Family Effects              


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Return to Index of Topics  -  Notes: 1) This page is a work in progress and does not yet comprehensively cover its topic or include all the COTC and web resources its topic deserves.  2) Bold is used to emphasize our [COTC] sense of importance and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis in the original source. This color indicates COTC edits for brevity or flow. See referenced original for exact quotes.

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Equality of Educational Opportunity (The Coleman Report*)

Schools bring little influence to bear on a child's achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school. 

James Coleman et al, 1966. Sources: ( + (

Academic Variance

Essentially, the upper bound of how much of it (academic achievement) could be due to schools and how much of it could be due to families is simply explained by the analysis of variants. How much of the total variation in the test scores is within and is between schools. Since only twenty percent of it is between schools and eight percent of it is within schools, that’s an upper limit of how much difference the schools can be making. So it is mostly the family.  

George Farkas, Professor of Sociology, Demography, and Education, Penn State. Source: COTC Interview (unpublished)

If Families Matter Most, Where Do Schools Come In?

Family variables account for 34 to 105 times as much variation as the school input variables do (There is a range of estimates because family variables account for different amounts of variation of different subject tests). Family variables account for 12 to 24 times as much variation as neighborhood variables  (income educational attainment, and racial composition of school’s district population; region of the country) do.  Put another way, family variables explain 11 to 14 times as much variation in student’s test scores as school inputs and neighborhood variables combined.




According to the estimates described above, a reform that improved family effects by 5% would probably do more for students’ outcomes than a reform that improved school effects by 70 percent.  

Caroline M. Hoxby, Department of Economics, Harvard University, A Primer on American Schools. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2001. Source:  

Wide Disparities in Children’s Early Learning Foreshadow Unequal Test Scores  

According to a first-ever study which tracked more than 2,300 young California children:  “Parents and policymakers often blame the schools for the notorious achievement gap that divides children from rich and poor families,” said Dr. Margaret Bridges, the developmental psychologist who directed the study. "But we were surprised to discover that over 90 percent of the gap seen in eighth-grade math scores is already starkly apparent when these youngsters enter kindergarten.”       

Foundation News 9-04. David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Source:

The Mystery of Good Teaching  

Research dating back to the 1966 release of Equality of Educational Opportunity (the “Coleman Report”) shows that student performance is only weakly related to school quality. The report concluded that students’ socioeconomic background was a far more influential factor.  

More recently, researchers have sought to isolate teachers’ contribution to student performance and assess how much of their overall contribution can be associated with measurable teacher characteristics, such as experience and degree level. Economists Eric Hanushek, John Kain, and Steven Rivkin estimated that, at a minimum, variations in teacher quality account for 7.5 percent of the total variation in student achievement—a much larger share than any other school characteristic.

This estimate is similar to what my colleagues and I found: that 8.5 percent of the variation in student achievement is due to teacher characteristics. We found that the vast majority (about 60 percent) of the differences in student test scores are explained by individual and family background characteristics. All the influences of a school, including school-, teacher-, and class-level variables, both measurable and immeasurable, were found to account for approximately 21 percent of the variation in student achievement.  

Dan Goldhaber, Senior Research Associate at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. (2002). Source:

Hearing on Fiscal Year 2006 Appropriations for the Administration for Children and Families  

Our adolescent health study demonstrated that, of all factors in the adolescent's health and development, the most important and significant was their interaction and their relationship with their family. Our study of infant day care indicates that the relationship with the mother and the family dwarfs all other impacts and is far more important than the experience of day care itself in terms of child development. So the role of the family is certainly as important as ever.

Testimony of Dr. Duane Alexander, Director, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 3-13-05. Source:

Sibling, Peer, Neighbor, and Schoolmate Correlations as Indicators of the Importance of Context for Adolescent Development  

The data suggest that family-based factors are several times more powerful than neighborhood and school contexts in affecting adolescents' achievement and behavior. 

Duncan, Greg J., Boisjoly, J., Harris, KM., Demography - Volume 38, Number 3, August 2001, pp. 437-447. Source:

Capital at Home and at School: Effects on Child Social Adjustment

Findings suggest that although school capital effects are present, family social capital and maternal and child human capital effects are more prevalent.  

Toby L. Parcel1, Mikaela J. Dufur* Journal of Marriage and Family Volume 63 Issue 1 Page 32  - February 2001. Source:,+MIKAELA+J.

