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Link between education outcomes and drug/alcohol abuse?

July 24, 2014 - Betsy Bethel
The latest Kids Count survey made headlines today, with our newspaper noting West Virginia's kids are faring among the worst in the country, including ranking 46th in education and 35th in health.

Out of curiosity — and because I'm involved with the efforts of the Ohio County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition, which focuses on preventing youth alcohol and substance abuse — I decided to see if I could link Kids Count's teen alcohol and drug use report to its education results.

I checked the Kids Count health report for the percentages of teens who abused alcohol and drugs in the states ranked best and worst in education. I found that it really did not have a significant correlation. Of the lowest 10 states on the education list in Kids Count, an average 6.4 percent of teens abused alcohol and drugs in 2011-12, according to the survey. Of the top 10 states in education, slightly more, 6.9 percent, abused alcohol and drugs. I was surprised to note both were above the national average of 6 percent.

One can infer, then, that drug and alcohol abuse among youth does not necessarily affect educational outcomes, at least on a macro level. It's also good to note that, according to Kids Count, the national average of teen drug and alcohol abuse is down 2 percent from 8 percent in 2005-06.

Then I got to thinking ... what about the adults? I decided also to take a look at adult drug and alcohol use and dependence in the best and worst education states. Does having more adults who use or are dependent on drugs have a correlation with how well kids in that state do in school? In a word, yes.

For this, I went to the National Survey on Drug Use 2013 report, which lists percentages for 2011-12 (same as Kids Count).

I thought it notable that only one of the top 10 states for education in the Kids Count report had among the highest percentages in the U.S. for drug and alcohol use or dependence among adults 26 and over. Pennsylvania, No. 7 in the country for education, falls into the highest category among U.S. states for illicit drug dependence (1.82-2.42 percent of the state's population). None of the other top 10 states for education fell into the top category for usage and dependence of marijuana, other illicit drugs, non-medical pain relievers and alcohol.

On the other hand, among the 10 worst states for education, seven had the highest percentages of drug and alcohol use or dependence.

For example, the worst education state according to Kids Count, Nevada, falls into the highest usage category in the U.S. for nonmedical use of pain relievers and alcohol dependence by adults 26 and over. The second worst, New Mexico, ranks among the highest in the U.S. for marijuana use, other illicit drug use and non-medical use of pain relievers in the same age group.

At the other end of the spectrum, only four of the 10 worst education states had the lowest percentages of use or dependence: Louisiana and West Virginia were among the lowest in marijuana use among adults, and Alabama and Georgia were among the lowest in alcohol dependence.

But seven of the 10 best education states had the lowest numbers of drug and alcohol use or dependence in the United States. Massachusetts, the top education state, was in the lowest percentage category for illicit drug dependence and non-medical use of pain relievers. No. 5 in education, Connecticut, fell into that category in illicit drug use (other than marijuana) and pain pills. Pennsylvania, Maryland, Nebraska and Virginia also had low numbers in drug and alcohol use or dependence.

I realize anyone can use statistics to tell pretty much any story they want. If you go in looking to prove a point, you probably can find a way to do it. The fact that some of the worst education states had the highest numbers of people in the U.S. doing drugs and needing treatment for alcohol may not have any significance whatsoever.

But what if it does? Could putting more effort into drug and alcohol abuse prevention and treatment end up having a positive effect on a state's education outcomes?

I don't have the answers. But I think it's worth considering.


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