Editor’s Note: The following post is excerpted from a new report released today by the Institute for Family Studies.

Fifty years ago, what later became known as the Coleman Report upended much of the conventional wisdom at that time about American education. Many scholars, educators, and policymakers at the time assumed that the quality, character, and spending of schools mattered most in predicting children’s outcomes. But sociologist James Coleman and his colleagues’ 737-page report commissioned by the U.S. Office of Education, Equality of Educational Opportunity, challenged the assumption that schools’ influence was paramount. Instead, the Coleman 
report found that children’s family backgrounds—their parents’ education, income, and family structure—were more powerful predictors of school success than the quality, character, and spending of their schools.1

Although contemporary research has detailed a range of ways in which schools actually make a difference for children’s education,2 it also lends confirmation to Coleman’s conclusion that the family is very influential in shaping student success and behavior in school. Parental education and income matter, insofar as parents with more education and income have the resources to pick better neighborhoods, expose their children to more books and rich cultural experiences, feel more confident about involving themselves in parent-teacher-organization (PTO) groups, and get their children into higher-quality private and public schools.3 Family structure also matters, given that intact, two-parent families are more likely to provide children with the stability, intellectual stimulation, economic resources, attention, and consistent discipline they need to thrive in school.4

A new Institute for Family Studies report, Strong Families, Successful Schools, focuses on the relationship between family structure and student success in counties across Florida. It is particularly timely because new research from MIT economist David Autor and his colleagues has recently spotlighted the connection between family structure and school performance in the Sunshine State. In fact, their study of more than one million Florida children indicates that poor boys, more than poor girls, are hit particularly hard by family breakdown. After comparing brothers and sisters from father-absent homes, Autor and his colleagues concluded that the “boy-girl gap in suspensions is far smaller in families where children are born to married parents” and that the gender gap in high-school graduation is smaller for children whose parents are married than for children in single-mother homes.5 Autor told The New York Times: “Boys particularly seem to benefit more from being in a married household or committed household—with the time, attention and income that brings.”6

The share of families headed by married couples is a more powerful predictor of high school graduation and school suspension rates than are income, race, and ethnicity in Florida.

Unlike Autor’s work, however, Strong Families, Successful Schools focuses not on the association between family structure and individual children’s educational outcomes in Florida, but on
the links between family structure and school performance at the collective level, in this case, counties across Florida. We hypothesize that counties with more married families enjoy higher levels of parental engagement, better parental discipline, and more parental involvement in PTO groups, all factors that would likely redound to the social and educational benefit of children in these counties. This report, in particular, explores three questions:

  1. What is the relationship between county-level differences in family structure and current high school graduation rates at the county level in Florida, after controlling for education, income, race/ethnicity, and population size at the county level?
  2. What is the relationship between county-level differences in family structure and recent increases/decreases in high school graduation rates (from 2011 to 2015), net of controls for county-level sociodemographic factors?
  3. What is the relationship between county-level differences in family structure and school suspension rates in counties across Florida, net of controls for county-level sociodemographic factors?

Strong Families, Successful Schools finds that the share of married parent families in a county is one of the strongest predictors of high school graduation rates in the 67 counties across Florida, as well as recent growth in high school graduation rates in the Sunshine State. The share of married families also is the strongest predictor of county school suspension rates in Florida in our models. Moreover, the share of families headed by married couples is a more powerful predictor of high school graduation and school suspension rates than are income, race, and ethnicity in Florida—factors that tend to get more attention in media and policy circles. The report also finds that parental education is the best predictor of county high school graduation rates in Florida, according to our models.

Continue reading the full report  or download it here .  .  .


1. James Coleman et al., Equality of Educational Opportunity (Washington, DC: National Center for Educational Statistics, 1966); See also Anna J. Egalite, “How Family Background Influences Student Achievement,” EducationNext 16, no. 2 (2016): 71-78; and Ben Wattenberg, The First Measured Century, “ The Moynihan Report: When Politics and Sociology Collide,” PBS, 2000.

2. Steven G. Rivkin et al., “Teachers, Schools, and Academic Achievement,” Econometrica 73, no. 2 (2005): 417-458; Spyros Konstantopoulos, “Trends of school effects on student achievement: Evidence from NLS:72, HSB:82, and NELS:92,” Teachers College Record 108, no. 12 (2006): 2550–2581.

3. Egalite, “How Family Background Influences Student Achievement,” 72; Nicole Garcia Hernandez, “ The Parental Readiness and Empowerment Program (PREP) and its Effects on Parent Advocacy for Their Children” (master’s thesis, San Diego State University, 2013); Ariel Kalil et al., “Diverging Destinies: Maternal Education and Investments in Children,” Demography 49, no. 4 (2012): 1361- 1383; Barbara Schneider and James Coleman (Eds.), Parents, Their Children, and Schools (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996).

4. Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, Growing Up With a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1994); Nicholas Zill, “Family Change and Student Achievement: What We Have Learned, What It Means for Schools,” in Family-school Links: How Do They Affect Educational Outcomes?, ed. Alan Booth and Judith F. Dunn (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1996).

5. David Autor et al., Family Disadvantage and the Gender Gap in Behavioral and Educational Outcomes (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Institute for Policy Research, 2015).

6. Claire Cain Miller, “A Disadvantaged Start Hurts Boys More Than Girls,” The New York Times, October 22, 2015.