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Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst  Director, Institute of Education Sciences, Assistant Secretary of Education, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Jack Shonkoff Chair, The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child; Co-Editor: From Neurons to Neighborhoods
Dr. Edward Kame'enui Commissioner for Special Education Research, U.S. Department of Education; Director, IDEA, University  of Oregon
Dr. G. Reid Lyon  Past Director, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Dr. Keith Stanovich  Canadian Chair of Cognitive Science, University of Toronto
Dr. Mel Levine Co-Chair and Co-Founder, All Kinds of Minds; Author: A Mind at a Time, The Myth of Laziness & Ready or Not Here Life Comes
Dr. Alex Granzin  School District Psychologist, Past President, Oregon School Psychologists Association 
Dr. James J. Heckman Nobel Laureate, Economic Sciences 2000; Lead Author: The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children
Dr. Timothy Shanahan President (2006) International Reading Association, Chair National Early Literacy Panel, Member National Reading Panel
Nancy Hennessy  President, 2003-2005, International Dyslexia Association
Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams Senior ScientistSoliloquy Learning, Author: Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print
Dr. Michael Merzenich Chair of Otolaryngology, Integrative Neurosciences, UCSF;  Member National Academy of Sciences
Dr. Maryanne Wolf Director, Center for Reading & Language Research; Professor of Child Development, Tufts University
Dr. Todd Risley  Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of Alaska, Co-author: Meaningful Differences
Dr. Sally Shaywitz  Neuroscientist, Department of Pediatrics, Yale University, Author: Overcoming Dyslexia
Dr. Louisa Moats  Director, Professional Development and Research Initiatives, Sopris West Educational Services
Dr. Zvia Breznitz Professor, Neuropsychology of Reading & Dyslexia, University of Haifa, Israel 
Rick Lavoie Learning Disabilities Specialist, Creator: How Difficult Can This Be?: The F.A.T. City Workshop & Last One Picked, First One Picked On
Dr.Charles Perfetti Professor, Psychology & Linguistics; Senior Scientist and Associate Director, Learning R&D Center, U. of Pittsburgh, PA
Arthur J. Rolnick Senior V.P. & Dir. of Research,  Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis;  Co- Author: The Economics of Early Childhood Development  
Dr. Richard Venezky  Professor, Educational Studies, Computer and  Information Sciences, and Linguistics, University of Delaware
Dr. Keith Rayner  Distinguished  Professor, University of Massachusetts, Author: Eye Movements in Reading and Information Processing
Dr. Paula Tallal  Professor of Neuroscience, Co-Director of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University
Dr.John Searle  Mills Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language, University of California-Berkeley, Author: Mind, A Brief Introduction
Dr.Mark T. Greenberg Director, Prevention Research Center, Penn State Dept. of Human Development & Family Studies; CASEL Leadership Team
Dr. Terrence Deacon  Professor of Biological Anthropology and Linguistics at University of California- Berkeley
Chris Doherty  Ex-Program Director, National Reading First Program, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Erik Hanushek Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Dr. Marketa Caravolas Director, Bangor Dyslexia Unit, Bangor University, Author: International Report on Literacy Research
Dr. Christof Koch Professor of Computation and Neural Systems,  Caltech - Author: The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach
Dr. Guy Deutscher Professor of Languages and Cultures of Ancient Mesopotamia, Holland; Author: Unfolding Language
Robert Wedgeworth  President, ProLiteracy, World's Largest Literacy Organization
Dr. Peter Leone  Director, National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice
Dr. Thomas Cable  Professor of English, University of Texas at Austin, Co-author: A History of the English Language
Dr. David Abram Cultural Ecologist and Philosopher; Author: The Spell of the Sensuous
Pat Lindamood and Nanci Bell  Principal Scientists, Founders, Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes
Dr. Anne Cunningham  Director, Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education, Graduate School of Education at University of California-Berkeley
Dr. Donald L. Nathanson  Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Jefferson Medical College, Director of the Silvan S. Tomkins Institute 
Dr.Johanna Drucker  Chair of Media Studies, University of Virginia, Author: The Alphabetic Labyrinth
John H. Fisher  Medievalist, Leading authority on the development of the written English language, Author: The Emergence of Standard English
Dr. Malcolm Richardson   Chair, Dept. of English, Louisiana State University; Research: The Textual Awakening of the English Middle Classes  
James Wendorf  Executive Director, National Center for Learning Disabilities
Leonard Shlain Physician; Best-Selling Author: The Alphabet vs. The Goddess
Robert Sweet  Co-Founder, National Right to Read Foundation


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The Children of the Code is a Social Education Project and a Public Television Series intended to catalyze and resource a social-educational transformation in how we think about and, ultimately, teach reading. The Children of the Code is an entertaining educational journey into the challenges our children's brains face when learning to read. The series weaves together archeology, history, linguistics, developmental neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, information theory, reading theory, learning theory, and the personal and social dimensions of illiteracy. 




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