The Nuclear Family is the Key to Closing Educational Gaps

Ask the average American about the state of public education, and you’re likely to hear complaints ranging from low scores, poorly paid teachers, drugs, gang violence, lack of funding, threats from school shootings, claims of indoctrination—from both sides of the political spectrum—and a myriad of other complaints. Ask teachers and parents, and you’ll likely get similar answers. Reformers point to European schools, especially the Nordic countries such as Finland, and schools in China and Japan as the ideal systems, pointing out that in these places, students excel over Americans in all subjects, most importantly in the STEM fields, which will undoubtedly be the most valued in a 21st-century world. Politicians, while they may disagree about why American education lags, tend to agree with these assessments. But is it true? And if so, how do we fix it?

To answer the first question, we must compare data across similar groups, not from one country to another. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), if we compare the performance of American students as a whole to those of other countries, we do, in fact, lag in very serious ways. However, a closer look at the data reveals some telling information and highlights why we need to compare apples to apples to get to the root of the problem. The EPI reports, in part, that If U.S. adolescents had a social class distribution similar to that of frequently compared countries, the average reading scores in the United States would surpass those of similar post-industrial nations like France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Additionally, the average math scores in the U.S. would be comparable to those in these countries. This adjustment would enhance the U.S.’s international ranking among OECD countries, raising its average score to sixth in reading and 13th in math. Current PISA-based rankings, which do not account for social class composition or sampling errors and do not consider whether score differences are meaningful, place the U.S. at 14th in reading and 25th in math.

While comparing student groups improves the rankings of American students, it still reveals a gap between American students and those of the top-performing countries such as Finland, Canada, and Korea. What accounts for these gaps? Perhaps looking at the high-performing section of public education can help us glean a clearer picture of the problem:

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal exam that is considered the gold standard for comparing states and large districts, the Defense Department’s schools outscored every jurisdiction in math and reading last year and managed to avoid widespread pandemic losses.

Black and Hispanic students attending Department of Defense (DOD) schools outperformed their other public-school counterparts and white students who attend other non-DoD public schools. DoD students from households with parents who only had a high school education—indicating a lower level of income—outperformed kids from college-educated households in public schools outside the DoD. In short, the DoD seems to have the answer to the best form of public education.

So, what is their secret?

The easy answer would be higher funding. It makes sense. The DoD spends about $25,000 per student, far more than most states and on par with states such as  New York. Its teachers are typically paid better and have more experience. However, funding isn’t the only reason. In fact, I would argue that it’s not nearly as important as other factors.

In DoD schools, no student lacks housing, and all students have at least one parent or guardian in the home—the majority have two. School safety isn’t a big concern, as DoD schools are located on military bases where security is already paramount, and crime is much lower than in metropolitan cities. While DoD schools aren’t perfect, they exude characteristics that correlate with high student achievement. Namely, two-parent households, income security, housing security, and parents who are present in the lives of their students. These factors overwhelmingly lead to high student outcomes. Most notably are two-parent households. When looking at educational achievement and income levels among American households, we find that Asian Americans are at the top, followed by whites, Hispanics, and then blacks. Looking at the rates of children raised in two-parent households, blacks are at the bottom, followed by Hispanics, whites, and finally, Asian Americans. These outcomes aren’t a coincidence. As President Obama once stated, “[C]hildren who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.”

One of the main reasons why I believe funding isn’t the crux of the issue is because, for five years, I taught college-level political science courses at Steele High School in Cibolo, TX. At the time, Steele had a student body of over 2,600 students, 52.5 percent of whom were DoD-connected. Steele constantly outperformed other high schools in all areas of academic evaluation despite the funding being on par with neighboring districts. Among the students I taught, there were stark differences between the DoD-connected kids and those who were not.

In addition to the aforementioned advantages of DoD schools, my DoD students were much more racially diverse yet did not view race in the same manner that larger society does. As one black senior student told me, she was raised around people of all colors and didn’t view her race as a detriment or obstacle to her success. While anecdotal, among my non-DoD connected minority students, that belief was far less common.

How do we replicate these conditions in our public schools?

The answer to this question is far more difficult. There is only so much that government policy can—or should—do regarding the family. I don’t know if there are any short-term solutions, but I can offer long-term ones: Public policy needs to reemphasize the importance of the nuclear family. Encourage marriage and discourage divorce. Encourage two-parent households, especially ones with a mother and father, where emotional, educational, and financial outcomes are shown to be the highest. Promote civic duty and societal unity in schools. Promote morality in public schools the way our country did for the first two hundred years of its existence.

Changing the culture of the American family is the only real solution to solving the problems that permeate the public school system.

Image by iofoto — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 8325057


  • Will Moravits

    Will Moravits is an Instructor of political science for Texas State University and previously taught for Alamo Community Colleges District. For three years, he was a police officer for the City of San Marcos, Texas, having graduated Top Cadet from the Basic Training Academy of the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of "The Blue Divide: Policing and Race in America." He holds a master of arts in political science from Texas State University and a PhD in public policy and administration from Walden University. He is a native of Uvalde, Texas.

