Adolescents Living in Unstable Homes Lose Ground in Rigorous High Schools

Math Study
Math practice problems written on a piece of paper are seen in a file photo. Jacob Metcalf/Flickr

While studies continue to support the connection between household instability and school performance in adolescents, a new study digs deeper by exploring how the relationship between family structure change and adolescent academic careers is also affected by the kinds of schools they attend.

Schools vary considerably in terms of socio-demographic composition and "academic press," which is measured by whether the school is defined by academic, achievement-oriented values, goals, and norms and by specific standards of achievement, said study co-author Shannon Cavanagh, a professor in The University of Texas at Austin's Department of Sociology.

"For these reasons, we were curious about whether the family instability effect on course-taking behaviors might be different (stronger or weaker) in different kinds of schools," said Cavanagh.

The findings support the "mismatch hypothesis," a theory that suggests 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.

"This interaction allowed us to determine the context in which a student's own family history had the greatest impact on their course-taking patterns," said Cavanagh.

Using data on math course-taking patterns from a nationally representative, longitudinal study of students who were in high school in the mid-1990s, the authors found that students who experienced repeated family structure changes did not have the advantage of course taking.

"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," she said.

The researchers suggest that teachers and school leaders help parents ask the right questions about their student's college preparation.

"School administrations can remove some of this opacity with broad information campaigns about the expectations that colleges and employers have for student learning," said Cavanagh.

"Local business and community leaders who join schools in an effort to prepare college-ready high school graduates may also be effective in reaching parents and adolescents."

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