19 February 2008

The Family: America's Smallest School ~ Some findings concerning family structure in the U.S.

A recent report written by Paul E. Barton and Richard J. Coley and published by the Educational Testing Service evaluates a number of key factors influencing the well-being of students in America. Their findings are particularly relevant to conversations occurring across the country today concerning the relationship between parenting alone and poverty, and the affect of these aspects of family and home life on child well-being and success in school and through life.

The Barton and Coley discussion is particularly helpful in placing rates of single-parenting in a cross-city, cross-national, and historical context.

The following discussion is drawn from pages 10-13 of the report: The Family: America’s Smallest School 2007. Princeton NJ: ETS.

Number of Parents in the Home

What is the trend for children living in two-parent families in the United States? In the nation as a whole in 2004, 68 percent of children were living with both parents, down from 77 percent in 1980. There were substantial declines among the White, Black, and Hispanic populations of children with two parents in the home over that period. The lowest percentage of children living with two parents was among Black children — just 42 percent in 1980, dropping to 35 percent in 2004. Thus, the majority of Black children live in single-parent homes.

The variation among the states in the percentage of single-parent families is considerable, The low is 17 percent in Utah, while South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana have percentages
of 40 or higher.

There is also marked variation between large cities. San Diego and Austin had the lowest percentages of children in one-parent families, although about one-third of families fall into this category. Atlanta and Cleveland had the highest percentages of single-parent families, with about two-thirds of the cities’ families falling into this category.

International comparisons are also available, although there are variations in the years for which data are available. In comparison with nine other countries where data were available, the United States had the highest percentage of one-parent families (28 percent) and Japan the lowest (8 percent). There were substantial increases in all countries in this statistic for the time periods available. In addition, for most of the countries included in this comparison, about one-fifth of families with children were single-parent families. It is clear that the phenomenon of a rising rate of children living with one parent is by no means confined to the United States.

10 New Ideas for Early Education in the NCLB Reauthorization

On the Foundation for Child Development's Early Education Blog, Sara Mead of the New America Foundation offers ten excellent suggestions for improving support for Early Education in the NCLB Reauthorization. Her ideas include:

  1. Allow Reading First funds to be used for pre-k language and literacy activities.
  2. Tap supplemental educational services and public school choice set-aside funds for high-quality Prekindergarten.
  3. Improve accountability for early education programs.
  4. Restructure elementary schools identified for reconstitution as PK-3 Early Education Academies.
  5. Strengthen the ability of charter schools to deliver high-quality Prekindergarten.
  6. Combine NCLB's Title V block grant program with Head Start's newly authorized state early childhood coordination initiative to create a single "2020 Early Education" state grant program.
  7. Require pre-k programs operated in public schools or with Title I funds to employ "highly qualified early educators" as lead teachers.
  8. Create a "Pathways to Pre-kindergarten Teaching" alternative certification demonstration program.
  9. Provide targeted professional development to individual teachers.
  10. Expand the representation of English Language Learners in Prekindergarten programs.

18 February 2008

Poverty and Brain Development

On Saturday, the Financial Times reported the following: "Poverty in early childhood poisons the brain." Family stresses over finances and daily living contribute to the under-development of the critical neural networks for children even before they are born.

Martha Farah - who directs University of Pennsylvania's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience - said, "The biggest effects are on language and memory. The finding about memory impairment - the ability to encounter a pattern and remember it - really surprised us."

We know that the bulk (80%) of brain development occurs between birth and age three. How the brain is hardwired in utero and in early toddlerhood sets the stage for what happens later in life. Interventions that target very young children, and especially those in poverty, can help to offset the negative influences that poverty brings in a child's life. Children in poverty are more likely to live near and interact with other children facing the same challenges - places called areas of concentrated poverty. They are also more likely to attend school with other students who are Economically Disadvantaged (i.e. eligible for Free and Reduced Price Lunches).

A New York Times op-ed by Paul Krugman amplifies these sentiments: "Living in or near poverty has always been a form of exile. But the distance between the poor and the rest of us is much greater than it was 40 years ago, because most American incomes have risen in real terms while the official poverty line has not. To be poor in America today, even more than in the past, is to be an outcast in your own country. And that, the neuroscientists tell us, is what poisons a child's brain."

