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Blaming Parents, and Other Neoliberal Pastimes

The State of California believes the following things to be true: first, that reading to children will make them smarter. Second, that parents ordinarily disinclined for reasons of time or temperament from this activity may be won over by means of thirty-second radio spots. These are strange beliefs, but they are not uncommon.

Too Small to Fail, a nonprofit nominally led by Hillary Clinton, believes the same. Among the organization’s many laudable efforts to improve early childhood health and education is a less laudable (but no less costly) attempt to use advertisements to convince poor parents to read to their children. This, the group claims, will bolster kids’ intelligence, and thereby their tests scores, and thereby their futures. Chicago has a similar program. Their slogan: “Take time to be a dad.”

These efforts will fail. Not because PSAs and chipper radio spots won’t conjure quality reading time in the schedules of parents rushing from a 5 p.m. quitting time to the start of a 6 p.m. second shift (although they won’t, of course), but because reading to children, even young children, will not necessarily make them smarter.

It isn’t that reading to children doesn’t have its benefits. Improved socialization and greater empathy skills are among the upsides of childhood reading. If you are a parent with the luxury of time, reading to your kids will help produce better people. It just won’t produce smarter ones.

Chicago and Clinton and California didn’t invent these misconceptions. There is a wealth of data purportedly showing that reading to young children will increase their intelligence and test scores. The trouble is these studies do not actually demonstrate a link between the act of reading and an increase in childhood intelligence; rather, they demonstrate a link between the kinds of children whose parents read to them and the kinds of children (largely the same children) who wind up doing well on tests.

There’s another correlation that goes unmentioned: the parents who read to their children tend to be wealthier and smarter than the parents who don’t (PDF). And so the tail wags the dog; similarly, we notice how many athletes were encouraged to play sports as children, but fail to note how tall and strong their parents are and what nice sports equipment they’ve got locked in the garage.

If we restrict ourselves instead to studies that properly adjust for parental characteristics—that is, how smart, well-educated, and test-capable they were—the impact of reading to children disappears. It may be a distressing thought for would-be parents, that beyond what you impart through environment and genetics, there is very little you can do to make your children acquire any behavioral traits at all (PDF). This is not to say that genetics or environment are small things to provide, but that once you’ve got a decent home, a stable income, and undamaged zygotes, the task at hand is pressing go and trying not to commit monstrous abuse.

But reading campaigns are not the only way to spend outrageous sums of money on programs and receive little demonstrable impact on educational achievement in return. The prevailing consensus of contemporary not-quite-neoliberalism (patron saint: Rahm Emmanuel) have it that our best bet is an either/or effort: sending the most clever of our disadvantaged students to charter schools while trying to attract “better teachers” for those left behind in public schools with selective salary bumps.

These schemes have one up on reading campaigns: they do boost test scores. That the tests are written and held up as holy metrics by the same people advancing these solutions may have something to do with that, but even if we imagine that all quantitative calculus is pure, the monetary cost of these efforts is negligible. In 2004, Teach for America commissioned a study to estimate the effectiveness of their teachers (who are largely recruited from elite universities and therefore reflect the talent presumably sought by increased teacher compensating strategies) against non-TFA public educators by comparing average student test scores from both groups (PDF). The TFA teachers won, by a 3.4 percent margin. And if we, as a nation, wanted to go national with this nearly-4-percent triumph? It’d only cost us the price of expanding TFA’s annual budget (which currently stands at $70 million) to staff every classroom in the country, and just the tiniest bit of complete union busting.

Photo by ayoub.reem
Photo by ayoub.reem

Or we could go the charter school route. For that price tag–probably somewhere in the billions of dollars for complete national implementation–we could have their average 1.3 percent test score bump (PDF). For maybe a few hundred billion more, we could put a KIPP school in every neighborhood. They are the best charter school system in the country and they score, on average, 6 percent higher on tests than public schools. It’ll only cost more than Medicare.

But there is another option still. It is more effective than any of the others, and it’s likely cheaper too. It is the lowest-hanging fruit in education policy reform, and it is called “giving money to people.” It is not strategic investment, or money as a secondary motivator of performance. It’s just money, given as cash to the families of poor children.

Here’s a story about Norway. On August 21, 1969,massive oil reserves were discovered under Norway’s sovereign waters in the North Sea. Previously poor regions became suddenly wealthy as the petroleum boom–later bolstered by a natural gas discovery–poured new income into the region.But the wealth wasn’t spread evenly—not every Norwegian in the north could get in on the action. Suddenly there were the makings of a great natural experiment (PDF). Researchers wanted to see what the impact of sudden cash infusions–a significant environmental change–had on previously poor students, as compared with their still-impoverished peers. The influx of money bested almost every other popular solution to the education gap: students in suddenly-well-off families saw an average of 3 percent increase in absolute IQ and a 6 percent increase in college attendance. The results were as good as the best American charter schools at a fraction of the cost and logistical hassle.

Another set of circumstances conspired to demonstrate the same principle in the United States. During the course of along longitudinal study, the calculation of the Earned Income Tax Credit–an essentially unconditional cash transfer to poor parents–changed several times, allowing researchers to plot the causal achievement impact of cash transfers on a curve of multiple benefit levels (PDF). These results were even more significant: for a mere $3,000 given annually to the parents of poor children, the data suggests a 7 percent increase in expected student test scores. That’s a relatively low number, too: $8,000 annually wouldn’t double the impact, but it would get us well clear of 10 percent, and still cost less than comparable alternatives. Other studies back up the same thesis, though they don’t quite have the same fun stories.

Granted, this plan has an unnerving simplicity. “Give more money to people”—not to specific institutions, teachers, schools, or outreach efforts, but just “people” who have low incomes and children—reeks of liberal parody. It isn’t much more sophisticated than the “throw money at the problem” reaction that’s so often deployed in a country that remains ineradicably possessed by the notion that we are short on cash.

But this is not soft socialism of the usual hand-waving variety; it does not rely on the complexities of differing economic axioms. It is only that keeping the lights on, keeping food on the table, and keeping parents from having to take a third job are all things that can demonstrably increase student performance. It is only that the price tag, while in the several billions of dollars, would likely be cheaper, and certainty no more expensive, than the less efficacious alternatives, even before considering the likely returns in tax revenue and GDP that would come from pushing tens of thousands of students over the threshold to probable college attendance. (Also worth considering: the cost of cutting checks, versus the cost of assembling and staffing a KIPP school for every American neighborhood, if such a thing were even logistically feasible).

Household income determines home environment. Poverty is associated with increased levels of parental stress, depression, and poor health—and these are all things that may make it harder to “take time to be a dad.”

Politically speaking, cash infusions for education could either be sold as a form of empathetic relief (assisting the poor because it is the right thing to do in a nation so bountiful) or as a relatively cheap form of investment (“creating economic growth” by granting something akin to tax relief to those likely to immediately capitalize on it). Either rhetoric leads to the same policy. Yet even writing the proposal strains credulity: a new program handing money directly to poor parents? There are a thousand political reasons it won’t happen. The fact that “championing early childhood reading campaigns” makes for better campaign copy is only one of them.

Apparently those who support income redistribution through aggressive top marginal taxation are still willing to accept union busting and poor parent shaming before considering direct infusions of cash. No matter how lofty their rhetoric, there is an intuitive desire within mainstream American liberalism to believe that the trouble in education is not so obvious as poor people not having enough money to do well—but rather, that poor parents are to blame for not being enough like middle class ones.

And from there they have the strange idea: I bet we can make them more like us with a radio ad.