Single-Parent Families and Educational Achievement: The Tragedy of Welfare

Project TALENT, a government-funded study that tracked the development of 364,000 high school students from 1960-1971, reported significant differences in the academic performance and adult achievement between children who were raised by an unmarried mother in a fatherless home and children who were raised by two biological parents.

The results were independent of race and socioeconomic status. They were similar for Black and White students. [1,8] A second study assessed 3rd-grade boys and noted consistently superior performance of boys in father-present homes compared to father-absent peers. [2] Several studies quantified the difference as one-tenth of a year for every year spent in a single-parent home. [3]

A third study reported increased behavioral and disciplinary problems as well as school dropouts among single-parent students. The effects on social and intellectual development were more pronounced on boys. [1,4,5,8] The results have been replicated in studies across the globe. Sexual promiscuity, depression, drug abuse and pregnancy rather than delinquency, violent crime and incarceration occurred with alarming frequency in girls.

Despite compelling evidence of the damaging effects of fatherless families on intellectual development, clinically demonstrable by an absence of curiosity and a diminished response to stimulation in five-and six-month old infants and lower IQ in school-age children, the federal government ignored the data and the dire warnings in the Moynihan Report.

“The Negro Family: A Case for National Action,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 landmark report, warned that the deep roots of poverty lay in the absence of nuclear families, not of jobs, and the government’s proposed national welfare program would greatly exacerbate the problem. [7]  Instead of heeding the warning, President Johnson institutionalized family breakdown as the Great Society.

An avalanche of welfare programs emerged with the destructive consequences Moynihan predicted. Today, more than 1,600,000 infants are born out of wedlock annually in the US (1,714,643 in 2007), a number which represents 41% of the total number of births. By contrast, the rate in 1960 was a mere 5%. [5] The results have had profound effects on the national culture and on academic proficiency, particularly on minority populations.

The results of student performance on international tests will illustrate the magnitude of the effects. The Programme for International Student Assessment (known as PISA) tests the competence of fifteen-year old students in mathematics, science and reading, with an emphasis on mathematics. It is given every three years to members of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development. 510,000 students from 65 OECD countries were assessed in 2012, representing 28 million 15-year olds.

PISA also gathers data about the students’ family, socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic background. The data reveal the United States has the highest percentage of students raised in single mother homes among all the nations that participate. In 2012, it was 28% for the US, 8% for Japan and 3% for Greece and South Korea.  The latter three nations ranked higher than the US in all subjects. [5,6]

The United States ranked 20th in math on PISA 2000. That year, 18% of the students were from single-parent homes. On the more recent 2012 assessment, the US ranked 36th. The percentage without fathers was 28%, an increase of more than 50%. [6]

Across the industrialized world, nations with high rates of illegitimacy had lower PISA rankings than the nations with low rates of illegitimacy like Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei and India. Raw data were repeatedly adjusted for factors such as race, socioeconomic status, language spoken at home, immigrant status and the parents’ level of education. From the writer’s perspective, this served to minimize the striking differences observed and to discount the effects of fatherlessness on performance.

The differences, however, are independent of such background factors as demonstrated by the remarkable achievements of the offspring of non-English-speaking Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century, graduates of Dunbar High School, the nation’s first all-Black public high school, until the mid-20th century and non-English-speaking immigrants from Viet Nam, China, Taiwan, Japan and India whose children continue to outperform their peers.

Although their families were poor, over 90% of these children grew up in traditional two-parent homes. The determinative factor for the differences in performance observed in PISA was a father.

Welfare institutionalizes fatherlessness. The monthly stream of checks and services insinuate the State into the place of the traditional breadwinner. But federal programs cannot fill the critical role of an actual father as PISA and prison populations demonstrated.

Welfare has led to the intergenerational transmission of fatherlessness. The phenomenon is most striking among African-Americans. 53% of Black children are raised in single-parent homes. [8]  In the absence of the father, our civilized society has begun to disappear. Just look at Detroit, Chicago and any jail or prison, cities and institutions with significant single-parent, minority populations. [4]

The nation is at risk. Preventive steps should be taken now to reverse this trend. The public should be educated about the effects of out of wedlock births. Politicians, educators and clergymen should be educated as well.

The almost 200 separate welfare programs need to be cut in half, at a bare minimum. The anti-marriage bias that penalizes couples when they marry (by taxing their combined income) should be removed and a marriage credit issued instead.

Reforms such as loans instead of cash grants should be implemented. Mandatory minimum work requirements and maximum length of benefits should be re-instituted. California currently awards welfare benefits to single mothers until their child reaches 18.  Most importantly, efforts should be made to preserve marriage rather than encourage divorce, perhaps by strengthening overly lax divorce laws.

Precocious sexuality, promiscuity and out of wedlock pregnancy should be discouraged by as many avenues as possible. The cost of illegitimacy should be the topic of sermons in every house of worship. The recovery of shame (an internal governor of human behavior) would be transformative.

