high school

Schools with high academic expectations of students and a strong culture of community and support to match (termed “academic press”) have been shown to narrow the achievement gap for students from low socio-economic backgrounds. But there are some things, such as family breakdown, they cannot easily compensate for.

New research shows that “students who have experienced repeated changes in their family structure status will be less successful academically when attending schools with higher levels of academic press.”

The study, by Shannon Cavanagh, a professor in The University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Sociology, and Paula Fomby, an assistant professor in the University of Colorado Denver’s Department of Sociology, shows that mitigating social disadvantage is not simply a matter of putting kids in a strong academic environment.

“While students in a high-academic press school, regardless of family instability histories, are higher achieving in terms of course-taking compared to their peers overall, students who have experienced repeated family structure changes lose some part of their advantage,” Cavanagh said. As such, Cavanagh and Fomby frame their results in terms of “lost gains.”

What policy-makers and educators should do about that is not altogether clear to the researchers. But it is one more indicator of a very large social problem needing to be addressed.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet