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The Recession Hits Home -- And then the Classroom

How job loss and a suffering economy are hurting student success.


By Mary Ellen Flannery

In January, the technology giant Dell closed its shiny new plant in Forsyth County, North Carolina, and terminated more than 900 jobs. It’s a decision that doesn’t compute well for kids.

Recent studies have shown that a parent’s job loss can have devastating effects on children. In the short term, they’re much more likely to struggle in school, and the ill effects may last long into adulthood. And it’s not just North Carolina’s children who have been caught in the economic chaos. Across the country, communities have been gripped and tossed by a recession that may be over – but still has left nearly 6 million people out of work.

“We have always known that socio-economic status and changes in socio-economics affect students and their ability to be successful in the classroom,” says Tripp Jeffers, president of North Carolina’s Forsyth County Association of Educators. “When students are worried about whether their mom or dad is going to be able to find a job, whether they’re going to have electricity that week, or whether they’re going to have to move, all those are stresses that undermine their academic success. We’ve always known that to be the case – and it’s just being amplified by the current recession.”

The latest study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in November, looked at homes where a parent had lost a job and found that those children had a 15 percent greater chance of repeating a grade. Further investigation found that those students hadn’t had any greater chance of retention before the job loss, “suggesting a causal link between the parental employment shock and children’s academic difficulties.” For students whose parents had a high school education or less, it was worse; for students whose parents had completed some college, the effects were minimal.

Other research has shown that the effects of parental job loss can extend beyond childhood. In January, an Australian economist found that, after parents lost their jobs, their teenage children were less likely than their peers to enroll in community college or other higher education, maybe because they felt pressure to earn money for their families. And these can be long-lasting effects – in 2005, a Canadian study found that children of parents who lost their jobs earned about 9 percent less, on average, than similar children of parents who held on to their jobs. They also were more likely to receive unemployment and other government welfare benefits.

None of this surprises David Stephenson, a retired guidance counselor from Rhode Island, where unemployment neared 13 percent in January. The loss of a parent’s job likely has a two-fold effect, he suggests. On the one hand, even though you might think the parent suddenly has all this time to devote to the child’s education, it really doesn’t work like that.

“When people are obsessed with other things in their lives, they’re much less likely to be involved in their kids’ lives,” he says. “When Mom and Dad are worried about where the food is coming from or if they’re going to lose the house, then the last thing they’re worried about is whether the algebra is done.”

At the same time, their kids are distracted from their schoolwork too, Stephenson points out. “They know they cost money. They know they put financial demands on the family. They get that guilt going.”

But job loss doesn’t have to mean the end of a child’s academic career. The study showed clearly that well-educated parents, despite job loss, were able to somehow protect their children from disastrous consequences. “[They] may be more likely to maintain...behaviors that facilitate children’s academic success even in the face of short run income or other disruptions,” the study’s authors, Ann Huff Stevens and Jessamyn Schaller, wrote.

Educators can also help these and other students in a variety of ways. Just being aware – and sensitive to – the conditions of a child’s home life can be helpful. Stephenson recalls a student of years ago whose grades and attendance took a precipitous drop, prompting school officials to hold a “disciplinary hearing” with her.

 “The first words out of her mouth were, ‘Right after Christmas, my mother kicked me out so her boyfriend could move in, and I’ve been living in a car with my boyfriend, but then the car caught on fire and my books burned up.’”

Did that child need to be suspended? Stephenson definitely didn’t think so. What she needed was more academic support and social services to help her find a more stable place to live.

“You just don’t know what might be happening in a student’s life,” the retired counselor says.

Of course, many educators have their own recession-related problems, especially the thousands who were laid off at the start of this school year and the many more who face unemployment next year. “We have a number of members whose husbands or wives have lost their jobs – which makes their own work more stressful,” North Carolina’s Tripp Jeffers says. It also makes the work of the Association around salary and benefits even more crucial.

For its part, NEA has urged Congress to extend aid provided by the American Recovery and Investment Act, which provided nearly $50 billion to states to save more than 250,000 education jobs, and it applauds President Obama’s job initiatives, which should help keep more educators and others off the unemployment line. “All in all, President Obama’s proposed 2011 budget bodes well for education,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “Even in these tough economic times, it is clear that the President is unwilling to sacrifice the future of our children and our nation."