Agency: The Four Point Plan (F.R.E.E.) for All Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power, by Ian V. Rowe (Templeton Press, 288 pp., $24.99)
Education researcher Ian Rowe’s new book rejects two competing visions of the American dream: one holding that individuals are powerless to withstand historic inequities, the other maintaining that suffering individuals must pull themselves up by their own bootstraps to thrive. Rowe presents a framework to help teachers and schools transcend this unproductive dichotomy.
Rowe is uniquely positioned to make his case. He is the child of Jamaican immigrants (by way of London), his parents raising him and his older brother in a loving, supportive family. He’s also a product of good New York City public schools who succeeded in the media business, ran an innovative and successful network of charter schools, and then joined the American Enterprise Institute while creating a charter high school in the South Bronx.
Rowe not only knows where he comes from but also what has worked for others not blessed with the family support and structure he enjoyed. Educators and large-scale government programs face limits in trying to reverse family breakdown and intergenerational poverty. Accordingly, Rowe’s book stresses that educational outcomes depend on relationships between families and schools, as well as on the web of support around families—including extended families, churches and congregations, and local voluntary associations.
Of course, dysfunctional families exist. But Rowe chides many educators for generalizing from these cases to create a victim narrative: that our supposedly racist society is to blame for family dysfunction and the academic underperformance that follows it. Programs to help children from struggling families are often downstream from educators’ and policymakers’ own paternalistic attitudes, Rowe argues. Such efforts rob those families of their own agency, of “the force of one’s free will guided by moral discernment.” He adds that “young people do not cultivate personal agency on their own,” and must follow “the four building blocks of agency” in order to “develop the capacity for moral discernment and their ability to create good or bad outcomes in their lives.”
The four building blocks: family, religion, education, and entrepreneurship. As regards the first, Rowe argues that educators, mediating institutions, and the broader culture must “ensure that children understand the timing and structure of family formation that offers the greatest likelihood of success for them and their children.” On the second, he notes the need for faith-based organizations to be “recognized, revitalized, and engaged” because “they have a capacity to speak with moral authority in ways that the government cannot.” Of the third, he writes that students must “take ownership of their own learning and habits,” including study, homework, and self-discipline. Finally, he presents the fourth, entrepreneurship, as calling on students to “cultivate an entrepreneurial mind-set about their own lives” and, upon entering their careers, to see themselves not just as employees but as future employers.
Rowe advocates a number of proposals to support this framework: expanded school choice; the explicit teaching in schools of the “success sequence”—earning a degree, working, and marrying before having children; a focus on high achievement, instead of racial gaps; the expansion of content-rich curricula, with an emphasis on civics and history; and the replacement of race-based affirmative action with class-based preferences in college admissions.
Though Rowe avoids the culture-war debates of the last two years, his observations on the important and separate roles that families, schools, and intermediary institutions can have on student outcomes pertain to the parents’ rights movement. At its best, education is a partnership between families and schools; when the pendulum has swung too far from family prerogatives to educator control, remediation is in order. But the pendulum can’t swing too far back, either; many educators encounter families who are unable to support their children in productive ways.
When families are absent, schools can engage with others to find support for children. Yet the existence of some dysfunctional families cannot become a rationale for schools to overstep their bounds. Perhaps the most important lesson that Agency offers is that education requires a delicate balance.