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By Amitrajeet A. Batabyal

In a recent article on preschool education, the periodical the Economist contended that poverty is the biggest factor in health, cognitive and developmental disparities in young children. This view is widely held. When it comes to teenagers, another widely held view is that a quality school environment can offset problems stemming from an insalubrious home environment.

These views are increasingly at odds with the findings of contemporary research. To see this clearly, consider the research on the causes of diverse early childhood experiences. This research is comprehensive and its findings are drawn from, among other sources, the Centers for Disease Control’s Adverse Childhood Experience Study.

Summarizing this research in the Boston Review, the Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman suggests that public policy focus on early intervention because such intervention can give rise to long-lasting effects on children in disadvantaged families. Heckman makes the point that the proper measure of disadvantage is not family poverty, nor is it parental education. Instead, “the available evidence suggests that the quality of parenting is the important scarce resource.” Attempting to ameliorate the lives of disadvantaged children by focusing on family poverty is akin to barking up the wrong tree.

Moving on to the view about teenagers, Mikaela Dufur, Toby Parcel and Kelly Troutman have studied how “family social capital” and “school social capital” relate to academic achievement in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. Family social capital derives from the bonds between parents and children including trust, open lines of communication and active engagement in a child’s academic life. In contrast, school social capital refers to a school’s ability to serve as a positive learning environment, including metrics such as student participation in extracurricular activities, teacher morale and the absence of problems such as absenteeism and bullying.

These researchers came up with a numerical score for each student and these students were all part of a long-term monitoring project. These scores were then compared to the students’ test scores in math, reading, science and history. The researchers showed that students with high levels of family social capital and low levels of school social capital performed better academically than students with high levels of school social capital but low levels of family social capital. The implication is twofold. First, “while both school and family involvement are important, the role of family involvement is stronger when it comes to academic success.” Second, a lot more attention ought to be paid to getting parenting right, rather than simply investing in schools.

Amitrajeet A. Batabyal is the Arthur J. Gosnell professor of economics at the Rochester Institute of Technology. These views are his own.