Not only is it the neural networks but the social networks that matter to a child's development. The more social networks - the social safety net - the better the chances are that a child will grow up in a safe, nurturing environment. The more neural networks, the better the brain functions in the long run. When it comes to brain development, more IS better.

There are three important things to remember about interventions which target children facing poverty:
  1. Proven programs work. Head Start has had tremendous success in giving disadvantaged children a lift. Early Head Start - the program which works with pregnant moms and children until their third birthday - is a tremendous asset to children and families in poverty.
  2. Every little bit helps. Talking to your child more. Looking your child in the eyes. Using more words (5-word sentences are best). Reading to and with your children. All these things contribute to gains that last over a lifetime.
  3. The effects of specific programs and interventions as well as what happens every day at home and in the community to alleviate the effects of poverty are cumulative.

15 February 2008

how Individual Risk Factors Affect Absenteeism in Early Schooling

In their publication: "How Maternal, Family and Cumulative Risk Affect Absenteeism in Early Schooling," the National Center for Children in Poverty reports that for every affluent kindergartner - living at or above 400% of the federal poverty - who experienced each of the following risks:
  • 30 poor children experienced food insecurity at home
  • 20 had a mother with low education
  • 15 had an unemployed mother
  • 9 were born to a teenage mother
  • 7 lived with a single mother
  • 6 had a mother with poor health and
  • 5 lived in a family with four or more children.

National Center for Children in Poverty reports on the profile of young children in Tennessee

The National Center for Children in Poverty reports that "state policies that promote health, education and strong families can help the early development and school readiness of America's youngest citizens." How do young children and their families fare in Tennessee?
  • The Center reports that 42% of children in the state are living in poor and low income families.
  • As of 2006, 45% of children in the state were exposed to multiple risk factors - including single parent families, living in poverty, parents do not speak English well, have less than a high school education, and parents have no paid employment. One third of the children in this group were exposed to 3 or more of these risk factors.

How effective are public policies for children in Tennessee?

  • The state health insurance program - CoverKids - covers infants up to 185% of the poverty line, and kids 1 to 5 up to 133% of poverty.
  • Tennessee allows families earning up to 168% of poverty to request a child care subsidy.
  • Tennessee is in the process of expanding access to public prekindergarten.

14 February 2008

The Missing Class in Memphis

The National Center for Children in Poverty says that 100% of the federal poverty level is an inaccurate measure of poverty - that actually it's closer to twice that, or 200% FPL. "The Missing Class" looks at the group of folks between 100-200% FPL as equally fragile families who are one paycheck from disaster.

There is already consensus in classifying children living at or below 200% FPL as "vulnerable" and our assessment as such is supported by the fact that children up to 185% FPL are eligible for free and reduced price lunches in schools. But based on her definition of the poor and the near-poor, she doesn't find much distinction - they live in the same neighborhoods and face many of the same issues together. The difference between who makes it to the next level, who has financial success and achievement and makes it beyond poor or near-poor, is often determined by whether or not there are viable childcare options...

The Missing Class
by Eyal Press

Sociologist Katherine Newman is best known for her richly documented, fine-grained portraits of the working poor. In books such as No Shame in My Game and Chutes and Ladders, she has chronicled the experiences of low-wage workers struggling against formidable odds to lift themselves out of poverty. Unlike many economists, Newman focuses less on statistics than on the barriers and opportunities people encounter in their daily lives, shedding light on the fault lines of the nation's class divide through intimate accounts of families and neighborhoods. In her forthcoming book, The Missing Class, written with Victor Tan Chen, Newman has turned her attention to the travails of the "near poor," a vast pool of workers who are neither officially destitute nor comfortably middle class. Recently, Nation contributing writer Eyal Press caught up with her at her home in Manhattan.

Who are the "near poor"?

The near poor are people with household incomes between $20,000 and $40,000 a year for a family of four, or 100 to 200 percent of the poverty line. And there are actually almost twice as many of them as there are people under the poverty line--57 million in the US. They represent, on the one hand, an improvement, forward motion, the promise of upward mobility. But their lives are not stable. They truly are one paycheck, one lost job, one divorce or one sick child away from falling below the poverty line.

