How victims of child maltreatment fare in school

Although there is much research about “achievement gaps” between wealthy and poor students and the effects of “toxic stress” on academic outcomes, a recent study sought to examine the depth at which such issues as homelessness, domestic violence, neglect, and abuse can affect students in school, as well as the prevalence of the problem across schools and demographic groups.

Brian Jacob and Joseph Ryan conducted the study for the Brookings Institution. Matching school records collected from the Michigan Department of Education to child maltreatment information collected by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, the researchers focused on students in the third grade (Michigan administers a statewide test to all in children in this grade), as young children have higher rates of exposure to maltreatment and it has more harmful effects on younger children. The authors examined cases of both substantiated and unsubstantiated Child Protective Services (CPS) investigations, relying on the assumption that the existence of any complaint might point to some trauma, even in the unsubstantiated cases, where there was not enough evidence for a formal investigation to continue. They repeated their analysis using only substantiated CPS investigations, and came to the same pattern of results. Controlling for additional factors, the researchers compared children with CPS investigations in their records to peers who were the same race, gender, and birth year, had the same income level as measured by eligibility for free or reduced lunch, lived in the same neighborhood, and attended the same elementary school.

Jacob and Ryan found that early childhood maltreatment is associated with significantly lower academic outcomes. Only 57 percent of third graders with a prior CPS investigation achieved basic proficiency levels on the statewide reading exam, compared with 65 percent of third graders with no prior CPS investigation. For the math exam, it was 44 versus 51 percent.

Maltreated children were also more likely to have been held back than their peers. Sixteen percent of third graders who had no involvement with CPS were held back in kindergarten, first, or second grade, whereas 23 percent of third graders with a maltreatment investigation were retained.

The homes of children in more disadvantaged subgroups also had higher rates of both substantiated and unsubstantiated maltreatment investigations than their peers. Almost 30 percent of black student homes, for example, were investigated—nearly double that of white students. Similarly, families of 25 percent of students living in relatively high-poverty areas were investigated, compared to just 15 and 10 percent of those in middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods, respectively. And a quarter of pupils attending urban schools lived in homes subject to CPS investigations, compared to just 13 and 17 percent of their suburban and rural counterparts.

Despite the clear effect on educational progress, data on child maltreatment is infrequently linked to a child’s educational records as a matter of data privacy. But this also means that teachers and administrators, who might be in effective positions to offer additional supports to these children, will have little or no information about maltreatment. This study emphasizes the idea that we must place a special focus on the invisible and little understood factors that continue to contribute to inequality in our schools.

SOURCE: Brian A. Jacob & Joseph Ryan, “How Life Outside of School Affects Student Performance in School,” Brookings Institution (March 2018).