Author Archives: Elisabeth Donahue

FOC Research Supports Supreme Court Decision Rejecting Life without Parole for Juvenile Offenders

Yesterday’sSupreme Court decision, banning sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders who have not committed murder, was right on. As our volume Juvenile Justice demonstrates, over a decade of social science research has demonstrated that adolescents lack the emotional and mental maturity of adults and this needs to be considered when making decisions about culpability and punishment.

Compared to adults, adolescents are impulsive, short-sighted, and easily influenced by peers. In general, they do not think ahead, and they are unduly influenced by the potential rewards of risky decisions and less concerned about potential costs. Most crimes committed by juveniles are impulsive, stupid, non-violent acts that occur when they are with their friends, not calculated decisions that are well thought through.
Therefore, punitive policies often do not deter juveniles from crime because the same factors that lead adolescents to commit crimes in the first place make them less likely to be deterred by punitive sanctions. To be deterred by the prospect of a long sentence, or incarceration, or transfer into the adult system, a teenager needs to think long-term, like an adult. This is not to say that juvenile offenders should be not held accountable for their crimes. They absolutely should – but in a way that recognizes the offenders’ youth and gives them a second chance. Life without parole for non-homicide offenses does not take into account that juvenile criminals may well mature into law abiding adults with the proper treatment and interventions. To refuse to offer these and lock teens up for life is indeed cruel and unusual punishment.

Substance Abuse Treatment Alone Often Not Enough to Stem Child Abuse and Neglect

Evidence linking alcohol and other drug abuse with child maltreatment, particularly neglect, is strong. But does substance abuse cause maltreatment? In a recent article in The Future of Children volume Preventing Child Maltreatment, authors Mark Testa and Brenda Smith found that co-occurring risk factors such as parental depression, social isolation, homelessness, or domestic violence may be more directly responsible than substance abuse itself for maltreatment. Interventions to prevent substance abuse–related maltreatment, say the authors, must attend to the underlying direct causes of both.

Research on whether prevention programs reduce drug abuse or help parents control substance use and improve their parenting has had mixed results, at best. The evidence raises questions generally about the effectiveness of substance abuse services in preventing child maltreatment. Such services, for example, raise only marginally the rates at which parents are reunified with children who have been placed in foster care. The primary reason for the mixed findings is that almost all the parents face not only substance abuse problems but the co-occurring issues as well. To prevent recurring maltreatment and promote reunification, programs must ensure client progress in all problem areas.
At some point in the intervention process, attention must turn to the child’s permanency needs and well-being. The best evidence to date suggests that substance-abusing parents pose no greater risk to their children than do parents of other children taken into child protective custody. It may be sensible to set a six-month timetable for parents to engage in treatment and allow twelve to eighteen months for them to show sufficient progress in all identified problem areas. After that, permanency plans should be expedited to place the child with a relative caregiver or in an adoptive home.
Investing in parental recovery from substance abuse and dependence should not substitute for a comprehensive approach that addresses the multiple social and economic risks to child well-being beyond the harms associated with parental substance abuse.
Drawn from “Prevention and Drug Treatment,” by Mark Testa and Brenda Smith.

“Baby Einstein” is No Einstein

Disney’s decision to offer a refund to parents for “Baby Einstein” videos (“No Einstein in your Crib? Get a Refund”) is a breath of fresh air. While research in a recent Future of Children volume confirms that children older than three can learn from educational television and videos, infants and toddlers cannot. But very young children still consume a lot of electronic media. A recent survey estimated that 43 percent of infants and toddlers watch TV every day. Nineteen percent of children under one, and 29 percent of children two to three have a television in their bedrooms. At least one study found that children’s television viewing before age three was negatively related to children’s later academic achievement. Children under age 2 learn best from real-life experiences and interaction with real people.

