How can we address the decline of marriage and the rise of single parenting in America? Most answers to that question center on reforming the social safety net to address marriage penalties, widening access to contraception, improving relationship education programs, and increasing the availability of stable, well-paying jobs. In a new article for Education Next, Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, proposes another way to tackle the problem: Involve schools.
His idea is less controversial than it might sound. Many Americans doubt schools’ ability to give their children a solid education, let alone to positively influence their romantic relationships and the way they form families down the road. But Petrilli isn’t talking about subjecting students to lectures on the benefits of marriage. Rather, he wants schools to help students follow the “success sequence”—finishing high school (at least), working full-time, marrying, and only then having children—that represents an almost sure way to avoid or escape poverty. The sequence harmonizes with most parents’ dreams for their sons and daughters, and if schools are the great vehicle of upward economic mobility, then it’s arguably within their purview to promote it. How would they do that?
Petrilli argues that hope is key: Where young men and women despair of attaining higher education or steady, fulfilling jobs, they are far less motivated to delay childbearing—and having children outside of marriage then makes climbing the economic ladder even more difficult (though not impossible). By giving women and men the hope of enjoying a decent career, we would not only improve their economic prospects, but also increase their motivation to avoid nonmarital childbearing and bolster their chances of forming stable marriages down the road. Petrilli focuses on three ways schools could do more to prepare students for fulfilling careers:
1. In addition preparing students to enroll in and graduate from college, offer greater career and technical education to equip students for “middle skills” jobs requiring postsecondary certificates but not bachelor’s degrees. Petrilli touts the career academy model, in which high schools partner with local employers in several fields to offer a variety of pathways combining traditional education with more specialized technical training. Where schools are unable to do this, I’d add, an extended apprenticeship system sponsored by employers and the government could accomplish the same goods.
2. Help students develop the character attributes—or to use the old-fashioned term, the virtues—that can help them in both their careers and their personal lives: prudence, industriousness, resilience, and so on. Catholic schools and KIPP schools both emphasize character education, and if students’ higher graduation rates and lower rates of participation in risky behaviors are any indicator, Catholic schools, at least, seem to have had some success with it.
3. Encourage more students to participate in extracurricular activities. Expanding extracurriculars may seem frivolous, but Petrilli notes research showing that “disadvantaged students who participate in extracurriculars are less likely to drop out of high school, use tobacco or alcohol, or get pregnant, and are more likely to score well on tests, attend college, and complete college” (and the links don’t seem to be driven entirely by selection). Unfortunately, as Petrilli and a recent Atlantic article document, poor schools are less likely to offer many extracurricular activities, and kids from lower-income families can’t always afford to participate in them.
These tasks may seem a lot to ask of schools already struggling to offer students an adequate education. Petrilli suggests that school choice would promote the flexibility that accomplishing these tasks might require: Rather than automatically attending the nearest public school, students could select a school with a career academy that appeals to them, for instance, and religious families could send their children to religious schools that emphasize character education.
As always, we can’t judge at the outset whether these proposals could turn around today’s negative family trends. But each should hold wide appeal—after all, expanding access to good jobs is about as universal a goal as one can find in public policy—and each could accomplish multiple goods. Those concerned about the state of marriage should consider adding Petrilli’s ideas to their arsenal.