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Of single parents and educational success: Publication with NEPS data gains award

Children of single fathers have the lowest educational success – this (in brief) is one of the results that Wolfgang Ludwig-Mayerhofer, Nico Stawarz and Alexandra Wicht (University of Siegen) have elaborated in an award-winning publication. The work focusses on the educational resources that adolescents growing up in different family constellations may have at their disposal. It is based on the extensive data sets of the National Educational Panel Study (NEPS) and has now been awarded the 2nd Prize of the Fritz Thyssen Foundation for Social Science Essays of the Year 2020.

In families with two biological parents, those with one stepparent, and with single parents, different educationally relevant resources are available. They can be differentiated into economic, cultural, and social capital. The fact that single parents often have lower incomes (economic capital), less formal education (cultural capital) or less time for their children (social capital), for example, is often used as an explanation for the finding that their children perform worse on average in terms of education.

Differences in the resources of single mothers and fathers

The term single parent is often associated with mothers. The research team had a large data set available in the form of the National Educational Panel Study (NEPS), which also contains data for a sufficiently large number of adolescents living only with their father (or stepfather). Although single fathers have higher incomes than single mothers, they tend to be inferior to them in terms of cultural capital. For example, there are fewer books in the households of single fathers; however, this indicator has been shown in many studies to be an important variable by which to predict the educational success of adolescents. For the award-winning publication, educational success was measured by competencies in reading comprehension and mathematics. In other words, the study examined how well adolescents can extract and evaluate information from texts and how good their understanding is of concrete problems related to everyday life in which numbers and mathematical skills are important.

Children of single fathers perform particularly poorly

In fact, according to the authors, the poorer educational success of children of single mothers compared to families with two biological parents is not due to the fact of "single parenting" but precisely to the comparatively lower resources of mothers; this applies equally to economic, cultural and social capital. Similarly, low resources could also be partly responsible for the poorer educational outcomes of children of single fathers. Interestingly, however, these adolescents were found to perform even worse in terms of education than would be expected given the father's resources. Overall, at any rate, children of single fathers have the lowest skills. The research team was unable to fully elucidate what is behind this poor performance, whereby this was one of the very first studies to focus on this group with regard to their educational success.

The work of the research team from Siegen appeared in issue 3 (2020) of the journal Soziale Welt. The study is based on data from the first five waves of the NEPS Start Cohort 3. In the modeling, particularly indirect effects were considered, which show how the family constellation affects the competencies of the adolescents via parental resources.


Original Publication (German language)

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