News and Noteworthy

Children falling short in school? Blame parental break-ups

Posted on Wednesday, April 25, 2018

When family life fails, so too do students

Nicole M. King and Bryce J. Christensen

This article was published April 18, 2018, at


Educationhas established itself as a god term in progressive circles. Name any problem whatever—from global warming to grade-school bullying—and progressives will begin to genuflect and burn incense before the shrines of education, certain that academe can save us. Their solo fide progressive credo blocks from view the way that educational attainment actually depends on family life. After all, progressive ideology typically rests on a secularized individualism that defines family life as little more than an unfortunate constraint on individual liberty.

Still, from time to time social science unsettles progressives’ faith in education by adducing evidence that when family life fails, so too do students. The latest evidence that academic success depends on strong family life comes from Dutch researchers trying to explain why some students fall short of the educational potential predicted for them by standardized tests. These researchers begin their inquiry supposing that when students do not realize their academic potential, perhaps health problems are to blame. But their study uncovers no evidence implicating health issues as the reason students tumble short of their educational potential. Instead, evidence surfaces clearly identifying parental divorce as a significant reason that students do not realize their potential.

Affiliated with the University of Groningen, Utrecht University, and the Netherlands’ National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, the authors of the new study “recogniz[e] that educational achievement has far-reaching consequences for health later in life,” consequences reflected in data indicating that “in the Netherlands, as in other countries, life expectancy increases with attained level of education.” The researchers accordingly regard it as a matter of “great importance, both for their future socio-economic position and for their later health, that children complete the level of education that matches their abilities (their educational potential).”

But a significant number of Dutch students do not reach their educational potential. Suspecting that “health-related factors” may be a prime reason for such educational shortfalls, the researchers set out hoping to illuminate these factors. By helping public-health officials to identify these findings, the researchers hope that they “may facilitate the development of interventions that create a breakthrough in the vicious circle of poorer health status affecting educational achievement affecting health status later in life.”

To identify the factors preventing students from reaching their potential, the Dutch scholars parse data collected for 1,519 children born in various parts of the Netherlands in 1996-1997 and tracked since then. Naturally, the researchers focus especially on the approximately one in seven (13.6%) of students who have come up short of their academic potential, as measured through standardized testing.

Not surprisingly, the researchers conclude that students manifesting attention disorders and those using alcohol, tobacco, and drugs appear significantly less successful in reaching their educational potential than do peers without such issues. But the researchers themselves may have been surprised that they detect “no evidence that physical health contributes to discrepancies between the potential and attained level of secondary education.” Elaborating, the researchers remark, “None of the indicators of physical health included in the study (general health, number of illness-days in the last 2 months, asthma, regular headaches or migraine, and fatigue) were associated with discrepancies between the [standardized test] score [assessing educational potential] and the level of secondary education actually attended 3 years later.”

Given the amount of attention that bullying has received as a problem in schools, the research findings on this matter likewise may have surprised the researchers. For although the researchers do establish a linkage between students’ being bullied and their falling short of educational potential in their simple two-variable analysis, that linkage falls below the threshold of statistical significance in their multivariable analysis accounting for background variables such as parental education, students’ gender, and students’ substance use.

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