Family Structure and Children's Educational Outcomes
Research Brief No. 1, November 2005 |
Center for Marriage and Families
A comprehensive review of recent academic research shows
that family structure — whether a child’s parents
are married, divorced, single, remarried, or cohabiting —
is a significant influence on children’s educational performance.
Family structure affects preschool readiness. It affects educational
achievement at the elementary, secondary, and college levels.
Family structure influences these outcomes in part because family
structure affects a range of child behaviors that can bear directly
on educational success, such as school misbehavior, drug and
alcohol consumption, sexual activity and teen pregnancy, and
psychological distress. There is a solid research basis for
the proposition that strengthening U.S. family structure —
increasing the proportion of children growing up with their
own, two married parents — would significantly improve
the educational achievements of U.S. children.
this Research Brief
About the Center for Marriage and Families
6 pages) Over the past 35 years, the proportion of U.S.
children being raised in two-parent homes has dropped significantly
— from about 85 percent in 1968 to 70 percent in 2003 —
while the proportion of children living in single-parent homes
has nearly doubled. Before they reach the age of 18, a majority
of all U.S. children are likely to spend at least a significant
portion of their childhoods in a one-parent home.
This sharp increase in the proportion of
U.S. children who do not live with their own two married
parents makes it important to understand how changes in family
structure influence important areas of children’s lives.
One such area is educational outcomes.
There are important problems in studying
the impact of family structure on outcomes for children. First,
studies define family structure inconsistently. Some do not
differentiate between stepparents and biological parents. Some
do not make distinctions between a married stepparent and someone
who is cohabiting with the biological parent. Second, there
can be related problems with the data. For example, some data
sets have very small numbers of unmarried cohabiting parents.
Some contain data for only one point in time. Yet despite these
limitations, a systematic review of a large body of research
clearly suggests that family structure significantly affects
children’s academic and social development.
In addition, an important issue in this research is what scholars
call “selection effects.” Do children living with
their own two married parents do better educationally because
their parents got and stayed married? Or alternatively, do they
do better because those persons who get and stay married (persons
who “select” into marriage) also tend to be people
who, even prior to getting married, have more resources and
better social and parenting skills? The answer is: Both. Selection
effects do exist. And they do explain some of the greater educational
gains experienced by children living in married-couple, two-parent
homes. But they do not explain all of them. When it comes to
educational achievement, even after selection effects are taken
into account, children living with their own married parents
do significantly better than other children.
As early as age three, children’s
ability to adapt to classroom routines appears to be influenced
by their parents’ marital status. For instance, three-
and four-year-old children growing up with their own married
parents (or in an “intact” family) 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. In terms of physical health,
young children in single-parent families are less healthy overall
than are children in all other family types.
Children living with their own married
parents are more likely to be involved in literacy activities
(such as being read to or learning to recognize letters) than
are children from single-parent homes. Not growing up with their
own married parents appears particularly damaging for young
children, because the cognitive and social behaviors developed
early on persist throughout childhood, affecting the course
of their entire education.
In the primary grades, the ability of children
to perform in basic subject areas and at their grade level is
weaker for those children not living with their own married
parents. Fourth grade students 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 linked with decreases in children’s
math scores. Lack of income or other resources explains some,
but not all, of the worse outcomes experienced by children from
non-married parent families. Marriage itself also has a measurable
impact on these educational outcomes.
High School Achievement and Completion
The effects of family structure on academic
success continue through high school. Children growing up with
non-intact families engage in more adolescent misbehavior, which
harms grades and test scores. Family structure substantially
influences outcomes such as high school dropout rates, high
school graduation rates, and age at first pregnancy. For example,
young people from non-intact families are significantly more
likely to drop out of school, compared to students living in
Studies comparing the effects of family structure on educational
attainment in the U.S. and Sweden yield fascinating results.
In both countries, children living in non-intact families do
worse educationally, such that each additional year a Swedish
or an American child spends with a single mother or stepparent
reduces that child’s overall educational attainment by
approximately one-half year. 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.
The effect of family structure on children’s
college attendance has received considerable attention. For
young people, growing up without their own married parents is
linked with lower college attendance rates and acceptance at
less selective institutions.
Young people, especially women, who grow
up with their own married parents tend to marry later. Research
has shown a link between delayed marriage and higher educational
attainment among young women.
Misbehavior at School
Marital breakup is associated with a higher
incidence of antisocial behavior in the classroom for boys.
Children from homes headed by their own married parents have
the fewest incidences of misbehavior at school.
Family structure affects teenagers’
school attendance and tardiness. Students from non-intact families
miss school, are tardy, and cut class about 30 percent more
often than do students from intact homes. These differences
exist in part because parents in non-intact family homes appear
less able to supervise and monitor their children. Children
in families with high levels of marital conflict are more likely
to have behavioral problems than are children in families with
low levels of conflict. Children whose parents have high-conflict
marriages often have even higher scores on measures of behavioral
problems than children whose parents divorce. However, today
in the United States, the majority of divorces occur in cases
of low-conflict marriages.
Smoking, Illegal Drugs, and Alcohol Consumption
Teenagers from non-intact families are
more likely to smoke, use drugs, and consume alcohol, even when
controlling for important factors such as age, sex, race, and
One study found that family structure had
a significant relationship to family attachment (with intact
families reporting higher levels of attachment), and in turn,
family attachment had a direct and deterrent effect on adolescent
cigarette smoking and illicit drug use.
