Do failing kids need different parents?

There have been so many schools of speculation over the years about why kids succeed and fail in school. The latest, from a Gates Foundation / University of Seattle opinion survey, lays it squarely on parents:

  • Kids fail because of inadequate parental attention in the earliest years. They need their parents to talk to them, read to them, spend time teaching them. (Or to send them to a quality preschool, but that’s a different column…)
  • They fail because they are hungry or tired. Children can’t pay attention in school when they haven’t been provided nutritious meals. Nor can they when they’ve been up too late watching TV or playing computer games and no one pulls the plug.
  • They fail because no one at home is helping with school work, or no one is home to help with school work.

And there’s studies to back up all that speculation.


It sounds pretty much like all those kids would be better off if we could just get them some different parents.

And you know what? There’s studies to show that, too.

This fall, I was checking the credentials of a company that was offering Title I tutoring. These programs offer 30 hours of academic assistance in reading or math at no cost to the family of a child who has fallen behind in either subject and who is also eligible for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program — that is to say, they meet income eligibility guidelines. A family of four in this state is eligible for reduced-price lunches if its income is in the bottom 40 percent of family incomes … we’re not one of the highest earning states nationwide.

The City of Chicago did a huge, controlled study of all its Title I providers, and here’s what it found out about the company we ended up using:

  • Students who were eligible for, but did not receive, their Title I tutoring services remained behind.
  • Students who were eligible for, and did receive, their Title I tutoring services, advanced one grade to attain grade level.
  • Students who were not eligible for Title I tutoring services (that is to say, who did not start out behind academically and came from families in the top 60 percent of income) also advanced. They advanced two grade levels in the skill being tested, having started at grade level. That means they ended up two grades ahead of their classmates who received tutoring and three grades ahead of their classmates who did not receive tutoring.

My goodness. What kind of magic was being worked in the lives of those students who got no special help and advanced faster than anyone else in the classroom?

Well, Title I eligibility measures the difference in parental income, which is a proxy for a great many things:

  • A relatively stable home, and the probability that there are two parents there.
  • Parent(s) who have developed the personal discipline to handle the kind of job that gets decent pay, and who presumably are teaching their children the same discipline.
  • Parent(s) who have enough verbal and mathematical skill to make a decent living, and are able therefore to assist their children with homework.
  • A home in a safe and secure neighborhood, where “pop-pop-pop!” is the sound of a teenager’s old car backfiring, not a drive-by shooting.
  • Parent(s) who may have college degrees, and therefore are likely to take children on family “field trips” to museums as well as a city park.
  • Parent(s) who know other parents with connections — so their child can get special learning opportunities that children in other neighborhoods don’t even know exist.

So what does all this mean? Does living in a low-income household — with a stressed-out single parent in a neighborhood that’s probably dangerous — really do something to a kid’s odds of succeeding in school? And if so, what should we do about it?

Related Links:

Survey blames parents for education problems — Page 1 — Times Union – Albany NY.


About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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2 Responses to Do failing kids need different parents?

  1. Michael G. says:

    Thank you for the post. There’s a lot there to digest. There is no doubt that the role of parents is pivotal to a childs education.

    • Michael, I’m not dismissing the impact of adults outside the family. Here at The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club, we provide not just hour-a-week mentors but (in partnership with an area church) entire support “villages” of six families to our most distressed youth. What I think often is missed in the “blame the parents” invective (and the related sets of strategies to upgrade parents with various forms of Parent University, etc.) is that we forget how difficult fundamental change is for adults. (We understand this about teens and give up on them easily, but seem to go into a scientific-survey induced trance when we talk about parents.) Correlations and even causality still don’t equal strategies for change that have good likelihood for success. But decades of experience in settlement houses, church fellowship halls, Boys & Girls Clubs and the like do show us that when young people have the chance to become attached to positive adults over time, their lives can change. And I’m becoming more and more certain that those adults don’t need to come from the same community, the same background, the same experience. They just need to know how to really care for the kids and their dreams.

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