Center for Family and Society Newsletter – Nov. 3, 2011

Behind the Numbers: Families and Education

By William C. Duncan and Bryce Christensen

When discussing education in Utah, editorialists have frequently – almost obsessively – invoked one particular ordinal number: 51st. These editorialists brandish this ordinal number as a rhetorical truncheon whenever they decry how little Utah spends per student in public schools compared with how much other states and the District of Columbia spend.1 And they deploy this same ordinal number just as aggressively when they lament how many students populate the average Utah school class compared with how many populate the average class elsewhere.2

Utahns who care about education in the state do have reason to look carefully at per-student spending, which runs about $3,000 less than the national average, and to examine thoroughly the statistics revealing that classes in Utah public schools are the largest in the country, with many teachers in Utah’s public elementary schools now dealing with classes twice as large as elementary teachers are working with in some other states. No doubt, a desire to move Utah out of the 51st position on these educational metrics counts as one very understandable reason that Governor Gary Herbert has repeatedly advocated significant budget increases for the state’s schools.3

But it would be a mistake to fixate on “51st” as a definitive numerical summary of the state’s educational status. Other numbers – such as Utah’s graduation rates and Utah’s test scores, particularly ACT and SAT scores – deserve attention in any serious discussion of Utah education. These numbers may pleasantly surprise Utahns frequently bombarded by “51st” as the arithmetic synopsis of the state’s educational efforts. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 2009 data show Utah’s eighth-graders scoring above the national norms in science, reading and math, and just barely below the national norm in writing.4

Data from 2008 put Utah 12th in high-school graduation rates, well ahead of many states where per-pupil spending runs much higher and class sizes run considerably smaller.5

An even more favorable report comes from the American College Testing Program: Utah ranks 8th in composite 2011 ACT scores among states in which at least 50 percent of students take this exam.6 Indeed, Utah’s very respectable state ranking in graduation rates and test scores would apparently indicate that attending a state school system that ranks 51st in per-student spending and class size has not hopelessly handicapped Utah students.

Of course, Utahns will see ample room for improvement in the state’s high-school graduation rates and test scores. And achieving that improvement may perhaps involve moving the state out of its 51st position in per-pupil spending and in class size. But then again, the biggest promise for improving educational performance in the state will probably be realized only if we look at some entirely different numbers, some entirely different rankings that editorialists and policymakers too often ignore. For in the state’s out-of-wedlock birth rate, marriage rate and divorce rate, and the comparative ranking of these rates to those of other states, we see numbers that tell us a great deal about educational prospects for Utah’s children and adolescents.

Only the uninformed suppose they can understand young people’s educational success or failure without considering the families they come from. After years of studying patterns predicting children’s academic success, University of Chicago sociologist James Coleman detected a “powerful relation of the child’s own family background characteristics to his achievement, a relation stronger than that of any school factors.”7 Rafts of studies confirm Coleman’s generalization, clearly establishing that students in intact two-parent families educationally outperform peers from single-parent and cohabiting-couple households and stepfamilies.8 In a representative 2003 study, researchers examined academic records – as well as psychological and social data – collected for a nationally representative sample of over 13,000 students in grades 7 through 12, concluding that “adolescents living in married, two-biological-parent families generally fare better than teenagers living in any other family type.”9

In part, it must be recognized, the educational advantage that children enjoy if they live in an intact family is the consequence of sheer economics. As one educational analyst recently stressed, “The greatest predictor of A[cademic]P[erformance]I[ndex] score anywhere in the United States is family income.” And when it comes to household income, intact families enjoy a decided advantage over single-parent families: It should surprise no one that “[65] percent of children who are poor versus 25 percent of children who are not poor live in households that do not include their biological father.”10 Children living with two parents will still likely face the educational disadvantages incident to economic hardship if those parents are not married. For among men and women living in cohabiting relationships, Census Bureau researchers find a markedly “greater tendency to keep income to themselves” than they find among men and women who are married. As a result, cohabiting men and women are much less likely than married peers “to contribute to the basic needs of the household.”11

