School decline and social unrest

Tonya Mead, PhD, MBA, M.Ed, School Psychologist

Is it possible that social unrest can be correlated with declines in academic performance in school? To address this question, let’s dissect a few terms. Children, teens and young adults, as one can imagine, were grossly impacted by the social and civil unrest of 2019 and 2020. Don’t they reference the same conditions, you might ask?

  • Social unrest refers to “a collective dissatisfaction with a particular event, activity or outcome. It tends to result in behaviors that disrupt the typical social order of life.”  (See here).
  • Civil unrest, describes “disruptive situations — a riot, protest, or strike — caused by a group of people.” (See here).

Further, much like hurricane categories, risk factors and stress levels, social and civil unrest can be ranked by order of severity, reach and impact.

Table 1. Social and Civil Unrest Levels

LevelSeverity, Reach, Impact
3Disruptions at global, national, regional, or state levels
Targeted business district, facility, business, highway blockage, or transportation, system,
Localized, neighborhood or community based.
Levels of Social and Civil Unrest

What does this have to do with schooling, education and academic performance, you may ask? Well, I guess I am trying to cull the research to see if social and civil unrest impose negative impacts on school learning, as does school violence. According to research, “schools cannot fulfil their role as places of learning and socialization if children are not in an environment free of violence.” Please bear with me. Regardless of whether the unrest (civil or social) occurred at the global or local level, feelings of anxiety, frustration, unease, and helplessness were shared by adults as well as children, teens and young adults. Unfortunately, these emotions did not pass through our consciousness without making undeniable imprints on our psyche.

For instance, American University reported upon several studies showing that “dramatic reports of police shootings, viral images of protests, and widespread civil unrest may also impose costs in the short-run on children and schools.” And no, the study did not reference the most turbulent years in this decade 2019, to 2020; rather 2016!

Researchers examined sentiment and behaviors after the Ferguson Missouri protests, and “found a 5 percent increase in chronic absence in the city’s schools. In turn, Ferguson saw an increase of up to 15 percent of students scoring “below basic” in math and reading. Moreover, these effects on student achievement spilled over into other majority-black schools in the St. Louis metro area.”

Similarities to Columbian Conflict and Declines in Academic Attainment

When studying the civil unrest in Columbia and its impact on school achievement (standardized exams), Soler, a researcher at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana found that “cognitive achievement may be affected in numerous ways by exposure to conflict.” She argued that “conflict directly affects educational achievement because it reduces the amount of family resources available for education.” She points directly to the scarcity of “labor opportunities [that] tend to be limited in conflict zones and households [where the inhabitants] have a higher level of exposure to violent attacks, which can result in the destruction of family assets.” (Soler, 2016, page 82).

Connection between family wealth, educational and occupational success

It is a widely accepted assumption based on peer-reviewed research published in educational and psychological journals that family wealth and income are associated with academic achievement. Researchers a the University of Michigan reported the following.

  • Elementary School. “Wealth increases parental expectations of child performance, which leads to educational achievement during the elementary school years.”
  • Middle and High School. “The greatest impact of wealth on educational success came in years 6-12, which echoes previous studies on income’s impact on success.”
  • College and Vocational School. As the child transitions from the k-12 secondary system, they found that “family wealth during childhood was linked to children’s college success 17 years later.”
  • Lifelong Success. “These findings parallel the income literature, which has clearly established that poverty and/or economic deprivation during early childhood is more consequential for later educational and occupational success.”

Financial devastation of families and communities

In reflecting upon the social conflicts, protests and riots that were experienced and/or viewed on broadcast television in the United States, these come to mind: Atlanta, Portland, Minneapolis, New York City and Rochester, Chicago, Kenosha, and Philadelphia.

You wouldn’t call these areas bucolic, peaceful, idyllic locales, rather, as Soler says of “conflict zones [that] are very prone to attacks that cause damage to or destruction of the available public and private infrastructure. This also reduces the prospects of private investment in the conflict zone.” (Soler, 2016, page 82).

The Claims Journal estimated that the protests, looting and rioting in approximately 140 U.S. cities during the summer “may rival the 1992 Los Angeles riots to become the most costly civil disorder in United States history.” As a point of reference the insurers, noted that “the civil disturbance in Los Angeles after the videotaped police beating of Rodney King in April and May 1992 caused $775 million in damages — or $1.42 billion in today’s dollars.” In fact, Axios projected that “the arson, vandalism and looting that did occur will result in at least $1 billion to $2 billion of paid insurance claims.”

