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Community Job Loss Leads To Decline In Student Achievement: Study

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Studies have long indicated that children whose parents lose jobs will falter academically. But new evidence shows that widespread job loss doesn't only affect the children of the jobless, it hurts kids whose parents are still employed, too.

Statewide job loss decreases children's test scores, regardless of the employment status of their parents, according to "Children Left Behind: The Effects Of Statewide Job Loss On Student Achievement," a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The study looks at fourth- and eighth-graders test scores from the National Center for Education Statistics' National Assessment of Educational Progress in math and reading. It found significant effects of job loss on academic performance in a decline in eighth grade math test scores: For every 1 percent of a state's working age population that is out of a job, the state's average eighth grade math score declined by almost three points -- a small but not insignificant trend, researchers say.

"Research has found that the stress and anxiety of losing your job is actually not so much greater than the stress of worrying about losing your job" said Elizabeth Oltmans Ananat, an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Economics at Duke University and one of the authors of the study. "When there is a lot of job loss going on, everyone in the community gets very stressed out. They get depressed, they get anxious."

"It really changes the functioning of a community in ways that makes it harder for kids to learn," Ananat said.

The implications of the study are troubling, especially with little to no indication that a labor market recovery is on the way. With 13.9 million Americans still officially out of a job, 8.5 million who want full time work but must settle for part-time jobs and millions more too discouraged to seek employment, the situation appears grim.

"When kids are at this vulnerable time in their development, the impacts of events like this -- it can have really long lasting consequences," Ananat said, pointing to studies that have indicated that the negative consequences of low test scores can stay with students for years.

The NBER research showed that the test scores' connection to job loss held true for students of all backgrounds and all levels of academic achievement -- in contrast to similar studies which show concentrated effects for, say, children whose parents have a high school degree or less education. It also showed that there was no tipping point or threshold of job loss in to reach in order to see a negative impact on academic performance; if a state had twice as much job loss, it would see twice as much of a decrease in student test scores.

"A real sense of economic insecurity seems to have been a hallmark of the Great Recession, and the middle class has been profoundly affected," said Anna Gassman-Pines, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke and another author of the study. "We're really asking schools to be responsible for all of this, but that's a large burden to be placing on these schools."

The study found that steps that schools might make to improve student test scores -- lowering class size, for example -- were cancelled out by the negative consequences of community job loss.

"Is this a temporary setback and next year these kids will bounce back? Or has the Great Recession permanently altered their trajectory?" Gassman-Pines asked. "Right now we don't know the answer to this question."

Furthermore, study author Christina M. Gibson-Davis pointed out, the implications of the study could be deeper than the data shows.

"These are just test scores -- not the greatest measure of the kids' behavior," Gibson-Davis said. "This says to us that there's probably a lot more going on than what we're seeing. This is probably the tip of the iceberg."