Acton Commentary

Back to School, Back to Parents


As this school year kicks off, we do well to remember what really produces successful students: quality time spent with parents. This does not mean parents showing love only when grades are high, nor does it mean demanding high grades at all costs. It means parents being dedicated to the welfare of their children and demonstrating by word and deed that they value education.

In this context it is also important to note that, overall, children in loving, stable two-parent homes have an academic and social advantage over those who do not. Stressing this fact does not in any way diminish the achievements of single parents who strive to provide for their children to the best of their ability. It is no disrespect to such parents to emphasize that the ideal family situation is one in which both parents are present, and that it is this ideal that should guide individual decisions and commitments, social values, and public policy.

As evidence to back up this claim mounts, a new study by the Alabama Policy Institute demonstrates that most children in non-intact families are at an educational and social disadvantage compared to children from traditional families. The study, titled “Family Matters: Family Structure and Child Outcomes” and authored by three University of Chicago social scientists, explains the disadvantages of homes broken by divorce, cohabitation, and single-parenthood.

As a former high school teacher, my experience confirms such findings. High achieving students were not always the most intelligent individuals in the class, but they were usually from homes where parents spent time giving moral guidance and academic support.

The study notes that, as early as age three, a child's ability to adapt to classroom routines appears to be influenced by the marital situation of their parents. Among three and four year-olds, children with two biological parents in the home are three times less likely than those in other arrangements to have emotional or behavioral problems. Homes where mothers are cohabitating with fathers have particularly deleterious effects on pre-school age children, leading to higher incidences of anxiety, depression, and behaviors of aggression and social withdrawal than children from traditional families.

Children whose parents read to them regularly have substantial academic advantages when entering school, including higher learning aptitudes and reading skills. Since family structure affects the frequency of such activities, non-traditional arrangements puts kids at a disadvantage.

The latest study simply amplifies a message already sounded by researchers. A 1996 report by the U.S. Department of Education claimed that fourth-graders in families with both biological parents scored higher on reading comprehension than students living in two-parent blended, single-mother, or other types of families. When income is a controlled variable, students in non-traditional homes still score below the mean of all students.

Among high school students, children from stepparent families were twice as likely to drop out of school. Children from “father-only” families were about 3 times more likely to drop out, and children from families headed by never-married women or “other-parent” families were 1.5 and 2 times more likely, respectively. Student whose parents divorce during the high-school years were 16 percent less likely to attend college than students from intact families.

Ancient wisdom prevails here again. Thousands of years ago, Moses told parents to journey daily, spending time with their children and teaching them what is best that they “may enjoy long life.” When parents remain committed to loving each other and spending time with their kids the results are indisputable.

What is desperately needed to increase student performance is not more federal money, grade inflation, or social promotion, but kids being challenged and supported by both parents whenever possible. This goal frequently requires of parents self-sacrifice and the denial of immediate personal gratification. In other words, it requires strong moral fiber. Without recognition of this moral link, the attainment of educational progress for all students will remain beyond our grasp.