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 

Holding Kids Back in School

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

From the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, the political class has presumed that federal interventions into local schools will yield better child outcomes. That academic achievement has stagnated since the early 1970s speaks volumes about that strategy. Moreover, a study by Kathryn Harker Tillman of Florida State University quantifying the handicaps of the growing percentage of American youth living in broken families suggests that the problems with public education today may be less about what happens in the classroom than what goes on in the home.

Crunching numbers from the first wave (1994–95) of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the sociologist measured the academic impact of current family structure as well as previous family structures (or pathways) of nearly 14,000 students in grades 7 through 12 that live with at least one biological parent. Her study documents, as do others, how children who have always lived with their married biological mothers and fathers (59 percent of the sample) earn significantly higher GPAs, report significantly less school-related behavioral problems, and hold significantly higher aspirations for college.

Yet her focus is on finding differences between the myriad of current living arrangements, including unwed-parent households, cohabiting households, and stepfamilies—as well as the varied pathways and transitions that precede current arrangements—that might affect the educational outcomes of adolescents. But except for youth whose pathways include the death of a parent (whose outcomes do not differ from their peers who have always lived with both parents), Tillman struggles to find meaningful and statistically significant differences among children who have experienced something other than having always lived with both biological parents. She does, however, establish that pathways that include parental divorce or separation and “nonunion” births (to mothers who were not married to or living with the father) correlate with significantly higher academic risks among youth in all types of stepfamilies and single-parent arrangements. That difference is especially pronounced when the current family structure of a student included living with a single father or in a cohabiting stepfamily.

Her findings clearly confirm that a fundamental achievement gap separates adolescents who have always lived with both parents (or who may be now living with a widowed parent) from everyone else. No matter how Tillman splices the endless alternatives, her attempt to find some pathway that might temper the damage of denying children their mom and dad seems misguided. If the country really wants to reverse the numbers of children left behind, more parents need to take and remain on the proven pathway of life-long marriage.

(Kathryn Harker Tillman, “Family Structure Pathways and Academic Disadvantage among Adolescents in Stepfamilies,”Sociological Inquiry 77 [August 2007]: 383–424.)