Single Parents Aren’t the Problem

Show Me the Numbers: Who's at home doesn't affect a child's education as much as you may think.

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

Finally, I used the ACS to determine whether household composition had an impact on black males’ persistence through grade school. About 7.7 percent of black males from two-parent homes were severely off-track (more than two grade levels behind) by the time they reached the ninth grade, compared with 10.6 percent among those from mother-headed households.

Interestingly, black males in households with only a mother were significantly more likely to be on-track academically than black males in households with a father only. Contrarily, black females in households with a father only were more likely to be academically on-track than those in households with a mother only. Black children from households with neither a mother nor a father were twice as likely to be severely off-track when compared with black children from two- and one-parent households.

However, as a single variable, household composition carries little weight and appears to serve as a proxy for more serious issues, such as teenage pregnancy and incarcerated parents. In analyses, a myriad of covariants (e.g. parents’ education and parent practices) nullify the effects of household composition on academic progress cited in the previous section. For example, in my analysis of the High School Longitudinal Survey, a black student from a two-parent household with just one parent who dropped out of high school was three times more likely to repeat a grade in school than a student from a single-parent household where the primary caregiver had an associate’s degree or higher. I will explain factors that supersede the contribution of household composition to academic success in my next column.

We often overstate and exaggerate the drawbacks of being raised by a single parent. At the same time, we ignore the real and persistent disadvantages of the nearly 1 million black children being raised by noncustodial parents. In addition, without much evidence, context or specificity, we make sweeping assumptions about why black boys need a father in the home. At the same time, we ignore the important role that black fathers play in the lives of daughters and that black mothers play in the lives of sons.

In many ways, the focus on single-parent households has distracted us from more legitimate indicators of risk and has created disobliging attitudes toward black parents and students. Although a larger number of white children from single-parent homes exist, many argue that the impact is not as severe because single white mothers typically receive more child support and alimony than single black mothers.

While this is a fair assessment, it is important not to confuse affluence with responsibility. Paying a part-time nanny to pick up your child from school so you can work late, hiring a tutor when your child makes a C in math and paying for test-prep classes does not make you a more responsible parent; it makes you more financially capable. By contrast, I admire and empathize with the single parents who spend hours and days fighting schools that try to suspend their children under misguided zero-tolerance policies, who confront teachers who give unsolicited and unqualified mental-health diagnoses and who challenge administrators who try to track their children into special-education classes.

We will never fully understand the contributions of black parents through pedestrian comparisons, stereotypes, arrogance and condescension. Frequent communication with parents helps us support a variety of people who want more for their children than they ever had, even if they don’t fully understand what that means or how to get there. In the next column we will examine what schools need from black parents, and what black parents need from schools to improve academic success among black students.

Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is a tenured associate professor at Howard University, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education and contributing education editor at The Root . He can be contacted at Follow him on Twitter.

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