Academic Failure Due to Poverty or to Lack of Fathers?

In quite a few posts, I've commented on poverty being the number one factor in academic underachievement. But High school teacher Patrick Welsh in his article Making the Grade Isn't About Race. It's About Parents takes a closer look at it and comes up the importance of parents in academic achievement:

"Why don't you guys study like the kids from Africa?"

In a moment of exasperation last spring, I asked that question to a virtually all-black class of 12th-graders who had done horribly on a test I had just given. A kid who seldom came to class -- and was constantly distracting other students when he did -- shot back: "It's because they have fathers who kick their butts and make them study."

Another student angrily challenged me: "You ask the class, just ask how many of us have our fathers living with us." When I did, not one hand went up.

Welsh is arguing against the simplistic racial explanations for academic achievement and for the importance of parenting in academic achievement.

Four years ago, William Raspberry, Pulitzer Prize recipient and retired Washington Post columnist, also commented on the importance of fathers in his article "A Better Cure than Abortion", connecting it to this story:

Some years ago, South Africa's game managers had to figure out what to do about the elephant herd at Kruger National Park. The herd was growing well beyond the ability of the park to sustain it.

The two-phase solution: transport some of the herd to the Pilanesberg game park and kill off some of those that were too big to transport. And so they did.

A dozen years later, several of the transported young males (now teenagers) started attacking Pilanesberg's herd of white rhinos, an endangered species. They used their trunks to throw sticks at the rhinos, chased them over long hours and great distances, and stomped to death a tenth of the herd -- all for no discernible reason.

Park managers decided they had no choice but to kill some of the worst juvenile offenders. They had killed five of them when someone came up with another bright idea: Bring in some of the mature males from Kruger -- there was by then the technology to transport the larger animals -- and hope that the bigger, stronger males could bring the adolescents under control.

To the delight of the park officials, it worked. The big bulls, quickly establishing the natural hierarchy, became the dominant sexual partners of the females, and the reduction in sexual activity among the juveniles lowered their soaring testosterone levels and reduced their violent behavior.

The new discipline, it turned out, was not just a matter of size intimidation. The young bulls actually started following the Big Daddies around, enjoying the association with the adults, yielding to their authority and learning from them proper elephant conduct. The assaults on the white rhinos ended abruptly.

Raspberry is arguing against long legal sentences for non-violent offences that results in "fatherless communities."

Naturally, there are other contributing and overlapping factors, such as poverty, that exacerbates the problems many students have in succeeding academically. There are also curriculum effects and teacher quality effects, at least in mathematics. Even so, the family factor is arguably a, if not the, major one. And this is true in other arenas, too. For instance, the National Institutes of Health reported that "Family Characteristics Have More Influence On Child Development Than Does Experience In Child Care". This governmental review of the literature shows the importance of family influences in problem behaviors of children. And some research shows the effects of divorce on children.

We need to reconsider, as Raspberry argues, legal policy effects on communities and families. We need to rethink the effects of our social policy effects on communities and families. Children are our future, and we need to invest in them. We need to rethink our priorities.