NEW YORK, JAN. 14, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Family structure has a significant influence on children's educational performance. So says a recent study published by the Center for Marriage and Families, part of the New York-based Institute for American Values. The director of the center, Elizabeth Marquardt, gained wide attention earlier last year with a book she published on the effects of divorce on children.
The more-recent study produced by the center is entitled "Family Structure and Children's Educational Outcomes," a work that relies on an extensive review of recent academic research.
Family structure affects all levels of educational performance, from preschool to college, the brief argues. This is so because what happens in the family has a big influence on a range of child behaviors, such as school misbehavior, drug and alcohol consumption, sexual activity and teen pregnancy, and psychological distress.
Over a 35-year span, the proportion of children in the United States being raised in two-parent homes has dropped significantly -- from about 85% in 1968 to 70% in 2003 -- while the proportion of children living in single-parent homes has nearly doubled. Before they reach the age of 18, most U.S. children are likely to spend at least a significant portion of their childhoods in a one-parent home.
Before going on to detail the conclusions of research into the effects on education, the policy brief took note of some problems with the methodology of the studies.
Some studies define family structure inconsistently, and others do not differentiate between stepparents and biological parents. Other defects include data taken from very small numbers of unmarried cohabiting parents, or data for only one point in time.
Despite these limitations, the research brief argued that a large body of research clearly suggests that family structure significantly affects children's academic and social development.
The first years
Three- and 4-year-olds growing up with their own married parents are three times less likely than those in any other family structure to experience emotional or behavioral problems such as attention deficit disorder.
Overall, children living with their own married parents have fewer behavioral problems compared to children whose parents are living together but not married. Differences in the area of physical health also exist. Young children in single-parent families are less healthy overall than are children in all other family types.
Moreover, children living with their own married parents are more likely to be involved in activities that help them learn to read than are children from single-parent homes. These differences at such a young age can establish behavior patterns in education that persist in later educational levels, the study warned.
In primary school, the ability of children to perform in basic subject areas and at their grade level is weaker for those who don't live with their own married parents. For example, fourth-graders with married parents score higher on reading comprehension, compared to students living in stepfamilies, with single mothers, and in other types of families. Living in a single-parent family is also linked with decreases in children's math scores.
To some extent the financial penalties of living in a single-parent family explains some of the negative results, but not all. The question of marriage itself also has a measurable impact on these educational outcomes.
High school and beyond
Children growing up with non-intact families engage in more adolescent misbehavior, which harms grades and test scores. At this older age, the negative consequences due to family structure are notably more serious. They affect such matters as high school dropout rates, graduation rates, and age at first pregnancy.
The brief explained that studies carried out in both Sweden and the United States show that children living in non-intact families do worse educationally. In fact, each additional year a Swedish or an American child spends with a single mother or stepparent reduces that child's overall educational attainment by about one-half year.
The brief commented that these similarities between U.S. and Swedish children in non-intact families are particularly striking in light of these two nations' dramatic differences in both family policy and in areas such as income inequality.
When it comes to college, adolescents from non-intact families continue to pay a high price. It involves such negative consequences as lower college attendance rates and acceptance at less-selective institutions.
As well, young people, especially women, who grow up with their own married parents tend to marry later. Research has shown a link between delayed marriage and higher educational attainment among young women.
The brief outlined a number of negative behavior patterns more evident in children from non-intact families.
-- Misbehavior at school. Marital breakup is associated with a higher incidence of anti-social behavior in the classroom for boys. Children from homes headed by their own married parents have the fewest incidences of misbehavior at school.
-- School attendance and tardiness. Students from non-intact families miss school, are tardy, and cut class about 30% more often than do students from intact homes. These differences exist in part because parents in non-intact family homes appear less able to supervise and monitor their children.
-- Smoking, illegal drugs, and alcohol consumption. Teen-agers from non-intact families are more likely to smoke, use drugs and consume alcohol, even when controlling for important factors such as age, sex, race and parent education. One study found that family structure had a significant relationship to family attachment, with intact families reporting higher levels of attachment. In turn, family attachment had a direct and deterrent effect on adolescent cigarette smoking and illicit drug use.
-- Sexual activity and teen pregnancy. Teen-agers from non-intact families are more likely to be sexually active. There appear to be no significant differences in sexual behavior between adolescents from stepfamilies and those from single-parent families. The similarity of sexual behavior among these two groups of adolescents suggests that remarriage presents some risks with regard to monitoring adolescent behaviors effectively and transmitting values that deter early sexual relationships.
-- Illegal activities. Being in a stepparent or single-parent family at age 10 more than doubles the odds of a child being arrested by age 14. One study found that male adolescents in families without a biological father were more likely to be incarcerated than teens from intact-family homes. Young people who have never lived with their biological fathers have the highest odds of being arrested.
-- Psychological problems. For children, growing up without their own married parents is linked with higher rates of stress, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem during the teen-age years -- problems that can significantly reduce their ability to focus and achieve in school. Research consistently shows that parental divorce has lasting negative emotional effects throughout childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
The brief concludes with recommendations for improving matters. For a start, given that many children now grow up in non-intact families, programs and policies should help families offset as best they can the negative effects linked to these family structures.
More fundamentally, the brief concludes that education policy and family policy logically go hand in hand. And, if we want better-educated children, we need to strengthen families. Supporting marriage will allow a greater number of children to succeed educationally and flourish socially, the brief argued. A resolution worth recommending for the new year.