High Stakes, Hard Choices

Over the last decade, two important social policies originating on the right have been recast as centrist and adopted nationwide. One is welfare reform, which has pushed (some would say shoved) poor and low-skill parents headlong into the labor market. The other is the turn against "social promotion" and toward high-stakes testing in public schools. Kids as young as eight years old are now held back to repeat a grade if they do not achieve specific test scores. The two policies were inspired by wholly different research findings and are being implemented by entirely different bureaucracies. Yet they are intertwined in the real lives of the working poor.

So far, 46 states have adopted or are developing the new testing regimes. But school districts -- especially inner-city districts already plagued by poorly prepared teachers and insufficient funds for books, paper, and building maintenance -- are hardly in a position to meet the new demands. Faced with inadequate budgets for the basics, not to mention "extras" such as tutoring programs, schools lean on parents for help. Indeed, parents have become, almost by fiat, an army of "home schoolers," who must commit time and energy to help their kids navigate high-stakes tests.

Meanwhile, welfare reform and the increased cost of living in major American cities have pushed low-income parents sharply in the opposite direction: toward more work hours and less time with their children. In 1998 some 5.3 million low-income children between the ages of six and 12 lived in families in which both parents, or the household's single parent, worked after school. Hardly anybody in the public arena seems to have noticed the conflict between the two policies, but in the private worlds of poor households, the tension created by their contradictory demands is coming to a boiling point.

Pass or Fail

The call for higher standards in public schools is politically appealing, even to liberals who argue that we are damning children to failure if they leave school without the skills they need to survive. However, absent a significant investment in remedial education that would pull all children up to the new standards, the move to end social promotion produces troubling results.

For those who are "retained in grade," the new, more rigorous regime may well do more damage than the old, inadequate approach, which overlooked academic failure. Robert Hauser, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, has given us the most thorough assessment of the situation via the work that he and his colleagues did for the National Academy of Sciences in 1999. Their conclusions are sobering: Students who are held back suffer significant educational deficits compared with similar students who are promoted. They drop out of school at much higher rates. And catching "at-risk" students early is no solution. Students retained in first grade, the researchers found, "fall farther and farther behind never-retained youngsters for as long as we can monitor their progress."

Kids at risk of being held back are not randomly distributed. They are the same children whose families, neighborhoods, and schools are already burdened by poverty and racial segregation. Research shows that the kids who start kindergarten without knowing that English is read from left to right, or without the ability to count to 10 or identify the letters of the alphabet, are likely to have a mother with less than a high-school education, a family that receives food stamps or cash welfare payments, a single parent as head of household, and/or parents with a primary language other than English. Schools with a concentration of these children already struggle with more than their share of teaching difficulties. Yet now we propose to add a new obstacle: a concentration of kids held back in grade. For poor and low-income families, the stakes of high-stakes testing are high indeed.

New York City has been particularly aggressive in ending social promotion. Starting in 1999, the chancellor of the nation's largest school system required that third-, sixth-, and eighth-grade students who had failed a reading test attend summer school and sit for another exam. In many cases, a second failing mark seals the students' fate: They must repeat a grade.

We were in the middle of our research for a project on the working poor and the effects of welfare reform when this mandate came down the pike. Hence we were able to see firsthand how the new education policy played out in the lives of working poor families. We could hear the anxiety in the children's voices as they worried about being officially and visibly labeled too stupid to pass. We saw their teachers in a panic as test scores were published, and debates raged over how their schools should be punished for poor performance. Parents were more ambivalent. Many were pleased by the thought that their kids would be in summer school, as this solved a child-care problem. But they were also nervous about their kids not passing and being teased by other students.

In some ways, the high-stakes tests produced exactly what their advocates were looking for: increased "time on task" in the classroom and higher expectations for academic achievement in the early grades. The schools also launched a major campaign to enlist parents in the effort. Brochures went out in children's backpacks, at "back-to-school nights," and anywhere else that schools could get parents' attention, urging parents to read to their kids nightly, to listen to their children read back, to visit libraries and museums, to use trips to the grocery store as opportunities for problem solving in math.

Nonetheless, some 72,000 New York City students in grades three through eight were required to attend summer school in 2001 because of failing test scores. In the four neighborhoods we studied, test results were dismal. In District 6, which includes Washington Heights, a community with a large concentration of Dominican immigrants, 23 percent of third to eighth graders failed the reading tests and 35 percent flunked math. In District 13, which includes the poor black neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant and the affluent community of Brooklyn Heights, 22 percent fell short in reading and 37 percent could not pass the math test.

