Educational success is a key indicator of a child's well-being and clearly is related to current and future economic and physical well-being (Barnett, 1998; Card and Krueger, 1998). Educational success can be affected by educational histories, parental work, and targeted efforts to address parents' educational needs. Indeed, some welfare programs (i.e., Job Opportunities and Basic Skills [JOBS]) have more provisions directed at parental education than others (i.e., TANF). Because of the strong relationship between education of parents and children, when welfare programs help recipients to improve their educational skills (Boudett and Friedlander, 1997), they can be expected to have an influence on the learning of their children.
Certainly, improved educational performance of children is one hope of TANF. Because TANF does not pay for substantial educational programs for parents, the benefits for the education of children would have to be by more indirect means. This process may take several forms. For example, if parents' employment efforts result in relocation to communities that have schools with higher achievement for low-income children, this could result in educational achievement. Or, by witnessing their parents' success at the worksite, children could be inspired to have higher standards for their own achievement.
A limited set of pre-TANF research studies indicates there may not be a simple, sizable effect of welfare participation on children's educational attainment. Hill and O'Neill (1994) found that parental AFDC participation has no effect on children's scores on a standardized test of vocabulary, given income. Currie and Duncan (1995) confirmed that their results hold up even when sibling comparisons are used to account for unobserved maternal background characteristics. Yet a recent analysis of National Longitudinal Study of Youth data that included access to other mother and child services found a relationship between program participation and children's learning (Yoshikawa, 1999). Although the evidence base for research on educational outcomes and welfare reform primarily comes from surveys, there is good reason to suggest the importance of using administrative records to study this relationship. This will be particularly fruitful as the availability and meaningfulness of educational records continue to improve.
Measures of educational success include data elements that describe the child's achievement as well as their receipt of services. Many of these data are now in electronic databases in the school districts, but the automation of educational records tends to begin with the high schools and trickle down to the elementary schools. Thus, elementary school grades are not as likely to be automated as middle school or high school grades. Standardized statewide test scores are now quite routinely required of all students, as are periodic achievement test scores during certain sentinel years. The variety and repetition of tests is becoming quite extensive. (As an illustration, Box 10-2 includes the testing schedule for students in North Carolina schools.)
Educational Tests Routinely Used In North Carolina
- End-of-grade tests (grades 3 - 8)
- Writing assessment (grades 4, 7, 10)
- Norm-referenced testing (grades 5, 8; sampled)
- Open-ended assessment (grades 4, 8)
- Computer Skills Proficiency (grade 8)
- Reading and Mathematics competency testing (screen in grade 8; must pass for diploma by grade 12)
- End-of-course tests in Algebra, Biology, English, and U.S. History
Minimum Educational Indicators
- Academic Achievement (T scores from standardized tests)
- Absences and dates of absences (Full day and part day)
- Suspensions and dates of suspensions (With reasons)
Most, but not all, students take these tests. Exemptions may be given to students in special education, as determined by their Individual Education Program teams. Exemptions also may be given to students who are not following a standard course of study, such as those in alternative education or adolescent parenting programs.
Grade retention histories usually are available (or can be inferred from birthdates and grade levels). Educational reform is making grade retention data more valuable. Although widespread adherence to the principles of social promotion have dominated the nation's public schools for many years, legislation in many states (e.g., California, New York, North Carolina) is now discouraging social promotion. In the future, grade retention may indicate a child's true performance, not just a school's educational strategy regarding social promotion.
School services data also are obtainable, although the lack of standardization makes it difficult to assess change when students also change schools during the period under study. School attendance data also is likely to be automated, although comparisons across schools and, especially, unified school districts must be done with care because of different ways of administering the statewide definitions of attendance. Schools also have data about student's disciplinary actions--nearly always including suspensions or expulsions, but also including a variety of other disciplinary actions that are less severe. But caution is also needed in making comparisons about disciplinary actions in school. This is particularly true of suspensions, as some schools use them routinely and some schools use them only after considerable effort to mediate the problematic situation. Further, different rules typically apply to children receiving special education services and the proportion of children receiving special education services is, in turn, quite variable across schools. To assess the effects of welfare reform on the educational outcomes of children, even a minimum data set that included measures of academic achievement, absences, and suspensions would be useful (see Box 10-3).
