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Mitch Pearlstein: Connecting family and achievement gap

Pearlstein argues that the achievement gap will not be solved by educational reform.

Mitch Pearlstein
Center of the American ExperimentMitch Pearlstein

Mitch Pearlstein, president and founder of the Minneapolis-based Center of the American Experiment, published a book last fall that immediately lit up chat rooms and list-servs, in part because it met virtually no one’s expectations for a policy study produced by the head of a conservative think tank.

In “From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation,” Pearlstein argues that the U.S. achievement gap will not be solved by educational reforms but by policies that reduce the number of children growing up outside of the marriages of their biological parents.

The book, according  to its introduction, “connects dots that have never been adequately connected before: family fragmentation…[ellipses in the original] how that leads to educational weakness…how that, in turn, leads to economic weakness…how that results in a loss of U.S. economic competitiveness…and how they all lead to growing and very disturbing class cleavages.”

Indeed, Pearlstein argues persuasively that welfare policies of the past that made it easier for women to raise children alone weakened the family and that the stresses imposed on children growing up in non-nuclear settings put them at a severe disadvantage educationally—one that schools cannot surmount.

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“Family Collapse” is a remarkably compassionate, broadminded book. Pearlstein is quick to acknowledge that his own family has had its reconfigurations and challenges, and even quicker to describe the reasons that marriage isn’t very appealing for many. He does a wonderful job showing how policies spawned on both sides of the ideological aisle—particularly in the criminal justice system—make it nigh impossible for many, frequently African American men, to be stable, reliable parents and mates.

Where Pearlstein loses me is with his proposed antidote, the legal marriage of biological, heterosexual parents. He has clearly digested a lifetime’s scholarship on the subject of families—which he cites liberally–and yet the one argument “Family Collapse” did not fully articulate is precisely what is superior about the combination of biology and a state-recognized marriage certificate.

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation about where the family fits in education reform. (For the record, Pearlstein has seen an approved of the editing, but not this introduction.)

MinnPost: Recent news is that the number of Americans who are married is at an all-time low, 51 percent. Part of me can’t help but think you’ve made a very scholarly, compelling case against the tide coming in.

Mitch Pearlstein: I appreciate that. I am certainly not the first to do it, as I say in the acknowledgments. Plenty of folks have been brave and insightful over the years. What this book does that is different is it connects the five dots: How family fragmentation, which is this interesting new term, leads to educational weakness, which leads to economic weakness, which leads to a loss of competitiveness. And not just on the part of the country but in many ways, more critically, on the part of many individuals. And all that is leading to deepening class divisions in a nation that has never viewed itself in such splintered ways.

MinnPost: You are a conservative scholar but this book dishes out criticism to liberals and conservatives alike. You’re pretty critical, for instance, of the Bush administration’s marriage promotion initiatives. 

Pearlstein: Not critical as much as disappointed. It was a good-faith effort by lots of people. At least so far, these marriage education programs aimed at low-income men and women who are not yet married are not working terrifically well. What I say in the book is let’s see what happens when the results start coming in on programs aimed at couples who are already married. Will these programs help them stay together?

I have a deeper appreciation all the time for how difficult all of this is. I know how difficult it is simply to get guys to show up at these classes on a regular basis.

It’s not simply a matter of telling people to pull up their moral socks. In the same way, I wouldn’t want someone to urge me too vigorously to get married. Some people shouldn’t be married, some marriages should end, there are millions of kids living under very difficult circumstances and doing great. But there are millions of kids who are doing poorly. 

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People generally don’t write about these subjects, in part out of fear of being called dirty names. Sexist and racist are the two big ones. While the book certainly hasn’t been read by everybody, I have yet to be called one dirty name. Not one. I have been in audiences that were ideologically mixed, racially mixed. I do believe that there are greater numbers of people out there who recognize this problem for the very large problem that it is. 

MinnPost: You said an interesting thing about telling people to pull up their moral socks. And you don’t do that. Can you speak a little bit more to that point?

Pearlstein: I don’t want to suggest that questions of morality are unimportant. They’re very important. Why don’t I focus on pulling up moral socks? I have always, for as long as I can remember, viewed the question in three parts, in rough terms: One would be the culture, one would be public policy and one would be economics.

About the culture, one certainly can talk about that which was unacceptable a number of decades ago and is now just commonplace. The Diana Ross song “Love Child” is a song from the mid-1960s or so when she talks about how she had been a love child, life had been very difficult.

Her boyfriend now wanted to have sex. She didn’t want to make a love child and bring shame to that child as shame had been brought to her. The shift between then and now, where such matters are concerned, has been seismic. 

On the policy side, we have put together a system with the best of intentions to help women, help kids. But what we have in fact done is to enable a lot of people into bad choices and poverty.

Economically we have made a lot of men irrelevant. As Charles Murray has written, a welfare check is more reliable than a lot of guys. On top of that, the woman gets to control the check. Women are now in a far better position to support themselves than just about ever before. 

I have a more acute appreciation now for some economic matters. The iconic term unmarriageable men? The focus has been on the exodus of decent paying jobs for low-skilled men in inner cities. You can argue up or down about whether or not that problem has been as pivotal as [sociologist] William Julius Wilson has said.

There’s no question in my mind, and this is something that I have come to better understand and appreciate, it’s not just the loss of jobs, if in fact there’s a loss of jobs. It’s everything else going on, quite frequently, in the lives of these men.

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But when it comes to inner city men, we can disagree about the extent to which sociological and economic factors are holding them back or a lack of initiative or whatever combination. But these guys are getting horrible educations. 

