Education Opinion

Cool People You Should Know: Suet-Ling Pong

By skoolboy — August 06, 2008 3 min read

Regular readers know that eduwonkette was an early endorser of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education policy statement crafted by Sunny Ladd, Pedro Noguera, and Tom Payzant, and co-signed by some of skoolboy’s favorite scholars, policymakers and activists. The fundamental premise of the policy agenda is that efforts to advance student’s learning and development need to combine policies intended to improve schools with policies designed to transform the social and economic contexts in which children and youth develop. The approach is described as broader and bolder because it postulates that school improvement—which includes holding schools accountable for students’ learning and development—can’t do it alone. Rather, investments in communities, families and other social institutions that shape children’s lives outside of formal schooling are critical to moderating the powerful linkage between socioeconomic advantage and children’s learning and development.

The potential of this approach is illustrated through the research of Suet-Ling Pong, a cool person you should know. Dr. Pong is Professor of Education, Sociology and Demography at Penn State, where she serves as the Professor-in-Charge of the Educational Theory and Policy Program. (Some colleges and universities have program heads, or chairs, or coordinators. At Penn State, apparently, someone is actually in charge!) Over the past 15 years, she has pursued a program of research that has illuminated the mechanisms by which families, neighborhoods, and labor markets – important out-of-school contexts – shape students’ achievement in school.

Dr. Pong’s research strongly suggests that policies can weaken the links between a child’s social and economic background and her achievement. A key example is in the arena of family structure and family policy. In the U.S., we are accustomed to thinking of single-parent families, typically headed by women, as inherently disadvantaged. Female-headed families without another adult in the household struggle economically, and these mothers find it difficult to balance long hours at work and the time they spend with their children at home. As David Ellwood and Christopher Jencks point out, single-parent families are defined as an economic problem, a child development problem, and a moral problem; and the moral overtones have shaped American family policy.

Suet-Ling Pong and her colleagues have shown that there is nothing deterministic about the correlation between growing up in a single-parent family and children’s school achievement. Instead, she finds, the association between single-parenthood and children’s academic outcomes varies across countries. In the U.S., children growing up in single-parent families are comparatively worse off in their math and science achievement, relative to similar children in two-parent families, than is true in other countries, and some European countries have much smaller achievement gaps between single-parent and two-parent families than do others.

A country’s family policy environment is what makes the difference. Family policy takes many forms, including maternity and parental leave, child-care programming and subsidies, public after-school programs, and housing subsidies, to name a few. Countries which Pong and her colleagues describe as having strong family and welfare policies have smaller achievement gaps in math and science between children in single-parent and two-parent families than are found in other countries.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that policies that have helped to close gaps in other countries will have the same effect in the U.S. Policy-borrowing is a very delicate matter, and the successful enactment of a policy depends on many factors beyond the substance of the policy itself. Nor can we conclude that family and welfare policies are likely to eliminate the many disparities in academic outcomes observed in the U.S. Schools can’t do it alone—and neither can families and communities. But policies that unite these social institutions in a concerted effort have more potential to create progress than those that treat them in isolation from one another.

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