Why we need the success sequence in Utah schools

April 6, 2023

This week, Christians are celebrating Easter, Muslims continue to observe Ramadan and Jews begin celebrating Passover. In each case, members of these faith traditions are not only honoring their own holy days but are communicating the values and beliefs promoted by their religion to their children, friends and neighbors. By keeping celebrations and traditions grounded in specific values – holy days recognizing the value of religion, patriotic holidays recognizing the value of patriotism, etc. – we share and pass on those values to others. 

Sadly, a decreasing number of Americans today see the importance of those values, and that has implications for life decisions that directly affect how much we will thrive in life. For instance, a Deseret News editorial about a survey noting the erosion of core values in America highlighted a troubling trend in childbearing and poverty. Data from 2021 shows that 40% of births take place outside of marriage. And data from 2019 shows that 30% of single parents live in poverty, as opposed to only 6% of married couples. 

Fortunately, there are ideas for reversing this trend that begin at the level of individual choices. At a recent event called the FREE Forum in Salt Lake City, co-sponsored by Sutherland Institute and American Enterprise Institute, Ian Rowe discussed the link between important, value-forming life decisions and poverty known among social scientists as the “success sequence.” The success sequence says that if you graduate from high school, get a full-time job and marry before having children, then your chances of ending up in poverty as you grow and mature in adulthood are extremely low. For instance, among Millennials in their 30s that followed the success sequence in their teens and 20s, rates of poverty were in single digits regardless of race, ethnicity or income level in childhood. 

It seems obvious that Gen Z and younger generations ought to know about these facts. They ought to understand the correlation between certain life choices and their likely economic outcomes. Having access to this information would empower them to make the best decisions for their lives and the lives of the generation that will come after them. 

And yet, it’s not a concept regularly taught in schools. In fact, the idea of teaching the facts of the success sequence in school is sometimes met with opposition. 

When Rowe – a co-founder of a network of charter schools in New York City – decided to share information about the success sequence with his eighth-grade students in the Bronx, he was told, “You can’t teach that to these kids. You’re imposing middle class values.” He was told he would insult and offend the students because “their parents didn’t follow the success sequences in their own lives.

But if the data is there and we hope to equip students with good information, we cannot in good conscience withhold it from them. We do not withhold information about cigarette use, teen pregnancy or the impact of earning a bachelor’s degree because student’s parents smoke, had a child as a teenager or didn’t go to college.  

If understanding the outcomes of the success sequence can help the next generation avoid poverty and access upward mobility, shouldn’t we be teaching that information to every young person? 

For three reasons, we should. 

1. The success sequence improves outcomes for those who need it most: those at-risk of staying in a cycle of poverty. Some critics argue that the success sequence places too much burden on individuals to finish high school, get and keep a job and marry before having children, without looking at the reasons why they might not make those choices in the first place.  

But research is revealing that the success sequence is effective across every demographic. Structural disadvantages do make it more difficult for some people to live the success sequence. However, they are much more likely to avoid poverty when they do choose it. The effectiveness of the success sequence regardless of the setbacks an individual experiences is why teaching all students about the success sequence is so important. Those who need it most are those who are likely not hearing about it from other civic institutions, such as family or church, and therefore deserve the chance to hear about it in school. 

Furthermore, Rowe explained that while Utah has the lowest nonmarital birthrate in the country at 19%, some pockets of our state still have communities that have many at-risk students, like West Valley City. Rowe also explained, “There are more than 210,000 children in Utah at risk of remaining in poverty as adults. The point is that no matter the relative strength, every community has the power to strengthen the institutions that are already driving mobility.”

2. Sharing information about the success sequence in schools could have positive impacts on our state. Those impacts include motivating students to make choices that would improve educational attainment and eliminate poverty before it begins. The success sequence is a pre-emptive solution to poverty, rather than an after-the-fact program seeking remedies for people already suffering in poverty.  

To bring the success sequence to students will require a policy change at a district or state level, and ultimately at the school level. Leaders would first need to understand the success sequence, its broad value as a source for thriving adults and a vibrant economy, and then choose to get it into our schools.  

3. The success sequence challenges damaging narratives foisted upon our most vulnerable students. One such narrative is that the system is so hopelessly stacked against you that you cannot succeed through your own decisions. Rowe frequently shares a story about sharing the success sequence with ninth grade students in New Orleans. Rowe asked the students: If they knew there were a set of choices in their control that could result in a 97% chance of avoiding poverty, would they want to know? When the students answered “yes,” Rowe told them that some adults didn’t want them to hear it because the students might be offended. But the students still wanted to know, so Rowe discussed the success sequence with them. According to Rowe, the students subsequently felt like they had been respected as future decision-makers in their own lives.  

It takes courage to push back against narratives and gatekeepers who limit the narratives students hear. But with courage leaders can break through that pressure. 

The success sequence is not a silver bullet for all that ails society. But it is a simple and powerful part of the solution to poverty. That’s worth a lot.  

Because the life decisions highlighted by the success sequence also help shape our values, changing those decisions holds the promise of potentially changing the trend of Americans placing less importance on values critical for national wellbeing. Institutions – like family, church and school – have the opportunity to do so also by sharing the importance of the success sequence with kids. Utah education leaders would do well to consider their role in building thriving people, strong communities and a vibrant nation by sharing information about the success sequence with students. 

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