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Family Composition and Circumstance

Foster Care

According to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services's Children's Bureau, the number of children in foster care nationwide increased 93 percent between 1986 and 1999, from approximately 280,000 children to 581,000 children. Approximately 70 percent of the children in foster care in 1999 (405,000) were school-age children. The following paragraphs provide a definition of foster care before discussing the influence of foster care on students' academic growth and development.

Foster Care

Foster care is a substitute arrangement for children whose families are not able to provide basic social, emotional, and physical care, and who therefore require a substitute caregiver to assume the parental role to provide care, supervision, and support, on a short-or long-term basis. According to the Child Welfare League of America, "children should be removed from their parents and placed in out-of-home care only when it is necessary to ensure their safety and well-being" (p. 7).

Foster care (i.e., out-of-home care) is part of an array of child-welfare services that includes family support programs, family preservation programs, and permanency planning. The array can be described as a continuum, with out-of-home care viewed as a third line defense, following family preservation programs. Family support efforts focus on the prevention of child abuse and neglect, working to educate parents and alleviate a multitude of stressors that may increase the likelihood of maltreatment. Family preservation programs, foster care, and permanency planning efforts occur after a charge of child abuse or neglect has been substantiated by the public child-welfare agency. Family preservation programs, though not instituted in all abuse and neglect cases, provide intensive, in-home services in an effort to avoid out-of-home placement. Permanency planning–efforts to establish a permanent home for the child, either with his or her biological family, through adoption, or in legal guardianship–begins immediately, and permanency is the final goal for a child involved with the child-welfare system. Foster care is defined as a temporary arrangement for children while their families work to resolve the issues that resulted in an out-of-home placement for the child. However, foster care may also be a long-term option when other permanency efforts (i.e., family reunification, adoption, legal guardianship) are not successful.

Children may live in a variety of foster-care settings, depending on the characteristics of their case. Children with urgent substitute care needs may be placed in receiving or shelter homes for a short period of time. Like the array of child-welfare services, the remaining foster-care placement settings can be viewed as a continuum from the least restrictive environment and level of service intensity to the most restrictive environment and level of service intensity. In kinship foster care, children are placed with a relative; licensing requirements and eligibility for a foster-care payment for costs associated with raising the child depend on policies set by individual states. Family foster care is provided by foster parents who are licensed by a state or county after completing minimal training and meeting health and safety standards, and they receive a federal or state fostercare payment for each child residing in their home. Foster family agencies are private agencies contracted and licensed by the state or county to provide substitute care similar to family foster care but often with a greater level of service intensity. Group homes and residential treatment centers serve children with more specialized needs (i.e., emotional and behavioral difficulties) than other placement settings, are generally operated by private agencies contracted and licensed by the state or county, are more restrictive in their environment and therapeutic in their focus, and are staffed by individuals with more specific skills.

Vulnerability of Children in Child Welfare

School-age children in foster care have any number of life experiences that make them vulnerable to bad outcomes, particularly if those experiences occurred at a young age. Judith A. Silver provides an overview of the risk factors frequently experienced by children who become involved with the child-welfare system and are placed in foster care. Citing Arnold Sameroff, Silver notes that the link between risk factors and outcomes is not deterministic, but the risk factors increase the likelihood of having a negative outcome, such as low test scores. Poverty, the principal risk factor, is a condition faced by the majority of families known to the child-welfare system. Poverty's impact ranges beyond low-socioeconomic status, influencing the effect of other risk factors. A second risk factor, maternal substance abuse, is associated with negative outcomes for children (i.e., low birth weight, premature birth) that influence neurodevelopmental functioning. Exposure to violence, whether during pregnancy or in the home as a child, is another important risk factor that affects a child's mental health as well as his or her cognitive development and ability to learn. Attachment (the stable, emotional connection with a caregiver) is an important consideration for children in foster care, given that the natural parenting structure has collapsed, children have been removed from their biological families, and face placement within a new and unfamiliar home with new and unfamiliar people. Finally, a substantial proportion of children in foster care are there due to the maltreatment inflicted upon them by a caregiver. Maltreatment can vary (physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect), but "all forms have predictable outcomes: devastating effects on sense of self, and emotional, social, and cognitive capabilities" (Silver, p. 15).

The Impact of Foster Care on Student Learning

The impact of foster care on student learning is difficult to assess. The difficulty is due to what Gilles Tremblay calls a "constellation of factors" that determines the influence of foster care on a child (p.87). Tremblay has organized the factors into five categories: (1) factors relating to the child; (2) familial factors; (3) placement factors; (4) factors related to professional assistance; and (5) external factors. Parsing out the influence of these additional variables to gauge the unique effect of being in care on student learning is problematic.

The educational standing of school-age foster children while in foster care and when leaving foster care is less ambiguous. Researchers using cognitive assessments, academic achievement outcomes, school completion outcomes, and school behavior outcomes as a measure of scholastic achievement have found that children are not faring well while in foster care, or when they leave the foster-care system at the point of their eighteenth birthday.

School-age children in foster care have not faired well in general IQ assessments or on more specific assessments of cognitive functioning. According to reports by Annick Dumaret (1985), Mary Fox and Kathleen Arcuri (1980), and Theresa McNichol and Constance Tash (2001), average IQ scores were 100 or below, and a high number of those studied (up to 46%) were rated as doing poorly on assessments of cognitive functioning.

Performance at the age-appropriate grade level, grade retention, course grades, test scores, and graduation are common indicators of academic performance. A number of studies have found that large percentages (up to 47%) of children in foster care were performing below grade level and that children in foster care were behind in their progress or performing below average across a range of academic subjects. In addition, a high percentage (up to 90%) of children in foster care repeated at least one grade over their academic career. Researchers also reported that low percentages of students in foster care achieved passing grades, and many had low grade point averages. Children in foster care did not make gains in standardized test scores over time while in care, and scores were below the fiftieth percentile. School completion percentages were low for children discharged from foster care on their eighteenth birthday and a high percentage of children in foster care reported dropping out of school.

School behavior outcomes are important components of educational progress. Attendance appeared to be problematic for some children in foster care, as did general classroom behavior. Study findings for suspension and expulsions were less definitive.


Assessing the impact of foster care on student learning is difficult due to the influence of various factors. However, research indicates that school-age children in foster care face difficulties in the learning process. Additional research, as well as policies and interventions, are required to assist children in achieving educational goals to ensure a lasting quality of life.


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