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How family background influences student achievement

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Anna J. Egalite :
On the weekend before the Fourth of July 1966, the U.S. Office of Education quietly released a 737-page report that summarized one of the most comprehensive studies of American education ever conducted. Encompassing some 3,000 schools, nearly 600,000 students, and thousands of teachers, and produced by a team led by Johns Hopkins University sociologist James S. Coleman, "Equality of Educational Opportunity" was met with a palpable silence. Indeed, the timing of the release relied on one of the oldest tricks in the public relations playbook - announcing unfavorable results on a major holiday, when neither the American public nor the news media are paying much attention.
To the dismay of federal officials, the Coleman Report had concluded that "schools are remarkably similar in the effect they have on the achievement of their pupils when the socio-economic background of the students is taken into account." Or, as one sociologist supposedly put it to the scholar-politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "Have you heard what Coleman is finding? It's all family."
The Coleman Report's conclusions concerning the influences of home and family were at odds with the paradigm of the day. The politically inconvenient conclusion that family background explained more about a child's achievement than did school resources ran contrary to contemporary priorities, which were focused on improving educational inputs such as school expenditure levels, class size, and teacher quality. Indeed, less than a year before the Coleman Report's release, President Lyndon Johnson had signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act into law, dedicating federal funds to disadvantaged students through a Title 1 program that still remains the single largest investment in K-12 education, currently reaching approximately 21 million students at an annual cost of about $14.4 billion.
So what exactly had Coleman uncovered? Differences among schools in their facilities and staffing "are so little related to achievement levels of students that, with few exceptions, their effect fails to appear even in a survey of this magnitude," the authors concluded.
Zeroing in on family background
Coleman's advisory panel refused to sign off on the report, citing "methodological concerns" that continue to reverberate. Subsequent research has corroborated the finding that family background is strongly correlated with student performance in school. A correlation between family background and educational and economic success, however, does not tell us whether the relationship between the two is independent of any school impacts. The associations between home life and school performance that Coleman documented may actually be driven by disparities in school or neighborhood quality rather than family influences. Often, families choose their children's schools by selecting their community or neighborhood, and children whose parents select good schools may benefit as a consequence. In the elusive quest to uncover the determinants of students' academic success, therefore, it is important to rely on experimental or quasi-experimental research that identifies effects of family background that operate separately and apart from any school effects.
In this essay I look at four family variables that may influence student achievement: family education, family income, parents' criminal activity, and family structure. I then consider the ways in which schools can offset the effects of these factors.
Parental Education. Better-educated parents are more likely to consider the quality of the local schools when selecting a neighborhood in which to live. Once their children enter a school, educated parents are also more likely to pay attention to the quality of their children's teachers and may attempt to ensure that their children are adequately served. By participating in parent-teacher conferences and volunteering at school, they may encourage staff to attend to their children's individual needs.
In addition, highly educated parents are more likely than their less-educated counterparts to read to their children. Educated parents enhance their children's development and human capital by drawing on their own advanced language skills in communicating with their children. They are more likely to pose questions instead of directives and employ a broader and more complex vocabulary. Estimates suggest that, by age 3, children whose parents receive public assistance hear less than a third of the words encountered by their higher-income peers. As a result, the children of highly educated parents are capable of more complex speech and have more extensive vocabularies before they even start school.
Highly educated parents can also use their social capital to promote their children's development. A cohesive social network of well-educated individuals socializes children to expect that they too will attain high levels of academic success. It can also transmit cultural capital by teaching children the specific behaviors, patterns of speech, and cultural references that are valued by the educational and professional elite.
In most studies, parental education has been identified as the single strongest correlate of children's success in school, the number of years they attend school, and their success later in life. Because parental education influences children's learning both directly and through the choice of a school, we do not know how much of the correlation can be attributed to direct impact and how much to school-related factors. Teasing out the distinct causal impact of parental education is tricky, but given the strong association between parental education and student achievement in every industrialized society, the direct impact is undoubtedly substantial. Furthermore, quasi-experimental strategies have found positive effects of parental education on children's outcomes. For instance, one study of Korean children adopted into American families shows that the adoptive mother's education level is significantly associated with the child's educational attainment.
Family Income. As with parental education, family income may have a direct impact on a child's academic outcomes, or variations in achievement could simply be a function of the school the child attends: parents with greater financial resources can identify communities with higher-quality schools and choose more-expensive neighborhoods-the very places where good schools are likely to be. More-affluent parents can also use their resources to ensure that their children have access to a full range of extracurricular activities at school and in the community.
But it's not hard to imagine direct effects of income on student achievement. Parents who are struggling economically simply don't have the time or the wherewithal to check homework, drive children to summer camp, organize museum trips, or help their kids plan for college. Working multiple jobs or inconvenient shifts makes it hard to dedicate time for family dinners, enforce a consistent bedtime, read to infants and toddlers, or invest in music lessons or sports clubs. Even small differences in access to the activities and experiences that are known to promote brain development can accumulate, resulting in a sizable gap between two groups of children defined by family circumstances.
It is challenging to find rigorous experimental or quasi-experimental evidence to disentangle the direct effects of home life from the effects of the school a family selects. While Coleman claimed that family and peers had an effect on student achievement that was distinct from the influence of schools or neighborhoods, his research design was inadequate to support this conclusion. All he was able to show was that family characteristics had a strong correlation with student achievement.
Separating out the independent effects of family education and family income is also difficult. We do not know if low income and financial instability alone can adversely affect children's behavior, emotional stability, and educational outcomes. Evidence from the negative-income-tax experiments carried out by the federal government between 1968 and 1982 showed only mixed effects of income on children's outcomes, and subsequent work by the University of Chicago's Susan Mayer cast doubt on any causal relationship between parental income and child well-being.
 (To be continued)

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