Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Family Policies and Children's School Achievement in Single- versus Two-Parent Families

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Family Policies and Children's School Achievement in Single- versus Two-Parent Families

Article excerpt

We investigate the gap in math and science achievement of third- and fourth-graders who live with a single parent versus those who live with two parents in 11 countries. The United States and New Zealand rank last among the countries we compare in terms of the equality of achievement between children from single-parent families and those from two-parent homes. Following a multilevel analysis, we find single parenthood to be less detrimental when family policies equalize resources between single- and two-parent families. In addition, the single- and two-parent achievement gap is greater in countries where single-parent families are more prevalent. We conclude that national family policies can offset the negative academic outcomes of single parenthood.

Key Words: academic achievement, family policy, family structure, international comparison, single-parent family.

During recent decades, a burgeoning research literature has documented the educational consequences of single parenthood in the United States and other Western societies. Although most research has been conducted within single nations, comparative research is essential if we are to understand the relative importance of public policy, which may mitigate or exacerbate the challenges associated with living with a single parent. In this article, we investigate how the relationship between single parenthood and children's academic achievement varies according to a society's safety net systems. We specifically test whether the achievement gap between children living with a single parent and those residing with both parents is smaller in those countries that make greater investments in social welfare. Our study is unique because we are able to analyze comparable data from 11 nations. These data allow us to fill the gap in comparative knowledge on single parenthood and children's school performance. We address three related questions in this study. First, cross-nationally, how varied is the gap in academic achievement between children who live in single-parent families and those who live with two biological parents? second, do academic differences between children from single-parent families and those from two-parent homes persist after family resources are taken into account? Third, and most important, among the 11 countries we selected, does the achievement gap between children from single- and two-parent families vary by demographic characteristics and national family policies?

RELEVANT LITERATURE

After more than two decades, social science researchers in the United States agree that single parenthood is not an unequivocal source of disadvantage. Some investigators note the strengths offered by successful single-parent families (Olson & Haynes, 1993; Richards & Schmiege, 1993), however, research on children's educational outcomes has not found positive results. Despite the fact that some American children living in single-parent homes do well in school, in general they face a higher risk of low academic achievement and of dropping out than do children who live in two-parent families (Amato, 2001; Astone & McLanahan, 1991; Mulkey, Grain, & Harrington, 1992; Pong & Ju, 2000; Zill, 1996). This educational disadvantage of children from single-parent homes is not unique to the United States. Research also shows an educational gap between children from single-parent families and those from two-parent families in other Western industrialized countries, including Britain (Cherlin et al., 1991 ; Kiernan, 1992), the Netherlands (Borgers, Dronkers, & Van Praag, 1996; Bosnian & Louwes, 1982; Dronkers, 1994), Sweden (McNab & Murray, 1985; Murray & Sandqvist, 1990), and Switzerland (Oggenfuss, 1984).

Various explanations have been offered for a detrimental effect of single parenthood on children's education in the United States and other industrialized countries. One explanation stresses the interparental conflict that is too often generated as marriage dissolves, and that inflicts psychological stress on children (Amato, 2001; Amato & Keith, 1991; Dronkers, 1999). …

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