But the reasons that growing up in an intact married-couple family gives children an academic advantage go beyond economics. Parents are educators, very often the most effective educators in their children’s lives. Just what parents are capable of in educating their children is evident in a 2009 study finding that children who are home-schooled are “achieving well beyond their public school counterparts – no matter what their family background, socioeconomic level, or style of homeschooling.” According to the 2009 data, “homeschoolers scored 34–39 percentile points higher than the norm on standardized achievement tests,” with even “homeschool students in the lowest-income category scor[ing] well above the public school average.”12

Of course, most Utah parents do not home-school their children – and do not want to. But typical parents are still educators: They read with their children; discuss social and world issues with them; take them to concerts, museums, zoos, and parks. So children with two such educators in the home are naturally ahead of peers with just one. And because mothers typically read to their children more than fathers do,13 it is entirely predictable that researchers would find that children with a homemaking mother enjoy a distinct educational advantage over peers with mothers employed outside the home.14

Once they understand how powerfully family life affects education, Utahns will surely recognize the need for policy debates that take us beyond the oft-repeated complaints about how little the state spends per student in the public schools and how many students populate the average public school class. Since Utah students are already outperforming peers in states that are spending much more per pupil and putting far fewer students in each class, policymakers need to look at more than just school-finance and school-staffing issues as they chart a course toward educational improvement.

The prospects for such improvement grow brighter any time state lawmakers enact laws that strengthen parental marriages, any time they make it easier for mothers to choose full-time homemaking, any time they help young people choose wedlock over out-of-wedlock childbearing. Utah lawmakers could, for instance, improve the environment for education through changing tax and zoning laws in ways that foster working from home. They could perhaps make an even more substantial step toward better education by reversing the no-fault-divorce revolution that drove up the state’s divorce rate – perhaps by as much as 25 percent.15

For too long, policymakers have pinned all their hopes for educational improvement to plans for moving the state out of its 51st position in per-pupil spending and class size. A much more promising approach to educational improvement lies in moving the state out of its middle-of-the-pack 22nd position in divorce rate.16 And though Utah already reports the lowest rate for out-of-wedlock births in the nation, surely the state can still do much to reduce its current 20 percent rate.17 If the state could bring it down to the less-than-10-percent rate seen not so long ago, far fewer children would be exposed the risks of educational failure incident to growing up in a single-parent home!

Utahns see only part of the educational picture when they examine numerical analyses of dollars per student and students per teacher in the state’s public schools. Far more important numbers emerge when the focus shifts to the number of parents in Utah children’s homes. And that number predicts more than just how well children will learn essential reading and arithmetic skills. That number also predicts how they will apply what they learn. For as the authors of a 1998 study concluded, credentialed professionals working with children typically teach them how to satisfy their own desires through independent actions, in contrast to parents, who inculcate in their children “a willingness to sacrifice one’s needs to those of the family.”18 Utahns saw all too clearly in 2008 the social cost of an education that empowers top executives with shrewd strategies for advancing self-interest, unrestrained by ethical principles requiring self-sacrifice.

In making Utah the nation’s top state for helping keep parents in their children’s homes, state policymakers could do much, much more to advance education in the state than they would ever do by simply improving the state’s relative ranking in per-student funding and class size.

William C. Duncan, J.D., is director of the Marriage Law Foundation and is the director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society. He formerly served as acting director of the Marriage Law Project at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and as executive director of the Marriage and Family Law Research Grant at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, where he was also a visiting professor.

Bryce J. Christensen, Ph.D., is associate professor of English at Southern Utah University and adjunct fellow of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society. He is a contributing editor to The Family in America and author of Divided We Fall: Family Discord and the Fracturing of America (Transaction, 2005). He has also published articles on family issues in Society, The Public Interest, Policy Review, Modern Age, and other journals.


1. Cf. Lisa Schencker, “Utah Ranks 41st in Nation for Education,” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 10, 2011; Steve Baugh, “Our children deserve better schools,” Deseret News, October 1, 2010: A14; “Utah doing OK academically, according to national data,” Deseret News, January 14, 2010: B1.

