Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Dropout Problem and What Can Be Done About It

The Wall Street Journal recently released some staggering statistics: less than 40% of Americans over age 25 with less than a high school diploma are employed, and those who are employed make about $23,400 on average. Another report by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research indicates that about a third of young men with less than a high school degree have had contact with the criminal justice system. While there is often controversy as to how dropout rates should be measured, the Future of Children volume America’s High Schools points out that even the most optimistic figures suggest that too many students are leaving school early.

Authors John H. Tyler and Magnus Lofstrom in their chapter on “Finishing High School: Alternative Pathways and Dropout Recovery” point out that while much is known about the characteristics of students who do not complete high school, much less is known about the reasons why. A student’s decision to drop out of school, say the authors, is affected by a number of complex factors including student characteristics such as poor school performance and engagement, school characteristics related to school resources and student-teacher ratios, and family characteristics such as parent socioeconomic status and family structure.

Due to the wide range of factors associated with dropout rates, some communities are pushing for a more comprehensive prevention approach. PBS NewsHour reports that in Washington, D.C., individual success stories will be advertised at bus stops and on radio commercials – efforts by a truancy task force created by health and family services and law enforcement agencies. In disciplining students who skip school many communities are placing greater emphasis on counseling, parenting classes, and community service and less exposure to the criminal justice system. Evaluating the effectiveness of these and other prevention efforts is important. As the Future of Children volume America’s High Schools indicates, although hundreds of dropout prevention programs exist, very little evidence has been collected regarding their effectiveness.

To combat the dropout problem, in his State of the Union President Obama urged states to require all students to stay in school until they graduate or turn 18. In response to President Obama’s call, Senior Editor of the Future of Children Cecilia Rouse coauthored a New York Times piece suggesting that while President Obama’s efforts are a step in the right direction, the most effective solutions should begin much earlier. “Rigorous evidence gathered over decades suggests that some of the most promising approaches need to start (early); preschool for 3- and 4- year-olds, who are fed and taught in small groups, followed up with home visits by teachers and with group meetings of parents; reducing class size in the early grades; and increasing teacher salaries from kindergarten through 12th grade.”

Read more about programs for improving outcomes among adolescents and young adults in the Future of Children volumes School Readiness, Transition to Adulthood and Juvenile Justice.

High-Quality Childcare: Good for Kids, Good for Moms

“Balancing the competing needs of work and family life is a challenge for most households, but the difficulties may be greatest for households with young children, defined here as newborns through age five. Parents in many of these families struggle to find sufficient time both to fulfill work responsibilities and provide the intensive care that young children require.” The Future of Children: Work and Family

The first difficult and very important work and family decision a parent makes is who will care for the child while the parent is working. Choosing childcare is one of the largest stressors that a parent faces when returning to work.

A new study in the journal Child Development finds that high-quality early child care can have a significant impact on children’s wellbeing, and is important for mothers as well. High-quality child care is not about drilling children in educational facts, but more about low student to teacher ratio, age appropriate books and toys, and teachers who are attentive to the children and their developmental needs.

“Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin looked at data from more than 1,300 children whose care settings were evaluated at various intervals from the time they were a month old until they turned 4 ½. Their mothers were interviewed too. Those moms whose kids were cared for early on in “high-quality non-parental care” settings–either in day care centers or in others’ homes–were more likely than mothers who cared for their kids themselves or sent them to low-quality day care to be involved in their children’s schools starting in kindergarten… Robert Crosnoe, a professor of sociology in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin who led the study, notes that “children make a smoother transition to school when families and schools are strongly connected.”

(Time Healthland- February 15, 2012)

As noted in the Future of Children’s Work and Family volume, formal (center- or school-based) early childhood education and care received immediately before kindergarten appears to promote school readiness. Children, particularly those who are disadvantaged, who attend prekindergarten in the year before formal schooling begin that formal schooling with better math and reading skills, although some of these gains may be transitory or offset by later compensatory education that targets less-prepared children. Head Start participation is also associated with better dental care and overall health as well as with reductions in obesity.

Despite these positive findings, however, the volume is careful to note that, when taken together, research findings related to early childhood care and education are ambiguous, due in part to the high variability in services provided and the difficulty of determining which outcomes are of key interest (for example, cognitive test scores at school entry versus long-term educational and developmental outcomes.)

The one finding that remains certain from the current research base is that quality of care matters. High-quality care mitigates any negative consequences of early childhood care and education and enhances its benefits.

