Study Reaffirms Children from Stable, Married Families Have Greater Chance of Academic Success

A study published Tuesday at the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) has reaffirmed what past research has concluded: that children who come from stable families with married parents have a greater chance of academic success than those from non-intact, single-parent families.

IFS authors Nicholas Zill and W. Bradford Wilcox found students from non-intact families showed three times the risk of suspensions, two times the risk of being held back a grade, and two times the risk of misbehaving in school, compared to students from married, biological families.

The researchers explored a common premise that, since single-parent and stepparent families have become more common and accepted in the United States, children from these alternative family structures should now be less likely to exhibit learning, psychological, and behavioral problems in and out of school.

Zill and Wilcox explain that pressure from woke politicians and activists to change school disciplinary practices, in the name of equity, for students who are often from fatherless, unstable homes may have allowed the importance of family stability for children’s academic success to recede into the background:

More recently, educators have been under pressure from political leaders and social justice activists to make sure that their instructional and disciplinary practices do not contribute to unequal educational outcomes. In particular, advocates have criticized schools for holding back lagging students from grade advancement and suspending or expelling students for serious misbehavior. Both interventions have tended to fall disproportionately upon children from non-intact families. These shifts in school discipline and pedagogy may have also minimized the consequences of family instability for children from single-parent and stepparent families in schools. In sum, it is possible that changes in the culture, public policy, and schooling have combined to make family instability less important for children’s school performance.

The researchers say, however, that, given the dependence on electronic communication and a slowed community life, “hailing from an intact, married family may now be a greater advantage for children than ever.”

“[H]aving the benefit of two, loving parents may be more valuable than it was even a quarter-century ago for our nation’s children,” they write, adding:

Students’ performance and conduct in school are affected by the intellectual stimulation, emotional support, guidance, and discipline they receive at home. They are more likely to get the attention, affection, and direction they need to thrive in school when they come from a family headed by their own married parents. This is especially true in a day and age when fathers in intact homes are more involved with their kids than ever before.

The researchers examined data from two federal surveys – the 1996 and 2019 National Household Education Surveys (NHES), nationwide surveys of parents whose children who were enrolled in elementary and secondary schools across the country – to explore possible links between students’ family structure as well as their performance and adjustment, and how this may have changed over the last quarter-century.

The 1996 survey covered about 17,535 students, and 15,990 students in the 2019 survey in grades K-12.

The following teacher and school interventions for students from non-traditional versus married, biological families were analyzed:

  • Child repeated one or more grades
  • Child suspended or expelled
  • Parents contacted about child’s schoolwork
  • Parents contacted about child’s behavior

First, the researchers found the overall frequency of each of the interventions declined between 1996 and 2019. In particular, the proportion of students suspended or expelled, and those held back from the next grade level have been cut in half.

Second, the data showed the growth in non-intact families between 1996, at 41 percent, and 2019, at 43.5 percent, has now slowed.

“While single-parent families grew dramatically in number during the latter half of the 20th Century, the growth has slowed during the first two decades of the 21st Century,” the authors observe. “And it may now be leveling off and even reversing.”

Third, the data showed the proportion of children from non-intact families who were suspended or expelled fell by 39 percent between the surveys, while those who were held back dropped by 47 percent.

Nevertheless, despite the drop in the frequency of school interventions for students from non-intact family backgrounds, in both surveys these children from often unstable homes “were significantly more likely than those from married, biological families to receive each of these interventions,” the authors note.

“So, the relative risk faced by students from non-traditional families has actually increased or remained the same,” they add.

“These results reaffirm the conclusion that children from stable, married families have a better chance of receiving the guidance and support they need to succeed academically and adapt confidently to the classroom environment than children from disrupted or reconstituted families,” Zill and Wilcox assert, clarifying:

This does not mean that children from non-traditional families cannot do well in school. Many do, despite the conflict, turmoil, or curtailed parenting they may experience at home. But the odds of school success are more favorable for those from families headed by married, biological parents. In fact, our research lends additional credence to other research suggesting that family structure matters more than ever for the educational attainment of today’s children.

The researchers also note that family structure “is at least as strong of a predictor of school suspensions, grade repetition, and student misbehavior as race — a factor that gets more attention in public discussions of student outcomes.”

“Even though family instability is less stigmatized than it once was, this research brief indicates that the power of being raised by stably married parents is only increasing,” they concluded.

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Susan Berry, PhD, is national education editor at The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected]

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