Politics & Policy

As the Family Goes, So Go the Public Schools

(Dreamstime image: Rido)
Understanding a paradox in Florida

When it comes to education, Florida faces a paradox: Its public schools are highly rated, but its students register just average scores and high suspension rates. The Urban Institute in a recent report finds that, when adjusted for demographics, Florida ranked in the top ten states for student performance in math and reading performance, although its unadjusted scores were slightly below average. Strong inputs, middling outcomes.

What gives?

The state of Florida’s families may help explain the paradox. Only 66 percent of Florida children live in married-parent homes; the state ranks 37th in that metric. Why would that affect student performance? Well, we know that children, especially boys, who are raised in single-parent homes are more likely to flounder in school and to end up suspended. And Florida has a greater share of children living in unmarried families than do most states in America.

In a new report, psychologist Nicholas Zill and I show that one of the strongest predictors of Florida high-school graduation rates, in counties across the state, is the share of public-school families headed by married parents. When we examine county trends, we find that family structure is a better predictor of graduation rates than is family income, race, or ethnicity in counties across the state. As indicated in the graph above, graduation rates rise four percentage points for every ten-percentage-point rise in the percentage of Florida families headed by married couples in counties across the Sunshine State.

We find that family structure is a strong predictor of student-suspension rates, too: the fewer the married families in a Florida county, the more suspensions. In fact, family structure is the most powerful predictor of student-suspension rates in the state in our models, outweighing parental education, family income, race, and ethnicity. Across the state’s 67 counties, the suspension rate is, on average, 3.5 points lower for every ten percentage points that the share of married-couple families is higher.

For skeptics of the claim that Florida’s families genuinely play a central role in the health of Florida’s schools, we note that a recent study from MIT economist David Autor and his colleagues provides additional evidence on this score. Autor et al. find that the boy–girl gap in high-school graduation, suspension, and absence rates in Florida is tied to family structure.

Specifically, they find that the gender gap between brothers and sisters in Florida is bigger in unmarried homes than in married homes. In summarizing the research, Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times explained that lower-income boys in the state are more likely to be living in homes “led by single mothers, and boys suffer from a lack of male role models.”

This is not to say that other factors — for example, poverty, racism, and lower levels of parental education — do not also help explain Florida’s educational outcomes. In our report, for instance, we demonstrate that parental education is the strongest predictor of high-school graduation rates. And, in Florida, parental education is below the national average. So, a range of socioeconomic factors that affect students outside the classroom would seem to be implicated in Florida’s middling performance.

The research on Florida’s families and schools, then, suggests that educational leaders, policy reformers, and business leaders who are interested in boosting the fortunes of Florida’s schools need to look beyond the classroom. In trying to tackle the Florida paradox — high-performance schools, middling student outcomes — they also need to think about how Florida’s families may be putting the Sunshine State’s children at a relative disadvantage. That would mean devoting more attention not only to strengthening state schools but also to strengthening Florida’s families.

W. Bradford Wilcox is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Isabel Sawhill is a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and a former co-director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings.

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