For the families we studied, the challenge was daunting. Most of the parents are poorly educated themselves and have never been able to offer much in the way of tutorial help to their kids. What they did have, at least before they increased their work hours, was time. They could insert themselves in their children's schools as volunteers, and they did. They could find time and space in their cramped apartments for kids to do their homework, and they did that as well. Even when they could not tell whether the work was really done because of limited English proficiency, they could figure out whether or not Johnny was bent over his books. All that became much harder to do when work hours ratcheted up.

Time for School

Among the 12 families we followed most intensely, some parents have been able to increase monitoring their children to meet the new demands. But more have faced unholy trade-offs as the economic security and the occupational prospects of the parents have been pitted against the educational needs of the children.

Let us begin with the good news, by looking at Maria and Robert (all names used are pseudonyms), two heads of working poor households who understand full well the academic and administrative requirements needed to maneuver in the public elementary-school system. Maria is a day-care provider working out of her home. Because her mother works as her assistant, Maria has a lot more flexibility than most working poor parents. She can attend her daughter's school events and parent-teacher activities. When she noticed that her daughter was not receiving the attention she needed at her present school, Maria had the wherewithal to figure out which school her daughter could be transferred to. She recruited her ex-husband to complete the extensive paperwork needed for a transfer, and he devoted several days to the running around required to enroll their daughter in her new school. Maria's ex-husband was able to help because he too had a job that allowed him to take those days off. The time that he and especially Maria have devoted to helping their daughter with schoolwork has paid off. The girl has done well on standardized exams, though not quite well enough to get into the gifted program for which she was hoping.

Robert is the grandfather and guardian of a gifted fourth grader, Janine. Although Robert is a disabled veteran with a history of substance abuse, he completed high school and had additional training in the Army during the Vietnam War. He appreciates the role of education in Janine's future. When new visitors come to Robert's modest apartment, he proudly displays Janine's various awards and certificates, which are the main wall decorations in the living room. All of the children in this household have library cards, and their grandparents see to it that the kids make regular visits to the local branch.

The attention that Janine receives in school owes itself both to her own performance and to her grandfather's presence there. Because Robert and his wife receive Supplemental Security Income payments -- rather than welfare -- on behalf of their dependent grandchildren, the family enjoys a measure of economic stability and Robert is not under the gun to find a regular job. Instead, he works out of his home (and off the books) as a caterer, and he is thus able to be a regular volunteer at the school. He often cooks gratis for special events, which attracts special interest in Janine from the teachers and administrators he's gotten to know.

Robert's family lives under extreme stress. Twelve people, some of them drug users, are jammed into a one-bedroom apartment. One of the teenagers has been in trouble with the law, hangs out with gangs, and provokes his grandfather's anger. Robert's drug-addicted daughter (Janine's mother) no longer lives there, but she continues to deposit dependent grandchildren in her parents' lap, one of whom is an HIV-positive two-year-old. Yet the most responsible adults in the family have marshaled their time resources and applied them to providing educational support for their grandchildren. Janine and her siblings are passing the high-stakes tests with room to spare.

Despite their many problems, these two sets of parents have significant advantages, which make a difference in their children's educational lives. Their jobs, regular and underground, are flexible, so they can take the time to monitor their children in the school system fairly closely. They are also English speakers, have other family members they can rely on, and have more education than many of the working poor. They recognize the importance of this cultural capital, and they have the wherewithal to help their children obtain it.

The Double Whammy

Other families in our study are not as fortunate. Margarite and Debra, for example, do what they can to follow the schools' instructions about the need to practice reading and oversee homework, but they are constrained by the demands they face in the work world.

During most of our contacts, Margarite worked full time as a temporary employee, earning $5.81 an hour. She depended on a babysitter to pick up her daughters after school, which cost her a pretty penny each week: $40 each for Elsie and India. The babysitter was reliable but not a resource at homework time, so neither daughter cracked a book before Margarite, the sole source of order and discipline, got home from work.

The situation was tense, and the introduction of high-stakes testing increased the pressure. The volume of homework shot up and the after-work hours were as squeezed as ever. What's more, as the kids have gotten older, they have outstripped their mother's educational background. She can't always help them with their work, even when she has time. When that happens, Elsie skips the math problem and hopes her teacher won't notice. India leaves off a definition or two from her English assignment. Margarite cannot really tell whether they've done an adequate job, and she has no one else to fall back on.