Are the members of this class in a more precarious situation today than, say, ten or twenty years ago?

More precarious than in the late 1990s, yes, but not twenty years ago. The reason is that we had this golden period between about 1997 and 2002, when we had record low unemployment, high growth, low inflation, and that's part of what propelled these people forward--employers were looking for more of them, and opportunities opened up. That's less the case today.

What kinds of neighborhoods do the people you're describing live in?

Like the poor, the near poor tend to live in places that have serious problems of infestation--rodents, cockroaches--which means they have very high rates of asthma, childhood asthma in particular, and high rates of lead exposure, since their apartment buildings are older. They are also in neighborhoods with fewer consumer options, places not well served by the big chain stores that have the lowest prices. So basically the poor and the near poor are soaked--everything they buy is more expensive than it should be. It's like a huge tax on them, and there are also health consequences--your access to a decent diet is compromised; it's harder to get fresh fruits and vegetables. Problems like obesity are very pronounced in this population. But the neighborhoods of the near poor are less segregated and have a more diverse income mix than those of the "real" poor.

You call this a "missing class." Is it missing from the consciousness of Republicans or Democrats?

Pretty much both. John Edwards wrote the foreword to this book, so it's on his radar screen, but I haven't heard anybody else talk about these people, neither Republicans nor Democrats. I don't think the political parties reach out to them very much.

Yet I take it that what happens in Washington does have an impact on their lives.

Some of the policies set in motion over the past decade have had a particularly pronounced effect on the near poor. For example, welfare reform propelled a lot of people into the labor market. Meanwhile, No Child Left Behind created a system of high-stakes tests for kids in the public school system. Nobody was thinking about what these two policies would mean when they collided behind the closed doors of a family. But in a family, these things are colliding all the time: the demand placed on parents to be in the labor market and the demand placed on kids to pass those high-stakes tests, which they're far less likely to do if parents aren't around to take them to the library, read to them, look over their homework. There are stories in the book about mothers who had been able to go to their kids' schools, couldn't go anymore, didn't realize they were falling off the deep end, and then that kid ends up on Rikers Island.

Is there more, or less, awareness today of the challenges facing the working poor than when you began your research?

There's greater recognition now that we actually have a population called the working poor. I think that attempts to beat back some of the more successful policy innovations, like the earned-income tax credit, have failed in part because there's recognition that these people exist, that they should be supported and that we need to do something about their health insurance. What I don't see is much attention to fostering mobility out of working poverty. We seem to feel that as long as we've taken people off public assistance, our job is done. But it isn't done--it isn't good enough in a country as wealthy as this to replace welfare-dependent poverty with working poverty.

Yet welfare reform has not led to the disaster some people predicted. Haven't those who feared this, including yourself, been proven wrong?

What I didn't anticipate, and I don't think anyone anticipated, was that in the late '90s we would have really tight labor markets, a roaring economy, very high growth, very low inflation. We basically had the opposite of a perfect storm--we had perfect weather, and that provided a lot of mobility opportunity even for the people I study. But welfare reform won't receive its real test until we see a big recession and we can see what happens to people without any safety net beneath that. We haven't seen that, so it's not easy to know what it would mean.

In your previous book, Chutes and Ladders, you told the stories of two groups: the "high flyers," who succeeded in climbing out of poverty, and the "low riders," who didn't. What was the main difference between them?

For the most part the difference is explained not by their desire for upward mobility but by their family circumstances. Everybody wants a better job and everybody is willing to work for it. But women who had children and no one to help them with those kids were much more likely to get trapped--they couldn't get more education, which limited their job options; their contact with the labor market was more fragile and episodic. Whereas the people who could afford childcare or who worked out elaborate arrangements with extended family members were able to stay on the job, get more training and move upward.

That sounds like an answer conservatives would love--it's all about family.

But when we say it's about family, we're really talking about the burdens people face in simultaneously trying to combine family responsibilities with the demands of the labor market. And we don't make it easy for them to do that. In Italy, you have access to full-time, high-quality childcare from the time your child is an infant. Similarly in France. A lot of families I studied who didn't make it out of poverty were the ones where the childcare options were so dangerous they couldn't leave their kids, so they ended up dropping out of the labor market, which isn't good for them or for their children. I don't think conservatives have much of an answer to this. The only answer I hear them giving is that poor people shouldn't have children at all.

