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Thompson: A "Third Way" Analysis of Closing the Achievement Gap

NewgradThe Third Way describes itself a representing the “vital center.” It is a moderate effort to break think tanks out of policy “silos” and it is “built around policy teams that create high-impact written products.” 

The new think tank’s David Autor and Melanie Wasserman, in Wayward Sons, draw upon social science to make a valuable contribution to understanding the achievement gap.

 I was saddened by the way that the study was introduced in the Third Way Web site, however. It “make(s) the case that the decline in male achievement is almost exclusively reserved for males born into single-parent households; while females in single-parent households do OK, boys seem to suffer.”

I’m hoping that this way of articulating the problem does not foreshadow more of the neoliberal blame game where single mothers and/or fathers are guilty but economic elites are always innocent. That blunt introduction contrasts with the subtleties of Wayward Sons. While the Third Way emphasizes a single issue, social family structure, Autor and Wasserman describe a complex "vicous cycle." 

Autor and Wasserman cite “a growing body of evidence … [which] indicates that the absence of stable fathers from children’s lives has particularly significant adverse consequences for boys’ psychosocial development and educational achievement.”

They recalled the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) of the early 1990s. The MTO sought to improve well-being of families in high-poverty public housing by helping them to move into outlying lower-poverty communities. The move led to better academic outcomes for girls, but it backfired for boys.

Autor and Wasserman see the study as illustrating the harm produced by reduced presence of male role models in the lives of poor males. But, these adverse outcomes “may reflect the particular difficulties that black inner-city youth face when moving into suburban neighborhoods.”

This Third Way report’s evidence is consistent with a more populist explanation which addresses the fundamental tragedy of elites using political power to accelerate deindustrialization.  As Autor and Wasserman recall, before the 1973 Energy Crisis:

In 1970, 57% of black women with less than a high school diploma were married. By 2010, this number had plummeted to 18%. We observe an even sharper decline among black men: in 1970, 69% of black men with less than a high school diploma were married; in 2010, only 17% were married.

This change was made worse by Reaganomics, which offered three sets of tax deductions for closing factories that were still profitable. Supply side economics hastened the decline of blue collar jobs, making it more difficult for families to adjust to the collapse of their economic world. 

A second reason for the change, undoubtedly, was the War on Drugs. Even though black males are no more likely to use illegal drugs, they became five times more likely to be incarcerated.

The damage done to black males by the economy, Reagan and George W. Bush, and the criminal justice system undoubtedly damaged their children. As Autor and Wasserman summarize:

Between 1970 and 2010, the fraction of black men with a high school education living with biological children fell from over 65% to approximately 25% —a 60% drop—with an even larger decline among black high school dropout men.

Autor and Wasserman thus seem to recognize that the damage done to poor children of color was rooted not in classroom instruction, or the simple failings of mothers and/or fathers, but in the decline of the blue collar economy, the decline of unions, and globalization. They then observe:

It is widely documented that children of single-parent homes fare worse on a broad range of outcomes relative to children of dual-parent homes. In comparison to children living with both biological parents, children living with a single mother score lower on academic achievement tests, have lower grades, have a higher incidence of behavioral problems, and display a greater tendency to engage in risky behaviors such as drug use and criminal activity.

Autor and Wasserman point out that increasing family income results in higher test scores. They also note the “tremendous increase in the hours per week that more highly educated parents devote to childcare activities.” They warn of a “vicious cycle” where poor economic prospects undermine the family, and where that undermines educational attainment of less-educated males, "creating differentially large disadvantages for their sons.” 

This study does not endorse any single approach to school improvement, but I would hope that the Third Way would be open to the common sense of Jesse Jackson - you back out of a blind ally the way you drove in. If poor children, especially poor black males from single families, suffer from a shortage of role models and destructive peer pressure, common sense says that their schools should provide more mentors and opportunities for loving and nurturing relationships.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.

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