Why children succeed or fail in school is one of the most enduring questions for educational researchers. A salient finding from traditional research on both adult education and early childhood intervention programs is that the mother’ s level of education is one of the most important factors influencing children’s reading levels and other school achievements.
Generally, traditional research has revealed that more highly educated mothers have greater success in providing their children with the cognitive and language skills that contribute to early success in school. Also, children of mothers with high levels of education stay in school longer than children of mothers with low levels of education.
A group of Harvard researchers led by Richard Wrangham, the Ruth B. Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology, has shown, for the first time, that chimpanzees learn certain grooming styles from their mothers — and once learned, they continue to perform the behaviors the same way, long after the deaths of their mothers. The study is described in a paper in Current Biology.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data provide some evidence supporting the traditional interpretations of children’s academic success that focus on gross measures of parents’ educational attainment. A review of the performance of children and young adults across age groups (9 to 25 years of age) and across ethnic groups on various literacy tasks of the NAEP confirmed the importance of mothers’ educational levels (Sticht, 1988). Data from the 1990 NAEP reading assessments revealed that the average proficiency among fourth-graders was lower for those students who report that their mothers had not completed high school.
Auerbach’s review of the ethnographic studies of family literacy found that a two-way support system (as opposed to simply parent-to-child literacy learning) characterized the literacy interactions of many low-income, minority and immigrant families.
One study of parental involvement based on a model of children reading to parents found that children who read to their parents on a regular basis made greater gains than children receiving an equivalent amount of extra reading instruction by reading specialists at school (Tizard, Schofield, & Hewison, 1982).
Auerbach’s work also shows that “indirect factors including frequency of children’s outings with adults, number of maternal outings, emotional climate of the home, amount of time spent interacting with adults, level of financial stress, enrichment activities, and parental involvement with the schools had a stronger effect on many aspects of reading and writing than did direct literacy activities, such as help with homework” (Auerbach, 1989).
Children’s educational outcomes—their cognitive skills, grades, and educational attainment—are closely linked to their parents’ level of education.
The concept of human capital is easiest to understand. Essentially, it refers to individuals’ knowledge, skills, and abilities, which they develop primarily through education and “capitalize” on in the workforce. In the realm of parenting, a college degree (or the knowledge and skills it stands for) seems to make people interact with their kids differently.
Cultural capital revolves around “preferences and behaviors that, although not inherently better than others, are relevant for educational success because they are sanctioned in a particular society’s educational settings.” Think visiting museums and taking music lessons—the sort of activities that upper-middle class parents emphasize.
Social capital encompasses “interactions that take place between mothers and people in their social networks or between people in mothers’ social networks and children.” It’s about mothers’ relationships to and connections with other people (whereas cultural capital has to do with mothers’ “abilities to use behaviors that aid in navigating . . . social and institutional relationships”). College-educated mothers are more likely to be part of social networks containing “knowledge, skills, and resources that are relevant to children’s academic success,” the researchers propose.
For instance, their relatives, colleagues, and friends are likely to also have college degrees, meaning mothers can easily pick up tips about the best schools or gain advice about the college application process. Plus, their children will be surrounded by highly educated role models; in their circles, graduating from college will be an expectation, not an aspiration.