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May 4 / Jonathan

Do parents matter?

In an article in USA Today, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt (the authors of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything) look at the US Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study and highlight some interesting conclusions.

The ECLS program has been designed to include two overlapping cohorts: a Birth Cohort and a Kindergarten Cohort. The birth cohort follows a sample of children from birth through first grade. The kindergarten cohort follows a sample of children from kindergarten through the fifth grade.

The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) Program provides national data on children’s status at birth and at various points thereafter; children’s transitions to nonparental care, early education programs, and school; and children’s experiences and growth through the fifth grade. ECLS also provides data to test hypotheses about the effects of a wide range of family, school, community and individual variables on children’s development, early learning and early performance in school.

Dubner and Levitt flag a few interesting effect–and non-effects:

But the ECLS data show no correlation between a child’s test scores and how often his parents read to him. How can this be? Here is a sampling of other parental factors that matter and don’t:

  • Matters: The child has highly educated parents.
  • Doesn’t: The child regularly watches TV at home.
  • Matters: The child’s parents have high income.
  • Doesn’t: The child’s mother didn’t work between birth and kindergarten.
  • Matters: The child’s parents speak English in the home.
  • Doesn’t: The child’s parents regularly take him to museums.
  • Matters: The child’s mother was 30 or older at time of the child’s birth.
  • Doesn’t: The child attended Head Start.
  • Matters: The child’s parents are involved in the PTA.
  • Doesn’t: The child is regularly spanked at home.


So it isn’t that parents don’t matter. Clearly, they matter an awful lot. It’s just that by the time most parents pick up a book on parenting technique, it’s too late. Many of the things that matter most were decided long ago — what kind of education a parent got, how hard he worked to build a career, what kind of spouse he wound up with and how long they waited to have children.

If correct, this is a deeply pessimistic study for the project of eliminating systematic inequality in our public education system.

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