Fatherless Households and SOLs

Source: Cranky’s Blog

We know that the percentage of “economically disadvantaged” students in a school district is correlated significantly with Standards of Learning failure rates. But is poverty the driver behind low test scores, or is it just correlated with a third factor that is the real driver? Over on Cranky’s Blog, John Butcher ran an interesting analysis: He correlated English reading pass rates in a Virginia school district with the percentage of no-husband households in the jurisdiction. The results can be seen in the graph above. The percentage of no-husband households accounts for roughly 40% of the variability in SOL pass-rate performance.

John was addressing a different issue from the one I am interested in. He was making the argument that school districts should not be judged on raw SOL pass rates. Given the fact that SOL pass rates are strongly correlated with poverty, and even more strongly correlated with the percentage of fatherless children, schools should not be held accountable for their district’s demographics. They should be held accountable for under-performing on a demographically adjusted basis. (Even by that standard, he notes, the City of Richmond schools underperform “atrociously.”)

While I totally agree with the point Butcher is making — schools should be judged on their educational value added, not the demographics of their student bodies — my interest in this post is different. To what extent is the sociological background of Virginia’s students responsible for poor educational outcomes?

The Left wants to put the blame on race and class, the implication being that any deficiencies are the result of an inequitable “system” that stacks the deck against the poor and minorities. I put the blame on sociology, primarily the breakdown of the family structure among lower-income Virginians of whatever race or ethnicity. The problem is not a “black” problem or a “white problem” but a “social breakdown” problem. It only appears to be a “black” problem because the disintegration of traditional family structures is more prevalent in the black lower class than the white lower class, though not by much.

I contend (hardly an original idea) that intact families tend to create a more stable, more nurturing environment to raise children, and that children raised in intact households are far more likely to do well at school. The presence of the biological father is crucial. That’s not to say that there aren’t awesome step-fathers who fill the paternal role, and it’s not to say that some fathers, who are drunkards or substance abusers, can’t be awful. It’s not to say that absent fathers can’t play an active role in their children’s lives. It’s not to say that some single moms with powerful personalities can’t mold their kids into successful human beings with no help from anyone else. But it is to say that the odds increase exponentially that kids will grow up in a toxic environment when there isn’t a father figure to protect them, love them, and enforce discipline. Many kids raised in this toxic environment suffer physical and emotional abuse, which gives rise to severe emotional problems later on — emotional problems that lead to “acting out” in school and poor academic performance.

The odds of poor academic performance increase, I hypothesize, if the family lives in a poor neighborhood where other kids have escaped the ability of their single mothers to control their behavior, where criminality is rampant, and where peer pressure lures adolescents into a “street culture” that devalues education. Even students who haven’t suffered physical or emotional abuse can bring their street culture of defiance and disrespect of authority into the schools.

Why does this matter? It matters because misdiagnosing the problem as systemic racial and economic inequity leads to a set of solutions — essentially, the solutions that are rapidly becoming institutionalized in Virginia’s school systems today — that geared to… redressing racial and economic inequities. If the premises of those solutions are wrong, the solutions will not work. Indeed, the putative remedies might even harm the children their advocates purport to  help.

Perhaps I’m wrong and the social justice advocates are right. Perhaps we both have seized upon a piece of the truth. Fortunately, Virginia has a mechanism — the Standards of Learning tests — by which we can test our different views of the world. We should gain access to a new year’s worth of SOL results in a couple of months. We shall see. We shall see.

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8 responses to “Fatherless Households and SOLs

  1. A large chunk of research, as well as practical experience, substantiates your contention that “intact families tend to create a more stable, more nurturing environment to raise children, and that children raised in intact households are far more likely to do well at school.” I don’t think there can be any credible argument on this.

    I think you and the social justice advocates are not that far apart. You both are addressing the same problem–just from different perspectives. You are looking at the sociological markers–dysfunctional families. The social justice advocates are focusing on the historical or underlying factors that led to dysfunctional families–poverty and racial barriers. It seems to me that, if one wants to solve the problem of dysfunctional families, he/she needs to attack the underlying causes. And, if those causes are mitigated, there would be a decrease in the incidence of dysfunctional families.

    John Butcher’s analysis is illuminating. Another issue here is multicollinearity. John’s data show that poverty (economically disadvantaged) and no husband in the household are related to SOL scores. But, I would think that poverty and the absence of a husband are related to each other, as well. A multiple regression model, holding poverty constant, may provide a good idea of how much no husband, by itself, contributes to the score. (Doing that kind of analysis is beyond me. It has been a long time since I had statistics and it was only a basic course, at that.)

    On the question of judging schools by their SOL scores, I have long thought that teachers in schools with low overall SOL scores or with a large percentage of disadvantaged students should be judged on how much the scores improve from year to year, regardless of the raw score. I think that is what both of you are saying, as well.

