We can’t afford private-school tuition, so living in a city would probably mean chancing it on a subpar public school system. And although I loved growing up on the coast of Maine, the limits of my public high school education became clear when I got to college and immediately felt like I was behind. I would like my boys to be better prepared for college.
But if my wife and I wanted to do everything we could to give James and Oscar the best possible K-12 education, we’d have to make some big changes. We’d have to choose more lucrative careers than hers in academia and mine as a writer so we could afford urban private schools or a house in an affluent suburb where the public schools are better. But between the longer hours and the longer commutes such changes would entail, we’d see much less of our kids. James and Oscar might be in the best schools, but we’d rarely be home before bedtime to hear what they’d learned all day.
Would this trade-off be worth it? When I look at the research on child development, I think it might not. Where our kids go to kindergarten or high school might matter a lot less than most parents think.
Social scientists have long tried to determine why some children grow up to be successful adults and others don’t. The causes are hard to untangle. High school dropouts tend to attend underperforming public schools and to come from poor families with unmarried, undereducated parents. Ivy League graduates more often attend good K-12 schools and come from well-educated, affluent, two-parent families. Because these characteristics cluster together so frequently, it’s hard to determine which attributes drive success or failure — and which are just along for the ride.
In a 2001 study, Greg Duncan, now a professor of education at the University of California at Irvine, measured the impact that the people in a child’s life — siblings, neighbors, classmates, best friends — have on how well the child does in school. To test these relationships, Duncan and his collaborators compared scores on a standardized vocabulary test across 20,745 kids. When I think about where I want James and Oscar to go to school, I usually think about the kinds of classmates I want them to have: smart, high-achieving kids.
But Duncan and his team found almost no relationship between how students did on the test and whom they sat beside in class, whom they hung out with after school and who lived on their block. The only meaningful link they found was between siblings, and identical twins in particular.