In honor of National Foster Care Awareness Month, we asked economist Dr. Max Gross, researcher at Mathematica and former IES Predoctoral Fellow at University of Michigan, to discuss how his career journey and experiences inspired his research on children and youth who encounter the child welfare system.
What inspired you to become an education researcher?
My goal as a researcher is to promote the well-being of children, youth, and families, particularly those who have been historically underserved or marginalized. I became an education researcher specifically because going to school is one of the few experiences almost everyone shares in the United States. This means schools are a place where policy can have a significant influence.
I think of my work on child welfare and foster care as education research because students bring their whole selves to school. Students who have not had enough to eat or who experience housing instability and homelessness are unlikely to reach their full academic potential. In this way, nutrition policy is education policy; housing policy is education policy; and for my research, child welfare and foster care policy are education policy.
How have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career in studying children and youth who encounter the child welfare system?
I recognized a crucial gap in education research early into graduate school. There was an enormous amount of information available to researchers on what happens in schools but far less on the factors outside of school that influence student trajectories. Education data systems include how often students show up to school, who their teachers are, and how well they do in their classes. Coming from a family with three generations of social workers, I knew that what happens outside of school hours—which education data lack—also contributes to success, particularly for students with adverse childhood experiences.
I had the privilege to join an interdisciplinary team of researchers working to integrate data from the education and child welfare systems through the IES Predoctoral Training Program at the University of Michigan. As part of my fellowship, I partnered with University of Michigan colleagues from the Education Policy Initiative, Youth Policy Lab, and Child and Adolescent Data Lab to link information from the Michigan Department of Education and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. This opened the door to exploring previously unanswerable questions about the reach of child welfare systems and the effects of education and child welfare policies.
We discovered that children’s encounters with the child welfare system were shockingly common. One out of every five public school students in Michigan—in some school districts, more than half of all students—had been subject to a formal investigation into child abuse or neglect by the time they reached grade 3. These statistics were even higher for Black students and students from low-income households. We also found a strong association between contact with the child welfare system and experiences in school. These students were more likely to receive special education services, be held back a grade, and score lower on math and reading tests.
My training as an applied economist pushed me to critically examine the relationship between child welfare interventions and experiences in school. Did child welfare interventions themselves cause students to fare worse in school? Or were broader circumstances responsible, such as the reasons that triggered involvement with the child welfare system in the first place? My dissertation focused on how the most far-reaching child welfare intervention—removing a child from their home and placing them in foster care—influences their educational outcomes.
What are you researching now?
I partner with child welfare and education agencies to study how their policies and programs influence the lives of children, youth, and families. For example, I recently led an evaluation of a parent education program in Arizona that sought to prevent child maltreatment and foster care placements. I also contribute to a study of a coach-like case management program in Colorado to prevent homelessness among youth and young adults with child welfare histories and an evaluation of a training and coaching program to help preschool teachers support children with diverse needs. In addition, I enjoy working with agencies to strengthen their research and evaluation capacity, harnessing the power of the data they already collect to better understand the effectiveness of their programs.
What do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to improve the relevance of education research for children and youth who encounter the child welfare system?
Critical education issues that affect children and youth who encounter the child welfare system are understudied. At the front end of the child welfare system, the law requires teachers and education personnel to report suspected child abuse and neglect. School staff are consistently among the most frequent reporters of maltreatment. Child welfare agencies are sometimes less likely to substantiate reports from education personnel compared to other mandatory reporters, however. Researchers should examine the training that school staff receive in identifying abuse and neglect and whether they overreport maltreatment. At the back end, education policies can support or inhibit the well-being of students who have experienced abuse and neglect and students in foster care. Researchers should explore trauma-informed teaching practices and school-based behavioral health services. Efforts to promote stability for students in foster care, who might transfer schools when their placements change, also deserve more research attention. Education and child welfare policymakers must work together to securely share data for researchers to study these topics.
Education researchers should also make their research more relevant for children and youth who encounter the child welfare system. Just like we seek feedback from subject matter and methodological experts to increase rigor, partnering with experts with lived experience throughout the research process will strengthen our work. As another example, we must make our research accessible for diverse audiences, including those who are involved with the systems that we study.
What advice would you give education researchers who wish to study children and youth who encounter the child welfare system?
Education researchers should first recognize that they have already been studying children and youth who encounter the child welfare system even if they have not realized it. More than one-third of children nationwide are subject to a formal child welfare investigation before their 18th birthday, and 5 percent are placed in foster care. How might the prevalence of these adverse childhood experiences shape your findings?
I would also encourage education researchers to engage with many disciplines. Read studies published in journals outside of your field. Discuss your research with experts who use different tools and approaches to address similar questions. Present your findings to interdisciplinary audiences. Promoting the well-being of children and youth who encounter the child welfare system requires bringing together diverse perspectives.
Max Gross is a researcher at Mathematica where he specializes in quantitative evaluation design and analysis, particularly of programs and policies geared toward historically underserved children and families. Currently, he supports the city of Philadelphia’s child welfare agency to strengthen its evaluation capacity and contributes to the design of the Youth At-Risk of Homelessness evaluation of a coach-like case management system for youth and young adults in foster care.
This blog was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), program officer for IES predoctoral training program.