High Schools can Help Increase Post-Secondary Education

A recent Time Magazine story, “Can Community Colleges Save the U.S. Economy,” notes the emerging White House consensus that the nation’s 1,200 community colleges may be the best place to help students – particularly disadvantaged youth — prepare and adapt for today’s marketplace. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation agrees and has funded initiatives to showcase community colleges as places for change (including this project).
To make this strategy work, however, high schools must help low-income students prepare for and succeed in college. A recent Future of Children policy brief , “A New Goal for America’s High Schools: College Preparation for All,” outlines steps that high schools should take to ensure that disadvantaged youth see post-secondary education as a realistic and attainable option.
First, high schools should boost students’ subject matter knowledge and study skills. As several papers in The Future of Chil­dren: America’s High Schools point out, many districts and states have changed their performance standards and course requirements to include college prepara­tory classes and passing high-stakes tests. In tandem with these initiatives, districts, states, and even the federal government should be encouraged to devise new and effective ways of convincing low-income students to take and work hard in tough courses.
Second, high schools should counsel students on how to select colleges and obtain financial aid. Every high school – particularly those serving advantaged and disadvantaged youth — should have sufficient numbers of trained counselors and teachers to help students select and apply for both college and financial aid. The current system in which schools serving predominantly low-income and minority students have more than 1,000 students per counselor does not work. States and local school districts should do everything possible to ensure that disadvantaged students have adequate access to effective counsel­ing beginning at least by the ninth grade.

Finally, to increase schools’ accountability, school districts should build data tracking systems capable of following students from kindergarten through postsecondary education. States are fully aware of the importance of account­ability for postsecondary performance and have begun taking steps toward developing the necessary achievement tests and data systems.

To meet these three goals, the authors of the FOC policy brief make a proposal. The $1.7 billion a year that the federal government currently provides for a wide range of efforts aimed at helping disadvantaged students should be re-allocated competitively (to public schools, postsecondary schools, nonprofit and for-profit organizations, and coalitions of these organizations). Priority would be given to applicants who are able to show how they will track student progress in reading and math, how they will respond with additional instruction or other assistance when students fall below grade level in either subject, and, where appropriate, how they will track their students’ progress in postsecondary education and modify their college preparation program based on the evidence. Recipients should be required to reapply for funding every three years, and programs that do not increase college enrollment and graduation rates should lose their funding. Preference would go to programs that have effective procedures for enrolling truly disadvantaged students and boosting their achievement and college enrollment and graduation rates. Similarly, preference should go to proposals that provide for rapid response as soon as disadvantaged students begin to fall below grade norms. Finally, the Statewide Longitudinal Data System should be expanded to all states while ensuring that state systems are capable of following students through the college years.

Stimulus Money for Professional Development?

Many school districts around the country are poised to receive stimulus package money and are trying to figure out how to spend it. Many will spend it hiring needed teachers, while others will put it toward retention. One natural place to put new dollars is professional development. However, not all professional development is equal, and in many cases, will not translate to improved teaching or student achievement.

According to Heather Hill’s article, Learning in the Teacher Workforce, in The Future of Children: Excellence in the Classroom, most workshops, institutes, and study groups appear to be brief, superficial, and of marginal use in improving teaching. In short: a waste of money.
But it does not have to be this way. Professional development can enhance teaching and learning if it has three characteristics:
1. It lasts several days or longer;
2. It focuses on subject-matter-specific instruction; and
3. It is aligned with the instructional goals and curriculum materials in teachers’ schools.
Such high-quality programs do exist. But they are a tiny fraction of the nation’s offerings. One problem is that researchers rarely evaluate carefully either local professional development or its effect on student learning. Most evaluations simply ask participants to self-report. Lacking reliable evaluations, how are teachers and district officials to choose effective programs? Clearly, much more rigorous studies are needed.
To make continuing education effective, school districts should encourage teachers to take graduate coursework that is more tightly aligned with their primary teaching assignment. And districts should select professional development programs based on evidence of their effectiveness. Finally, central planners must ensure that items on the menu of offerings closely align with district standards, curriculum materials, and assessments.

See also The Future of Children policy brief, "A Plan to Improve the Quality of Teaching in American Schools"

Parenting in the Age of First Person Shooter Video Games

The hottest rage in my thirteen year old’s class last year was a first person shooter internet video game called Soldier Front. T’ween boys love these type of internet games because they can play with friends on-line; no need for playdates, the kids all meet in the virtual world and don guns together.

