More Money to the Parents; More Power to the People

Feeling worried for me after reading my post suggesting that Mark Zuckerberg hand out his $100 million to Newark parents, a friend alerted me to a study about a similarly “crazy idea” – by none other than University of Chicago economist John List.  (Full disclosure: I have a masters in history from UC and my son is now a student there.)

According to last February’s Bloomberg news report on List’s idea, it’s “one of the largest field experiments ever conducted in economics.”  List  – with the help of fellow economists Roland Fryer of Harvard and Steven Levitt, also of the UC — is following more than 600 students in several Chicago schools to “find out whether investing in teachers or, alternatively, in parents, leads to more gains in kids’ educational performance.” (See also here.) The experiment includes a “parenting academy” and scholarships worth up to $7,000 a year.  (A control group of 300 kids receive nothing.)  Local families with kids 3 to 5 years old were encouraged to enter a lottery and were randomly sorted into three groups.

Whether the List research will help in Newark, I’m not sure, but according to the Bloomberg report, “List says that his experiments will give policy makers, executives and investors much greater certainty about why students, donors and shoppers make the decisions they do” and “may show that the U.S. doesn’t spend enough on helping parents.”

“We have too many eggs in the kid basket,” List, himself a father of five, tells Bloomberg. “We need to spend much more time and many more resources on helping parents.”

There is, of course, a lot of running room in the “helping parents” field – a field littered with yellow flag penalty markers stretching back to the Great Society and the War on Poverty. (See just about anything Rick Hess has written or read his guest bloggers Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric last week: “Implementation matters.” Or see Chris Tessone’s post on a Fryer study of merit pay. Or Fryer’s study on Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem experiment: schools matter more than social services.)

As an education governance question, most of the debate has centered around “parent involvement,” a tired phrase that has been all too frequently abused by schools not wanting to shoulder responsibility for educating children: if we just had better parents.  In fact, as David Matthews of the Kettering Foundation has chronicled (Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming our Demcracy), educators don’t much like parents (or are afraid of them) and there has been little real effort to engage them in the educational improvement effort.  Journalist Katherine Boo (in a 1992 Washington Monthly piece) described the education reform movement of the 70s and 80s as something that “didn’t normally involve parents, let alone community members.” She said it was made up of people “paying lip service to the notion of citizen participation” while working “doggedly to keep the masses from messing with their plans.” (See Checker’s National Affairs essay “Beyond the School District” for a broader perspective on the dangers of professionalization.)

We are seeing hopeful signs from the new parent empowerment efforts of people like Ben Austin of “parent trigger” fame. And the List study should go a long way toward adding some research data to the parent question within a new and more hopeful system of choice.  In fact, educators, including their policymaking second-cousins, are living in quite  interesting times in large part because the walls of the school house doors are coming down.  And this is one reason Fordham is sponsoring a day-long event on School Governance in the 21st Century on December 1.  Sign up today.

–Peter Meyer

*Believe it or not, I wrote this post, including the headline, before I saw Mike’s We have a parenting problem, not a poverty problem.

This post also appears on Flypaper.

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