Many U.S. black-owned and minority small businesses, according to Reuters, are highly concentrated in retail, restaurants and other service industries most affected by shutdowns and social distancing. I would add riots and protests. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, mandated lockdowns, restricted movements, social and civil unrest, the Washington Post estimated that “working black business owners fell by 41% between February and April to 640,000, compared to a 17% drop in the number of white business owners,”

Do the benefits expected to gain from civil unrest out way the costs?

If global, massive, wholesale destruction is a byproduct of rioting, why do people riot anyway? Psychology Today, provides this rationale, “deep-seated resentments, repetitive frustrations, and long-standing disappointments galvanize people into action.” But is this really true? Could this be a superficial observation from academicians, theorists lacking real world, on-the-ground in the field experience working hand-in-hand with the parents, students, educators, professors, and teachers in the communities and neighborhoods for which they serve?

A possible clue could be uncovered by reading a 1960s study to explain the phenomenon of the civil rights riots. “For instance, during the three years from 1965 to 1968 there were more than three hundred riots that resulted in two hundred deaths and the destruction of several thousand businesses.”

Survey takers in Watts found that “the actual events of the riot were almost universally condemned.” When asked “What did you like about what was going on?” two out of three respondents replied, “Nothing.” Detroit blacks believed that the rioters were motivated by the “chance to get things” (42 percent) or the “opportunity, lack of sanctions” (12 percent) rather than revenge. Indeed, a high percentage of those arrested during the riots agreed that they were acting upon a “desire for material gain” (Thernstrom and Thernstrom 1997, 161–62; Singer and Osborn 1970, 28, 37; Sears and Tomlinson 1968, 492; Fine 1989, 346).” (Bean, 2000, page 167).

At the time of the 1960s study of the Watts riots, “nationwide, blacks hoped that some good would come of the riots and viewed them as in some way a protest against unfair conditions, but there was little support for the arson and looting that took place (more than two-thirds of blacks thought that “looters steal property and are criminals”). Moreover, after the terribly destructive riots of 1967, a strong majority of blacks thought that the violence hurt the cause of civil rights (Erskine 1967, 662, 671, 677).” (Bean, 2000, page 167).

School Decline

So getting back to school decline and deficits in learning. Research by Soler demonstrates that there is a correlation between the intensity of social and civil unrest and decreases in scores on standardized examinations; however, it her results were less than what was hypothesized prior to the analysis of the data she had collected at the conclusion of her study. The reasons, she suggests?

  • The protective role of education. Attending in-person classes may mitigate the negative effects of civil conflict and social unrest. She states, “attending school can play a very important role in protecting vulnerable children and young adults. It is well known that children and young adults who live in conflict zones are vulnerable and in need of special protection. Schools can deliver that protection by providing them with a safe place to play.” (Soler, 2016, page 94).
  • The self-selection mechanism. The limitations of Soler’s study is that the pool of subjects responding to the survey and for whom data was available, were those with the family and community resources to partake in educational activities in spite of social conflict. “The literature has shown that those individuals who do not have the resources (monetary, psychological, family support) to overcome or adapt to the rough conditions that are prevalent in conflict areas are more likely to drop out of the formal educational system. In that sense, self-selection could also explain our results because it is more likely that those individuals with the resources to overcome or adapt to the harsh conditions will have the opportunity to continue with their studies.” (Soler, 2016, page 96).

Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) Recommendations

Soler cites Nicolai and Triplehorn (2003) to emphasize five salient points about in-person school attendance:.

  1. “education benefits the psychosocial health of students living in
    conflict zones;
  2. offers an alternative to destructive conduct, providing access to healthy and nutritious meals, and offering guidance from counselors and teachers;
  3. provides a forum of self-expression and interaction with other children. This interaction is particularly important because it boosts their sense of identity and inclusion;
  4. gives students a sense of self-worth, enables them to develop social networks, and provides a structured program of activities; and
  5. helps students to set goals such as completing homework, preparing for exams, completing a school certificate, regular assignments and tests, schools can provide students with achievable objectives that can be seen as reasons to continue fighting for a better future. (Soler, 2016, page 95).

On these grounds, among projected lost of years of life and potential loss of years learning the JAMA recommends that students attend in-person classes as soon as possible. Download the actual report here on this site.

Other Articles you Might Like

Dr. Mead, PhD, MBA, MA is a consultant specializing in human behavior, school and social psychology. She can be contacted at: tonya dot ishareknowledge dot com