Family Effects

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Equality of Educational Opportunity (The Coleman Report*)

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.

Academic Variance

Essentially, the upper bound of how much of it (academic achievement) could be due to schools and how much of it could be due to families is simply explained by the analysis of variants. How much of the total variation in the test scores is within and is between schools. Since only twenty percent of it is between schools and eight percent of it is within schools, that’s an upper limit of how much difference the schools can be making. So it is mostly the family.

George Farkas, Professor of Sociology, Demography, and Education, Penn State. Source: COTC Interview (unpublished)

If Families Matter Most, Where Do Schools Come In?

Family variables account for 34 to 105 times as much variation as the school input variables do (There is a range of estimates because family variables account for different amounts of variation of different subject tests). Family variables account for 12 to 24 times as much variation as neighborhood variables (income educational attainment, and racial composition of school’s district population; region of the country) do. Put another way, family variables explain 11 to 14 times as much variation in student’s test scores as school inputs and neighborhood variables combined.

According to the estimates described above, a reform that improved family effects by 5% would probably do more for students’ outcomes than a reform that improved school effects by 70 percent. 

Caroline M. Hoxby, Department of Economics, Harvard University, A Primer on American Schools. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2001. Source:

Wide Disparities in Children’s Early Learning Foreshadow Unequal Test Scores

According to a first-ever study which tracked more than 2,300 young California children: “Parents and policymakers often blame the schools for the notorious achievement gap that divides children from rich and poor families,” said Dr. Margaret Bridges, the developmental psychologist who directed the study. “But we were surprised to discover that over 90 percent of the gap seen in eighth-grade math scores is already starkly apparent when these youngsters enter kindergarten.” 

Foundation News 9-04. David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Source:

The Mystery of Good Teaching

Research dating back to the 1966 release of Equality of Educational Opportunity (the “Coleman Report”) shows that student performance is only weakly related to school quality. The report concluded that students’ socioeconomic background was a far more influential factor.

More recently, researchers have sought to isolate teachers’ contribution to student performance and assess how much of their overall contribution can be associated with measurable teacher characteristics, such as experience and degree level. Economists Eric Hanushek, John Kain, and Steven Rivkin estimated that, at a minimum, variations in teacher quality account for 7.5 percent of the total variation in student achievement—a much larger share than any other school characteristic.

This estimate is similar to what my colleagues and I found: that 8.5 percent of the variation in student achievement is due to teacher characteristics. We found that the vast majority (about 60 percent) of the differences in student test scores are explained by individual and family background characteristics. All the influences of a school, including school-, teacher-, and class-level variables, both measurable and immeasurable, were found to account for approximately 21 percent of the variation in student achievement.

Dan Goldhaber, Senior Research Associate at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. (2002). Source:

Hearing on Fiscal Year 2006 Appropriations for the Administration for Children and Families

Our adolescent health study demonstrated that, of all factors in the adolescent’s health and development, the most important and significant was their interaction and their relationship with their family. Our study of infant day care indicates that the relationship with the mother and the family dwarfs all other impacts and is far more important than the experience of day care itself in terms of child development. So the role of the family is certainly as important as ever.

Sibling, Peer, Neighbor, & Schoolmate Correlations as Indicators of the Importance of Context for Adolescent Development

The data suggest that family-based factors are several times more powerful than neighborhood and school contexts in affecting adolescents’ achievement and behavior.

Duncan, Greg J., Boisjoly, J., Harris, KM., Demography – Volume 38, Number 3, August 2001, pp. 437-447. Source:

Capital at Home and at School: Effects on Child Social Adjustment

Findings suggest that although school capital effects are present, family social capital and maternal and child human capital effects are more prevalent. 

Toby L. Parcel1, Mikaela J. Dufur* Journal of Marriage and Family Volume 63 Issue 1 Page 32 – February 2001. Source:,+MIKAELA+J.