Externalities in the Classroom: How Children Exposed to Domestic Violence Affect Everyone’s Kids

Many teachers believe that a “few bad apples” can spoil a whole classroom, reducing the learning of everyone in the room. While this is part of the folk wisdom of teaching, it has been surprisingly difficult to find these effects in the data.

But a very convincing new paper, by Scott Carrell of U.C. Davis and Mark Hoekstra of U.Pitt, “Externalities in the Classroom: How Children Exposed to Domestic Violence Affect Everyone’s Kids” (available here), suggests that these effects can be pretty big.

The real difficulty in this style of research is to find a useful proxy for whether or not a classroom is affected by a disruptive student. Previously researchers have used indicators like whether a student has low standardized test scores, but as any teacher knows, the under-performing kids may not be the disruptive ones. And if you analyze only a weak statistical proxy for classroom disruption, you get weak estimates, even when the true effects are large.

The truly innovative part of the Carrell and Hoekstra study begins with their search for potentially disruptive kids: they looked for those coming from particularly difficult family situations. In particular, they combed through court records and linked every domestic violence charge in Alachua County, Florida to the county schooling records of kids living in those households.

It’s a sad story: nearly 5 percent of the kids in their sample could be linked to a household with a reported domestic violence incident. (And given under-reporting, the true number may be much larger.)

The costs of this dysfunction are even more profound. Kids exposed to domestic violence definitely do have lower reading and math scores and greater disciplinary problems. But the effects of this dysfunction are not limited to the direct victims of this violence: kids exposed to kids exposed to domestic violence also have lower test scores and more disciplinary infractions.

Around 70 percent of the classes in their sample have at least one kid exposed to domestic violence. The authors compare the outcomes of that kid’s classmates with their counterparts in the same school and the same grade in a previous or subsequent year — when there were no kids exposed to family violence — finding large negative effects.

Adding even more credibility to their estimates, they show that when a kid shares a classroom with a victim of family violence, she or he will tend to under-perform relative to a sibling who attended the same school but whose classroom had fewer kids exposed to violence. These comparisons underline the fact that the authors are isolating the causal effects of being in a classroom with a potentially disruptive kid, and not some broader socio-economic pattern linking test scores and the amount of family violence in the community.

You likely already believe there is an equity rationale for trying to help those kids subject to difficult family situations. This research also suggests a compelling efficiency rationale, as the effects radiate well beyond the dysfunctional household.

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  1. Joe Dokes says:

    They had to actually do a study to prove this?

    I’ve taught for fifteen years and have a rule of thumb that I call the four jerk rule. Any class can survive with up to four jerks, after four you run out of corners and the class becomes largely crowd control.

    Regards

    Joe Dokes

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  2. concerned parent says:

    Hey Joe,
    I’m wondering when in your 15-year teaching career you started referring to some of your students as “jerks” and whether this, and your lack of interest in the conclusions of this research, may indicate time for a change of careers. I hope my boys are taught by teachers who work to reach even the most troubled kids in the class and who jump at teh chance for more information and understanding about the social stresses the students and their families face.

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  3. Bob Jones says:

    @Joe Dokes
    “after four you run out of corners”

    You just need a room with more corners…

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  4. Chris S. says:

    “They had to actually do a study to prove this?”

    Yes. That is precisely how one “proves” things.

    Hypotheses without supporting data (generally obtained through studies) are called opinions.

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  5. Rachel says:

    Well until teachers are treated more like professionals, with higher expectations and salaries…there are still going to lots of people in the classroom like Mr. Joe Dokes who should have never worked with kids or who should have stopped a long time ago.
    I have seen this many times through my experiences working in schools and as a child protection services social worker.

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  6. Mike M says:

    @concerned parent
    I think the most we can ask from a teacher is to do their best to educate all the students in the class. If a student is a “Jerk” the instructor shouldn’t be compelled to allocate more resources to the jerk at the expense of the rest of the class. There comes a point where you have to accept the situation, get through to the rest of the kids who are eager to learn, and deal with the jerk outside of class time.

    You can call the jerk whatever PC term you choose, but it doesn’t change the reality of the situation.

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  7. Molly says:

    Joe, don’t want to jump on the bandwagon here, but this is amazing research! It is excrutiatingly difficult to weed out externalities in social research, and the designers of this study did an impressive job of finding data to compare that would be useful and cut out the most variables possible. I think the exact point of this study is that it doesn’t matter whether the kids were “jerks” or quiet, cooperative kids. The point is that, regardless of their classroom behavior, the aspect of exposure to domestic violence dropped their grades and increased their behavior issues, as well as those of their fellow classmates. Fascinating!

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  8. Michael F. Martin says:

    @Bob Jones

    Pretty soon you just have a circle and then it’s just a tug of war along 180 different axes. I think that’s what we’re trying to avoid.

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