If you could take the platform of the Democratic candidate for President and insert three provisions for the missing class into it, what would they be?

Universal, high-quality, early-childhood education would be very high on my list, because the more we can do for kids when they start out to level the playing field, the better off the whole country will be in the long run. Universal healthcare would be hugely important, not only because of its health consequences but because it frees up income for other things. And opening up and maintaining access to higher education, because the people on the losing end of this economy are the poorly educated. Instead, I fear we're going in the opposite direction--we're seeing increases in public higher-education tuition, which will make it very hard for new generations to succeed.

Quality Early Education and Poverty

From the first article, from Education Week: Families up to 130% FPL are being allowed to register for head start if those at the 100% level are already being served by the program. This is interesting and exciting because it gives credence to "the missing class" - those children and families between 100-200% FPL who are still struggling but often excluded from programs because the earn too much.

This is important because these families are in dire need and have traditionally been excluded from conventional thinking on poverty and excluded from programs which serve only those below poverty.

From the second article, an editorial from USA Today: quality early experiences matter for all children. children in families below poverty are eligible for head start. affluent children generally have private day care. those in the middle - the missing class, again - are the ones falling through the cracks.

This is also important because in our discussions about economic downturns and budget crises, it is critical that we prioritize programs and ideas that not only benefit children today, but which are forward thinking, begin with the end in mind and yield a positive social and economic return in the future.

Head Start Group Decries Renewal's 'Broken Promises'

Just last month, Head Start supporters were celebrating the passage of a five-year reauthorization billRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader they say will strengthen the 43-year-old preschool program for poor children.

Now, the same advocates are lamenting what they're calling "broken promises" from the Bush administration over funding for the program, and saying they've been "saddled" with loads of new requirements in the reauthorization.

The $6.8 billion program, which serves close to 1 million children, is actually underfunded by $1 billion because spending on the program has remained flat for six years and its budget was cut by more $10 million in the fiscal 2008 appropriations bill that passed Congress in December, according to the National Head Start Association. The Alexandria, Va.-based advocacy group represents Head Start families and staff members of local programs.

"That is what put us on a path to real crisis," Ron Herndon, the chairman of the NHSA board, said during a telephone press conference last week.

The renewed Head Start law, signed by President Bush on Dec. 12, authorizes $7.35 billion in spending for fiscal 2008 and $7.65 billion in fiscal 2009, which begins Oct. 1. But when he signed the legislation, the president made clear he was not supporting such amounts.

"Approval of this legislation is not an endorsement of these funding levels or a commitment to request them," Mr. Bush said.

The reauthorized law also requires that more teachers in the program earn bachelor's degrees, strengthens accountability measures for grantees, and eliminates the controversial National Reporting System—a series of tests to track Head Start children's skills. ("Head Start Measure Expected to Launch New Era for Program," Nov. 28, 2007.)

Despite signing the bill, President Bush has also maintained his support for the assessment program.

The revised law raises family-income eligibility levels for Head Start, allowing children living in families earning up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level—or $26,800 for a family of four—to be enrolled if those at the 100 percent level are already being served.

Our view on Early education: Pre-K programs pay off

'Universal preschool' raises learning, lowers social costs.

Oklahoma enjoys a popular image as a state of wildcatters, hardscrabble farmers and rodeo riders. So it might come as something of a surprise to learn that national organizations rate the state as tops in the USA in — preschool.

Oklahoma offers "universal" preschool, which means that parents of all incomes have the option of sending their 4-year-olds to a state-sponsored preschool, transportation included. The state also insists that all preschool teachers hold bachelor's degrees, and they are paid the same as regular school teachers.

States have good reasons to aspire to universal preschool, especially high-quality programs with good teachers and low student-to-teacher ratios. Universal preschool can help fill a void: Poor families have access to Head Start. Well-to-do families pay for quality preschools out of their pockets. In between are lower-middle class families whose children badly need the readiness skills that preschool provides.

Oklahoma educators credit their decade-old preschool program with pushing up reading and math scores in the lower grades, and with raising achievement by low-income children.

