Poor Students Do Not Under-Perform for Lack of Money, But For Lack of Marriage

James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Poor Students Do Not Under-Perform for Lack of Money, But For Lack of Marriage

The Chicago teachers’ strike that just ended was largely about evaluating teachers, particularly teachers in schools where the poverty rate is high and the performance rate is low.

Supportive of the striking teachers, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson proclaimed, “Teachers are heroes, not villains, and it’s time to stop demonizing them.”

The problem with education in failing schools, he goes on, is not these paragons of pedagogical virtue, but poverty. “Sorry to be so gauche, but when teachers point out the relationship between income and achievement, they’re not shirking responsibility. They’re just stating an inconvenient truth.”

Poor kids don’t learn, argues Robinson, because they are poor and poverty breeds “imbalances” and “pathologies” that result in low academic performance for which teachers should not be held responsible.

Robinson is wrong about teachers. Deifying them is just as unhelpful as demonizing them. Teachers are human beings and as human beings some are heroes, some are villains, and the rest fit into the bell curve between the two poles. Some should be rewarded, others should be fired, most should be coached along toward greater effectiveness.

But on the question of poverty, Robinson is right. Impoverished students under-perform, and even the best teachers can’t do much to change that.

But Robinson fails to take the next step in his analysis. Poor students do not under-perform for lack of money. They under-perform for lack of marriage.

Consider just a few facts about education and intact families; that is, families headed by the married biological mother and father of their children. Students from intact families are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college and graduate from college than students from blended or single-parent families. Students from intact families are less likely to exhibit behavior problems in school. They are more likely to perform at a higher academic level compared with peers from other family structures — beginning in preschool!

On top of that, married couples are less likely to fall into poverty or, if they are already poor, are more likely to rise out of poverty along with their children. And they are more likely to be engaged with their children’s academics, their teachers, and their schools. Marriage, not money makes all the difference for their kids.

Yet marriage and intact families are disappearing from both low-income and middle-class America. American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray notes that in 1960, 84 percent of middle American adults were married. In 2010, that number dropped precipitously to 48 percent. Among low-income Americans, 71 percent of families with children are headed by single parents — nearly three out of four households.

By contrast, the marriage rate among college educated, wealthier Americans in 1960 was 94 percent and in 2010 was 84 percent. They also have low out-of-wedlock birthrates and declining divorce rates.

Not that all those marriages represent intact families, but if intact families correlate with academic success, statistically there is no question about where to find the highest achieving students. There’s also no question about where to find the lowest achieving students. And that part is not the fault of teachers (though their unions have been known to work for social policies that undermine marriage and family).

As the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector said in conjunction with the recent release of Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty, “We spend billions of dollars a year to educate low-income children, quite appropriately, and billions more for means-tested welfare aid for single mothers, but the nation does little or nothing to discourage births outside marriage or to encourage healthy marriage. In fact, the welfare system often sends the message that marriage has nothing to do with poverty.”

Yet we know that married couples tend to have higher family incomes, higher savings rates, higher family net worth, and lower instances of poverty than those who are single, divorced, or cohabitating.

Among Christians, many have started to claim to be above the fray of two-issue politics: life and marriage. The moral high ground, they say, is caring about the poor.

Fair enough. But the data make it clear that if you care about the poor, your first priority has to be marriage. If you care about child poverty, your first priority has to be marriage. And if you care about education in low-income schools, your first priority has to be marriage. Caring about poverty without caring about marriage is a waste of effort.

Having said that, don’t wait for the government. If the renewal of marriage in America doesn’t come from Christians, in our homes, congregations, and places of influence, I sincerely doubt it will come at all.

Publication date: September 19, 2012