The goal of this game is to gun down soldiers in what easily passes for an abandoned building in Iraq. Points are given for missions accomplished and head shots (not photos of aspiring actors – bullets to the head which then explodes).
I hated this game and wanted it out of my house. With the newest software, I could block this site. But I don’t have the newest software on all my computers, I am not exactly sure how to use the parental controls properly, my eight year old could probably find his way around any filter, and – most significantly — there are many, many more games ready to fill in if this particular game is blocked. Soldier Front and others like it are not rated, so evaluating them without playing each and every one of them is impossible.
I weighed my options. I could get rid of the internet in the house (which would make it hard for me to work); I could create a filter that blocks out any content dealing with guns (including an important recent Supreme Court decision on the 2nd Amendment); I could move us to a remote part of Alaska and live off the land. None were good options. Attacking the media platform – in this case the computer and internet — rather than the content itself seemed misguided.
In 1964 Marshall McLuhan concluded that the content of electronic media, its “message,” is simply beside the point—that in electronic media, unlike print media, “the medium is the message.” In a recent volume of The Future of Children that I edited with Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Children and Electronic Media, we came to a rather different conclusion. Content, it turns out, is critical to how media influence children. That is, the message is the message. Rather than focusing on the type of technology children use or even how much time children spend with media, parents, educators, and policymakers need to focus on what is being offered to children on the various media platforms.
This turns out to be difficult. At the government level, First Amendment considerations and the increasing reality that many media forms are exempt from government oversight makes broad regulation of content close to impossible. At the community and school level, educators struggle to use media in positive ways while ensuring that technology is not used to cheat or bully. At the family level, it is often easier for parents to tell their children, “one hour of media, that’s it,” than to wade through the content of the myriad media offerings, rely on inconsistent and hard-to-understand rating systems, and compete with an industry that often cares more about commercial success than children’s quality of life. Moreover, with the increasing portability of technology, the reality is that kids are often using electronic media where no adult is present, let alone their parents.
The answer is not more gadgets – filters, V-Chips, parental controls. Rather, industry needs to step up to the plate and do a better job in offering positive media content. In our recent policy brief we examined ways that non-profits and government are using media to positively influence adolescent well-being. These are not the public service announcements of the 1970’s and 80’s (“this is your brain on drugs”) that preached and missed the point. Rather, these are exciting, interactive, “Web 2.0” media campaigns that invite youth to create the content and own the message. Certainly for-profit industry can follow suit. While I am fairly confident that the government cannot ban first-person shooter games, I am sure that industry can decide it is not worth their time to post such games. Advertisers can push this by paying for ads on positive websites. Finally, parents, government and advocates can band together to put pressure on industry to clean up its act.
As for Soldier Front, I resorted to old fashioned parenting and simply banned the game with serious consequences if that rule was broken. It worked this time — no batteries (or broadband) required – but it may not the next when my son is older and I am not standing over his shoulder watching everything he does. Here’s hoping industry has listened by then.

Reform Juvenile Justice Programs Today

Over the past decade researchers have identified intervention strategies and program models that reduce juvenile delinquency and promote pro-social development. However, while we have more than ten years of solid research about evidence-based programs, only about five percent of eligible youth participate in these programs.

The result is a waste of human capital and money. First, delinquency increases the risk of drug use and dependency, school drop-out, incarceration, injury, early pregnancy, and adult criminality. Second, since most adult criminals begin their criminal careers as juveniles, preventing delinquency prevents the onset of adult criminal careers and thus reduces the financial and emotional burden of crime on victims and on society.
Put bluntly — it is penny-wise and pound-foolish not to implement evidence-based programs. While it costs states billions of dollars a year to arrest, prosecute, incarcerate, and treat offenders, investing in successful delinquency-prevention programs can save taxpayers seven to ten dollars for every dollar invested, primarily in the form of reduced spending on prisons.
States don’t implement evidence-based treatment programs for a number of reasons.
  • First, agencies rarely invest in developing data systems that permit them to monitor which programs are working and which are not; therefore, most states’ juvenile justice systems have no idea if they are spending their money wisely.
  • Second, many policymakers are often unaware of research evidence on programs and policies that are not only effective in reducing juvenile delinquency but also cost-effective.
  • Third, often what works is at odds with “get tough on crime” public sentiment, and some policy makers are unwilling to choose evidence over politics.
Researchers have identified a dozen "proven" delinquency-prevention programs. Another twenty to thirty "promising" programs are still being tested. The most successful programs are those that prevent youth from engaging in delinquent behaviors in the first place, divert first-time offenders from further encounters with the justice system, and emphasize family interactions. A full list of programs that have been evaluated for delinquency prevention and intervention and an estimation of their cost savings and effectiveness can be found in Table 2 in an article by Peter Greenwood in our most recent volume of The Future of Children.
Reform of the juvenile justice system makes sense from all perspectives. Many states are poised to begin this work today, if for no other reason than to save taxpayer money being spent on building prisons. We need to create a system that decreases the number of youth becoming delinquent in the first place and prevents those youth who do stray from becoming adult criminals.

