Educational Experiences of Children in Out-of-Home Care

Schools are one of the primary institutions shaping children’s development, and successful school experiences increase the likelihood of their successful transition to adulthood. The state is responsible for the educational needs of youth in out-of-home care. This research indicates that young people in state care are more likely to face academic challenges and disruptions.

What We Did

This study had three components:

  • Quantitative analysis of administrative data
  • Qualitative interviews
  • A national search to identify programs and practices that target the educational needs of children in care

The quantitative analysis explored academic performance; experiences of school change; and the extent and nature of special education classifications among children in out-of-home care who were enrolled in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). These were then compared to other students in CPS. We also used these data to see longitudinal trajectories in academic achievement for these children.

The qualitative interviews explored the context and process of some of the educational experiences of children in care. We also reviewed and summarized programs in other states targeting the educational needs of children in foster care. We invited representatives of those programs to join us, along with staff of the Department of Children and Family Services and CPS, for a discussion of ways in which efforts to meet the educational needs of children in care might be improved.

What We Found

Compared to their peers, children in care were more likely to experience a range of educational difficulties:

  • A significant proportion of students in care in Chicago had low achievement test scores. Children in care at age 8 are entering care an average of a year’s learning behind other CPS students and are not closing this achievement gap during their elementary school career.
  • Children in care are at greater risk of being retained in the same grade the year following their placement.
  • Children in care are also disproportionately likely to change schools, particularly at the time of entering care and also when they experience placement changes.

Entering care is a disruptive academic experience for most students, many of whom are already struggling academically. Students in care are significantly more likely than other CPS students to have a special education classification, particularly behavioral disorders or learning disabilities.

Academic and behavioral challenges among children in care are also apparent among high school age students. Those students in care are almost twice as likely to drop out of school as other CPS students, and they are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated.

What it Means

The findings suggest a need to attend to more than just educational achievement and outcomes for children in out-of-home care. We must pay attention to continuity of their school experiences and the connections between the children, their schools, and the child welfare system that serves them.

Evidence presented in this report also suggests that there are several factors constraining opportunities for the development of strong working relationships with consistent interactions between school staff and DCFS caseworkers.

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