School Achievement Drops In Larger Families -- Except for Mormons

August 24, 1998

SAN FRANCISCO -- Previous research has shown that increasing the number of children in a family lowers the educational achievement for all the siblings. But a new nationwide study has found an intriguing exception among Mormon families.

Among Mormons, the addition of new children to a family doesn't have the same negative educational effects seen in most of the population, according to a study led by Douglas Downey, assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

"Our results suggest Mormons have found ways to devote more resources to their children as family size increases," Downey said. "This helps their children continue to achieve academically."

Downey conducted the study with Stefanie Neubauer, a graduate student at Ohio State. He will present the results Aug. 23 in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

In a 1995 study published in the American Sociological Review, Downey found that academic achievement among children dropped as family size grew because parents had less time and economic resources for each child. "Parents only have so much time and money, and we found that the more children they have, the more those resources are diluted," he said.

This new study was designed to see if the "resource dilution" explanation held true for groups, such as Mormons, in which large families are accepted and even encouraged. Downey examined data from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, which included information from 24,599 eighth graders, 303 of whom were Mormons.

He examined student-reported grades and scores of standardized math and reading tests. He then correlated these findings with parents' economic and interpersonal resources which might be negatively affected as family size increases.

The results showed that Mormon children didn't display the significant declines in educational performance that other children showed as family size increased. And one reason may be that resources parents devoted to children did not decline as significantly among Mormons as they did among the rest of the population, Downey said.

For example, in most families, more children meant parents had fewer educational materials available in the home, were less likely to know their children's friends, and were less likely to know the friends' parents. However, in Mormon families there were no such declines.

Other resources -- such as money saved for college -- declined for both Mormons and others as family size increased. However, the declines were not as significant among Mormons.

Downey said the results suggest Mormon parents, more than others, are likely to pull resources from other parts of their lives as they have more children.

"It may be that Mormon parents spend less time and money doing things for themselves, such as exercising, reading or watching TV, as they have more children," he said. "They simply allot a greater portion of their total resources to their children than do other parents."

Mormon communities may also pitch in to help large families.

"Mormons are well-known for being pro-family, so parents with many children may receive substantial support from outside of their family," he said.

Downey also looked at Jewish families and families living on farms -- other groups in which many children might be encouraged. The results were similar to those found in Mormon families, but were not as strong.

The study also examined whether family size had the greatest effect on educational achievement in high-income or low-income families.

Surprisingly, large families had the most negative consequences on children in high-income families. Downey said the reason may be that disadvantaged families have little resources to devote to education in the first place, so the addition of more siblings doesn't hurt.

"Disadvantaged parents, for example, probably save little for their children's education and so the addition of another sibling has little impact on these savings," he said.

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457;

Ohio State University

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