Still, Margarite is committed to her children's education. The job she had when we first met her entitled her to vacation days, but she never took them to relax. Instead, she hoarded them so that she could take off on days when her two daughters needed her at their school or for emergencies. Though she was desperate for money, Margarite refused overtime so that she could come home and do homework with her daughters. The strategy worked only partially, and only so long as her employer went along with it, which wasn't long enough. Toward the end of our research, Margarite lost her job.

Debra took a different tack: She put her job first. When Debra was on welfare, she was a daily fixture in the elementary school. She knew everyone. She was an officer in the Parent Teacher Association. Now that she works full time and commutes, Debra has had to abandon all that. She cannot visit the school very often, and she depends on her children for information about what goes on "behind doors." Debra still has personal ties to teachers, which she can trade on if she needs to, but because teachers in poor schools move around a lot, it is not clear that these ties will be of much value in a year's time.

At the end of her workday, Debra commutes from her office in Union Square to her mother-in-law's home in Harlem to pick up her kids. She then boards another subway train with three kids in tow and heads back to their apartment in Washington Heights. When she was a volunteer, Debra took care of the two-year-old herself and brought her two older kids back home directly after school. Those days are gone now, replaced by a frantic and exhausting life.

Time pressure has led Debra to press her 10-year-old daughter into taking more responsibility for the younger children. The 10-year-old now routinely bathes and diapers her two-year-old sister before bed. In other households, this time might go toward homework and reading. And Debra knows that her oldest daughter needs more academic help: The 10-year-old was left back once already in the third grade and is still having trouble. During our year with the family, both Debra's son and daughter struggled with reading and were attending free support sessions after school to help them catch up.

Before she started her new job, Debra took her kids to the library religiously, and enrolled the two older ones in reading clubs. Their bedroom walls are decorated with certificates they received for having read 25 books each. These days Debra simply does not have the energy to check homework or to read to her kids. She berates herself for these shortcomings, and she laments that her kids are becoming more unruly. She isn't able to supervise them for as many hours as she used to. The two older children, she says, are "starting to run wild," and her toddler is clearly in trouble. The child's standard conversation is limited to loudly shouting, "Shut up! Shut up!" -- which leaves us wondering what the little girl is experiencing during her long hours of day care at her grandmother's house, where we know that drug addicts wander in and out.

Debra is genuinely pleased about having a regular job and is unequivocally happier with her adult life. She is out of the house, away from her kids, making a living, and earning respect. Having struggled with serious depression and abuse during her married life, Debra considers the job that welfare forced her to take in exchange for her benefits and the permanent position that she was given thereafter to be a genuine blessing. The blues are gone, and some confidence has returned. Debra would almost say she is optimistic about the future. At the same time, she is struggling with a diminished ability to monitor her children.

We believe the same strains will tear at most single-parent families that transition off of welfare. Margarite exemplifies the conflict temporarily "resolved," at great cost, in favor of the family. Debra, by contrast, has shifted more of her time into the work world, and her life is much improved as a result. But by her own reckoning, she is shortchanging her kids.

These differences do not seem to disappear with post-welfare success. Leena, a Dominican mother in our study, is a poster child for upward mobility out of welfare and into the white-collar world. She is a walking tribute to the value of a policy that is now largely defunct, which allowed welfare recipients to attend college in lieu of working. In college she learned data entry, then landed a work-study job that gave her some experience; she parlayed that foundation into a very good job in a medical office. On her own, Leena developed the patient-scheduling system that the office relies on now. When Leena is on vacation or otherwise occupied, fewer patients get scheduled and the office makes less money. She is therefore a valued employee who is well paid and has been regularly promoted. This success has convinced Leena that she should finish college, so she attends night school in addition to a 40-hour-plus workweek.

After so many years hemmed in by welfare, Leena is pushing herself into the middle class, upgrading her furniture, buying new clothes for herself and her sons. But her success has only been possible because her mother came over from the Dominican Republic to care for the boys while Leena is at work or in night school. So when mother and daughter wrestle over who is in charge, Leena swallows her pride. When Leena's mother, who is a Spanish speaker and poorly educated, neglects reading to the kids and does nothing to supervise their homework, Leena feels that she can't tell her mother how to raise the children. And the consequences are beginning to show: Henry, Leena's eight-year-old son, is not doing well in school.