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10 thoughts on “The Nuclear Family is the Key to Closing Educational Gaps

  1. As a gay man, I lament the fact that central to the LGBTQ+ project is the subjugation of the family to the state. If parents don’t take the “correct” position on issues like underage “transaffirmative care,” then the government will do it for them.

  2. Something like 90% of K–12 teachers are female, as are bus drivers, lunch ladies, principals, etc.

    Sadly, there are a significant number of boys in this country that have no meaningful contact with any male figure throughout the week. All of their “role models” are female.

  3. Mr. Moravits,
    Thank you for your insightful article. You are absolutely correct in correlating two-parent households with success in school for the children. Anything we can do politically, locally, individually or legally to support the formation and endurance of stable families is the right thing to do. Again, thank you for your article.

  4. Your analysis fails to consider that the minimum IQ required for military service is in the range of 90 to 95. Also, spouses are likely to have fairly similar IQs, and children, on average, have IQs close to the average of their parents. Consequently, the average IQ of DoD children is significantly higher than in the population as a whole. Since school success is highly correlated with individually measured IQ, DoD schools have excellent results. The military probably knows how much higher, but doesn’t like to talk about it.
    The military has other advantages, too, such as leverage over parental behavior, but the parents are also on average smarter.

    1. Even if you were to exclude at 85 which is one standard deviation from the mean (100), that’s only 13.6% of the population. That’s not significantly higher than the population, the overwhelming majority (68.2%) of which is in the 85-115 range — when you include natural variance (and children who are adopted) I really doubt that the average classroom teacher is going to see any difference.

      No, it’s discipline, discipline, and discipline. First, I doubt that discipline in the common sense is a problem in the DOD schools the way it is in public schools. Second, a lot of learning is boring — so is PT. I don’t believe you have the same sense of entitlement that exists in public schools. And I really doubt that you have to deal with the parents the same way.

      For example, I assigned an essay as to what my students had done over the prior 3 day weekend. One student’s essay consisted of “I was drunk all weakend [sic].” That’s not an essay, I refused to grade it because I didn’t know how I could, and “weakend” is *not* a word, even meant in jest. (This was a 17-year-old and I’d seen him driving his dad’s logging trucks by the house all weekend — I hope he *wasn’t* drunk…)

      I think a DOD-school principal would agree with me and explain to his father that five words does not constitute an essay — and perhaps inquire as to his son’s sobriety while operating 100,000+ lb logging trucks.

  5. It’s not money — Boston spends $28,882 per child and has been flirting with state receivership for over a decade now. The Boston Public Schools have *serious* problems.

    Here’s the per child spending for the entire Commonwealth although I am not sure it includes all the Federal money:

    I suspect that discipline is not a problem in the DOD schools, and that is a big factor.

  6. So Will, what would a government-run program supporting two parent nuclear family look like? Military families receive certain subsidies for housing, healthcare, childcare, etc some direct and other ones are indirect. Would you advocate a similar program on a national scale? Black two parent families have family incomes on a par with White two parent families. How would you propose to change that family trajectory to a two parent family? Full disclosure – I am a military retiree – 28yrs US Army. So I am very familiar with military families..

    1. One possibility is to admit that Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” was an utter failure and going back to dealing with single mothers the way we dealt with them 60 years ago.

      Back in Harlem of the of the 1930s, something like 96% of the Black children were being raised in 2 parent families, and the “single mothers” were actually “widows.”

      What LBJ did was make the government a better husband than many women would ever find — he was a better provider and reality today is that many women have a higher standard of living without a husband then they would with one. Maybe not on paper, but when you calculate the value of all the benefits in terms of their cost with after-tax dollars, your husband has to be earning above the median wage to provide the same standard of living.

      We didn’t use the term “single mother” sixty years ago, and maybe we need to go back to the use of social shame and stigma. Perhaps not to the extent of scarlet letters, but at least to a social expectation that marriage comes before pregnancy and hence ought to come before sexual intercourse. Or at least lead to a pregnant bride.

      1. This is a huge piece to the puzzle. Marriage has long been separated from sex and children. Public officials don’t have to subsidize things like in the military, but encouraging the family, education about the benefits of marriage and the harms of divorce, and stop pretending that men and women are interchangeable is a good start.

      2. “stop pretending that men and women are interchangeable”

        One BIG difference with DOD schools is that even if the child is being raised by a single mother, even if the teacher is female, you don’t have an exclusive all-female authority structure.

        Something like 90% of K-12 teachers are female, a significant number of the principals and superintendents are as well. As are the bus drivers and lunch ladies. And the public housing administrators, welfare caseworkers, and social workers.

        The only male role models that a young boy sees is the local drug dealer and his mother’s boyfriend de jour (often the same person). And professional athletes.

        Compare that to a DOD school — even if they have the same proportion of female teachers and administrators, even if the base commander is female, it’s not an all female command. There are men in positions of authority — it isn’t a man-hating matriarchy. I think that makes a big difference.

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