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A Marriage of Family and Education

Stable Home Life Helps Children Learn

NEW YORK, JAN. 17, 2006 (Zenit) - 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 ...

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