2. Lisa Schencker, “Analysis: Schools that met testing goals had lower class sizes,” 
The Salt Lake Tribune 
4 Feb. 2011.

3. Ibid.

4. “Utah,” State Profiles, IES National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, n.d. Web. 19 Sep. 2011.

5. Cf. Schencker, “Utah Ranks 41st.”

6. “ACT Composite Scores by State,” Data and Research, Minnesota Office of Higher Education, 2011. Web, September 19, 2011.

7. Coleman quoted in William R. Mattox, Jr., “The Home as School: The Extraordinary Influence of Family Life on Student Learning,” The Family in America Sep. 2001: 1.

8. Wendy D. Manning and Kathleen A. Lamb, “Adolescent Well-Being in Cohabiting, Married, and Single-Parent Families,” Journal of Marriage and Family 65 (2003): 876-89; Vincent J. Roscigno, “Family/ School Inequality and African-American/Hispanic Achievement,” Social Problems 47 (2000): 266-290; R. Kelly Raley, Michelle L. Frisco, and Elizabeth Wildsmith, “Maternal Cohabitation and Educational Success,” Sociology of Education 78 (2005): 144-164; Barry D. Ham, “The Effects of Divorce on the Academic Achievement of High School Seniors,” Journal of Divorce & Remarriage 38.3/4 (2003): 167-185; Kyle Crowder and Jay Teachman, “Do Residential Conditions Explain the Relationship Between Living Arrangements and Adolescent Behavior?”Journal of Marriage and Family 66 (2004): 721-738; William Jeynes, “A Longitudinal Analysis on the Effects of Remarriage Following Divorce on the Academic Achievement of Adolescents,”Journal of Divorce & Remarriage 33 (2000): 131-148; Cara Bohon, Judy Garber, and Jason L. Horowitz, “Predicting School Dropout and Adolescent Sexual Behavior in Offspring of Depressed and Nondepressed Mothers,” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 46 (2007): 15-24; Cheryl Buehler and Kay Pasley, “Family Boundary Ambiguity, Marital Status, and Child Adjustment,” Journal of Early Adolescence 20 (2000): 281-308; Karen Seccombe, “Families in Poverty in the 1990s: Trends, Causes, Consequences, and Lessons Learned,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 62 (2000): 1094-1113; Suet-Ling Pong, “Family Structure, School Context, and Eighth Grade Math and Reading Achievement,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 59 (1997): 734-746.

9. Manning and Lamb,”Adolescent Well-Being.”

10. David Wood, “Effect of Child and Family Poverty on Child Health in the United Sates,”Pediatrics 112 (2003): 707-712.

11. Kurt J. Bauman, “Shifting Family Definitions: The Effect of Cohabitation and Other Nonfamily Household Relationships on Measures of Poverty,” Demography 36.3 (1999): 315-325.

12. Brian D. Ray et al., “Homeschool Progress Report 2009: Academic Achievement and Demographics,” Homeschooling Research, Home School Legal Defense Association, 2009. Web, September 19, 2009.

13. See Lyn Craig, “Does Father Care Mean Fathers Share? A Comparison of How Mothers and Fathers in Intact Families Spend Time with Children,” Gender and Society 20 (2006): 259-281.

14. Charles L. Baum, “The Long-Term Effects of Early and Recent Maternal Employment on the Child’s Academic Achievement,” Journal of Family Issues 25 (2004): 29-60.

15. Cf. Thomas B. Marvell, “Divorce Rates and the Fault Requirement,” Law and Society Review23(1989): 544.

16. “I Don’t: Divorce Rates by State,” Wall Street Journal, 13 Aug. 2010. Web, September 20, 2011.

17. “Births to unmarried women, by race and Hispanic origin of mother: United States, each state and territory,” National Vital Statistics Reports 59.1 (2010 ), Table I–4.

18. Susan D. Holloway, Kathleen S. Gorman, and Bruce Fuller, “Child-Rearing Beliefs Within Diverse Social Structures,” International Journal of Psychology 23 (1988): 303-317.