They’re getting in trouble with the law. They’re in and out of jail and prison. Many do drugs a lot, many drink a lot. Many are abusive to the women in their lives.

If I were a woman under those circumstances, I wouldn’t want to marry these guys either.

What has come to be better understood in the last number of years is that many inner city women really do want to get married but the pool of eligible guys is not terribly robust. I have a better appreciation for factors like that now. 

MinnPost: You write compellingly about the cycle of incarceration, and collateral sanctions. How did you come to that?

Pearlstein: I wrote a paper about half a dozen years ago about crime and marriage and it became clear to me this great paradox. Marriage helps men be mature men and not commit as much crime as they otherwise might.

But they’re less likely to get married if they’ve been committing crime–and not just because they may be in jail or prison. Once you have a record, it is often very, very difficult to break out of that.

When you add that problem to other problems in their lives, which might be no high school diploma, an inability to read terribly well, to compute very well, speak very well, what in the world do we expect?

It would be nice if the remedy was simply having lots and lots of people go cold turkey and not commit crime anymore. That’s my best recommendation. But we need to help folks while always keeping public safety uppermost in mind. We have to help folks reconstruct their lives if in fact we are interested in having more people get married. 

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MinnPost: You also said that one of the issues was that it was impossible to get men to show up for marriage-oriented events. I wonder if that has to do with the expectation that they’re going to get told to pull up their moral socks? 

Pearlstein: I don’t doubt in many instances. But then again, they weren’t showing up in math class either or history class and they were dropping out of school in great numbers. 

MinnPost: Why married biological parents?

Pearlstein: I have four children. Three of them are my stepsons and the fourth child is a girl, who is now an adult, who we adopted. That has to be understood.

And I’m not beating up on single mothers. My wife was one for a long time. I am in my second marriage, she’s in her second marriage. I used to say I was in my second and last marriage. She didn’t like the locution. So, I now say I’m in my second and ultimate marriage. 

Why should we hope to have more kids growing up in the same homes with their biological parents? For no other reason and at the risk of sounding like a bibliophile, that’s what the research says is the best. On average–I always acknowledge that.

At root, it is what history and common sense as well as heavy-duty research says. I know of no measure—educational performance, mental health, crime, whatever it might be–where kids, on average growing up without their two biological parents do as well as those who are living that way. 

MinnPost: But here’s where I struggle. Is the issue the stable, mature, loving household? Or is the issue the biology and the marriage?

Pearlstein: I think it’s all of the above. Kids living with their two biological parents actually do better if the biological parents are married for whatever magical, mystical reason.

Even though we have very high divorce rates in this country, marriages tend to stay together longer than cohabitant situations. So, that is part of it. 

Without being glib about it, I start from a premise of I just want the guys there. If they are there, I think generally speaking, good things will happen for the kid.

I have never gotten caught up in debates about quality time or less than quality time. Time is time. It would be very nice if a father was really engaged in the life of his son or daughter without suffocating the kid. It would be nice if he took the initiative and changed diapers. But if he doesn’t, that’s an issue between him and his God and his wife.

MinnPost: One of the things I was thinking about while I was reading that portion of your book is how many odds-beating schools, particularly those that work with African-American boys, have strong male role models on staff and a strong male culture. 

Pearlstein: That’s a great point. When you talk about values, under those circumstances, you’re talking about basic, middle-class values.

Why don’t we have more schools like that? My sense is that one of the reasons is that the very spirit of colleges of education is more progressive then paternalistic. The word paternalistic works just perfectly in this instance: That’s how many of the most effective schools are described–as paternalistic. 

MinnPost: When you say paternalistic, would you agree that most of us, and the parent in me is speaking now, very much want institutions like schools to be paternalistic not to our kids but to everybody else’s? 

I don’t want you telling me how to parent my child. I don’t want you telling me what kind of values to talk about at my dinner table. But I do want you to create a school environment in the classroom where other children are not…

Pearlstein: …Are not beating up my kid.

MinnPost: Yes. 

Pearlstein: I was thinking along those lines as we were talking. When I use the term paternalistic, I’m not talking about schools telling parents how to raise their kids. In many instances parents are more than pleased that these schools are being appropriately tough and holding kids accountable.

MinnPost: Assuming for a moment that you’ve accurately diagnosed the problem, how do we deal with the kid who is in first grade today without having to fix his family? 

Pearlstein: We don’t, is the short answer. I’m aware of your writing on early childhood. There are indeed great programs out there. Whether or not they’re great enough is another matter.

Part of my argument is that it is naïve to the point of absurd to assume that we can bring great programs to mass, national scale. It simply doesn’t work that way for a variety of reasons.

Great schools, the kinds of schools we’ve been talking about that have a special talent for helping kids in need, are invaluable. The people in them are wonderful. But I question whether their long-term effects are long-term enough and strong enough. 

No matter how good the school is, generally speaking it can’t substitute for a strong family, end of story. Are we obliged to do everything we can do? Sure. But we’re not obliged to expect too much, it seems to me. 

MinnPost: We can’t get all the way through a discussion about marriage without talking about same-sex marriage. You very briefly touch on it, and if I read correctly, you said the jury is still out.

Pearlstein: If you interpreted that I was not eager to jump fully into the same-sex marriage debate, you interpreted that perfectly. I fully respect that it’s a profound issue. This book is not about that, and if I start focusing on same-sex marriage the message I want to convey is going to be lost.

What I do say, as I say in the early part of the book, whatever one’s position on the issue is, to the extent that we are increasingly talking about parents in generic terms as opposed to men as fathers and women as mothers, and that has something to do with the same-sex marriage debate, that’s really unfortunate.