How family impacts education – and why we should track it

April 27, 2023

During my time as a teacher, I saw how family impacted students. The general rule was that students whose parents were involved seemed to do better in school or were able to improve when they struggled. Often where there was a lack of parent communication or involvement, students seemed to have more challenges behaviorally and academically. 

At the recent FREE forum hosted by Sutherland Institute and AEI, Tim Carney, a participant in the family structures panel, said:  

Some people say, “How can we make the schools that are struggling be like the schools that are succeeding?” And every teacher and principal who’s taught across a variety of schools will tell you the real difference between a good school and a not-as-good school is parental involvement. And the key to parental involvement is having married parents.  

Ian Rowe, a keynote speaker at the forum, discussed the four pillars that support a person’s agency, one of which was the family. He also discussed the “success sequence,” which says if an individual graduates from high school, gets a full-time job, and marries before having kids, they will almost always avoid poverty (97% of millennials had this outcome). 

Bradford Wilcox, a visiting scholar with Sutherland Institute, another participant on the panel, discussed correlations between family structure and a host of measures including mental health, crime rates and education outcomes. Notwithstanding all that we know about family as an institution – an institution that has effects as significant as government or corporate institutions do – the panel discussed the fact that family structure data is not as readily collected or reported in today’s policy work.

The message was clear throughout the event: Family has major impacts on nearly every metric of an individual’s life. Therefore, we ought to be collecting and reporting on family structure to make sound policy. 

This is especially true in education policy.

Education policy is laden with annual analyses and policy proposals. It’s usually the topic that stirs up the most legislation in each state legislative session. And state leaders always discuss the need for education policy to be data-driven. 

Much of the national or state data surrounding outcomes and performance in education is commonly searchable by factors like gender, race or income (for instance, whether a child qualifies for free or reduced lunch), but not nearly as common is what their family structure is like.  

It’s fascinating since, as Carney noted, the general understanding of both layperson and policymaker is that family makes a very real difference. Data – whether recent or decades old – shows the same conclusion. 

For instance, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities in the UK recently published a noteworthy report about the disparities that exist among racial and ethnic groups. Notably, the report found, “The evidence shows that geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism. That said, we take the reality of racism seriously and we do not deny that it is a real force in the UK.”  

Not surprisingly, the finding about racism was highly controversial. However, putting aside the more controversial element of race, the report’s finding that family influence matters significantly to students’ learning outcomes should not be surprising at all. 

Several decades ago, a U.S. report, commonly called the Coleman Report, was published by the U.S. Department of Education pursuant to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While the report has been analyzed in many ways, one scholar noted, “Two other, more lasting conclusions attributed to the report gradually emerged: 1) families are the most important influence on student achievement, and 2) school resources don’t matter.”  

Of course, others say that resources do matter in education outcomes, but specifically that it matters how funds are spent more than how much is spent. Regardless of the battle over how much and to what degree funding matters, the report has come to stand for the importance of family on student outcomes. 

It seems that the experience from practitioners and evidence in multiple countries tells us the same thing: Family is a key institution that has impressive impacts on a child’s learning.  

Why, then, would we not want to learn more about how and why that might be? The more information we have, the closer we get to making truly informed, data-driven education policy. 

All this is to say that because many variables influence a student’s education, we ought to collect and report on more data, not less.  

For instance, it’s important to understand how race or state funds might impact student learning, and we generally do shine a light on those factors in order to make sound policy. Doing so does not mean that we need to exclude data on the family. Policymakers and other education leaders should consider bolstering efforts to collect and regularly report on family structure in published data, such as graduation rates, academic achievement and absenteeism. Increasing public understanding in this way will help education leaders make the most comprehensive and informed education policies possible.  

Insights: analysis, research, and informed commentary from Sutherland experts. For elected officials and public policy professionals.

  • Family structure plays an integral role in life outcomes
  • Utah would be best served making family structure data publicly reported
  • Students perform better in school when parents are more involved
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