Our observations reflect the brewing trouble. Leena was getting home from night school after 10 p.m., long past her kids' bedtime. It was too late to do anything about missed homework, so she would just let Henry go to school the next day without his assignments. To pick up report cards at Henry's school, a parent must go during school hours. Leena had put that duty off, so she was not even entirely sure how Henry was doing in school. She recruited her brother to help Henry with his times tables, but this patchwork solution didn't quite do the trick. Without the free after-school reading program that Henry attended two days a week, he probably would have failed his third-grade exams. His teachers say that he is likely to fail the next high-stakes reading and math exams.

Leena is advancing herself in the labor market and is piling up the human capital she needs to do even better in the future. Her children benefit in many ways from the good life that her efforts make possible. Yet pulling herself up by her own bootstraps has left Leena time poor and unable to pull her children up after her, at least in an educational sense. She has escaped working poverty. But high-stakes testing may set her children on a pathway that will look more like the one Leena started out on as a single mother than the one she has ended up on as a success story.


These are not the only ways that welfare families come to balance the demands of adult work and children's school. There is another possibility, though we hesitate to call it a strategy or adaptation because it is so chaotic. It comes about when mothers are unable to secure steady work, are overwhelmed by family demands, are unable to enlist much help from other family members, and are limited by their own educational deficits to the point where they cannot do much that is constructive to help their children in school. There are no trade-offs here; these families are treading water at the best of times and drowning the rest of the time.

Elisa is a case in point. An immigrant from the Dominican Republic, Elisa completed very little schooling there, can barely read Spanish, and reads no English at all. She had been on and off welfare for about 10 years when we began our research. With three children to look after -- Calvin (14), Willie (8), and Anthony (5) -- Elisa is often at wit's end, particularly because the youngest has lead poisoning (not uncommon in poor neighborhoods with pre-war housing stock) and associated developmental delays.

Elisa cannot guide her children's homework, read to them, correct them when they make mistakes, or in any way supplement their instruction. She has almost no understanding of how a bureaucracy works. School reforms that rely on parental inputs leave kids in families such as Elisa's paying a significant price, as they no doubt always have. However, before Elisa went back to work -- as she had to do with her welfare benefits running out -- she was more organized, less frazzled, and had the time to visit her sons' schools, even if it was a prospect she did not relish. When she is "in work," Elisa commutes almost three hours a day, most recently to a job packing perfume bottles in a New Jersey factory, for which she is paid less than $4 an hour (considerably below the legal minimum wage). It was while she was working that her oldest son dropped out of the eighth grade.

Better Options

What should a progressive policy on the work-family-school nexus contain? The remedies usually proposed remain worthy of consideration: increased wages so that parents are under less economic stress and equity in school funding so that the children most in need are not last in line for well-prepared teachers and functioning classrooms. Desegregation by race and income would distribute the most academically disadvantaged and give kids from low-income households a better crack at the kind of education that would help get them over the high-stakes hurdles.

Some have suggested that progressives, in addition, should back efforts to overturn testing regimes altogether. We have reservations about that. There is evidence to suggest that kids in poor schools are reaping some rewards from the increased attention that teachers and administrators are paying to their performance. We think, however, that it would make sense to hold schools accountable for aggregate performance, while backing away from punishing individual kids by holding them back. All of the evidence we have so far suggests that "grade retardation" produces dropouts, poor performance, and untold levels of self-doubt. Until we can offer every kid a quality education, it seems unfair to nail them to the wall for failures in the system.

Given the inequalities among American families, putting money into high-quality remedial programs and academically oriented after-school programs is critical. Indeed, these may be the only interventions that can genuinely make up for the things that working poor parents cannot do at home. Most after-school programs around the nation are oversubscribed, underfunded, and not geared toward educational pursuits. In New York, they are also at risk in the post-September 11 budget crisis. Those free after-school reading programs that a number of the children in our study have relied on for help are scheduled for closure next fall because of budget cuts.

Workplace policies that enable low-income families to have more time together are crucial as well. Low-income families need the access to vacations, sick leaves, and flexible hours that more advantaged families have. Instead they are more likely to have irregular work hours, evening shifts, and no paid leaves at all, and are thus less able to see to their kids' education. If we ratchet up the work requirements for families on public assistance, as the Bush administration currently proposes, we can probably expect the school problems of poor children to get worse instead of better.

Nor should we be content with the status quo. Poor kids suffer when we leave families on their own to manage the conflicts at the nexus of welfare reform and high-stakes tests.