Family structure: it’s an education in itself

An international report finds a clear educational advantage in developed countries for children living with two parents.
Andrea Mrozek | 24 January 2013
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Improving education outcomes is a goal for schools and ministries of education all over the world. And so it should be, since they are linked to a host of other advantages, especially in a knowledge-based economy. It will be interesting to note, then, whether those who desire these improvements will grab hold of the results of the recently released World Family Map Project.

This research shows that for children in the developed world, living with two parents results in better literacy scores, regardless of wealth and parental education. This is as true in Canada as it is in United States, the United Kingdom or Australia.

“Children living with two parents had higher reading literacy scores and were less likely to repeat a grade compared to those living with either one parent or neither parent in all three North American countries included in the report: Canada, Mexico and the United States,” write the researchers. They go on: “This pattern is found even after accounting for the higher levels of poverty and lower levels of parental education among single-parent families.”

This is in keeping with other research conclusions in the social sciences showing a host of benefits for children raised by two married parents.

Unfortunately, to the detriment of our kids, the developed world doesn’t typically embrace this research. Instead, there are two likely responses to these findings.

One type of response is a lack of surprise: Isn’t this something that our grandparents knew without any research at all? Obviously, where there are two parents in the home there will be better academic outcomes.

The “not surprised” would no doubt agree with the report authors that the differences in educational outcomes they found would have been even greater had the dataset they used -- from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment -- been able to distinguish between two biological parents and families that include a step-parent. According to the authors, “[g]rouping these families into one category, as was done in the PISA 2009 dataset, may provide weaker results than when other family types are compared to families with two biological parents.”

The second response is more commonplace. It’s also more harmful because it chooses to obscure these results. This response is a refusal to acknowledge the result by simultaneously getting offended.

No one knows better than single parents that raising children on their own is more difficult than with a committed spouse. But still, many who are aware of the evidence fear alienating those families and, as a result, they speak of this research rarely, if at all.

Research is just research; it can show a trend line or highlight inconsistencies, or -- the favourite of many an academic and think tank -- result in the need for further research. Yet it is our practical response that matters most.

For one thing, if we acknowledge that family breakdown has negative effects on children, our lackadaisical attitude toward marital dissolution is not a particularly loving one.

We all know families in the difficult throes of divorce, for example. A compassionate response to marriages that are troubled but low-conflict might involve encouragement for the couple to stay together, instead of a “live and let live” approach. (Families are not the place to be laissez-faire, as economist Jennifer Roback Morse documented in her 2001 book Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work.)

There are indeed some small things government can do to limit family breakdown. Tax codes should never penalize marriage; instead, governments would be justified in giving tax concessions to married couples in recognition of the benefits marriage offers society.

The developed world must begin in a basic way to recognize the importance of two married parents in the home. The percent of children living with two parents is high in Australia (82 percent), lower in Canada at 78 percent, lower still in the United Kingdom (76 percent) and much lower in the United States at 69 percent.

However, truthfully, even Australia can do a whole lot better. Those 18% of Australian children growing up without the benefit of two parents are feeling the impact, whether we acknowledge it or not.

The World Family Map Project is not exclusively about education outcomes. It also examines family indicators across the globe. One of those indicators asks whether people believe children need a father and a mother in the home to grow up happily.

Sixty-five percent of Canadians, 63 percent of Americans and 70 percent of Australians believe this to be true – a clear majority. In South Africa, however, where only 36 percent of children actually live in two-parent homes, a whopping 91 percent believe a child needs both a mother and a father in the home to grow up happily.

It makes you wonder whether the developed world isn’t taking something very basic and essential to human thriving entirely for granted.

Politicians all claim to want to improve the education system for kids. Yet they ignore the elephant in the room as they apply bandaid solutions. This new research has clear implications for improvements in literacy, improvements that come at no charge to the public purse.

The new World Family Map Project, an annual international research piece, has plenty to say about family life across the globe. In this instance, however, it offers all of us in the developed world a chance to grab hold of good research and apply it in our own lives, regardless of whether politicians are paying attention.

Andrea Mrozek is the Manager of Research at the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, a co-sponsor on the World Family Map Project, published by the Washington D.C.-based Child Trends. For more information about The World Family Map project, please click here.

This article is published by Andrea Mrozek and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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