Parents and Education
An essay in today’s Wall Street Journal makes the case that education depends on parents. Daniel Akst argues that parents should make their kids read and do homework — and if schools don’t assign much, they’re just responding to parental attitudes. He backs up this claim with research:
A study of elementary-school families last year in the Quarterly Journal of Economics bears this out. Researchers at Brigham Young and the University of Michigan found that parents preferred teachers who make their children happy over those who emphasize academic achievement.
In fact, that’s only half the story. The study did find that some parents prefer teachers who make kids happy; but that result was limited to parents in high-income areas. In schools with high poverty levels, parents are more concerned about a teacher’s ability to raise academic achievement. (You can read a summary of the study here.) So, by Akst’s reasoning, we should see better schools in high-poverty neighborhoods as a response to parental demand. Of course, we don’t.
Akst is on the right track; parental preferences are important, but they’re not enough. Parents also must be able to act on them. In wealthy areas, schools respond to what the parents want because parents can make a credible threat to pull their children out if the schools disappoint. In inner cities, schools can ignore the parents because their children aren’t going anywhere.
In those rare cases when the poor can choose schools, they do get what they want. That’s why some of the most popular charter schools, like KIPP, have extra-long school days and a strict focus on academics. I predict we’ll see inner-city public schools adopting some of those methods once choice programs and charters are large enough to threaten their survival.