How school can keep kids off drugs

How school can keep kids of drugs

By April Frawley Birdwell

Amy Tobler/Photo by Jesse S. Jones

In building a culture where even the most underprivileged students can achieve academic success, schools may be able to inadvertently stymie another problem: drug and alcohol use.

While studying 61 inner-city middle schools in Chicago, UF researchers found that students in schools that performed better than expected were less likely to use drugs and alcohol, steal or participate in fights than children in schools that did not perform as well. The study was published in March in the journal Prevention Science.

Higher performance in the classroom reduced the rate of drug use and delinquency in schools by as much as 25 percent, said Amy Tobler, Ph.D., a research assistant professor of health outcomes and policy in the UF College of Medicine and the study’s lead author.

The schools in question all had high populations of ethnic minorities and children from underprivileged homes, factors often linked to lower achievement in schools, Tobler said.

“It could be good teaching, better administration. Whatever these schools are doing, if we can replicate it, it will lead to not only academic achievement but improvement in healthy behaviors as well,” Tobler said. “Some schools can break that strong link between sociodemographic disadvantage and drug use and delinquency.”

The researchers collected data in the schools between 2002 and 2005, following students in their sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade years. Academic achievement scores were based on standardized tests on reading and math, which public school students in all states are required to take. The researchers determined how well schools should perform based on each school’s own sociodemographic factors and compared that to how well they actually fared. They then compared that information to achievement and attendance records and data collected about students’ drug and alcohol use.

Of the 61 schools, seven performed better than expected academically, a link that seemed to help keep kids in class and off drugs and alcohol, Tobler said.

“I think the study is provocative, and it has one remarkable aspect: Schools that do better have effects that are not (solely) academic, and that tells you that the whole culture of the school is important,” said David Berliner, a Regents professor emeritus of education at Arizona State University, who was not involved with the study. “It is not surprising, in a way. If you can get low-income kids to identify with a school, you get better kids at the end.”

The researchers refer to this link between a school’s academic culture and students’ healthy behaviors as “value-added education,” a concept that was first shown in the United Kingdom in a different population of students. The UF study shows that this can work among students facing disadvantages as well, Tobler said.

But the progress could be undercut by proposed funding cuts to educational programs across the country, Tobler added.

“Almost all states are cutting budgets to public education,” Tobler said. “We are increasingly asking them to do more and more with fewer resources. The extent to which schools can achieve this value-added education or continue it may be severely limited by budget cuts.”

Other researchers who contributed to the study include Kelli Komro and Alexis Dabroski of UF; Paul Aveyard of the University of Birmingham; and Wolfgang A. Markham of the University of Warwick.