Male teachers, coaches and tutors for girls would be both helpful and therapeutic in these efforts. They would make appropriate father surrogates and provide a corrective emotional experience for young women desperately in need of such role models.

Illegitimacy stands at historic highs; marriage and academic achievement of America’s youth, at historic lows. This trend must be reversed.

There are certainly examples of children raised in single-parent who have achieved great success such as Dr. Benjamin Carson or Oprah Winfrey. These are typically bright, gifted or talented children with unusually strong, proud mothers or grandmothers. The majority who lack these endowments or caretakers achieve little to no success.

A national tragedy merits a national conversation. Welfare and public education are fraternal twins born of the same bad political seed. Both are in need of reform. Let us continue the discussion in homes and churches and in the national media.

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About the Author: R. Claire Friend, MD, is the Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, UC Irvine Medical Center, and the editor of the UC Irvine Quarterly Journal of Psychiatry. She is a retired psychiatrist and frequent commentator on the psychological dimensions of education and social welfare policies.

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(2)  Bain, H. Academic Achievement and Locus of Control in Father-Absent Elementary School Childr, School Psychology International,1983: 4, 69-68

(3)  Krein, S. and Beller, A., Educational Attainment of Children from Single-Parent Families, Demography, 1988, 25: 221-234






(9)  Personal communications with psychoanalyst William S. Horowitz, MD.

(10)  The primary reason for concern is the California’s liberal welfare eligibility criteria and total benefits that incentivize illegitimacy. Not unsurprisingly, the state ranks 49th in academic performance, bested only by Arkansas. Of the 503,738 babies born in California in 2013, 494, 705 were born out of wedlock. To put those numbers in better perspective in terms of the state’s future academic performance, the total number of students enrolled in kindergarten in California in 2010 was 410,000.

American Public Education – At the Bottom of the Class

Prior to the focus on self-esteem rather than academics in the education curriculum, California always ranked highest in the nation on student achievement tests. Today, California ranks close to the bottom. In the words of a wag, so goes California, so goes the nation. His insightful admonition has come to pass.

US 15-year old students significantly underperform their peers from every country in the world, even in reading. Being 32nd is not much better than being dead last, 34th (among OECD nations). Only Mexico and Turkey rank below the United States. The PISA results are mirrored in every international assessment of achievement.

For the world’s only super power, this is a national disgrace. Recent surveys found that 75% of freshmen in 2-yr and 40% in 4-yr colleges require remediation. Our students get a high school diploma at the end of 12th grade, but they don’t get the education that entitles them to the credential. College graduates in 2013 could not pass an exam 8th graders took in 1895 or 1912 to qualify for admission to high school.  [1], [2]

There are many reasons for the failures of the massive education apparatus, starting with its size and its centralization. In the United States, education is controlled by unions, politics and multiculturalism. The Three R’s have been replaced by radical indoctrination and social revisionism.

Text books are deliberately dumbed down to erase differences in intellect and prevent possible injury to students’ self-esteem and narcissism. Teachers lack qualifications. 40% of math teachers lack a minor in mathematics. 51% of chemistry and physics teachers lack a minor in their discipline. Might this be a reason why high school seniors are illiterate and innumerate or why American students scored worst in class on PISA or TIMMS?

Cai Yuanpei, founder of modern education in China, warned his nation’s leaders to keep out. Education must be above politics. They wisely heeded his counsel as did those in Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong. Today, their students are the best in the world. In the United States, education is the handmaiden of politics.

Teachers’ unions control education. Education systems in other countries are responsive to failures in practice or policy. Tenure does not protect the unqualified. Administrators are limited to the absolutely essential. Teachers and personnel are hired on merit, not government mandate. The results speak for themselves.

After a six-year study of 270,000 students found a striking difference in performance in students in single-sex schools and those in coeducational schools, a shift toward more all-girls and all-boys schools occurred. When the data were replicated in South Korea and China, similar shifts were made. Those responsive changes are mirrored in the PISA scores.
Title IX legislation in 1972 made coeducation in public schools a national mandate. Single-sex public schools became illegal. Studies demonstrate females in single-sex schools outperform girls in coed schools. Similar to the psychological constraint brothers often have on their sisters, male students inhibit achievement of their female classmates.

Barnard College in NY has graduated more female physicians and chemistry professors than any college in the country. Black and Hispanic girls at The Young Women’s Leadership Academy in East Harlem outperform every student in New York on the State Regents’ Exam. Females account for 51% of the population and 60% of college students. An increase in single-sex public schools and colleges and in charter schools would be of enormous benefit to huge numbers of students and to the country. Every incremental increase in PISA scores translates into a significant increase in our national GDP.
President Obama has advocated a new program to transform public education for the 21st century. Deceptively called the Common Core State Standards Initiative, it represents the attempt by the federal government to nationalize public education, a move it is prohibited from making by the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Provisions Act, the 1970 General Education and Provisions Act and the 1979 Department of Education Organization Act.