Sexual Activity and Teen Pregnancy
Teenagers from non-intact families are
more likely to be sexually active. There appear to be no significant
differences in sexual behavior between adolescents from stepfamilies
and those from single-parent families. The similarity of sexual
behavior among these two groups of adolescents suggests that
remarriage presents some risks with regard to monitoring adolescent
behaviors effectively and transmitting values that deter early
Teenagers from divorced single-mother homes
are significantly more likely than teens in never-married single-mother
homes to become pregnant. However, while parental remarriage
seems to offer little protection regarding teen sexual activity,
a recent study on remarriage’s effect on teen pregnancy
points in a different direction. It found that young women whose
parents remarry after divorce have lower rates of teen pregnancy
than do young women in single-parent homes — rates that
are similar to those of young women raised by their own married
parents. This study suggests that remarriage, as well as marriage,
might act as a demonstrative or socializing tool in preventing
teen pregnancy. However, the effects of remarriage on teen pregnancy
remain inconclusive, with earlier studies showing no such protective
Being in a stepparent or single-parent
family at age 10 more than doubles the odds of a child being
arrested by age 14. One study found that male adolescents in
all types of families without a biological father (mother only,
mother and stepfather, and other) were more likely to be incarcerated
than teens from intact-family homes. Young people who have never
lived with their biological fathers have the highest odds of
For children, growing up without their
own married parents is linked with higher rates of stress, depression,
anxiety, and low self-esteem during the teenage years —
problems that can significantly reduce their ability to focus
and achieve in school. Research consistently shows that parental
divorce has lasting negative emotional effects throughout childhood,
adolescence, and adulthood.
Family structure clearly influences educational
outcomes for U.S. children. The weakening of U.S. family structure
in recent decades, driven primarily by high and rising rates
of unwed childbearing and divorce, has almost certainly weakened
the educational prospects and achievements of U.S. children.
Put more positively, there is a solid research basis for the
proposition that strengthening U.S. family structure in the
future — increasing the proportion of children growing
up with their own, two married parents — would significantly
improve the educational achievements of U.S. children.
Policymakers and leaders of civil society
who are concerned about this issue can take action on two levels.
First, given that many U.S. children now
grow up in non-intact families, programs and policies should
help families offset as best they can the negative effects linked
to these family structures.
For example, all parents should be encouraged
to have high expectations of their children’s school performance.
Research shows that parent expectations are important predictors
of children’s educational outcomes. Parental involvement
in children’s educational and social life should be encouraged.
When parents do not spend significant time with their children,
or when they are not involved in their children’s activities,
they are far less able to transmit important values and behaviors.
Lower levels of income account for some
of the differences in educational outcomes between children
living with their own married parents and those in other family
structures. For this reason, improving the economic circumstances
of one-parent families would probably improve children’s
educational outcomes in those families.
At the same time, stepfamilies, which have
significantly greater economic resources than do single-parent
families, nevertheless have educational outcomes for children
that look more like those of children in single-parent homes
than those of children in intact families. Income matters, but
income alone does not explain the better educational outcomes
experienced by children in intact families.
The second level of action is more systemic.
These findings about family structure and children’s educational
outcomes clearly suggest that education policy and family policy
logically go hand in hand.
It should be clear that policymakers and
others who want better educations for our children should also
want to strengthen U.S. family structure, because the former
is at least partly dependent on the latter. In short, for those
who care about education, strengthening marriage is a legitimate
and important goal of public policy.
It is vital to support the conditions in
which the greatest numbers of children can grow up to be educated
and socially competent. Accordingly, these findings about family
structure and children’s educational outcomes should encourage
policy makers and social leaders to think creatively about supporting
marriage in ways that will allow more of our youngest citizens
to succeed educationally and flourish socially.
Sidebox: If U.S. Family Structure Was as Strong
Today as It Was in 1970:
- 643,000 fewer children each year
would fail a grade at school
- 1,040,000 fewer children each
year would be suspended from school
- 531,000 fewer children each year
would need psychotherapy
- 453,000 fewer children each year
would be involved in violence
- 515,000 fewer children each year
would be cigarette smokers
- 179,000 fewer children each year
would consider suicide
- 71,000 fewer children each year
would attempt suicide
Source: Paul R. Amato, “The Impact
of Family Formation Change on the Cognitive, Social,
and Emotional Well-Being of the Next Generation,”
The Future of Children, Fall 2005
About this Research
This research brief summarizes the findings
of a comprehensive literature review by a team of researchers
led by Professor Barbara Schneider at the University of Chicago.
The full review, including a bibliography, is published as Barbara
Schneider, Allison Atteberry, and Ann Owens, Family Matters:
Family Structure and Child Outcomes (Birmingham: Alabama Policy
Institute, June 2005). A downloadable pdf of the paper is available
free of charge at www.alabamapolicyinstitute.org. The views
expressed in this brief regarding policy implications are those
of the Center for Marriage and Families.
About the Center for Marriage and
The Center for Marriage and Families, based
at the Institute for American Values, issues research briefs,
fact sheets, and other material related to marriage, families,
and children. The Center is directed by Elizabeth Marquardt.
Its Scholarly Advisory Board includes William Doherty of the
University of Minnesota, Norval Glenn of the University of Texas,
Linda Waite of the University of Chicago, W. Bradford Wilcox
of the University of Virginia, and James Q. Wilson of UCLA (Emeritus).
We are grateful to Arthur and Joann Rasmussen for their generous
financial support. To learn more about the Center, and to obtain
other research briefs and publications, please visit www.americanvalues.org,
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Center for Marriage and Families at the
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Phone: 212.246.3942 Fax: 212.541.6665.