Strong Families, Strong Citizens

How do intact families and stable homes directly contribute to the making of good citizens?  Is there a direct correlation?  If so, how do you measure it?  These questions have rightly impacted vast amounts of social research for the last half century, but none more so than a now largely forgotten major study that deserves to be resurrected since it was first released more than a half-century ago.

Over the Fourth of July weekend in 1966, a powerful, path-breaking study by the highly-regarded sociologist James Coleman titled “Equality of Educational Opportunity” was released.  It came to be known simply as the Coleman Report because it was so widely written about, debated, embraced or rejected, depending on one’s point of view.  As with so many academic studies, even the most important ones, it was eventually forgotten and seemed to dissipate as so much mist over the ocean.

I ran across the Coleman Report while I was doing related reading on another study, the famous Moynihan Report, which had been released exactly a year earlier, in July 1965. I wrote an extensive piece on the Moynihan report for Citizen in 2016. That report traced the causes and impact of out-of-wedlock births in the American family.  The Coleman and Moynihan studies are complementary, and are as relevant and timely today as any two studies written about the parlous state of family, marriage, and parenting over the course of the last half-century.

Coleman and his colleagues conducted a deep-dive study on 600,000 primary and secondary students attending more than 3,000 public schools. The questions the researchers were exploring were student achievement and the educational outcomes of the schools they attended.

By the mid-1960s, it was an almost uncontested view that the more money the government spent on a school, the higher the students’ educational attainment would be; conversely, the less government funding, the lower the outcomes would be. President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society explosion of federal spending was underway by the time the Coleman Report was released, and record amounts of federal taxpayer dollars would be pouring into public schools across the country over the course of the next decade.

The nation’s expectation was that America was on the cusp of unsurpassed educational achievement, and more federal dollars would contribute to higher and better school outcomes.

The Coleman Study not only exploded that myth, but also came to some even more powerful and sobering conclusions about the central role of the families of the students in those schools.

What Money Can’t Buy

Coleman and his colleagues found that the absolute best indicator of how a school would perform was not in fact the amount of funding it received, but rather the intactness or brokenness of the families of the kids who attended those schools. Strong neighborhoods and communities also placed a central role. Increased spending could do lots of things: fund remarkable new school buildings; increase teacher and administrator salaries; pay for expensive new labs, books, and other educative materials.

But what exponentially more spending could not do was save marriages, repair broken parenting, or keep families intact through the critically important primary and secondary years, which had the most direct impact on how those student not only performed in schools but also fared in life once the school years came to a close.

“One implication stands out above all: That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school,” the authors concluded.

If there is a major educational study that more conclusively demonstrates the direct link between the foundational necessity of strong families for the making of successful students, I am unsure what it is. The findings Coleman research group’s findings were unmistakably clear: the quality of kids’ family lives are central to their achievement and a much more important and accurate predictor than the amount of government money individual schools or school systems receive. In the main, kids from strong, intact families had predictably stronger educational outcomes, while kids from weaker or failing families did not. Money was not the arbiter; strong families were.

The irony is that the results of the Coleman Report, released over that holiday weekend when the majority of Americans were not paying attention to the news trickling out of Washington during the height of summer, were intended to be ignored because it did not buttress what Johnson and the Great Society supporters were seeking to achieve: a larger and more expansive role for federal involvement in the schools.

No Time Like the Present

Johnson had reason to be optimistic about his big government goals: He won 44 states in the 1964 presidential election against Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater; a whopping 68 Democratic seats in the U.S. Senate, a significant majority, favored the White House’s domestic policy trajectory; and 155 seats in the House of Representatives were now of the president’s party.

Combined with a booming economy that sent huge amounts of tax monies flowing into Washington as never before, and the public’s mostly categorical faith in big government’s ability to achieve massive national goals, there was very little attention paid to social science—which found that healthy families, more than higher spending, were better barometers of how students performed in school, and in life after school had become a distant memory. Family emphasis in a progressive-
confident era seemed redolent of bygone days.

As standardized tests, year after year, confirmed that funding did not necessarily equal higher achievement, one would have thought there would have been a more vigorous and renewed bipartisan defense of the need for stronger families because, after all, it was supposed to be about the kids’ well-being. But that only happened at the margins. Future debates devolved into spats over teachers unions, dysfunctional broken cities, and a host of other important issues—but rarely was the fate and state of family strength or weakness put at the center of the educational debate.

We have now entered an era in which the disintegration and decay of the natural, nuclear family among some key demographics is so common and widespread in America that any discussion about educational outcomes relative to family strength or weakness sometimes seems beside the point. Whereas the Moynihan Report in 1965 found that 23.6 percent of African Americans were born to unwed mothers, that number today is 71 percent. In fact, almost half of all births in America are to unmarried women. A majority of mothers under the age of 30 do not live in the same home as the biological fathers of their children. 

To be fair, even the best social science is sometimes unclear about what actually causes family breakdown. What is not enshrouded, however, are the consequences for children who come from homes with absent dads: lower education achievement; lower lifetime earnings potential; a higher likelihood of experiencing poverty; and the all too predictable probability of their own troubled marriages (if they choose to marry at all) and the likelihood of experiencing their own out-of-wedlock births.

Chaotic families, chaotic neighborhoods and chaotic school environments cannot be remedied with larger amounts of taxpayer funding. Schools do not, by and large. cure social disintegration or disaffection; they reflect it, and they point toward a future of troubled citizens in the rising generation of young Americans who carry untold burdens and sclerosis of an emotional nature into adulthood arising from dysfunctional upbringings.

Upward social mobility finds its genesis largely in families that provide stability and continuity, even as schools and those who teach and administer in them often work valiantly and tirelessly to do all they can to help the children. What the sociologist Nicholas Eberstadt refers to as the troubling “social epidemiology of 21st-century America” has its taproots in the troubling trend lines uncovered in the Coleman Report of more than 50 years ago. It is a lesson we ignore at our own peril.

The 18th-century British writer Dr. Samuel Johnson, a life-long skeptic of encroaching government in his own time, once cannily observed, “How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure.”

What happens in the hallways of our homes is often more effective or more destructive for the next generation of American citizens than what happens in the halls of power or the public arena. The irony of 21st-century progressivism is that it is often regressive, advocating for more government spending as a panacea for our most important social maladies. What we really need instead is a rejuvenated national commitment to the restoration, preservation, and strengthening of families and parenting. In that way lies national renewal evidenced in the bedrock institutions of marriage, community, church and work.

Valorizing intact, stable families should be central to our domestic public policy. It’s time for a national reassessment of what actually works and what doesn’t. The Coleman Report deserves to have the dust shaken off because it conclusively demonstrates the unbreakable and steadfast relationship between the social stability of families and the upward mobility of the young people who will become tomorrow’s citizens. 

These young people are half of our population of 329 million but 100 percent of our future.

Originally published in the June 2017 issue of Citizen magazine.
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