KIPS Blog: Parenting Assessment in Practice & Research

Brookings: A Parenting Gap Causes the Achievement Gap!

Posted by Phil Gordon on Wed, Sep 11, 2013 @ 02:07 PM

I just read a remarkable report from the Brookings Institution written by Isabel V. Sawhill, Richard V. Reeves and Kimberly Howard entitled Parenting, Politics, and Social Mobility.  This report courageously goes where I have feared to tread in these posts.  In the KIPS Cradle blogs I have tried very hard to be apolitical, because children are too important to be used as political pawns.  Being much braver, Sawhill and her colleagues charge directly into the center of the fray, striking blows to those of both the right and the left political viewpoints. They begin by reviewing the literature showing early parenting is a primary driver of children’s language and math achievement as they enter Kindergarten.  We have similarly reviewed this literature (see 1,2,3 & 4).  Admirably, they move beyond reviewing the overwhelming results cited in this report, and they bravely address the policy implications and the political issues of what they refer to as a parenting gapassessing parenting gap

Bridging the Parenting Gap

Neither the standard conservative nor liberal position will do. Public education, no matter how lavishly funded, can never substitute for good parents. But it is absurd to cast the idea of taking broader responsibility for helping parents as closet communism, as some on the right do. What is needed is a policy agenda and political platform that recognizes the contribution of parenting to mobility and opportunity, and tackles the parenting gap. – Sawhill, Reeves & Howard, 2013

The report wrestles with the rights of families to do as they please (short of abuse and neglect) and the responsibilities society has to provide everyone a fair start and to build human capital.  Sawhill and coauthors summarize this tussle with:

There is an important distinction to be made here: The state cannot and must not take over the job of raising children—but the state can and must do more to help parents raise their own. . . the consequences of failure in parenting are felt not just by individual children but by society at large, in the form of welfare payments, higher crime, and lost productivity. -Sawhill, Reeves & Howard, 2013

I think this statement captures well the competing issues of setting up a “nanny state” that takes responsibility from families versus the responsibility society has to support those in need.

In another report the authors assess parenting's role in child achievement and life outcomes. They conducted secondary analyses on past data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Children of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1979, which followed nearly 6,000 children who were born in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  They found that assessing parenting, using a state of the art measure at the time, strongly correlated with a range of child outcomes, such as graduating from high school, math and reading achievement, avoiding being a teen parent or being convicted of a crime.  Assessments of parenting have come along way since that time.  

The Need to Reset Priorities

The authors point out that, even in the face of recent reports that Head Start for preschoolers is not closing the academic gap as much as was hoped, the federal budget over the past 5 years allocated 25 times more to Head Start than the next 5-year budget proposed for home visiting programs focused on parenting of infants, toddlers and preschoolers.  They question this lopsided proportion, given current evidence that parenting is paramount in school achievement for low income children.

The authors of this remarkable report eloquently sum up the situation better than I ever could; so we will give them the final word:

We have to hope that, one way or another, parenting takes a more central place on the political stage. Because the stakes are immensely high. The passing down of poverty, generation to generation, is arguably America’s greatest moral flaw. And the hard machinery of the state—schools, scholarships, and laws—is not sufficient for the task of building an opportunity society. Families and the parents that shape them are equally important incubators of opportunity. If we want more equality—of opportunity, of income, of wealth, of occupation—we’ll have to tackle the parenting gap, too. -Sawhill, Reeves & Howard, 2013



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Tags: Parenting Assessment, assessing parenting, achievement gap, parenting gap