School & District Management

U.S. Seen as Falling Short on Basic Supports for Children

By Lynn Olson — November 14, 2006 3 min read

More than two-thirds of American children ages 6 to 17 lack the sustained supports needed to put them on track for adult success, according to a report scheduled for release this week.

Titled “Every Child, Every Promise: Turning Failure into Action,” the report was produced by the America’s Promise Alliance, an Alexandria, Va.-based network of business and education groups founded by retired U.S. Army Gen. Colin L. Powell in 1997 to promote volunteerism on behalf of young people.

“Every Child, Every Promise: Turning Failure Into Action” is available from America’s Promise Alliance.

The study examines the presence of five sets of developmental resources in children’s lives, based on three nationally representative telephone surveys of 12- to 17-year-olds, their parents, and the parents of children ages 6 to 11. In total, some 6,000 people responded.

The surveys, conducted in fall 2005, asked the adolescents and the parents about a set of indicators in five areas:

• Caring relationships with adults both in and out of school;

• Safe families, schools, and communities and the chance to engage in constructive activities, such as after-school clubs and teams;

• A healthy start and healthy development, including regular medical checkups, good nutrition, and daily physical activities;

• Effective education for marketable skills and lifelong learning, including a positive school climate, a school culture that emphasizes academic achievement, reading for pleasure, and friends who value being a good student; and

• Opportunities to make a difference through helping others.

‘Promises’ Unkept

Those “promise indicators,” according to the report, are designed to supplement more traditional measures, such as high school dropout rates, drug use, and teen child-bearing, by examining the presence of positive opportunities and assets in young people’s lives that are correlated with later success.

“So many of our young people need basic supports in order to have a chance to be successful in school,” said Marguerite W. Kondracke, the president and chief executive officer of the organization. “It’s not our children who are failing, so much as we who are failing our children. We’ve got to find ways to prioritize children and make them more of a national priority.”

The surveys, which included an oversample of African-American and Hispanic young people and their parents, found that children from low-income backgrounds are much less likely to have access to all of the developmental resources they need than those from more affluent families. Black and Hispanic children are half as likely as their white peers to receive them.

The study found that children who benefit from 75 percent or more of the indicators in at least four categories are significantly more likely to be successful, as measured by social competence, frequency of volunteering, avoidance of violence, and achievement of mostly A’s in school.

A separate analysis conducted for the report, by University of Chicago economists James J. Heckman and Flavio Cunha, examined the returns from spending on children consistently from preschool through adolescence, instead of concentrating on particular stages of development.

Early Years Eyed

Using data from a federal study begun in 1979, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the economists simulated the effects of different “investment” strategies on a population of 1,053 boys born to disadvantaged girls who were part of the study. The children of the female participants have been assessed on a range of cognitive and noncognitive skills every two years since 1986.

The study found that a “balanced investment” policy—one that includes both preschool and adolescent interventions—yields the strongest returns in the form of higher rates of high school graduation and college attendance and lower rates of crime.

“Early investment in cognitive and noncognitive skills lowers the cost of later investment by making learning at later ages more efficient,” the authors write. “Our evidence suggests that a portfolio of childhood investments tipped towards the younger years of a child’s life is optimal.”

Still, the study adds, “early investments must be followed up by later investments in order to be effective.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as U.S. Seen as Falling Short on Basic Supports for Children

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