If your children are not your children, does that mean they also aren’t the schools’ children?

Those parents who have some degree of school choice, I suspect, pick their kids schools for the peers at least as much as for the academics.

But how does this mesh with the premise of The Nurture Assumption?

Here’s what I wrote earlier:

A commenter on my recent post on The Nurture Assumption suggests that book’s conclusions about the low influence that parents have on their kids also applies to schools. Here, again, is the book’s nutshell conclusion:

Children would develop into the same sort of adults if we left them in their homes, their schools, their neighborhoods, and their cultural or subcultural groups, but switched all the parents around.

The analogous point about schools would be: Children would develop into the same sort of adults if we left them in their homes, their families, their neighborhoods, and their cultural or subcultural groups, but switched all the schools around.

While this may well be a reasonable corollary to Harris’ argument, it’s important to keep a couple of things in mind.

First, in citing as evidence the studies of identical twins and adopted siblings, Harris is focusing on similarities in personality rather than in academic achievement. Her discussion doesn’t rule out a significant influence by schools on, say, how prepared a student is to enroll in college physics or calculus. 

Second, there’s absolute influence and then there’s relative influence. A particular school can have a big impact on whether its graduates can hack college math and science without differing that much in practice from another school. This is especially true if we’re comparing schools in similar neighborhoods: a factor that Harris’ conclusion holds constant. Within a particular neighborhood or school district (where the curricula, for better or worth, is often the same throughout), it may not make much difference which particular school a child attends; it’s the child who doesn’t attend school period who will get a very different education. Or, perhaps, the child who attends a selective magnet school.

Magnet schools raise another factor that Harris’ conclusion holds constant: peer group. In practice, since schools are populated with peers, it’s awfully hard to separate the peer factor from the school factor. And peers, Harris surmises, have an enormous influence on personality (and, I’d add, on academic achievement). In fact, it’s peers, Harris proposes, that comprise the bulk of non-genetic influences on personality.

So schools do matter. They matter even if they are all the same. They matter even if they, say, are all using the same, crummy, Common Core inspired curricula.

Indeed, arguably, that sinister sameness makes them matter all the more.

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