Creating self-sufficient citizens should be Job No. 1 for the U.S. public education system, says a story from Education Week newsmagazine. After all, the real reason for public education is to create young people ready to become “voters, jurors, taxpayers and leaders.”
“If we haven't prepared our young people to be financially self-sufficient once they finish their educations, we have failed our most fundamental duty,” wrote the author, education analyst Mike Petrilli. “And the ‘we’ is meant to be inclusive: our education system, our social service agencies, our families, our churches, all of us.”
But attaining financial self-sufficiency is a long shot for children who are born poor. Even during the booming 1990s, one in five U.S. children grew up in poverty, the story said. Most of them will be poor during significant periods of their childhoods, and only about half of them will escape poverty by age 25. The overwhelming majority of those poor children are born to young single mothers with little education and few job prospects.
A study from Wisconsin’s Institute for Research on Poverty found that even though high school dropout rates decreased among most population segments during the last three decades, single mothers on welfare still have sky-high dropout rates. That puts their children at risk for lifelong poverty and low educational attainment.
A 2011 study from Princeton estimated that parenting skills explain 40 percent of the learning gap between children at age 4. By studying adopted children, researchers found that having an educated parent was a better indicator of school performance than any other factor, including family income.
The learning gap begins growing soon after birth. A 2013 study from Stanford University found that 2-year-old children of lower-income families may already be six months behind in language development when compared to children from more prosperous homes.
"What we're seeing here is the beginning of a developmental cascade, a growing disparity between kids that has enormous implications for their later educational success and career opportunities," wrote researcher Anne Fernald, who ran the study.
Typical policy responses align in two camps, the Education Week story said: expecting schools to overcome the affects of inadequate parenting, or trying to improve parenting through a “Big Mother” approach — government-sponsored home visits and parent training.
Petrilli proposes a third option: a renewed effort to encourage young, uneducated, unemployed women to delay childbearing until they are emotionally and financially ready to start a family. He recommends a success sequence long known to social scientists: finish your education, get a job, get married, start a family. That’s fine, as far as it goes. But shouldn’t there also be some advice for the men who father those babies?
His next statement is slightly more inclusive, perhaps:
“Let's promote a simple rule. Don't have babies until you can afford them. If everybody in America followed this rule, most long-term child poverty would disappear, and parenting would improve dramatically.”
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