To strengthen schools, start with the family

Photo: IFS Report, Strong Families, Successful Schools

New research shows family structure is strongly linked to educational success.

If your country is anything like mine, you will hear teacher organizations constantly complaining about the government’s miserliness towards schools and smallness of teachers’ pay packets. Money, it seems, would make all the difference to the success rates of students.

It ain’t necessarily so. New research from the Institute for Family Studies finds that what’s happening at home probably makes more difference to educational performance than funding. W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas Zill studied data from counties across the state of Florida, and they say:

“We found that the share of married-parent families in a county is one of the strongest predictors of high-school graduation rates for Florida counties; indeed, it’s a more powerful predictor than family income, race or ethnicity.

“Across the state’s counties, graduation rates are 4 percentage-points higher for every 10 percentage-point rise in married-couple families.”

In their report, Strong Families, Successful Schools, Wilcox and Zill cite another recent study — by MIT economist David Autor and colleagues — of more than one million Florida children that also highlights the importance of family circumstances. Autor told The New York Times: “Boys particularly seem to benefit more from being in a married household or committed household—with the time, attention and income that brings.”

In fact, the IFS scholars point out that this correlation was already observed 50 years ago in the Coleman Report, Equality of Educational Opportunity,  which found that children’s family backgrounds—their parents’ education, income, and family structure—were more powerful predictors of school success than the quality, character, and spending of their schools.

The difference in the new IFS study is that, rather than looking at individual children and their families, it looks at the links between family structure and school performance at the collective level, in this case, counties across Florida.

While acknowledging that parental education and income matter, the authors “hypothesize that counties with more married families enjoy higher levels of parental engagement, better parental discipline, and more parental involvement in PTO groups, all factors that would likely redound to the social and educational benefit of children in these counties.”

Their findings support this:

* Strong Families, Successful Schools finds that the share of married parent families in a county is one of the strongest predictors of high school graduation rates in the 67 counties across Florida, as well as recent growth in high school graduation rates in the Sunshine State.

* The share of married families also is the strongest predictor of county school suspension rates in Florida in our models.

* Moreover, the share of families headed by married couples is a more powerful predictor of high school graduation and school suspension rates than are income, race, and ethnicity in Florida—factors that tend to get more attention in media and policy circles.

* The report also finds that parental education is the best predictor of county high school graduation rates in Florida, according to our models.

Take home message: The best resourced schools and the best paid teachers are not going to cancel the emotional and cultural deficit caused by broken homes.

(W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist, is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia  and a senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies. Nicholas Zill, a psychologist, co-founded Child Trends and recently retired as vice president of Westat.)

This article by Carolyn Moynihan was originally published on under a Creative Commons Licence. If you enjoyed this article, visit for more.