Yet another study has come out about the impact of working mothers on their children's achievements in school. This month, the news isn't good. (In March, it was.) Hence, Sunday's paper produced a headline that no doubt ruined the day for working mothers around the Beltway: "New Study Finds Children of Working Mothers Suffer in School."
The latest study found that both elementary and secondary school students living in two-parent homes had lower achievement scores when their mothers worked than when they did not. Children whose mothers worked only part-time did not do as poorly as children whose mothers worked full-time.
The study also found that the absence of a parent, almost always the father, "is associated with lowered reading and mathematics achievement scores." You did not, however, find your Sunday paper trumpeting the news: "New Study Finds Children of Absent Fathers Suffer in School." The burden of guilt is squarely on the shoulders of the working mother.
Nevertheless, the new study, done by Alan Ginsburg of the U.S. Department of Education and by consultants at Decision Resources, raises serious questions. It suggests strongly that two major upheavals in families--the increase in divorce and the surge of mothers into the workforce--have had a damaging effect on children's academic achievement.
Ann Milne, senior associate at Decision Resources, was cautious about drawing too many conclusions from the study since it had no information on how working mothers and mothers who stay at home actually spend their time with their children. It also did not show what hours of the day the mothers worked or give a detailed breakdown on the income levels of working mothers and whether there is a point at which her income is high enough to offset the effects of her absence in the home.
Income levels do have some effect on the performance of children. "Poverty," noted the study, "can affect educational performance through poor health, lack of a quiet place of study, or through reduced family resources available for books or other educational materials in the home."
Given the trends in divorce and the economy, there is not much point in thinking that mothers are going to stop working, any more than there is much point thinking that fathers are going to stop leaving families. The job now is to find out more about how these two phenomena are affecting the nation's children and then to take steps to remedy the problems that are found.
At least one seems obvious: The study cited a recent congressional estimate that 79 percent of absent fathers avoid paying child support, a major factor in plunging single-parent families into poverty. "Single-parent children would be aided by stricter sanctions against nonpayment," the study noted.
It pointed to recent research that shows fathers in affluent two-worker families doing little to help with household chores and recommended that new forms of work arrangements, such as work sharing, deserve more attention from the nation's employers.
The struggle to work and raise children has been a lonely and often individual struggle carried on by working mothers with little support from fathers or employers. The U.S. Labor Department has estimated that 80 percent of American women work because they have to. This study suggests that their children are paying the price.
The solution is not for working mothers to feel guilty. Nor is the solution to ignore the possible damaging effects on children when social institutions, ranging from individual families to schools and employers, cling to the past rather than adapt to the present.
The latest study contradicts much of the research released in March by the National Institute of Education, which found in general that children of mothers who work do as well in school as those of mothers who stay at home. Clearly, more and better research needs to be done on the effects of working mothers on their families and what can be done by fathers, schools, employers and child-support collection agencies to give them some help.
If, indeed, children of working mothers--and absent fathers--are suffering in school, it is not the fault of working mothers alone.