For more on this issue, go to the Future of Children Work and Family chapter on “Policies to Assist Parents with Young Children.”

Education for Homeless Children and Youth

In The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies, the Future of Children author Richard J. Murnane explains that the American ideal of equal educational opportunity for all children is not often the reality. According to the America’s Youngest Outcasts 2010 report, one group for whom this may be especially true is the 1.6 million children and youth (1 in 45) who experience homelessness each year.

Homelessness and other forms of housing instability such as doubling up and frequent moving can be traumatic experiences for children. Families are often forced to split up or move into shelters with chaotic and unsafe environments. For the 42% of homeless children who are age six or under, these early experiences may have negative effects on development and school readiness. The barriers young children in disadvantaged circumstances face, as well as policy recommendations for improving school readiness are discussed in the Future of Children volume School Readiness.

For homeless children already enrolled in school, a review of the literature reveals lower levels of school attendance and achievement when compared to other low-income children. They are also more likely to be placed in special education classes, score lower on standardized tests, and be asked to repeat a grade. Moreover, 75% of homeless or runaway youth have dropped out or will drop out of school. The Future of Children volumes America’s High Schools and The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies discuss ways to prevent dropout and improve the education of children living in poverty.

In 2002, the federal government reauthorized the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in an effort to remediate educational barriers for homeless children. The Act allows children and youth who do not have a fixed, adequate, and regular nighttime residence to immediately enroll in school and to receive services such as free transportation to either their school of origin or local school, immediate special education, and free school meals without an application.

While the McKinney-Vento Act is definitely a huge step toward equal educational opportunity, it is not enough to bring down many of the barriers homeless children face. During the recession years, the number of families at risk of experiencing homelessness increased, putting greater pressure on this issue. At this year’s National Conference for the Institute for Children, Poverty, & Homelessness, researchers and practitioners met to exchange ideas for educating homeless students and improving the circumstances of their families. A common theme at the conference was the importance of collaboration and community partnerships.

For information on homelessness and housing insecurity among Fragile Families see Fragile Families research briefs. Also see the Future of Children volume on Fragile Families and other volumes on the Future of Children website:

Why Mobility Matters

“A society with economic opportunity is one in which all children have a good chance of success regardless of the economic status of the family into which they are born. The United States has long been viewed as such a society–a place where with hard work most people can succeed, whatever their family background. With the rewards for economic success becoming bigger, as they have in recent decades, ensuring that competition is fair and open becomes even more important.

Relatively strong economic growth through much of U.S. history has meant that each generation could do better than the previous one, even if children remained in the same relative economic position as their parents. However, in recent decades family income growth has slowed.” (Future of Children, Opportunity in America, Executive Summary)

According to the US Census Bureau, in 2010, 15 percent of Americans lived below the poverty level, the highest number since 1993. That means a household income of $22,113 for a family of four. These levels of poverty are especially concerning when understood within the context of diminishing mobility in the United States.

As FOC senior editor Belle Sawhill writes in the New York Times:

“A growing body of evidence suggests that the United States, far from being the land of opportunity celebrated in our history and our literature, is instead a country where class matters after all, where upward mobility is constrained, especially among those born into the bottom ranks.

What could be done to improve the upward mobility chances of less advantaged children?

First, it would help if more parents were ready to take on the most important responsibility any adult normally assumes, which is the decision to have a child. Unfortunately, for far too many teens and young adults, this is not a carefully planned decision. Half of all children born to women under the age of 30 are born outside of marriage, and 70 percent of all pregnancies to single women in this age group are unplanned. Research shows that access to more effective (but expensive and hard-to-get) forms of contraception could help here.

Second, low-income children enter school far behind their more advantaged peers in vocabulary and learning-related behaviors such as the ability to sit still or follow directions. High-quality early-education programs can compensate for some of these deficits, but too few children are enrolled and too few programs are high quality. These children tend to fall further behind as they progress through school. Large numbers drop out of high school, enter the criminal justice system, or end up unemployed or earning very low wages. These trajectories can be changed in part by putting better teachers in the classroom, setting higher standards and expecting students and parents to be full partners in this effort.

Third, no one should graduate from school without the specific skills needed by today’s employers. Not everyone is going to benefit from a traditional four-year college degree. But more career and technical education, on-the-job training or community college programs could produce a more highly skilled work force.

These investments have the potential to increase opportunity, economic growth, and our competitiveness with other countries. Will we make the needed changes?”

For more on opportunity in America, go to the Future of Children volume on the topic.

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