Background and Purpose – The rich-poor achievement gap in children’s academic outcomes is now about twice as large as the black-white achievement gap. Children from poor families are three times as likely to repeat a grade and have test scores more than a standard deviation lower than their more affluent peers. Though research finds that father involvement increases children’s academic performance, there has been no previous work investigating whether involvement can reduce socioceconomic disparities in children’s academic outcomes. Thus, the central research question of this paper is whether father involvement reduces or eliminates differences in academic outcomes between children from high and low socioeconomic status (SES) households.
Methods – We use data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Kindergarten Cohort, a nationally representative panel study of children with detailed information on father involvement and children’s academic outcomes. Using data on outcomes from the 3rd-, 5th-, and 8th-grade waves of data collection, we investigate whether (1) fathers’ residence, (2) resident fathers involvement in school (indicated by four variables combined into a summative index), and (3) nonresident fathers’ financial support, social involvement, and school involvement are associated with reductions in SES disparities in school achievement. We test reductions in disparities in two ways. First, we run initial models predicting academic outcomes (standardized math and reading scores [mean=50, SD=10] and an indicator for grade retention) as a function of baseline SES quintile and other controls (including a lagged measure of the dependent variable). We then re-run these models after including measures of father involvement and inspect the coefficients for the SES quintile variable to see if predicted disparities are reduced. Second, we interact measures of father involvement with a continuous measure of socioeconomic status in models including all controls. Sample sizes vary by analysis and dependent variable, and all models cluster standard errors by child.
Results – Children in the lowest SES quintile had significantly worse academic outcomes compared to children in the highest SES quintile. Father residence and social involvement by nonresident fathers were not meaningfully associated with academic outcomes. School involvement by nonresident fathers was significantly associated with increased math and reading scores, but controlling for it (and social involvement) only resulted in minor decreases in SES-disparities in outcomes. School involvement by higher-SES resident fathers was associated with stronger math score gains, but school involvement by both resident and nonresident lower-SES fathers was associated with greater decreases in rates of grade retention.
Implications – While associated with increases in child test scores, nonresident father school involvement had negligible effects on SES-based disparities in reading and math. Despite countervailing findings for math scores, results point to the potential for school involvement by both nonresident and resident fathers to reduce disparities in grade retention. While the study results underscore the importance of father involvement to children, the mixed findings with respect to SES-based disparities suggest the need for additional research to understand the circumstances under which involvement by low-SES fathers may or may not help to reduce inequality in child outcomes.