American Family Policy Is Holding Schools Back

A child’s ability to succeed in the classroom is powerfully influenced by their home environment. Giving parents the support they need could be key to fixing American education.

illustration of a parent helping a child with homework
Getty; Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic

Many American schools are failing to provide all students with a quality education, and policy makers don’t seem to know what to do about it. Even before schools closed during the pandemic, 30 percent of graduating seniors failed to reach a basic level of competency in reading, and 40 percent failed to do so in math, according to national data. Performance gaps across race and socioeconomic status in both subjects have persisted to some degree for decades. Meanwhile, teachers are among the most stressed-out workers in America, and though concerns about educators leaving in droves have yet to materialize, the number of young people entering the profession has been dwindling for years.

Over the past two decades, government officials have made various attempts to improve the state of American education—ramping up standardized testing, expanding charter schools, and urging states to adopt uniform benchmarks for student achievement—to little avail. Perhaps understandably, these efforts have mostly fixated on what takes place within the halls of America’s K–12 public schools. But less attention has been given to another profound influence on our educational system: our nation’s family policy. My reporting suggests that many of the elements fostering children’s academic success have roots outside of school—and that if America wants to help teachers, it will have to do a better job of supporting parents.

The United States is a difficult place to raise a kid. Paid leave and affordable child care, common benefits in many of our peer countries, are not guaranteed. Available supports, such as tax credits or (unpaid) job-protected family and medical leave, sometimes exclude the poorest citizens. Many aids targeted specifically at needy families can be very difficult to access or come with employment requirements—a big ask in a country with little infrastructure to back working parents. These conditions not only make life unnecessarily difficult for caregivers; they also compromise the entire project of teaching American kids.

A child’s education begins the moment they are born, Dana Suskind, a founder and co-director of the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health at the University of Chicago and the author of Parent Nation, told me. The majority of physical brain development occurs within the first few years of life, before most children ever step into a classroom. This is a sensitive time, when kids are both particularly vulnerable to stress and well primed to gain cognitive ground. Parents play a major role during this stage as “children's first and most important brain architects,” Suskind said. Engaging kids in rich interactions—tuning in to what interests them, talking and reading to them, and letting them “talk” back—helps stimulate and strengthen the neural connections that build brain power and lay the foundation for learning. Many parents, such as those without paid leave or with punishing work schedules, have fewer opportunities to devote such attention to their children. Wealthier families can outsource the labor to professionals, but, as the country grapples with a massive shortage of child-care workers, more parents and kids are on their own.

When children don’t get early support, their ability to learn suffers. According to Suskind, the nurturing back-and-forth between caregiver and child is linked to achievement in literacy, math, spatial reasoning, and self-regulation—all of which are all crucial to academic success. Without sufficient engagement, children risk entering school already behind. By one estimate from the 2017–18 school year, half of American 3-to-5-year-olds aren’t “on track” in at least one area of scholastic readiness, such as math and expressive language, or emotional development and behavioral management. “Asking teachers to try to make up the difference … is basically impossible,” Suskind said. Policy makers often point to universal pre-K as a potential solution, but although that could certainly help, it doesn’t start early enough. As young as nine months old, low-income children score worse on cognitive-development tests than their wealthier peers, and the disparity widens as they enter toddlerhood.

The trouble may begin in early childhood, but the strain on American parents can continue to create issues once children start school. As caregivers, parents are expected to do a lot to support their children’s education: drop them off and pick them up, buy supplies, attend meetings with teachers, manage the logistics of extracurriculars and sports, help with homework. And if a child has a learning difficulty related to their health, such as trouble with their eyesight or hearing or a developmental disorder, parents are responsible for making and taking them to appointments and sometimes even implementing strategies learned in therapy at home. This high level of involvement in a child’s education is a powerful predictor of academic success, but it’s very difficult for many to undertake. “If you’re not able to either predict your work schedule, or get time off from your job to do those kinds of things, that kind of wipes out” your ability to be so engaged, Jennifer Lansford, the director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, told me.

For low-income parents, the challenges can be more extreme. Children cannot learn effectively when their basic needs—food, shelter, sleep, safety—are unmet. Stress at home can lead to misbehavior in class and cycles of learning disruption, Lindsay Popilskis, a psychologist in Clarkstown Central School District, in New York, told me. When children act out, they miss class time, fall behind, and become frustrated. “So then they act out again,” Popilskis said. Although teachers employ a variety of strategies to manage classroom disruptions, with some success, they can only do so much if they can’t address the source of the problem.

Suzanne Langlois, who has spent the past 17 years teaching at a public high school in a wealthy part of Maine, has no doubt that the resources among her students’ families make her job easier. She told me that she rarely sees the behavioral issues that she used to when she worked in a district with much higher levels of poverty. She finds it much easier to engage teens who aren’t distracted by concerns about their family’s health or employment. Having grown up with so much support, her current students are generally more confident learners. They still have problems, as all kids do, but those tend to be less pressing and easier for her to address. “It’s amazing how much more I get to actually teach,” Langlois told me. “When I was in [my previous district], I always felt like I had so many kids who had needs and I wasn’t meeting any of them. It felt terrible.” Now, with fewer kids in crisis, she has the bandwidth to check in with anyone who is having a hard time. “I get to feel more successful. And that brings more energy to the teaching.”

Schools can be a lifeline and haven, especially for those with difficult home lives. “Right now we are and have been the unacknowledged social safety net for America,” Theo Moriarty, a teacher in Seattle, told me. Schools not only provide food, care, and vaccines, but also connect families with various community aids, or assist them as they navigate the labyrinthine process for obtaining Medicaid, housing, and other services. But this is a lot of responsibility to put on one institution. And ultimately, a child’s ability to succeed in the classroom is strongly influenced by the level of support they receive at home. Addressing the forces holding back American education is not possible without assisting America’s families. Leaving it to schools to play catchup is unfair to teachers and parents alike.

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