An estimated 400,000 children are in foster care across the United States at any given time. While foster care is a necessary option for children in unsafe homes, it is intended to be a temporary solution, though this is often not the case for many in the system. Some children instead find themselves in foster care for a year or more. According to the National Foster Youth Institute, over 20,000 youth age out of the foster system every year before being placed in a permanent home. For many of these children, being left without a stable home for an extended period of time severely affects the quality of their education, as they struggle to keep up academically and connect with their peers.
Unstable Housing and Family Life
Nationally, roughly half of all foster children will spend at least one year in foster care, twenty percent will stay longer than three years, and nine percent will stay for five years or more. Because they do not have a traditional family, many foster children lack an adequate safety net or social network, and this affects children more the longer they are in care. Parents and other relatives are important factors for youth to learn how to transition into adulthood, as they lead children to complete school, get a steady job or enroll in college, and eventually move out of the house to become self-sufficient adults. Lacking these influences takes a heavy toll on children, severely affecting the likelihood that they will go on to live successful, fulfilling lives.
A number of different studies have been conducted on the quality of education among foster youth, and the results are not promising. Several studies at the state level have consistently shown foster children to score 16 to 20 percent below non-foster children on standardized tests. The same studies have also found that foster children have higher rates of grade retention, which The American School Board Journal has linked to foster children being twice as likely as their peers to drop out of school before graduation. Foster children also have more frequent absences, as well as instances of tardiness or truancy. The Child Welfare League of America published an assessment of the studies on foster children’s education, from which they drew this conclusion: "Almost all of the reviewed studies of those who were in out-of-home care reveal that the subject's average level of educational attainment is below that of other citizens of comparable age."
Foster Care Poses Risk of Poor Education
There are a number of different areas of concern that researchers have identified as being contributors to a foster child’s risk of receiving an inadequate education. The biggest contributor to the issue is the instability foster children often experience, as every placement carries the risk of having to change schools. The Vera Institute of Justice reported that in New York City, 42 percent of children changed schools within 30 days of entering foster care. Other research has suggested that frequent school transfers, which cause interruptions in a child’s learning process as well as disrupt a student’s stable peer network, can take a toll on a student's learning development. A study conducted on third-grade students found that those who had experienced frequent school changes were more likely to perform below grade level in reading and math, or to end up repeating a grade, than students who had never changed schools.
When discussing these issues with former foster children, many also cited low expectations as having contributed to their educational difficulties. Because these children rarely have an adult advocating for them, they often miss out on the opportunity to be encouraged to have high aspirations for their future. A lack of an adult advocate has also been found to be a contributing factor to the quality of a foster child’s special education services. One study found that as many as 30 percent to 40 percent of all children in foster care are also in special education, which is significantly higher than the general population. In not having an adult advocate, foster children often end up with inadequate services, and sometimes might receive services that they do not actually require.
Multisystemic Therapy (MST) is an evidence-based program that keeps families together and prevents foster care placement. MST is a "well-supported" (top rated) program that is eligible for funding via the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA). To learn more about how MST keeps families together, click here.
All of these factors combine to result in foster children carrying some of the highest risk for poor life outcomes in the nation. Adults that have previously spent time in foster care are far more likely than the general population to experience homelessness, be unprepared for employment, have low-skill jobs, and to become dependent on welfare or Medicaid. They are also more likely to become entangled in the criminal justice system, to experience issues with drug and alcohol abuse, and to experience poor physical or mental health. In addition, women who have been in foster care experience higher rates of early pregnancy and may also be more likely to see their own children placed in foster care.
Improve Education to Improve Foster Care
In order to help improve the outcomes of foster children, it is imperative to begin addressing issues with their educations. One way to do this is to keep foster children in their home schools whenever possible. This stability not only helps children by ensuring there is no interruption in their curriculum, but it also means that they are able to maintain their same peer groups. Studies have shown that maintaining friendships during times of upheaval at home helps children by giving them a sense of belonging. This sense of community may help improve a foster child’s chances of successfully completing high school, and thus be able to either get better paying jobs or go on to college. If, on the other hand, a foster child is having a difficult time at their home school, or if their school performs low on standardized testing, moving them to a higher-quality school might be more beneficial.
The most important thing for foster children is to simply ensure that they attend schools they feel comfortable at on a regular basis and receive the services they need to complete school successfully. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, an advocacy organization for foster children, "Keeping school as a point of stability can help foster children succeed educationally and give them peers and caring adults to help them weather the changes at home."