School & District Management From Our Research Center

Principals: More of Your Students Might Be Abused or Neglected Than You Think

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 27, 2018 3 min read
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Quick quiz: How many students in a given elementary school walk into their 3rd-grade achievement tests with a history of abuse or neglect? One in 10? One in 5? One in two?

A forthcoming study by University of Michigan researchers Brian Jacob and Joseph Ryan finds nearly 18 percent of students in the Wolverine State have been involved in a child welfare investigation by the time they reach 3rd grade. In high-poverty schools, 30 percent to 60 percent of all students can be affected. And more than a third of those investigations confirmed abuse or neglect. In fact, statewide, the researchers found the rate of child welfare investigations was higher than the rates of childhood asthma and disabilities combined. The results were previewed in a report by the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution.

“In education, we recognize that there are a lot of out-of-school factors that affect student achievement. ... That’s always assumed, but it’s really not a main focus of schools themselves— they might be focused on making sure the math instruction is well-designed and targeted,” said Jacob, a professor of education policy and economics at the University of Michigan. “But when I saw the numbers myself, it made me rethink that. If 50 percent of children in a low-income urban school have likely been subject to abuse or neglect at home, that has to be one of the top priorities of the school, whether they want it to be or not.”

Achievement Gaps Associated With Abuse and Neglect

Generally, principals and teachers are not notified of child welfare investigations, even if there is a formal confirmation of abuse or if the child is removed from the home—but the effects do make themselves known.

Jacob and Ryan used linked child welfare and student achievement data to compare more than 742,000 students with a history of mistreatment (from birth through age 9) to matched peers of the same age, race, gender, income level, neighborhood and elementary school. Once those background characteristics were taken into account, the researchers found by the end of 3rd grade, students who had been involved in an investigation of abuse lagged in a variety of academic areas compared to peers who had not—and the gaps were even larger for students whose child welfare investigations confirmed abuse or neglect.

All told, these gaps between students who had alleged or confirmed neglect or abuse and their peers were about as great as the black-white achievement gap. Moreover, while less than 12 percent of students who had no history of abuse were in special education, the special education rate was 19 percent for students who had been involved in a child welfare investigation, and 21 percent for those whose investigation confirmed abuse or neglect.

While the study looked only at Michigan, it is in line with other studies that suggest about 20 percent of children experience this sort of trauma. And as the Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to track the educational progress of vulnerable students like those in foster care, more states may begin to look at the rates of abused children in their own districts.

Elizabeth Dabney, the director of research and policy analysis for the Data Quality Campaign, said that as of 2014—when the group last surveyed—at least half of states had the capability to link data from public education and child welfare agencies to look more closely at how abuse and neglect affect children’s academic trajectories.

Ryan, an associate professor of social work and co-director of the University of Michigan’s Child and Adolescent Data Lab, said the results may make policymakers and educators rethink the structure of initiatives such as retaining students who cannot read proficiently by the end of grade 3. Falling behind may be a warning sign that these students need counseling or other emotional support, not just academic enrichment.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.


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