Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Curriculum Opinion

The Evidence-Based, Broadly Appealing Way to Teach Kids How to Succeed

By Rick Hess — January 11, 2022 3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A question that’s loomed large in debates over civics, history, and what’s been labeled “critical race theory” is whether there are still shared values that unite Americans on the left and right. After all, while we all say we want schools to help students grow into virtuous and responsible citizens, it’s not clear we agree on what that actually means. And while debates over these things can fill the media feed, it doesn’t necessarily leave school leaders or policymakers with an idea of how to move forward.

As it turns out, though, there’s at least one place where polling suggests broad, substantial support for an idea with a pretty compelling track record: the success sequence. AEI’s Survey Center on American Life and my AEI education colleague Nat Malkus (remember that I’m a scholar at AEI) in August asked a nationally representative sample of 2,652 adults, with an oversample of 610 parents with children younger than 18, if they think public schools should teach students “that young people who get at least a high school degree, have a job and get married—before having children—are more likely to be financially secure and to avoid poverty”—in other words, the “success sequence.” More than 3 in 4 respondents say they want public schools to teach this. (From here on, for simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to the survey center’s wording as the “success sequence” when discussing the poll results.)

Now, one might imagine that support for teaching such a pathway would be intuitive. As the Brookings Institution’s Ron Haskins—who, along with Isabel Sawhill, first coined the term “success sequence” a number of years ago—has explained, “Of American adults who followed these three simple rules, only about 2 percent are in poverty.”

But I’ve found that when the success sequence comes up in conversation, many academics and education advocates push back pretty hard. Some critics, such as Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, argue that the “success sequence is bad public policy” as it “rests on assumptions about the future” that “the target population” can’t make. Others worry that it stigmatizes kids and parents in households that haven’t abided by the sequence. And still others think that “the success sequence, trustworthy as it may sound, conveniently frames structural inequalities as matters of individual choice.” (Those pushing back have generally lived out the sequence themselves, which raises some thorny questions.)

Yet, no one is suggesting that following the success sequence is a magical palliative to keep kids from poverty. Nor is anyone implying that adhering to it is as easy as 1-2-3—after all, getting a job requires a willing employer, and getting married requires a willing spouse. What does seem apparent is that the sequence offers a useful, sensible set of guidelines, ones that it would seem like a no-brainer to share with students.

And, as the AEI polling shows, the general public seems to agree—as do parents, of whom 76 percent support teaching the success sequence. And the approval is broad-based. More than 70 percent of Democrats say they favor teaching the success sequence, with just 18 percent opposed. Among Republicans, the split is similar, at 85 percent to 15 percent. Self-identified liberals are net positive by 40 percentage points; self-described conservatives by 70 percent. Sixty-nine percent of millennials support it, as do 83 percent of baby boomers and 90 percent of the Silent Generation. And backing cuts across racial and ethnic groups, with 68 percent of Black non-Hispanic respondents, 80 percent of white respondents, and 74 percent of Hispanic respondents supportive.

The nation has been talking intently in the last few years, as it should be, about opportunity, equality, and the role of systemic impediments. That’s all to the good. But we need to focus not only on the structures and externalities that can shape students’ lives but also on what students can do to control their own destinies. The success sequence is a compelling, evidence-based, broadly appealing way to do both. In our intensely polarized age, it provides a promising path to talk about opportunity, impediments, and responsibility in a way that may help to span some of our bitter divides.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Seamless Integrations for Engagement in the Classroom
Learn how to seamlessly integrate new technologies into your classroom to support student engagement. 
Content provided by GoGuardian
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Be the Change: Strategies to Make Year-Round Hiring Happen
Learn how to leverage actionable insights to diversify your recruiting efforts and successfully deploy a year-round recruiting plan.
Content provided by Frontline
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Critical Ways Leaders Can Build a Culture of Belonging and Achievement
Explore innovative practices for using technology to build an environment of belonging and achievement for all staff and students.
Content provided by DreamBox Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Curriculum Many Adults Did Not Learn Media Literacy Skills in High School. What Schools Can Do Now
Eighty-four percent of adults say they are on board with requiring media literacy in schools, according to a survey by Media Literacy Now.
4 min read
Image of someone reading news on their phone.
oatawa/iStock/Getty
Curriculum Is Your School Facing a Book Challenge? These Online Resources May Help
Book challenges are popping up with more frequency. Here are supports for teachers fighting censorship.
5 min read
Amanda Darrow, director of youth, family and education programs at the Utah Pride Center, poses with books that have been the subject of complaints from parents in recent weeks on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in Salt Lake City.
Amanda Darrow, the director of youth, family, and education programs at the Utah Pride Center in Salt Lake City, poses with books that have been the subject of complaints from parents in recent weeks.
Rick Bowmer/AP Photo
Curriculum Q&A These Teachers' Book List Was Going to Be Restricted. Their Students Fought Back
The Central York district planned to restrict use of some materials last year. Here's how teachers and their students turned the tide.
8 min read
Deb Lambert, director of collection management for the Indianapolis Marion County Public Library for the past three years, looks over the books at the Library Services Center on Sept. 25, 2015. When a flap occurs at the library, the matter becomes the responsibility of Lambert.
More districts are seeking to restrict access to some books or remove them from classrooms and libraries altogether.
Charlie Nye/The Indianapolis Star via AP
Curriculum Sex Education: 4 Questions and Answers About the Latest Controversy
Why the touchy issue of sex education has erupted again, and what it means for schools.
4 min read
Image of condoms.
iStock/Getty