The Stimulus Bill and Education — Does it Increase Quality?

Obama is poised to sign into law the $789 billion stimulus bill agreed to by Congress this week. The plan has a noteworthy amount – close to $100 billion according to the Christian Science Monitor — of federal education spending. While education spending does stimulate the economy, to be truly effective in raising incomes in the long term, the money should be used to improve education quality.

As our recent volumes on education show, in its current form education perpetuates rather than compensates for existing income inequalities. This happens for three reasons: 1) the K through 12 education system is simply not very strong and thus not an effective way to break the link between a poor parental background and a child’s eventual success; 2) because K–12 education is financed largely at the state and local level, resources devoted to education are closely linked with where people live so poor children tend to go to poor schools; and 3) access both to a quality preschool experience and to higher education continues to depend heavily on family resources.
In the policy brief, “Opportunity in America: The Role of Education,” Isabel Sawhill proposes a four part strategy to increase the ability of education to raise income and increase mobility: 1) investment in high quality preschool; 2) setting clear (and perhaps federal) standards for what children K–12 should know; 3) increasing federal funding of education and linking this funding to improved school performance; and 4) encouraging greater use of proven instructional methods.
It is unclear at this point whether the billions set aside for education in the current stimulus package does all this. For example, early education is funded, but through the Head Start program which has not proven as high quality as either the most successful demonstration programs or some of the programs used by more affluent parents. Federal money for education is provided – in unprecedented amounts – but just a small portion is tied to uniform standards for performance and it unclear whether any is linked to mandatory use of research-based curricula.
Education can be instrumental in helping students gain the skills they need to become self-sufficient, working adults. However, it must be quality education. The jury is still out on whether the stimulus bill making its way to President Obama’s desk creates the sort of system that will produce results.
Based on The Future of Children: Opportunity in American, Eds. Isabel Sawhill and Sara McLanahan and “Opportunity in America: The Role of Education,” by Isabel Sawhill.

“Disconnected Women” — Building a Needed Safety Net

A recent New York Times article noted that despite the failing economy, welfare applications have not gone up. This is contrary to trends in the 1990’s — prior to the overhaul of the system — and against common sense; when jobs dry up we expect folks to seek financial relief. Paradoxically, applications for food stamps have gone up as the economy has soured.

