Education has 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. 

But while this new study finds no linkage between lost academic potential and students’ physical health and no significant linkage between such lost potential and students’ being bullied, it returns clear evidence that students are especially likely to come up short of their educational potential if their parents have divorced. Using a simple two-variable analysis, the researchers calculate that such students are half again more likely to forfeit some of their educational potential than are students from intact families (Odds Ratio of 1.50). Using their more sophisticated multivariable analysis which accounts for background variables, the researchers see the risk of lost educational potential climb even higher for students of divorced parents (Odds Ratio of 1.60).

Curiously, the researchers comment only obliquely on the parental-divorce finding in their conclusion, where they acknowledge that “stressful life events seem more likely to affect school careers than physical health.” Surely, the researchers are justified when they assert in their conclusion that, “in order to promote equal opportunities for children to achieve their educational potential, it is important that schools support . . . children that cope with stressful life events.”  

But if progressives are sincere in their devotion to the shrines of education, they will want not only to support children coping with the stress that inevitably accompanies parental divorce but also to prevent the divorces that cause the stress in the first place. For as long as parental divorce remains common, many of the children who experience it will underperform in school. The critical question is, then, whether progressives are sufficiently committed to their faith in education that they will finally withdraw their unthinking support for the education-subverting rituals of the divorce court.  

Bryce J. Christensen is Senior Editor of The Natural Family, A Journal of Public Policy, published by The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society. Republished with permission. Nicole M. King is the Managing Editor of The Family in America.