    • “But, I would think that poverty and the absence of a husband are related to each other, as well. A multiple regression model, holding poverty constant, may provide a good idea of how much no husband, by itself, contributes to the score.”

      This is important point. Two factors now seem to many beyond dispute.

      Not having a live-in supportive father often plays the major roll in whether or not a “family” is below the poverty level. Often this factor alone is determinate.

      However, culture, not poverty, in the past and today also, often determines whether or not women marry or families become single parent families. This is a changing dynamic, depending on culture shifts. For example, between 1900 and 1960, blacks had fewer single mom families than whites. Black families were more stable. And Blacks had fewer out of wedlock births than Whites, and two parent black families were more likely to raise kids.

      However, until very recently, and still in some places today, impoverished whites today have very substantially higher marriage rates than blacks. In some locales, white poverty rates still have little or no apparent effect on marriage rates.

      Of course, the strength of extended families, and traditional community support networks, play important balancing rolls here, as do employment profiles. I’ll try to come back with more definitive figures, and facts here.

      In short, big trends and influences are important, but complexities and nuances are important, as Jim suggests above.

  2. “You are looking at the sociological markers–dysfunctional families. The social justice advocates are focusing on the historical or underlying factors that led to dysfunctional families–poverty and racial barriers.”

    That’s a fair statement. But social justice advocates and I differ over what the “underlying factors” are. The fact that lower-income and working class white families are disintegrating suggests that there are forces at work that transcend race.

    If only there were some way of taking race out of the equation. Perhaps I need to focus on overwhelmingly white counties in Western Virginia (Appalachia) that are overwhelmingly white and see what I come up with.

  3. I think Dick has got it right and Jim keeps veering off.

    Nothing breaks a family up quicker than Dad with a grade school education who can’t keep a job and/or gets scooped up by law enforcement for dealing street drugs and sent off to prison.

    The reality is if Dad got the same crappy education that the kid is getting and his Dad was also uneducated and working the streets to make a living… what do you do about it?

    Jim wants to blame them. I dont’ want to absolve them or make them victims either but the stark reality is if Dad has a grade school education or worse , it’s not going to end well in terms of an intact family.

    We’re living in LA LA Land if we think that the “intact family” alone will fix this problem if Dad is unable to earn a living and/or ends up in prison by trying to make a living on the streets.

  4. It seems to me we are debating the chicken and the egg. A history of broken families and/or poverty can help lead to a dysfunctional family. But we all have free will and can and do make bad decisions. A decision to drop out of school before finishing high school can also lead to a broken family and more poverty. There are lots of people living in a broken family and/or poverty who don’t make the bad decision to drop out of school or get into drugs. Some seem to want to let people who make bad decisions off the hook for those decisions. Let them chose as they will; taxpayers are there to pick up the pieces and pay for expensive social services.

    We used to have a basic, but unwritten, social contract. Society has an obligation to provide and fund certain basic services, such as roads and public schools. We expect drivers to follow the traffic rules. We should expect students to make the best use of schools. We all seem to want to hold drivers to their duties under the social contract but many don’t want to hold students, parents, guardians to their duties under the social contract. Why?

    • TMT – Here is more on your excellent comment:

      Out of wedlock births to college educated women remain low (less than 10%) as of 2007, although the figure was 2% in 1777. Out of wedlock births, however, of women with high school education or less, rose from 21% in 1977 to 67% in 2007. Concurrently, the age college educated women giving first birth rose from 24 years of age in 1965 to 30 years old in 2010. Meanwhile, the median age of girls with high school educations or less gave whose first gave birth were 20 years of age in 1965, and that median age dropped to 18 years old in 2010.

      As to kids aged o-7 years old forced to live in single parent families –

      Among college educated parent, only 4% lived with one parent in 1970. By 2012 9% of kids whose single parent was college educated lived with single parent. However, among high school or less single parent families, an astounding 67% of all their 0-7 age kids lived with one parent, mostly all mothers. This, despite a sharp decline in teenage girl pregnancies, for more and more of these low educated mothers are now concentrated among women 25-35 years old. Today more than 75% of unwed birth mothers are over 20 years old, and their median age is rising. More and more of these older mothers are choosing motherhood without husbands.

      Why?

