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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 06/15/2010

How homicides affect test scores - study

By Valerie Strauss

School reformers who say that poverty and family circumstance are only excuses for poor student performance might do well to look at a new study which found African-American children in Chicago scoring a lot lower on reading and vocabulary tests within a week of a homicide in their neighborhood -- even if they did not directly witness the violence.

The study was conducted by Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University, who analyzed 6,041 homicides between 1994 and 2002 in Chicago and testing data of about 1,100 African-Americn children from ages 6 to 17. He looked at scores of tests taken before a homicide and then compared them with test scores from before the violence.

“The results indicate that the impact of violence is not limited to those victimized or those who directly witness an act of violence, but appears to be felt by children across a community who live in close proximity to extreme violent events,” the study says. “This finding has implications for efforts to mitigate the harmful consequences of exposure to violence.”

The problem is acute; homicide remains among the leading causes of death among 15-24 year olds nationally and is the top cause of death among African Americans in this age range, the study says.

Earlier research looked at the impact of long-term exposure to community violence on children’s cognitive and development trajectories, while this study focused on the impact of acute events in children’s environments that might be felt over days or weeks.

The study says that the same negative effort was not seen in data on Hispanic students, though it is not clear why local homicides would generate acute stress among African-Americans and the Hispanics.

“One possible explanation is suggested by an analysis of victims’ race/ethnic backgrounds, which indicates that homicide victims in Hispanics’ neighborhoods are often African American, which could make the homicide less threatening or salient in a child’s life,” the study said. “By contrast, homicide victims in African Americans’ neighborhoods are almost always of the same race.”

Some school reformers like to say that poverty is used as an excuse for the failure of students to progress, and they blame teachers for not ensuring that kids rise above all of the outside factors that might affect how well they do in school.

Would they also say that fear induced by a homicide down the street is also just an excuse?

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By Valerie Strauss  | June 15, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Equity, Research  | Tags:  effects of homicide on schoolchildren, effects of poverty on school performance, effects of violence on children, new york university research, school reform  
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And the Chicago School Consortium has also shown that poor schools that did not improve only had a skin-deep resemblance with poor neighborhood schools that did improve. The real factor is the amount of trauma.

I'm reminded of the parent enrolling her son at our school this year, who went off at our librarian. She was stressed because her son was from our neighborhood but attended another school. He had witnessed a murder and had taken a beating at school to deter snitching. Huge numbers of kids at both schools knew who was guilty, but the crime remains unsolved. And the generalized pattern of fear continues as extended family members, as well as closer members of kids' families, suffer violence. I've always been curious of how Value Added Models account for the murder of the grandfather who was the only parent a child has known ... If we just use common sense, we'd understand how pervasive the effects of violence are in the poorest schools, and that not all poor neighborhoods are the same.

Posted by: johnt4853 | June 15, 2010 7:54 AM | Report abuse

I took a class a few years ago that dealt with teaching children in poverty. Research was shared which showed that many students actually had physiological changes to the brain as a result of living in extreme poverty. Apparently the hormones that are present in a fearful situation that cause the "flight or fight" reaction are present most of the time and they cause changes. The brain scans done on the kids were quite startling. It made total sense why their learning would be affected.

Posted by: musiclady | June 15, 2010 11:07 AM | Report abuse

Poverty is not an excuse if it is the only factor in a child's education that can be changed. However, the length of the school day and school year can be changed, the pedagogical approach can be changed, the curriculum can be changed, the amount of time devoted to certain subjects can be changed, the quality of instruction can be changed, discipline systems can be changed, expectations for teaching and learning can be changed. Poverty is an excuse if schools and teachers are not willing to make any of the above changes and try new approaches, especially changes that are designed to meet the needs of children in poverty, such as more structure, more time in school, stronger relationships with role models, etc.

Posted by: Gideon2 | June 15, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Gideon – here in DC, Michelle Rhee expects teachers to overcome all of the effects of poverty. None of the changes you suggest have been made, but still, teachers are held completely accountable for student achievement. Just this week, Michelle Rhee reiterated a statement she’s made many times: “At DCPS we know that all children can achieve at high levels." Really? How does she know that?

Posted by: efavorite | June 16, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Now if only the politicians and non-educational journalists would listen. I know the educational journalists will listen, but I don't think the non-educational ones will.

Posted by: aby1 | June 16, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse

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