Students’ Family Background Matters

1966, the U.S. Office of Education commissioned the landmark survey “Equality of Educational Opportunity” to study the “lack of availability of equal educational opportunities for individuals by reason of race, color, religion, or national origin in public educational institutions.” James Coleman, who led the study, was a noted sociologist and civil-rights advocate who had been arrested for demonstrating outside an amusement park that refused to admit African Americans. 

Known as the Coleman report, the 700-page study drew on data from more than 645,000 students and teachers in 4,000 U.S. public schools. Among its most controversial findings was that family background — not schools, funding, religion, or race — was the only characteristic that showed a consistent relationship with academic performance. The report summarized:

One implication stands out above all: That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.

This unexpected takeaway should have changed the education-policy landscape forever. Yet it never gained widespread traction, principally because it received an unwelcome reaction from most educators, who were unwilling to accept that “schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement.” They feared that emphasizing family background (most notably parents’ marital status) as the greatest driver of a student’s academic achievement would lead to victim-blaming, finger-pointing moralizing directed at single mothers. Even worse, it would turn attention away from addressing racism, underfunding, and other, more acceptable theories of the causes of academic underperformance.

Rather than grapple with all of these factors, education researchers and policy-makers today seem to either forget or deliberately ignore Coleman’s enduring finding — just as they did in 1966. Countless reports published annually by government and elite research institutions lack any mention of family structure and its impact on students, despite claiming to assess student progress. 

Take New York State’s education department. It provides a robust data site that allows users to easily view reading, math, and science test scores and graduation rates. Information can be filtered by school, gender, race, ethnicity, economic status, geographic district, and more. Yet the site provides no way to disaggregate student outcomes by family structure. 

At the federal level, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — often referred to as “the nation’s report card” — offers a Data Explorer tool that allows users to view a wealth of student-achievement data. By law, NAEP reporting must include information on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, disability, and English proficiency. As in New York and other states, however, there is no way to review results by family structure. 

In the world of neuroscience, being oblivious to the obvious is called “inattentional blindness.” The current filters and categories we use to evaluate progress in student achievement ignore family structure, even though research about its importance is clear and widely accepted: Single parenthood among young adults is one of the strongest predictors of child poverty, school suspensions, incarceration, and educational disadvantage. Unmarried young parents are far more likely to experience high levels of partnership instability and family complexity, and each of these is associated with poorer child well-being and intergenerational transmission of disadvantage. Harvard economist Raj Chetty has found that the share of households with a father present is the single largest predictor of upward mobility in a neighborhood, more than school quality, income inequality, and race.

Despite the overwhelming data that surround the relationship between family instability and areas such as child poverty, a group of academics at Harvard tried to disprove the Coleman report’s findings of an impact on education. But their reanalyses only reaffirmed Coleman’s basic thesis: “Schools appeared to exert relatively little pull — explaining only 10 to 20 percent of the variability in student outcomes — while family background, peers, and students’ own academic self-concept explained a much larger amount.” 

More than a decade ago, the obvious relevance of family structure to child outcomes led health-care leaders and analysts to make commonsense changes to their methods of measurement. In its 2010 report “Family Structure and Children’s Health in the United States,” the National Center for Health Statistics declared that “in view of the changing family structure distribution, new categories of families such as unmarried families or unmarried stepfamilies need to be studied so that the health characteristics of children in non-traditional families can be identified.”

The report defined seven distinct and mutually exclusive family structures: nuclear, single-parent, blended, unmarried biological or adoptive families, cohabiting, extended, and other — the last being defined as a family consisting of one or more children living with related or unrelated adults who are not biological or adoptive parents (e.g., grandparents). Analyses using these seven categories are yielding new explanations for entrenched problems and ushering in a new wave of family-focused prescriptions in the health arena. Why should education be treated differently?

In disregarding family structure, education researchers obscure a massively important demographic that could explain otherwise well-documented achievement gaps. 

Without access to data that show the transcendence of family structure over other factors such as race, policy-makers are far more likely to misdiagnose why kids may not be succeeding, and far less likely to pursue creative new solutions that would equip the rising generation to avoid these struggles in the first place. For example, in Vertex Partnership Academies, the innovative, character-based high school I am launching in the Bronx in August, we will have a class called “Pathways to Power,” in which students will learn the sequential series of decisions — completing a high-school degree; full-time work; marriage; then children — that 97 percent of the time results in the avoidance of poverty and a greater likelihood of entry into the middle class and beyond. 

If the National Center for Health Statistics can figure out how to incorporate family structure as a criterion for measurement in its system, surely technical experts working for state departments of education and the National Center for Education Statistics can do the same. In fact, NAEP already collects information on students’ living arrangements — it simply does not report on these data. 

If we truly want to improve outcomes for children, we must have the moral courage to measure student achievement by family-structure groupings as routinely as we already do by race, class, and gender. There is no good reason to make inattentional blindness intentional, especially when the education of future generations is at stake.

This piece was originally published in AEI.

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