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2006 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 11, No. 4
September 2006

The Educational Needs of Kids in Foster Care

“As a group, foster kids test far behind their peers, are more likely to drop out, repeat grades, be in special-ed classes, and be suspended or expelled.” —Paulson, 2005

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The first thing you should know about the educational needs of children involved with the child welfare system, especially those in foster care, is that they often struggle in school. Common areas of difficulty and concern include the following.

Poor academic performance. In general, children and youth in foster care get lower grades and score lower on standardized tests than their peers (Christian, 2004). For example, Blome (1997) found that most youth in foster care receive “C” grades, compared to control groups, which receive a mix of “B” and “C” grades. In another study, youth in foster care who had completed the 10th or 11th grades were reading, on average, at only a seventh grade level (Courtney, et al., 2004).

Inappropriate special education services and placement. Children involved with the child welfare system may be at risk either for being underserved or overserved by special education programs. Some who need special education services are overlooked. Others, because of temporary behavioral problems caused by placement disruptions or entry into care, receive special education services even though they don’t really need them (McNaught, 2005; Courtney et al., 2004).

At least 30% to 41% of children and youth in care receive special education services (Yu, 2003). Once they enter special education classes, children in foster care seldom return to the regular classroom. One study found that only 2% of children in out-of-home care in special education classes ever return to the regular classroom, compared to 10% of children not in foster care (Carter, 2002).

Behavior problems in school may indicate that a child is disengaged from academics (Alexander et al., 2001). Kids in care have more school behavior problems and are much more likely to be classified as behaviorally disturbed than other children, more so even than other children involved with child protective services (Smithgall et al., 2005).

High rates of suspensions and expulsions. Compared to their non-foster care peers, children and youth in foster care are suspended, expelled, and subject to other school disciplinary actions at very high rates. Smithgall and colleagues (2005) found that nearly 70% of children in foster care in Chicago had been suspended; 18% had been expelled.

Repeating grades. In her review of the research literature, Yu (2003) found that 26% to 40% of youth in care repeat one or more grades.

One study found that students in foster care who are NOT identified as educationally at risk are actually the most likely to be held back (Rosenfeld & Richman, 2004). This supports the idea that although children with serious problems are likely to get help, children struggling at a marginal level often fail to get the support they need (CASCW, 2000).

Lower graduation rates. Most studies have found that children in foster care graduate from high school at a rate at least 10 percentage points below the graduation rate of comparison students (Conger & Rebeck, 2001). In Chicago’s public schools, 32% of teens in foster care graduate, compared with 59% for their non-foster peers (Smithgall, et al. 2004).

Low rates of postsecondary education. Most youth in foster care have high educational aspirations. When researchers interviewed teens in care at age 17 and 18 as they prepared to leave the child welfare system, most said they hoped and expected to graduate from college eventually (Courtney, et al., 2004).

Few do. Although interviews with foster care “alumni” found that four in ten (42.7%) received some education beyond high school, only one in five (21.9%) alumni age 25 and older had completed a vocational degree. Alumni obtained a bachelor’s or higher degree at a rate that was dramatically lower than that of the general population: 2.7% for alumni versus 24% for the general population (Pecora et al., 2005).

Researchers recently examined outcomes for 659 young adults who had been placed in family foster care as children. They found that 20% were unemployed, 33% lived at or below poverty rate, 33% had no health insurance, and 22% had been homeless for at least one night (Pecora et al., 2005). It seems reasonable to assume that the kind of educational difficulties described above contribute in some way to these negative long-term outcomes.

References for this and other articles in this issue