LAST spring, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead made a significant...

Salmagundi

November 30, 1993

LAST spring, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead made a significant contribution to debates about family and social policies with an article in The Atlantic the editors entitled "Dan Quayle was Right." But questions about family structure are larger than partisan politics. With school performance scores once again in the news, it's worth recalling part of her argument:

"Terrible as poverty and crime are, they tend to be concentrated in inner cities and isolated from the everyday experience of many Americans. The same cannot be said of the problem of declining school performance. Nowhere has the impact of family breakup been more profound or widespread than in the nation's public schools. There is a strong consensus that the schools are failing in their historic mission to prepare every American child to be a good worker and a good citizen. . . . We have suffered no shortage of bright ideas or pilot projects or bold experiments in school reform. But there is little evidence that measures such as curricular reform, school-based management and school choice will address, let alone solve, the biggest problem schools face: the rising number of children who come from disrupted families.

"The great educational tragedy of our time is that many American children are failing in school not because they are intellectually or physically impaired but because they are emotionally incapacitated. In schools across the nation principals report a dramatic rise in the aggressive, acting-out behavior characteristic of children, especially boys, who are living in single-parent families. The discipline problems in today's suburban schools -- assaults on teachers, unprovoked attacks on other students, screaming outbursts in class -- outstrip the problems that were evident in the toughest city schools a generation ago. Teachers find many children emotionally distracted, so upset and preoccupied by the explosive drama of their own family lives that they are unable to concentrate on such mundane matters as multiplication tables."

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