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Why Education Reformers Must Have the Courage to Talk About Family

Ian Rowe is CEO of Public Prep, a network of single-sex elementary and middle public schools in New York City. Public Prep enrolls nearly 2,000 students in grades PreK-8. Ian has held a number of roles, from directing a public service initiative at the White House, to serving as a senior executive at MTV, to working as leadership at Teach For America and the Gates Foundation. Ian will be writing about how family structure impacts education outcomes, and what that means for schooling and what schools can do.

In a recent brief, the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child stated that "The science of child development shows that the foundation for sound mental health is built early in life, as early experiences—which include children's relationships with parents, caregivers, relatives, teachers, and peers—shape the architecture of the developing brain. Disruptions in this developmental process can impair a child's capacities for learning and relating to others, with lifelong implications."

As CEO of a network of elementary and middle schools in the South Bronx and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I understand Harvard's emphasis on the relationships children have with caring adults. This focus is timely given that the primary source of a child's early relationships—his or her family—is in the midst of a seismic, downward shift in stability, creating potentially devastating consequences for the next generation.

I thank Rick Hess for the opportunity to guest blog a three-part series on how this shift in family structure has adversely impacted outcomes for children; how K-12 and early childhood educators must break the "firewall" to reach today's vulnerable infants and toddlers before formal schooling begins; and how to mobilize educators to teach the next generation the sequence of life decisions most likely to result in individual success, strengthen future families, and avoid these conditions in the first place.

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In a remarkable new report, The State of Babies Yearbook 2019, the organizations Zero to Three and Child Trends provide a sobering analysis of what is happening in the lives of 12 million infants and toddlers nationwide. Forty-five percent live in households with incomes less than twice the federal poverty level. Twenty-one percent live with a single parent; 9 percent live in grandparent-headed households. 

The Yearbook affirms similar findings from prior studies, such as the Pew Research Center analysis on how the American family has changed. As the chart depicts, there has been a decades-long transformation in the family environments in which children are raised.

The rise in homes without resident, married fathers has created a whole new category of fragile families that contributes to the "intergenerational transmission of disadvantage" from parent to child. A key element driving this generational change in family structure is the five-decade explosion in non-marital births, across race.

As it relates to race, this is an equal opportunity tsunami, especially for younger women. In each of 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, and 2013, the non-marital birth rate to women of all races aged 24 and under held steady at an astronomical 71 percent. While there are exceptions, this community is most vulnerable to raising young children in unstable environments, often with absent fathers, and overwhelmingly likely to live in poverty and achieve poor academic outcomes.

It does not have to be this way.

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The impact of family structure on a range of student outcomes is intuitively obvious and factually irrefutable. Yet among educators, it is status quo to discuss reading, suspension, graduation, or other academic gaps by the usual suspects of race, class, or gender. That comfort level vanishes when it comes to the taboo topic of family structure.

Our collective silence is capitulation. We cannot accept that rampant non-marital births are inevitable in the neighborhoods we serve. Or that we can't talk about it because that would stereotype already marginalized populations. Or that we cannot risk blaming the victim by suggesting the pain in communities is self-inflicted by poor choices rather than due only to poverty or racism. Whatever the reasons, not talking about a problem does not make it go away.

It is time for education leaders to openly and honestly acknowledge the impact of this unprecedented shift in family structure. We need courage. The staggering growth in non-marital births is certainly correlated, and likely causal (especially compounded with poverty), to the increased number of Adverse Childhood Experiences and toxic stress that lead to child trauma many of us have committed our lives to resolve.

Educators cannot control the families into which our students are born. But we can influence how our students think about the families they form and the series of life choices that will likely lead to their life success and that of their children. If we truly want to step off the hamster wheel of mediocrity in which we find ourselves, as evidenced by another disappointing round of NAEP results, we need a new way.

As the Harvard brief concludes, "For society, many costly problems, ranging from the failure to complete high school to incarceration to homelessness, could be dramatically reduced if attention were paid to improving children's environments of relationships and experiences early in life."

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In the next two posts, I will share Public Prep's unique "18 to 18" approach that engages siblings as young as 18 months old through an innovative two-year, home-visiting partnership, all the way through supporting alumni through age 18. This includes efforts to help our alumni build a sense of personal agency—the power to control your own destiny—to make life decisions, particularly related to the sequence of education, work, and the timing of family formation.

This is crucial as graduating 8th graders embark upon the next 12 years of their lives in high school, college, and young adulthood, when critical choices are made that will have lifelong rewards or consequences.

I hope you find the posts enlightening and worthy of your time.

Ian Rowe

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