School Performance: How Much Do Parents Matter?

I recently read the book Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Subtitled “A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything”, it’s a look behind-the-scenes at the economics of everyday assumptions and decisions.

One of their chapters was entitled “What Makes the Perfect Parent”, which described how they used data from a longitudinal study by the US Dept. of Education to try to figure out just what kind (and how much) influence parents have on their children. This study not only tracked test scores and children’s grades, but it involved interviewing parents to find out about personal factors and home life. Their conclusions were very interesting, and although I think the data is limited in scope and application, I’m going to briefly describe what they discovered.

They used a process called “regression analysis” to examine the data; this means that they converted each of the twenty thousand children in the study into a circuit board with the same number of switches. For instance, one switch might be “parents are highly educated/parents are not highly educated” or “scored well on math tests in 2nd grade/didn’t score well on math tests in 2nd grade”. What they do is find all the children who share many of the same characteristics – their “switches” are set in the same direction – and then find the single characteristic that they don’t share.

In this way, they were able to determine that there are certain factors which are strongly correlated with test scores, and certain factors that are not. Here are the lists:

8 factors that are strongly correlated with test scores (either positively or negatively):

The child has highly educated parents
The child’s parents have high socioeconomic status
The child’s mother was thirty or older at time of first child’s birth
The child had low birthweight
The child’s parents speak English in the home
The child is adopted
The child’s parents are involved in the PTA
The child has many books in his home

8 factors that do not affect test scores:

The child’s family is intact
The child’s parents recently moved into a better neighborhood
The child’s mother didn’t work between birth and kindergarten
The child attended Head Start
The child’s parents regularly take him to museums
The child is regularly spanked
The child frequently watches television
The child’s parents read to him nearly every day

Wow, that last one gave me pause! After all, I just blogged recently about how important it is to read aloud to children. What are we supposed to do with these conclusions?

I think this data should only be looked at in context. For instance, by default all of the children in the study attended public school. A child in a more flexible mode of education (Montessori, homeschooling, or other non-traditional method) may benefit more from being read to or being taken to museums. Also, just because the benefits of reading aloud and museum-visiting didn’t affect test scores doesn’t mean that there aren’t other benefits that aren’t measured by tests. A child in this situation may score similarly to other children, yet also be creative, independent, and knowledgeable in areas that are not measured by standardized testing.

They make the point that the first set of factors is what parents or children are; the second set is what they do. According to these authors, much of a child’s school performance is shaped by genetics; if the parents are smart, the kids will be smart. But because of heredity, not environment.

To me, the biggest drawback of this book (every chapter, not just the parenting one) was that the data wasn’t always presented fairly. For instance, in the parenting chapter the authors conclude that reading to your child isn’t important. That is not true; it’s simply not important for test scores. There’s a difference between those conclusions, and it needs to be stated clearly. Test scores aren’t everything. Also, the conclusions they reach are based on only one set of data; there are lots of other studies that show reading aloud is important. I wasn’t quite convinced that “regression analysis” was the best way of determining outcomes; after all, when you use that method, you are mining for conclusions that were not part of the original study.

So, my conclusion? Have books in your house, read to your kids, and take them to museums. It may or may not improve their school performance, but that probably isn’t your goal anyway. You’re not out to raise a child who can do well on the artificial, unauthentic environment that a standardized test creates; you’re out to raise a child who is curious, open-minded, fun to be with, and a lover of learning.

I do recommend Freaknomics, just because it really is interesting and will change your perspective (and if you want to disagree with them, it helps to read their book first!). Also, the authors have a blog that is a good read.