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Published in Print: April 5, 2006, as Education Said to Trail Most Other Gauges of Child Welfare

Education Said to Trail Most Other Gauges of Child Welfare

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A new report concludes that, judging by most indicators of well-being, life has improved over the past 10 years for the nation’s children—except when it comes to their education and health.

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According to the Foundation for Child Development’s “2006 Child Well-Being Index,” released last week, children’s educational achievement levels have largely “flat-lined” since 1975, while measures of their overall health have fallen since the mid-1980s.

The foundation, a New York City-based philanthropy that works to improve social conditions for children, has contracted with researchers from Duke University over the past five years to compile an annual index giving a single measure for gauging children’s quality of life.

To put it together, scholars compiled statistics dating from 1975 for 28 indicators in seven domains: education; health; safety and behavior; community connectedness; social relationships; emotional and spiritual well-being; and family economic conditions. To measure safety and behavior, for instance, the researchers studied data on violent victimization, drug and alcohol use, and births to teenage mothers.

Previous reports by the group highlighted the decline in children’s health, a trend that the researchers largely attributed to growing childhood obesity.

The researchers focused this report, the group’s third, on education, which they measured mostly through reading and mathematics scores on the congressionally mandated National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In math, 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds have shown only modest improvement on NAEP tests since 1978. Scores for 17-year-olds have barely improved since that year. In reading, achievement levels improved slightly for 9-year-olds from 1999 to 2004, but 13-year-olds’ scores hardly budged over 25 years. Scores for 17-year-olds showed a decline.

Tracking Children’s Well-Being

For a composite index of child welfare, researchers drew on 30 years of data in seven domains. In this year’s annual report, they found that despite gains in most areas in the past decade, educational achievement had stayed largely flat since 1975. That year was used as the baseline to measure changes in the various domains.

*Click image to see the full chart.

“After three decades of education reform,” the report says, “why are national tests of reading and mathematics continuing to show a lack of progress?”

In an effort to find out how to reverse the trend, the researchers combed the data for potential “leading indicators” of educational change. Kenneth C. Land, the Duke demographic-studies and sociology professor who led the study, said the factor they settled on was preschool enrollment.

He said increases in the numbers of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in school seemed to correspond, five to six years later, to improvements in national scores for 9-year-olds in the data he studied—more so even than changes in parents’ education levels or shifting demographics.

“This index indicates that something ought to be happening in schools and in homes that is probably not happening,” said Gene I. Maeroff, a senior fellow at the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College, Columbia University, commenting on the study. “I submit that we ought to be doing a better job when children are young, and that unprecedented attention ought to occur from prekindergarten into 3rd grade.”

Prescriptions Offered

Mr. Maeroff, who is making the same case in a forthcoming book, spoke during a March 28 forum held at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, to highlight findings from the index.

Prescriptions offered by other speakers ranged from staying the course set by President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act to loosening restrictions on the numbers of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Diane Ravitch, a nonresident fellow at Brookings and a research professor of education at New York University, took issue, though, with the report’s focus on preschool enrollment as a harbinger of achievement gains. That analysis, she said, fails to account for changes in instructional trends since the 1970s.

“There may have been some very large change in direction in math instruction or reading instruction that might also account for changes in achievement,” said Ms. Ravitch, who was an assistant secretary for research in the U.S. Department of Education during the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

In her own talk, she called for developing national curricula. “Most of the other nations with high achievement on international tests have a national curriculum, and we don’t,” she said.

The foundation also released a separate paper by David T. Gordon, the communications director for the Wakefield, Mass.-based Center for Applied Special Technology, that blames the educational flat line, in part, on a lack of sufficient patience among policymakers to let changes in national policy take hold.

Vol. 25, Issue 30, Page 12

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