On countless mornings over the past year, I stood with my 3-year-old son, James, in our driveway, watching our next-door neighbor trudge off to fifth grade. As she'd disappear around the corner, I'd think ahead to the kind of school James might attend when he starts kindergarten in two years.
My wife and I are in our early 30s, living in Ann Arbor, Mich., where she is finishing up her training as a demographer. Over the next year we'll figure out where we're going to live for the long haul. Where we choose will depend to some extent on the job market, but it will also depend heavily on where we want James and his brother, Oscar, 1, to go to school.
We can't afford private-school tuition, so living in a city would probably mean chancing it on a subpar public school system. And although I loved growing up on the coast of Maine, the limits of my public high school education became clear when I got to college and immediately felt like I was behind. I would like my boys to be better prepared for college.
But if my wife and I wanted to do everything we could to give James and Oscar the best possible K-12 education, we'd have to make some big changes. We'd have to choose more lucrative careers than hers in academia and mine as a writer so we could afford urban private schools or a house in an affluent suburb where the public schools are better. But between the longer hours and the longer commutes such changes would entail, we'd see much less of our kids. James and Oscar might be in the best schools, but we'd rarely be home before bedtime to hear what they'd learned all day.
Would this trade-off be worth it? When I look at the research on child development, I think it might not. Where our kids go to kindergarten or high school might matter a lot less than most parents think.
Social scientists have long tried to determine why some children grow up to be successful adults and others don't. It's a difficult question to answer because the causes are hard to untangle. High school dropouts tend to attend underperforming public schools and to come from poor families with unmarried, undereducated parents. Ivy League graduates more often attend good K-12 schools and come from well-educated, affluent, two-parent families. Because these characteristics cluster together so frequently, it's hard to determine which attributes drive success or failure — and which are just along for the ride.
In a 2001 study, Greg Duncan, now a professor of education at the University of California at Irvine, measured the impact that the people in a child's life — siblings, neighbors, classmates, best friends — have on how well the child does in school. To test these relationships, Duncan and his collaborators compared scores on a standardized vocabulary test across 20,745 kids. When I think about where I want James and Oscar to go to school, I usually think about the kinds of classmates I want them to have: smart, high-achieving kids.
But Duncan and his team found almost no relationship between how students did on the test and whom they sat beside in class, whom they hung out with after school and who lived on their block. The only meaningful link they found was between siblings, and identical twins in particular.
"Schools and neighborhoods might have some effect," Duncan says, "but I think it's pretty clear that a lot more of the action around child development takes place at home."
What is it about home that matters?
For a long time, scholars and policymakers thought that a family's income heavily affected how well kids did in life. This is why, for example, decades of federal welfare policy were based on transferring cash to poor parents. Data from "Expenditures on Children by Families," an annual report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, show that as families get richer, a lot of that extra money goes into their kids. Low-income and middle-income families spend similar amounts — about $9,000 and $13,000 per child, respectively, per year. But families making more than $100,000 spend about $22,000 per kid per year. (I assume most of the increase goes to private-school tuition.) Given that the children of higher-income families typically do better in school and earn more as adults, it would be reasonable to conclude that the more my wife and I spend on our kids, the brighter their futures will be.
But that might not be the case. When Susan Mayer at the University of Chicago looked at the relationship between family income and lifetime achievement, she saw that many of the character traits that allow some adults to make a lot of money — a strong work ethic, honesty, reliability, good health — also make them good parents. Mayer wondered whether it is those traits, rather than the money that results from them, that really counts.
That makes sense to me. It seems that my impact on my kids has much more to do with who I am and how much time I spend with them than how much I earn.
In an influential book, "What Money Can't Buy: Family Income and Children's Life Chances," Mayer put her hypothesis to the test. She ran a series of experiments that measured the relationship between family income and a range of life outcomes, such as a child's likelihood of dropping out of high school or getting pregnant as a teenager. In one study after another, she found that such outcomes weren't caused by income.
Mayer's study was based primarily on low-income families, but her results apply even more powerfully to middle- and high-income families. If money doesn't make a big difference in the lives of poor children, its impact is even smaller for kids who are already well provided for.
Mayer found that the things that make a difference are relatively inexpensive: the number of books a kid has or how often his family goes to museums. She argues that all the other stuff — summer camps, tutors, trips to Paris — are like upgrades on a Lexus. They're nice to have but immaterial when it comes to getting from one place to another.
George Mason University economist Bryan Douglas Caplan takes an even more extreme view. In his provocative 2011 book, "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think," he cites studies of identical twins to argue that once a child's genes are in place, there's little that parents can do to shape how their kids turn out.
If private tutors or the right address is unlikely to change a child's life, the relationships kids have with their parents just might. This is the argument that University of Pennsylvania professor Annette Lareau advances in her groundbreaking ethnography "Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life."
In the mid-1990s, Lareau began one of the most in-depth observations of American parenting ever conducted. She spent a month each with 12 families (six middle- and upper-middle-class and six poor or working-class) and observed how these parents interacted with their children. Lareau concluded that middle-class parents convey substantial advantages to their children in three ways: by cultivating their interests, enriching their thinking and speaking skills through informal conversations, and teaching them how to navigate institutions such as colleges and workplaces that serve as de facto gatekeepers for success in America. Success in those areas is much more related to the amount of time parents spend with their children than where they send them to school.
"I think it's very reasonable for parents to choose to work less in order to have more face time with their children, even if that means their children attend a school where they're not challenged as much as the parents might like," Lareau told me. She added: "Many parents I interview are anxious about their children's economic futures. But I think they have an exaggerated sense of the risks involved if they don't give their children 'the best' of everything."
It's certainly gratifying to have an academic study tell me what intuitively seems true: that to the extent I can influence whether James and Oscar grow up to be happy, successful adults, the time I spend with them is more important than the average SAT scores or the number of Advanced Placement offerings at their schools.
As a well-educated, middle-income family, it's also a relief to be given reasons not to shoehorn ourselves into the most expensive suburban towns. A recent Brookings Institution study found that housing in the highest-scoring school districts in a metropolitan area was 2.4 times as expensive as housing in the lowest-performing districts. In Washington, the difference between a home in the top 20 percent vs. the bottom 20 percent of school districts is more than $200,000. Homes in the Washington area's very best school districts would be an even higher reach.
That's a lot of money. For most families, including ours, buying into an elite school district as opposed to an average one would require sacrifices in lots of other areas. And if it's true that how well a kid fares hinges more on the quality of his family life than any other single factor, working longer hours to earn more money to send our kids to the best K-12 schools is a self-defeating formula.
I want to believe that it makes sense to prioritize being there when our kids leave for school and when they come home. I want to believe that my family can live at a humane pace without our kids getting left behind. But it still takes a leap of faith to live that way.
Record numbers of kids are applying to elite colleges, and in today's economy, James and Oscar might need every advantage I can give them. Choosing not to rearrange our lives to move to the best school system could be unwise. Or it could be a pass for our family to live the way we want to.
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Kevin Hartnett writes Growing Sideways, a blog about fatherhood.