Developed by two federally-funded private consortia who wrote the curriculum standards and performance assessments in mathematics and English Language Arts, the content lowers the standards of the nation’s highest performing states.
Massachusetts has consistently been the nation’s highest ranking state on annual National Assessment of Education Performance exams since 2005. It has also ranked among the highest on global assessments of academic performance, scoring fourth in reading, seventh in science and tenth in math. Its scores have plummeted since the implementation of the common score-sub standards.

By way of comparison, the United States ranked 24th in reading, 36th in mathematics and 28th in science on the 2012 PISA assessments among the 34 OECD countries and 31 partner countries whose students competed in the exams. [3]
Where do we go from here? There is a critical point in nuclear fission beyond which it is impossible to reverse the process. In failing Liberty, William Damon said the survival of a democracy depends upon an informed citizenry. As the PISA results have demonstrated, we have an un-informed and un-educated citizenry that will become more so with Common Core, a topic we will address at greater length in a separate article.

The United States has reached a critical point. If Common Core is implemented in all US public schools as the national education policy, we risk any hope of having an educated citizenry. It behooves everyone to make certain that does not happen.

About the Author:  R. Claire Friend, MD, is the Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, UC Irvine Medical Center, and the editor of the UC Irvine Quarterly Journal of Psychiatry. She is a retired psychiatrist and frequent commentator on the psychological dimensions of education and social welfare policies.





Deasy and Duffy: The Dinosaurs Amongst Us

School district and teacher union leaders need to embrace serious education reform or go the way of the Stegosaurus.

My post last week concerned itself with the fact that some or even many teachers might lose their jobs come June due to the dire financial straits in which many school districts find themselves. The Los Angeles Unified School District alone sent Reduction in Force (RIF) notices to over 4,000 teachers, advising them that they may be laid off at the end of this school year. I made the point that many of the cutbacks would not have been necessary had the districts not over-hired in the first place.

Upon hearing the news of the RIF notices, John Deasy, the man who very shortly will take over as LAUSD Superintendent, whined, “The state of California does not support children. Period.” This ridiculous statement was a response to the fact that out of necessity, the legislators in Sacramento – hardly a flinty bunch – will be making cuts in education spending.

Then A.J. Duffy, president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the second largest local teachers union in the country, came out with a statement which outdoes Deasy’s. “UTLA is here to speak in favor of our students. Our children get one shot at a good education. Every time class sizes are raised … you put a dagger in the heart of public education.” (Actually, union leaders know a thing or two about putting “a dagger in the heart of public education” — they have been lacerating public education for years by fighting against every kind of meaningful education reform.)

What Deasy, Duffy and their ilk refuse to acknowledge is that there are other ways to address budgetary issues in education. For example, reformers have repeatedly pointed out the tremendous benefits of giving parents a real choice of where to send their kids to school. In Sweden, parents choose a school that’s right for their child — public or private — and tax money earmarked for education follows the child. In fact, the Swedish system is working so well that even the Socialists are in favor of the privatization aspect! This type of competitive system substantially lowers costs, saves teachers’ jobs and dramatically improves the quality of education. Our antiquated system has the state sending money for every child to government run schools and then sentences the children to attend them.

The current “let’s throw more money into education no matter the results” days are numbered. A look at an internationally standardized test, the results of which were released a couple of months ago, gets right to the heart of the matter. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures educational achievement, was jointly administered to 15-year-olds in schools around the world. The U.S. came in 23rd – the middle of the pack – with a performance indistinguishable from Poland, Ireland, Norway, France and several other countries.

In the March 2011 issue of Reason Magazine, Veronique de Rugy addresses the PISA results. While the American 15-year-olds’ performance is mediocre, American education spending is right at the top. “With the exception of Switzerland, the U.S. spends the most in the world on education, an average of $91,700 per student in the nine years between the ages of 6 and 15. But the results do not correlate: For instance, we spend one-third more per student than Finland, which consistently ranks near the top in science, reading, and math.”

In another example of more money not translating to better educated students, she uses information from the National Center for Educational Statistics which shows that since 1970, education spending has tripled (in constant dollars) while reading, math and science scores have remained flat.

De Rugy goes on to say that increased spending typically translates to hiring more teachers. In fact, “…the number of students per teacher in U.S. public schools fell from 17.4 in 1990 to 15.7 in 2007.” Again, there was no increase in educational outcomes.

The bottom line is that throwing more and more money at a public school system which is barely treading water is the path to educational mediocrity and financial ruin. The alternative is getting serious about real education reform – most importantly by giving parents a choice as to where they can spend their education dollars. Only then will any significant change occur.

At that point, we will see the Deasys and the Duffys of the world follow their dinosaur ancestors into extinction.

About the author: Larry Sand is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan,non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.