Access to School Records Data
A major impediment to using educational data to estimate the well-being of children is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). First enacted in 1974, FERPA gives parents the right to inspect and review their children's education records, request amendment of the records, and have some control over the disclosure of information from the records. At age 18, this right is transferred to the student. The act also restricts the release of school records or information from those records that could identify the student. Before releasing such records or information to a party outside the school system, the school first must obtain the consent of the student's parent. FERPA offers a key exception to the prior consent requirement. Specifically, educators may disclose information without prior consent if the disclosure is being made to organizations conducting studies for, or on behalf of education agencies or institutions in order to develop tests, administer student aid, or improve instruction (¤99.31(a)(6) of FERPA regulations). To meet this requirement, the researcher must have an agreement with the educational institution that the researcher is working on the institutions' behalf and that the study will create information that will improve instruction. Additionally, FERPA was amended in 1994 to permit nonconsensual disclosures of education records to officials in the state juvenile justice system and under certain special circumstances. Despite some loosening of restrictions, FERPA remains a significant barrier to data access for researchers.
Because educational attainment represents one of the few unambiguous outcomes that can be assessed with administrative records, substantial legislative efforts need to be taken to make this critical source of information about child well-being more available to researchers. Consideration should be given to amend FERPA to not require parental signatures for the routine use of administrative data in research in cases where students' rights to privacy are not jeopardized.
More must be done to allow educational data to be used by researchers to better understand the educational implications of other social programs. This would be a low-cost way to try to assist our highest risk children--who are most likely to be involved in multiple systems of care. FERPA has been revised to make it possible for schools to share information with correctional agencies. Under FERPA, schools may disclose information from law enforcement unit records (see ¤99.3 and ¤99.8 of FERPA regulations) without the consent of the parents or eligible students. This enables schools to give information to social services or juvenile justice agencies as long as the school district first creates and maintains a "law enforcement unit" that is officially authorized to (1) enforce federal, state, or local law, or (2) maintain the physical security and safety of schools in the district. Although this is a modest amendment of FERPA that may not have direct relevance to most researchers endeavoring to use administrative educational data (perhaps unless they are also studying law enforcement issues), it does suggest the willingness of Congress to modify FERPA for good cause. The "Solomon Amendment" of 1999 also limited the unintended implications of FERPA in order to deny aid to schools that either prohibit or prevent the Secretary of Defense from obtaining, for military recruiting purposes, access to directory information on students. The needs of researchers and policy makers to have good information about the educational outcomes of welfare reform (and other social programs) also are worthy of a FERPA amendment.
Perhaps because of the obstacles created by FERPA, there has been little work matching administrative records to welfare data to assess possible relationships between educational progress and welfare program participation. There are a few examples, however. Orthner and Randolph (1999) examined the impact of parental work and continuity of welfare receipt on the dropout rates of high school students in families in poverty. This work was accomplished by matching individual records of children who were enrolled in the JOBS program in Mecklenburg County with the administrative records from the Mecklenburg Unified School District. Some case record checking also was done of the paper school district records. Using event history analysis, they examined the risk of dropping out of school in light of potential effects on subsequent social and economic well-being. The data indicate that that consistency in parental employment (i.e., parents who worked in all quarters) and transitions off welfare are associated with lower rates of dropping out of high school. Longer spells on public assistance are associated with higher dropout rates.
Some community colleges have merged their data with the public welfare data to better understand the overlap between their student population and the welfare population (Community College Involvement in Welfare; www.aacc. nche.edu/research/welfare.htm/11/6/99). In a survey of 1,124 community colleges conducted by the American Association of Community Colleges, about 32 percent track students on public assistance. Among the primary reasons given for not tracking students were student confidentiality and privacy issues. Yet the disruption in the educational careers of welfare recipients that may occur with the end of the JOBS program and the institution of TANF could be an important outcome for young people. A straightforward way to study this overlap and the changes in this population is to merge administrative data from community colleges and TANF programs.