      The reasons and theories are varied. Fathers refuse to marry. Mothers refuse to marry unemployed or out of work fathers, or abusive fathers. Low education mothers want children to give meaning to their lives, and so they often give up on finding a marriage partner before they try to realize their dream. Why do they make this choice? Because today’s society often requires it of them. For low education women, cohabitation without marriage is too often a failing, high risk proposition. Most live in relationships for them do not end in marriage, but in abandonment. Yet, they keep trying. The number of high school educated couples who cohabited doubled between 1987 and 2007, from 35% to 70%. Meanwhile college educated living together without marriage went from 31% to 47%. College educated who cohabit, however, rarely have kids, and far more often marry if they do. The reverse occurs between cohabiting low income couples. Less than 1/3 of of low income women giving birth out of wedlock remain with their child’s father. This terrible statistic is typically now handed down through generations. The lifestyles of their fathers and mothers failed these new low income young adults. So their relationships, like their parents, often result in future serial births with different men during a long series of failed relationships, that yet again are witnessed by this new mother’s children, and their siblings with same mother but different absent fathers, and also a string of different lovers. See generally, Our Kids, The American Dream in Crisis, by Robert D. Putnam, author of Bowling Alone.

      The absentee biological fathers, and serial visiting lovers and non – fathers typically do enormous harm to their children and their children’s mother, and that harm and dysfunction spreads throughout the community, and society, and its continues down through future generations, often chronically so.

      John Boucher’s research speaks powerfully to this plague on our families, children, communities, and society. Absentee fathers by reason of their own act of impregnating women, acquire by that act enormous power that they too often wield irresponsibly to do great harm to others. And, in so doing, they can make matters far worse by their own simple neglect, they’re walking away from responsibility, their abandonment of their children and their mother.

      What constitutes responsibility here? How far does it extend? How can it be judged? And how can those who do all this damage be held accountable? Our post modern society seems to have totally lost its ability to navigate these questions. We need to remedy our incompetence. One place to start is:

      http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/Clifford_ethics.pdf

      One problem is that William K. Clifford’s single spaced ten page essay THE ETHICS OF BELIEF was originally published in 1877. An English mathematician who lived from 1845 to 1879, the Victorian Age, was 32 years old when he wrote this essay. Are we today all too ignorant to read, much less understand, this very wise and well educated 32 year old Victorian?

      How many of us recall how much contempt we heaped on those stuffy, and student Victorians. I certainty did my share of that in my time.

  5. TMT

    “Let them chose as they will; taxpayers are there to pick up the pieces and pay for expensive social services.”

    Yes. And, as you imply, these policies far too often do far more harm than good. Thomas Sowell’s research speaks powerfully to this obvious fact. As does the recent corruption of Fannie Mae also prove this fact.

    “We all seem to want to hold drivers to their duties under the social contract but many don’t want to hold students, parents, guardians to their duties under the social contract. Why?”

    Taking care of the disadvantaged, or more accurately pretending to take care of the disadvantaged, is now this nations biggest and most profitably industry to a relatively small amount of powerful people, who do so for private advantage at a taxpayer expense.

    These relatively few not only make a handsome living off of the disadvantaged, they also manipulate the disadvantaged so as to gain, and maintain, political power and control for themselves. This is why the poor are always with us, the problem is never fixed, but instead it continues to grow. And why the problems of the disadvantage are always at the top of nation’s political agenda, no matter what other far more serious problems the nation might face.

    It is also why the government and its allies on the disadvantaged gravy train, are now continually attacking and trying to replace, shame, outlaw, and put out of business, private organizations that have long cared for and been the safety net for the poor, the evangelical and charities and schools, for example. And why they attack private groups that are far more effective and efficient at the task of helping the disadvantaged than they are. Indeed, the private sector’s success is the very reason that the government and its allies want to displace them. Heaven forbid, they might fix or alleviate the problems and challenges of the disadvantaged.

    That is why our government and its allies are threatened by the Little Sisters of the Poor. They and the government want to take for themselves the power of a handful of impoverished nuns. That is how sick, vicious, power hungry, and destructive vast segments of our government and society have become.

  6. re: chicken and egg

    no – you’re talking about people that started out as slaves and for generations after that were not educated.

    When someone is not educated (or more precisely – educated to the demands of the job market) – they cannot support a family – and that leads to breakup of the family. If the children in that family are also not getting an decent education – the cycle continues.

    All through the Jim Crow era and right on up through Massive Resistance, people were denied a decent education – systematically by the State.

    Somehow – some folks expect the family to stay “intact” even though it’s in poverty from lack work or lack of enough work to sustain their needs.

    This is how families break up.

    re: ” We all seem to want to hold drivers to their duties under the social contract but many don’t want to hold students, parents, guardians to their duties under the social contract. Why?”

    what “duties” are you holding them to? You’re essentially blaming people for their own poverty because they never received a good education.

    How callous do we have to be when the folks who DID get a good education – blame others who did not get one for not doing their “duty”?

    What exactly is the “duty” of a kid who has one parent and attends a bad school?

    You blame the parents of course. Whatever happened to the kid is the parents fault and when that kid grows up and becomes a parent, he/she then inherits that blame.

    No wonder we got problems!

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