Elite preschools — such as the experimental Perry Preschool in Michigan, where researchers followed the poor and minority children who attended that school well into adulthood — return more than $16 to society (in the form of lower crime and higher employment) for every dollar invested, according to the non-profit High/Scope Educational Research Foundation. Even decent-quality preschools produce gains in the $4 to $10 range, other researchers found.

States pay a price, however, for pushing too fast for universal systems.

Florida rushed its preschool system out the door with seemingly little attention to setting standards. Florida cosmetologists face stiffer licensing than preschool teachers, and preschool operators there are free to pursue a choose-your-own-curriculum policy.

Making Florida's preschool program more worrisome is the low funding. Among the 38 states that underwrite preschool, Florida ranks 35th. Universal preschool is a great idea that can turn bad when implementation outstrips the money.

Preschool classrooms with too many children and too few teachers have surprisingly high expulsion rates, researchers reported earlier this month. The ratio in preschools shouldn't rise above 10 students for each teacher, they recommended.

Most states are proceeding with appropriate caution. Virginia recently scaled back its ambitious universal preschool plans when its state budget veered toward deficit. Alabama set high standards for its preschool program but is starting slowly, fearful of compromising quality.

Several of the 2008 presidential candidates have embraced the concept of universal preschool, generally without providing much detail. States looking for an effective model can consult officials in Oklahoma. They did it Sooner.

13 February 2008

Student Mobility and Likelihood of Dropping Out

The Rumberger & Larson (1998) article talks about the connections between student mobility and likelihood of dropping out of school.

This is particularly relevant for Memphis because we have both a highly transient student population (fully 1 in 3 students changes school during the school year for reasons other than grade promotion) as well as a high drop-out rate in MCS.

Highlights from the article (which uses data from the National Educational Longitudinal Survey):
  • The study measures academic achievement (grades and test scores), misbehavior and high absenteeism - all factors which predicted whether students changed schools or dropped out. One of the interesting findings in their survey of dropout studies was from a Chicago school district where only 40% of students who changed schools did not change residences - meaning that student mobility was not tied to family mobility. The authors inferred that student mobility was due to behaviors and at the behest of school administrators rather than determined by family location. (Do we have any purchase on this in Memphis and Shelby County?)
  • Students who made even one nonpromotional school change between 8th and 12th grades were twice as likely not to complete school as students who did not change schools.
  • Poor children are more likely to be mobile and have problems in school. Mobility patterns vary by social class; school and residential mobility is higher among more poor children than upper-income children.
  • The most engaged students (those who feel connected to their academic community) remain in their school but the least engaged drop out, and those in-between transfer to another school - although transferring may be a stopover point on the way to dropping out.
  • The conceptual framework for Rumberger and Larson's study follows this path: school mobility is one aspect of educational stability that influences both academic achievement and educational attainment. Students who are educationally stable remain enrolled until completing high school and typically attend one elementary school, one middle or junior high school, and one high school. Changing schools can be positive - as in moving from a poorer to a more affluent school - but others can be detrimental - changing schools because of the inability to get along with others.
  • Students from single and step-parent families are more likely than students from two-parent families to change schools and drop out.
  • Students from urban schools are 50% more likely to drop out than students who attend suburban or rural schools.
  • The effects of moving and changing schools are additive: students who changed schools and moved were much more likely to not complete school or obtain a GED as students who moved but did not change schools or changed schools but did not move.
  • While students who obtain a GED are better off than students who drop out and do not pursue further education, they are also less well off than students who obtain a regular high school diploma.
  • Student mobility is a risk factor - but not a causative factor - for dropping out of school.
What this means for Memphis and Shelby County:
  • Our student population within the City of Memphis is particularly vulnerable because of poverty, urbanity and mobility.
  • We need to better understand how and why students change schools and if they also change residences, especially with students who are moved due to school closures for accountability measures.
  • We also need to understand what effect getting a GED has on our community. A GED is better than nothing, but a high school diploma is better than a GED. How can we better support students completing school?
  • How can we better assess student achievement, academic expectations and educational attainment to determine a path to success for vulnerable students in MCS especially and SCS? How does the suburbanization of our community affect the lifepaths of our students?