Saturday, June 18, 2011


Themes in the News for the week of June 13-17, 2011 by UCLA IDEA |

06-17-2011  - A new study shows that student achievement is harmed by the nation’s increased unemployment—and not just those students whose parents have lost their jobs. The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER[i]) released Children Left Behind: The effects of statewide job loss on student achievement[ii].  As reported in Salon, “Cross[l1] -referencing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics with 4th and 8th grade test scores, the study discovered a powerful connection between the social/psychological effects of job losses in a state and the educational achievement of students in that state.”  Indeed, students in communities facing high unemployment did worse, especially in mathematics. Also, states with high unemployment were less likely to meet federal benchmarks for student proficiency under No Child Left Behind (Salon[iii], Time[iv], Babble[v]).

The study’s findings come in the midst of the nation’s slow economic recovery and potential “double-dip” recession (Wall Street Journal[vi]).  States continue to slash education budgets and are abetted by some education reformers who dismiss the role of poverty in shaping school outcomes.

California, with a 12 percent unemployment rate, has a tougher time than the rest of the country. Within the state some communities have up to 20 percent unemployment. IDEA’s latest report on school conditions, Free Fall: Educational Opportunities in 2011[vii], describes how the economic crisis, combined with a weakened social safety net, impacts education programs and student outcomes.

When some students show up to class stressed, hungry, and without secure housing, their learning is affected. According to a Del Norte County principal interviewed for the IDEA report:  “We’re seeing a lot more kids just in a state of struggle all the way around with their basic needs. You know, that’s going to impact their academics, because…learning math today is not immediate, whereas eating is.”

The new NBER report widens the focus from individual students to entire classrooms and communities that are affected by unemployment. Students’ stress affects their own achievement as well as the overall learning climate in their classrooms.  Teachers are also under stress from the more difficult teaching conditions they face and, perhaps, from their own job insecurity.  The combined results affect how the whole class and school perform.

The new study underscores a large body of research showing that cuts to education budgets disproportionately affect the most vulnerable students. Schools in high unemployment neighborhoods already have fewer resources than less affected neighborhoods.  For example, while parents in affluent communities can help soften the effects of budget cuts, principals in IDEA’s study said they were reluctant to reach out to lower-income communities to supplement field trips, instructional materials and other services.

It is clear from the NBER study that the nation’s public education system is burdened by the broad economic distress.  The public should be wary of one-dimensional education “solutions” that promise savings and improvements with unproven or weak reforms.  And, as the NBER researchers argue, “the magnitude” of the impact of unemployment on student achievement suggests that policymakers should consider “economic stimulus and other policies to mitigate effects of markets on society.”[viii]  America’s children will learn better when their families earn a living wage.









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