There are many explanations for this phenomenon. Some point to the fact that when welfare reform was implemented in 1996, the funding formula was changed so that states are wholly responsible for any expansion of the program, and increases in welfare payments are unlikely as states face deficits and funding crunches. (The food stamp program, on the other hand, is paid for by the federal government.) Others cite the cultural shift that occurred with welfare reform, making even very poor, out of work women unwilling to seek assistance. Still others point to the administrative hurdles posed by the welfare system, leaving even needy people unlikely to seek assistance.
Many agree that the system is not doing what it is supposed to. As Ron Haskins – FOC senior editor and one of the authors of the 1996 welfare bill — noted in the NYT piece, “There is ample reason to be concerned here…The overall structure is not working the way it was designed to work. We would expect, just on the face it, that when a deep recession happens, people could go back on welfare…When we started this, Democratic and Republican governors alike said, ‘We know what’s best for our state; we’re not going to let people starve’….And now that the chips are down, and unemployment is going up, most states are not doing enough to help families get back on the rolls.”
The fact that welfare rolls are stagnant is of particular concern for the most vulnerable families – those for whom steady work is already a challenge, even in a good economy. As Rebecca Blank notes in her article, “Improving the Safety Net for Single Mothers Who Face Serious Barriers to Work,” 20 to 24 percent of all low-income mothers (under 200% of the poverty line) were not connected to welfare or work in 2004 – when the economy was much stronger.
These “disconnected women” are likely to report multiple barriers to work: less education, younger children, higher rates of poor mental and physical health, higher rates of substance abuse, and a greater history of being victims of domestic violence. They are more likely to have been sanctioned for non-work or reached the federally imposed five year time limit.
Blank proposes creating a new “Temporary and Partial Work Waiver Program,” which would emphasize work, but also provide the necessary safety net and recognize that not all of these “disconnected women” will be able to work fulltime. Such a program would be an extension of the current welfare program and would include case-managers to assess health, skill level, and income; link to services; and help apply for other relief programs such as food stamps and Medicaid.
As an alternative, the SSI program, which serves disabled Americans and is paid for with federal dollars, could be altered to allow for more temporary or partial disability determinations. The current program is something of an “all or nothing” program; many disconnected women have disabilities that are not permanent or severe enough to qualify them for benefits.
Whatever the policy solution, Blank notes a “public conversation about women for whom welfare-to-work efforts have failed is long overdue.” This is true not only for women with multiple barriers, but in a down economy, perhaps for the larger low-income population as well.

Children and Electronic Media — Myth Busters

There are a lot of myths about how children use electronic media, highlighted in our recent volume, Children and Electronic Media. A longer version of this “Myth Busters” piece and other related highlights are posted on our website.

MYTH: Television is being displaced by newer forms of media.
REALITY: Despite all the new technologies, children still spend a lot of time in front of the television. Rather than newer technologies replacing television, children simply add these other media on to the time they spend watching TV.
MYTH: Children from highly educated families use electronic media the least, while children in less educated families use it the most.
REALITY: Youth whose parents had completed college reported the most media exposure, while those whose parents had completed no more than high school reported less but were not far behind. The group with the least media exposure was children whose parents had some college education.
MYTH: Marketing to children can never have positive outcomes.
REALITY: While advertising is often used to steer children and youth toward unhealthy behaviors, marketing can also be used effectively to promote positive healthy choices such as not smoking or using illicit drugs, reducing obesity, and delaying sexual activity – some of which are highlighted our policy brief, “Using Media to Promote Adolescent Wellbeing,” and in an article by Doug Evans on social marketing campaigns.
MYTH: Video games have no educational value.
REALITY: Violent video games can promote aggressive (though not necessarily criminal) behavior, but many other types of video games promote positive outcomes. Studies have found, for instance, that playing select video games can enhance visual awareness, including greater capacity to pay attention, quicker attention deployment, and faster processing.
MYTH: Adolescents use online communication primarily to communicate with strangers.
REALITY: Teens mostly use the Internet to communicate with friends and maintain already existing relationships. However, even teens who only seek to communicate with friends may do so in inappropriate ways that leave them vulnerable to harassment. Moreover, some contact with strangers – seeking out health information, for example — is not necessarily negative.
MYTH: Television is appropriate for all ages, so long as it is educational.
REALITY: Watching television is unlikely to be beneficial for infants and toddlers and could actually be harmful. Research shows that viewing educational television can have positive effects for preschoolers and older children, but there is no research supporting the same outcomes for children ages two and under.
MYTH: Ratings systems are reliable ways to know the content and appropriateness of a movie, television, or video game program.
REALITY: Ratings are rarely well understood by the general public. They are inconsistent from media to media, parents are often not fully aware of the information and criteria used in each rating system, and sometimes parents are even unaware that the ratings exist. Even among parents who report using industry-provided ratings and advisories, most do not find them to be “very useful.”
MYTH: Electronic media are keeping kids from reading.
REALITY: It does not seem that time with media greatly displaces reading or doing homework, largely because American youth spend so little time doing either.
For more information, see Children and Electronic Media, eds. Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Elisabeth Donahue, Spring 2008 and our 10-paper series of short "Highlights" for articles on all the topics presented above.