School & District Management

Foster-Care Children Are Poorly Educated, 3-State Study Charges

By Julie Blair — February 25, 2004 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 3 min read

Corrected: A source provided inaccurate data for this story. The Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago says that 732 17-year-olds were surveyed for the report.

The future of young people who “age out” of foster care is severely compromised because they lack strong academic backgrounds, concludes a three- state study of 17-year-olds ready to leave the system.

Only half the teenagers polled for the study by the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago can read at a 7th grade level, roughly one-third have repeated a grade, and nearly 20 percent have been expelled from school.

Read the “Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth--Wave 1,” from the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago. (Requires free registration and Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The findings surprised Mark Courtney, the director of the center and the study’s principal investigator, who said he had anticipated that the situation would be bad, but not dire.

“If you can only read at a 7th grade level, good luck supporting yourself at age 18,” he said. “This is a sign of the failure of the foster-care system ... and also the education system.”

The population, however, can be tracked during schooling, he said, and help can be given—provided that such assistance is forthcoming from school districts, states, and agencies that work with youths in foster care.

National experts say the study, released this month, provides fresh evidence of long-standing problems within both the child-welfare and K-12 educational systems.

“Nothing in this report is shocking; unfortunately, it is the way the system treats kids in [foster] care,” said Millicent Williams, the director of foster care for the Child Welfare League of America, an advocacy group with headquarters in Washington. “We have not done a good job of educating these children.”

New Generation

Researchers surveyed 749 17-year-olds in foster care in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin between May 2002 and March 2003. They asked the youths about their educational experience, mental health, and substance abuse, among other questions. The data collected were then compared with national information on individuals the same age who were not part of the foster-care system.

The study was underwritten by the Wisconsin department of health and family services, the Iowa department of human services, and the Illinois department of children and family services.

No studies of this magnitude have been done on the topic for a decade, Mr. Courtney said, and thus, the results are especially important to understanding the effect of foster care on a new generation of young people. Researchers will continue to follow the youths until they are 21.

Switching Schools

Mr. Courtney cited several reasons why many youths in foster care don’t do well in school. Not only are their homes unstable, but their academic experiences are also interrupted.

The study found, for example, that more than one-third of those surveyed had switched schools five times or more during their time in foster care, significantly upsetting their academic programs.

Many of them also missed school because they had been in trouble with the law. Nearly two-thirds of the boys and half the girls had been arrested, convicted of a crime, or sent to a correctional facility.

Others had severe behavioral problems: Two-thirds were suspended.

Moreover, many boys and girls in foster care did not have a realistic view of what it takes to succeed in school. A majority of those polled both hoped and expected to graduate from college, despite their poor academic performance in high school, the report says.

“The deck,” Mr. Courtney said, “is stacked against them.”

But some states are making progress, countered Ms. Williams of the Child Welfare League.

One persistent problem has been that schools and foster-care systems don’t communicate with each other about the problems or possible solutions—a situation that is changing in California, North Carolina, and Washington state, she said.

“Things are a lot better now than they were in 2000,” she added.

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