Children from troubled families perform “considerably worse” on standardized reading and mathematics tests and are much more likely to commit disciplinary infractions and be suspended than other students, according to a new study. Writing in Education Next, Scott Carrell of UC-Davis and the University of Pittsburgh’s Mark Hoekstra offer evidence that “a single disruptive student can indeed influence the academic progress made by an entire classroom of students.”
Carrell and Hoekstra, who are both economists, examined confidential student data from Florida’s Alachua County school district, consisting of observations of students in grades 3 through 5 over an eight-year period. The pair also had access to disciplinary records for every student in their sample, which they cross-referenced to domestic violence data from public records. What emerged was a compelling set of data that indicates children exposed to domestic violence have more disciplinary problems at school, underperform academically and have a negative effect on peers–resulting in lower test scores and increased disciplinary problems in others. In essence, a ”one bad apple” syndrome. Carrell and Hoekstra title their piece “Domino Effect.”
“A majority of parents and school officials believe that children who are troubled, whatever the cause, not only demonstrate poor academic performance and inappropriate behavior in school, but also adversely affect the learning opportunities for other children in the classroom,” observe Carrell and Hoekstra. The pair cite a Public Agenda survey which found that 85 percent of teachers and 73 percent of parents agreed that the “school experience of most students suffers at the expense of a few chronic offenders.” The study largely validates those concerns.
Our findings have important implications for both education and social policy. First, they provide strong evidence of the validity of the “bad apple” peer effects model, which hypothesizes that a single disruptive student can negatively affect the outcomes for all other students in the classroom. Second, our results suggest that policies that change a child’s exposure to classmates from troubled families will have important consequences for his educational outcomes. Finally, our results provide a more complete accounting of the social cost of family conflict. Any policies or interventions that help improve the family environment of the most troubled students may have larger benefits than previously anticipated.
Poll teachers in struggling schools, and I will wager a substantial amount that classroom disruption is identified consistently as the primary barrier to student achievement. Yet it is consistently glossed over or dismissed, typically attributed to a teacher’s lack of classroom management skills. I have long believed that the time on-task lost to disruption and behavior problems is almost certainly one of the under-discussed root causes of the achievement gap. This study does a great service by confirming what many teachers and parents have intuited for years: disruption matters and has a negative effect on all students.
School and classroom tone matter enormously–perhaps more than any other factor. Get it right and everything seems to work. Get it wrong and nothing does. This study holds out the promise of sparking a very important discussion about the rights of the individual in the classroom versus the rights of the community. It’s long overdue.