U.S. Students from Two-Parent Families Achieve a Grade Level Higher than Peers from Single-Parent Families

Ludger Woessmann: woessmann@ifo.de, University of Munich
Ashley Inman: ashley_inman@hks.harvard.edu, (707) 332-1184, Education Next Communications Office

U.S. Students from Two-Parent Families Achieve a Grade Level Higher than Peers from Single-Parent Families

The United States has one of the highest percentages of single-parent families among developed countries

The United States has one of the highest percentages of single-parent families among developed countries, and the educational achievement gap between children raised in single-parent and two-parent families, although present in many countries, is particularly pronounced in the United States. In a new article for Education Next, Ludger Woessmann from the University of Munich, examines data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to determine how the United States compares to other countries.

From 2000 to 2012, the share of 15-year-olds living in single-parent families increased from 18 to 21 percent in the United States as compared to 12 to 14 percent on average among the 28 studied industrialized countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  At the same time, the achievement gap between children from single-family and two-parent families in the United States is among the largest, at 27 points, comparable to one year’s worth of learning.

Disadvantages of growing up in single-parent families in the U.S. include lower educational attainment, greater psychological distress, and poor adult outcomes in areas such as employment, income, and marital status. “Such disadvantages have also been documented in other countries,” says Woessmann, “but cross-country evidence has been difficult to obtain, in part because of differing methods for measuring family structure and child outcomes.”  Therefore the PISA studies, which asked representative samples of 15-year-olds in participating countries the same questions about their living arrangements and tested them in the same achievement tests, provided Woessmann a unique opportunity to address this challenge.

Shares of single-parent families and achievement disparities differ widely across countries. Mexico, for example, shows no achievement difference by family structure. Belgium, Japan, and the Netherlands exhibit high achievement disparities, although single parenthood is not particularly prevalent in these countries. Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain stand out as countries with relatively low achievement disparities and relatively low prevalence of single parenthood. The German-speaking countries show low achievement disparities despite higher levels of single-parenthood.

Woessmann also finds that, while the achievement gap between students from single- and two-parent families increased by 33 percent from 13.6 to 18 percent on average across the OECD countries over the period, it declined in the United States, and by a large margin (29 percent).  However, the United States is still one of six countries with achievement differences larger than 25 points.

Woessmann concludes that “This variation in trends shows that achievement disparities by family structure are by no means destiny…Future research should investigate to what extent factors such as differing welfare systems, child support facilities, divorce regulations and other country characteristics may lie behind the differences in achievement gaps…across countries and over time.”

Read “An International Look at the Single-Parent Family: Family structure matters more for U.S. students,” available online now at https://www.educationnext.org, and in print in the Spring 2015 issue of Education Next, available in late February.

About the Authors

Ludger Woessmann is professor of economics at the University of Munich and director of the Ifo Center for the Economics of Education.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. For more information about Education Next, please visit: https://www.educationnext.org.

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