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Research

Civil Unrest Leads to Student Achievement Decline, Says New Study

Empty classroom with chairs, desks and chalkboard.

Dramatic reports of police shootings, viral images of protests, and widespread civil unrest have been dominating the news in many American urban areas for the past several years. While protests and acts of civil unrest may help to bring about change in the long run, they may also impose costs in the short-run on children and schools.

A new study published by the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) on August 2, 2016, outlines the implications of civic unrest for educational policy and practice. The research – conducted by Seth Gershenson, assistant professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs, and Michael S. Hayes, assistant professor at Rutgers University, Camden – shows how disruptive outside events can be to student learning.

In 2014, a highly publicized police shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri triggered community protests that had profound effects on student achievement.

“The prolonged episodes of protests and unrest in Ferguson had far-reaching effects,” said Gershenson. “After reviewing the data, we could see there was a clear, causal relationship between civic unrest and student achievement and absences.”

In the year immediately following protests in Ferguson, MO, Gershenson and Hayes 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.

“The bottom line is that during periods of unrest and stress, students learn less, and this shows up in end-of-year standardized tests,” said Gershenson. “By providing additional resources, support, and guidance to affected schools, local, state, and federal policymakers could reduce the harm to achievement associated with periods of civic unrest.”

Visit the School of Public Affairs for more information about Seth Gershenson or visit the IZA website for the complete paper (IZA DP No. 10091).