Commentary | Economic Growth

Lessons—An Economic Recovery Will Tell in the Classroom

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


An economic recovery will tell in the classroom

By  Richard Rothstein

The relation between family circumstances and a child’s academic proficiency is well known, but policymakers usually assume that if all children can be held to the same standards, the achievement gap between rich and poor will eventually disappear. We pay too little attention to how social and economic forces themselves influence learning.

Unemployment has now risen to 5.7 percent, up from less than 4 percent in October 2000. The biggest downturns have been in low-wage industries like hotels and restaurants. More job losses are expected.

If the past is any guide, rising unemployment will cause children’s school performance to decline, but commentators will attribute the drop entirely to poor teachers, low standards or overcrowded schools. Educators will watch from the sidelines as Congress debates unemployment insurance or the timing of a stimulus package.

But these debates are not only about the economy. They will affect education. And steps to soften the recession could aid school performance.

Social science supports the common-sense idea that family stress has an impact on children; few stresses are as dangerous as a parent’s job loss. Glen H. Elder, a professor at the University of North Carolina, found that unemployment in the 1930’s often led to a deterioration in child-rearing practices. Some fathers who lost jobs became irritable, tense and moody. Their disciplinary styles became more arbitrary and punitive. Their children’s aspirations and school performance then fell. The effects were even worse when job loss led to conflicts between husband and wife.

Studies of youth since the Great Depression confirm Dr. Elder’s findings. Adolescent boys in families suffering sudden unemployment are more likely to be delinquent and use drugs. Girls are more likely to lose self-confidence and be depressed. In the already difficult middle school years, children of the unemployed are more likely to get into fights and refuse to complete schoolwork.

Unemployment also affects younger children, perhaps more than older ones. Under economic pressure, some mothers rely less on reasoning and more on threats, hostile comments and physical punishment. These can lead to children’s emotional problems and lower academic performance.

The psychological impacts of job loss are compounded by more material ones. Nutrition and health care can suffer, especially for children of the low-income unemployed who are without the resources to cushion sudden hardship. These setbacks can harm cognitive ability. Loss of housing can force children to change schools, losing continuity of instruction. If families move to smaller apartments, or even to shelters, loss of study space can result.

In contrast, students probably do better when family incomes go up. School leaders take pride in the test-score improvements of recent years for low-income children. But school reforms may not have been entirely responsible for such gains in the strong economy of the 1990’s. Some children may have had better nutrition and health care, more adequate and stable housing, and more patient parents, all of which nurtured learning.

A conclusion that economic security affects achievement is backed up in a new analysis by a team led by Eric Dearing, a Harvard researcher, showing that when poor families’ income increases, their young children’s readiness for school also goes up. Typically, low-income children enter school with fewer social and literacy skills than other children. But it is hard to say how much of this stems from income itself. Perhaps poor children do worse because their mothers have less education. If so, then raising family income would not in itself lead to more learning.

What is unusual about Dr. Dearing’s work is his showing that school readiness improves in poor families whose incomes go up in comparison to the readiness of children who are similar in other respects except for the income gain.

Dr. Dearing’s conclusion buttresses findings of studies done of mothers who move from welfare to work. These show that children’s achievement improves if family income increases but may not when mothers do not gain substantially higher income. These analyses also reinforce the results of experiments conducted by the Nixon administration more than a quarter-century ago. Then, poor families were randomly selected to receive income supplements and their children’s school performance improved.

It would be comforting to think that schools alone could raise achievement for low-income students, but such a shortcut is illusory. As shepherds of schoolchildren, educators have a stake in promoting a federal economic policy that focuses on immediate income support for the unemployed, because this in itself could make instruction more effective.

Return to the Education Column Archive