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Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

No Bread-Winning Father? No Exit from Second Grade


Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King


The bread-winning father? For progressive thinkers, he’s an irrelevant anachronism—a laughable stereotype straight out of Ozzie and Harriet. Perhaps these progressive thinkers are not paying much attention to the well-being of children around the world. For children have suffered wherever bread-winning fathers have disappeared. The latest evidence that children pay the price when bread-winning fathers go missing comes from Spain, where a new study reveals that children without a breadwinning father in the home are much more likely to have to repeat a grade in school than are peers with such a father in the home.

To be sure, it is not the bread-winning father but rather the grade-repeating elementary student who initially defines the primary concern for the Spanish researchers who recently completed an investigation of grade retention in Spain. Concerned about “its important costs for the educational systems and its relation with school dropout,” scholars at the Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria recently set out “to analyse which variables increase the probability of being retained in primary education”—focusing particularly on those variables that increase the likelihood that a student will have to repeat second or fourth grade. Their hope in carrying out this analysis is that “by knowing which analysed variables are related to grade retention, and how, we may offer some suggestions to reduce it.”

To identify the variables that predict children’s having to repeat a grade in school, the authors of the new study scrutinize data collected in 2009 for 28,708 fourth-grade students in 874 schools, selected to represent Spain as a whole. 

Generally, the patterns in the data were predictable. For instance, it is hardly surprising that being among the youngest members of a class increases the likelihood that a student will be held back a year—particularly in second grade. Also rather predictably, maternal education—or lack thereof—potently affects the likelihood of a student repeating a grade. 

But the researchers move off the progressive script when they report, “Having an unemployed father increases the probability of grade retention much more than having an unemployed mother to the extent that there is no statistically significant influence of having an unemployed mother in the probability of grade retention in second grade.”

Compared to peers with an employed father in the home, children with unemployed fathers were nearly half again as likely to have to repeat second grade (Odds Ratio of 1.48; p = 0.003) and a third again as likely to have to repeat fourth grade (Odds Ratio of 1.33; p = 0.023). 

Of course, children will not enjoy the benefit of living with an employed father if they do not live with their father at all. No progressive rhapsodizing over diverse family forms can obscure the hard reality that children growing up with a single mother are especially likely to repeat a grade in school. Using a sophisticated statistical model that accounts for background differences such as socioeconomic status and home language, the researchers calculate that compared to peers from intact families, students from single-parent homes (generally single-mother homes) are one third more likely to repeat second grade (Odds Ratio of 1.33; p = 0.007) and nearly twice as likely to repeat fourth grade (Odds Ratio of 1.92; p < 0.0001). 

Appropriately, the authors of the study underscore the need to view the difficulties children experience while repeating a grade in a sobering broader context. The researchers cite previous studies that have established that repeating a grade in primary school predicts “effects, like anxiety and disruptive behaviors, [which] persist later on,” and ultimately predicts “an increase in the likelihood of dropout in secondary education.”

Understandably, the researchers call in their conclusion for measures to help “families with unemployment situations—especially fathers.”    But in a world where progressive thinking has denigrated the role of the bread-winning father, it has grown increasingly difficult to win support for measures specifically designed to help fathers find employment. What is worse, in a world where progressive thinking has even devalued parental marriage, it has grown increasingly difficult to find a father of any employment status in the home. 

(Sara M. González-Bentacor and Alexis J. López-Puig, “Grade Retention in Primary Education Is Associated with Quarter of Birth and Socioeconomic Status,” PLOS ONE 11.11 [2016]: e0166431, Web.)  

 

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