Education , Culture & the Family

Wendy Warcholik, Ph.D. | April 9, 2014

Family Intactness, Parental Participation, and Student Performance

Wendy Warcholik, Ph.D.

When President Obama was interviewed by Bill O’Reilly of FOX News, O’Reilly made the statement that poverty is driven by the dissolution of the American family. He specifically asked the president, “Why isn’t there a campaign by you and the First Lady to address this very explicitly?”

President Obama pushed back that he has indeed mentioned the importance of families in at least 10 speeches since becoming president. As a black, married man with children, the president has a tremendous opportunity to change the dialogue about our cultural ills. Instead of just lobbying for more spending for broadband Internet in schools or universal pre-K to help America’s children, the president should heed O’Reilly’s advice and advance a national dialogue about the importance of marriage.

According to a joint project between Princeton University and The Brookings Institution called Fragile Families, in 2006, 75 percent of black children were born to unmarried mothers. Black fathers are missing in action, and this absence is one of the greatest drivers of the failure of inner-city schools to effectively educate the children in poor neighborhoods. Bill Cosby and the Democratic mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, are among the successful black males that have publicly addressed the problem. Research by Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation shows that if the inactive father becomes a participant in the household, 80 percent of those families in poverty would no longer be impoverished.

Children bring their personal struggles and frustrations to school with them. When you fill a room with angry, frustrated children, effective learning and comprehension are significantly impaired. Journalists at the Tulsa World recently wrote a series of articles addressing the challenges teachers and children face in one of Tulsa’s failing public schools. Oklahoma’s A-F grading system identified 36 schools in the district to receive an F in 2013, and this series of articles examined one of these failing schools: Hawthorne Elementary School.

Tulsa Public Schools has 36 “F” schools and 44 schools where more than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-rate school meals. At Hawthorne Elementary, 94 percent of students qualify for these programs. According to one of the articles, “Teachers, low-wage support staff, and PTA members spend money out of their own pockets to buy warm coats, gloves, socks, underwear, and even toiletries for kids in need.”

Coupled with the poverty in this neighborhood is a high incidence of crime and violence. For the children at Hawthorne, this means that many of them have relatives who have been violently assaulted or killed. Many have parents that have been arrested and have been or currently are in jail. A pre-K teacher at Hawthorne said that in a reading of “The Three Little Pigs”—in which a pig died when the wolf ate him, and the wolf was caught and sent to jail—one child said, “My dad’s in jail for shooting someone.” Another student said, “My dad is dead.” Recently, faculty members recognized a man on Tulsa’s “Most Wanted” list as the father of one of their students.

According to Hawthorne’s principal, the most horrifying thing that she has dealt with is a fifth grade boy who was prostituting himself to men to bring extra money home for his family of 10 children that lives in a two-bedroom apartment. Hawthorne’s principal remarks about the boy’s family, “All of the kids in the family have special needs and serious behavior issues. Three of them were sent to foster homes or group homes because of behavior problems.”

Former Heritage Foundation scholar Patrick Fagan, now of the Family Research Council, testified last year in House Speaker T.W. Shannon’s interim study on “how to reform Oklahoma means-tested welfare programs so as to improve the health of the nuclear family.” In his testimony, Fagan reported on household income, which is an important proxy for economic activity and human capital formation. Human capital formation is driven by the labor activity of the head of the household, and our future economic growth and human capital are determined by America’s children.

Dr. Fagan stated that, of those households with children, it is married intact households which have the highest median income. The lowest median income is in those households where marriage has never occurred.


With regard to the relationship between marriage and educational outcomes, children from intact families have higher GPAs in English and math, as you can see in the nearby chart.

Further, Dr. Fagan finds in his “Index of Family Belonging and Rejection” that family intactness is very influential on high school graduation rates. It influences high school graduation rates more than does the fraction of adult college graduates in an area. Further, he finds that family intactness and the fraction of adult high school graduates in an area have similar beneficial influences on prime-age male employment rates.

In the series of Tulsa World articles, teachers do stress that the significant lack of funds available for curriculum obviously impairs the children’s ability to succeed. However, their greatest challenge in trying to create a hospitable learning environment is the children’s behavior issues. The lack of concern and involvement from Hawthorne parents is overwhelming.

Hawthorne’s counselor recently visited the homes of parents of 15 students because they “weren’t responding to repeated phone calls over the course of three weeks about the possibility of their children having special education needs.” Chronic absenteeism is common, with many parents not even assuring their kids get to school.

According to one article, which mentions a fifth-grader who is student body president and two second-graders with perfect attendance who were recently named to the honor roll, “The active PTA members’ children are proof positive that kids can not only succeed but can flourish academically, even in an F school.”

School faculty’s focus on incorporating children’s family into the curriculum on a regular basis is crucial to marked academic improvement. Hawthorne held its first Donut with Dads event and had 120 dads attend. In its first-ever honor roll assembly, teachers were elated at the 100-plus in attendance. Given that the school hadn’t engaged parents before this to publicly share in the success of their children is disappointing, but the fact that the faculty recognizes the importance of this involvement is the first step toward improvement.

Increases in per pupil spending will never affect the academic outcomes of students like the encouragement and active participation of their parents in their learning. Hawthorne’s new principal seems to recognize the importance of engaging parents. We can only hope that her colleagues in the 35 other “F” schools take notice and phone her for advice.

OCPA research fellow Wendy P. Warcholik (Ph.D., George Mason University) formerly served as an economist at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, and was the chief forecasting economist for the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Department of Medical Assistance Services. She is a co-creator (with J. Scott Moody) of the Tax Foundation’s popular “State Business Tax Climate Index.” She blogs at

Wendy Warcholik, Ph.D.

OCPA Research Fellow

Wendy P. Warcholik (Ph.D., George Mason University) is an OCPA research fellow. She formerly served as an economist at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, and was the chief forecasting economist for the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Department of Medical Assistance Services. She is a co-creator (with J. Scott Moody) of the Tax Foundation’s popular “State Business Tax Climate Index.”

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