to no one’s surprise, greater parental involvement was highly correlated with greater educational achievement.

“Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in PISA 2009 than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all. The performance advantage among students whose parents read to them in their early school years is evident regardless of the family’s socioeconomic background. Parents’ engagement with their 15-year-olds is strongly associated with better performance in PISA…”

For instance, the PISA study revealed that “students whose parents reported that they had read a book with their child ‘every day or almost every day’ or ‘once or twice a week’ during the first year of primary school have markedly higher scores in PISA 2009 than students whose parents reported that they had read a book with their child ‘never or almost never’ or only ‘once or twice a month.’

And the differences aren’t just among the well-to-do.  Even within socio-economic groups, hands-on parenting tended to produce better students.

Yes, students from more well-to-do households are more likely to have more involved parents. “However,” the PISA team found, “even when comparing students of similar socioeconomic backgrounds, those students whose parents regularly read books to them when they were in the first year of primary school score 14 points higher, on average, than students whose parents did not.”

Friedman goes on to refer readers to an American study showing very similar results.  It showed that parental involvement at home with their children’s education was more important than in-school involvement.  So helping with homework proved more beneficial than attending PTA meetings, school events, and the like.

Friedman concludes,

To be sure, there is no substitute for a good teacher. There is nothing more valuable than great classroom instruction. But let’s stop putting the whole burden on teachers. We also need better parents. Better parents can make every teacher more effective.

That all makes sense, but isn’t everyone missing something?  By “everyone,” I mean not only Friedman but the OECD and the Center for Publication that sponsored the second study, as well.

It seems curious in the extreme that none of those three seemed to think that the issue of single parenting came into play when considering the nexus between children’s educational achievement and parental involvement in their schooling.  After all, which family has more parental time, energy and resources to devote to children’s education, a single-parent or a dual-parent family?  Which one can sit down with junior and check his/her homework, make sure the test next day gets studied for, remember the appropriate school supplies, and set aside time to read together?

That’s right, it does really matter whether a child comes from a single-parent or a two-parent home.  It matters in countless ways as an astonishing array of social science has demonstrated for decades now.  It matters about the child’s psychological well-being, it matters about his/her involvement in crime and drug/alcohol/tobacco usage.  And it matters about the child’s educational development as many studies have shown.

And yet neither Friedman nor the OECD nor the Center for Public Education thought to wonder if there was a correlation between single parents and low achievement on the PISA.

The same is true of this article, although it gets closer than the NYT piece (Daily Herald, 11/20/11).  It gives still more data on the effects of parental involvement on children’s educational achievement, this time courtesy of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is dedicated to helping build better futures for disadvantaged children, has released a study indicating that children who are not engaged in reading and conversation with parents from birth to age 5 typically will enter kindergarten below level.

The article goes on to quote numerous experts on the value of parents reading to their children from the earliest part of their life.  But the closest anyone gets to pointing out the glaring fact that there are large numbers of children being raised by single parents who just don’t have the time to do what needs to be done, is this by family psychologist A. Lynn Scoresby:

“The first is the idea that family life is filled with distraction, and second, there’s a large number of families whose actual structure has changed by divorce, work issues or unwanted pregnancy,” Scoresby said. “There is an increased partitioning among people.”

“An increased partitioning.”  That’s one way of putting it.  Another is that, against all common sense, against all the science on the subject of families and the welfare of children, we’ve come to embrace single parenthood.  We know it’s bad for kids, but for some reason we can’t bring ourselves to say so.

In fact, we seem to bend over backwards to give single parenting a pass.  For example, the head of the United Way of Utah County, is deeply concerned about the problem, so much so that he’s spearheading a push to solve it.  His solution to children not reading at grade level?  Have the neighbors come over and read to them.

Now I’m sure that the man is utterly sincere about his desire to help.  But the solution to parents not reading to their children is not to have it done by proxy, even if the proxies have the time.

What no one wants to acknowledge is that single parenthood, however it’s brought about is a bad way to raise children unless the conditions are ideal.  That’s rarely the case of course.

So on we go, creating the conditions for children’s failure and then dreaming up ever more, ever more exotic and expensive ideas that have no chance of working to address a situation that can only be addressed at its root.  Intact families work for all sorts of things that single-parent families don’t, and children’s education is one.  Until we take steps to firm up the family, everything else is just talk.

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