I recently read and discussed with students two very interesting articles from the Atlantic that I think are strongly related to educational outcomes. The first details a fairly well-known phenomenon – the fact that kids who believe they are bad at math, or more generally that intelligence is inherent and not a product of hard work, tend to fall between peers with similar skills who believe that through hard work they can improve their math and their intelligence generally. The second is also a fairly believable phenomenon – the fact that among underprivileged children, having two parents correlates educational achievement and economic mobility.
But the most interesting things about these articles are not in the headlines. The first for me is that it seems that the belief that hard work can really increase academic performance correlates with hard work actually having that effect. I’m less concerned with genetic determinism, however, than with socio-economic determinism. Educators often point out that the fact that half of all public school students are living in or near poverty is a huge factor in the apparent failures of the US public school system. This is undoubtedly, but unevenly, true. Smith and Kimball’s arguments about math lead to a disconcerting possibility -if students living in poverty or difficult family situations believe they are therefore destined to fail at school, this is far more likely to be true for them. Most educators agree that convincing students that they can be successful is key to helping them achieve success. But the danger always exists that in rightly pointing out the challenges students face, we may be contributing to a culture that by and large reinforces this fatalistic self-fulfilling prophecy.
What does this have to do with two parent households? Very little, though I think again part of the reason is that there is an assumption that children of single parents will be more likely to fail, and students themselves internalize this belief. The most interesting tidbit there is an almost trivial fact at first glance: the city in the United States with the highest economic mobility for poor children is not a blue state metropolis with high investment into projects for low income children, but Salt Lake City (This is not altogether surprising, in that Utah itself has tended to avoid the many of the socio-economic problems that have befallen other Red states). While the authors of the article claim this as a victory for intact families, the significance I think is deeper – there is a degree to which the beliefs and worldview of both students and parents influence student achievement even beyond the documented socio-economic metrics social scientists have already identified.
All this unfortunately lacks a straightforward political or educational solution, but it serves as reminder of how the education system is constrained by and connected to a wider culture that cumulatively has an enormous impact on student performance.