The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Flunking Out in Oslo

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

American sociologists have known for some time that children from broken homes do worse in school than do their peers from intact families. But progressive commentators often explain away this pattern as simply the consequence of economic disparities. If America’s welfare state gave single parents the kind of generous support Western European countries do, these commentators argue, their children would not fall behind. These commentators may need to rethink their views, however, after they digest the results of a Norwegian study. Carried out by demographers at the University of Oslo and the University of Bristol, this study investigates the academic consequences of family disruption in Norway, “in a context where economic inequality remains relatively low.” The findings strongly suggest that children in single-parent households suffer from more than just a lack of financial resources.

Parsing 2003 data on Norwegians born between 1974 and 1984, the authors see parental divorce affecting academic achievement. Indeed, this pattern emerges in two different statistical models. “From either model,” the researchers remark, “we would conclude that the experience of marital breakdown during childhood is associated with lower levels of education.” “The effects of [parental] divorce,” the analysis indicates, “seem strongest for transitions during or just beyond the high school level.” Interestingly, “the negative effect of parental divorce is substantially stronger for girls than for boys.” (The mystery of feminist support for permissive divorce laws grows and grows.)

Further statistical analysis indicates that the disparity may be “partly explained” as a “selection bias”—that is, part of the education gap may be traced to negative characteristics found among couples that are divorce-prone. But even after compensating for this, the researchers find that parental divorce significantly depresses academic attainment.

Though the researchers focus chiefly on parental divorce, their analysis yields an arresting comparison of the relative effects of losing a father through divorce and losing a father through death: “Although parental divorce is associated with a reduction in a child’s probability of going to college, the effect of a father’s death is notassociated with progression beyond the higher secondary level.” That is, “children who experienced a father’s death appear less disadvantaged than children whose parents divorced.”

The Oslo and Bristol scholars discern a different pattern, however, when looking at Norwegian children who never had a married father in the first place. “Children whose parents did not marry,” they write, “many of whom were born to cohabiting parents who later dissolved their relationship, have a lower change of progressing through school and on to college.” Indeed, “the parameter estimates [of academic success] for this group are morenegative than those for children whose parents marry and divorce.”

The authors recognize that their findings harmonize with “evidence from several nations [that] has demonstrated that, on average, children who experience a family disruption fare poorly across a wide range of adolescent and adult outcomes, including educational attainment, economic security, and physical and psychological well-being.” Still, they marvel: “It is striking that even in a country like Norway where there is far less economic inequality [than in other countries], there are large and significant differences in the educational attainment of children living with both biological parents and those living with only one.”

(Fiona Steele at al., “Consequences of Family Disruption on Children’s Educational Outcomes in Norway,” Demography46.3 [2009]: 553–74.)