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How Are Kids Doing? It's a Mixed Bag, and the Education Results are "Meh"

The Foundation for Child Development just released their annual Child Well-Being Index, which culls a variety of indicators of children's well-being across multiple domains of economic, health, education, behavior, and social/emotional/religious well-being to try to track how our nation's kids have fared over time. It's not a perfect measure and plenty of folks can quibble over specific indicators, but FCD and professor Kenneth Land, who developed the Index, deserve credit for trying to look at children's well-being holistically, rather than at the disjointed measures we typically see in policy debates.

The results here are better than one might expect but overall do not inspire holiday cheer. The good news is that, despite the economic challenges of the past 5 years and a decline at the beginning of the economic downturn, overall child well-being appears to have held roughly stable from 2005-2010. That overall figure, however, masks a mixed bag of big sub-indicator changes .

The big negative news here is that kids and families are doing much worse economically than a decade ago. In 2001, 15.6 percent of kids lived in families with incomes below the poverty line; in 2011, 21.4 percent did. That's millions more children living in poverty. Median income for families with children ages 0-18 is also down roughly 10% since 2001. These are serious negative indicators that policy and thought leaders--in both education and our broader national policy debate--should be paying a lot more attention to, especially in light of the current "fiscal cliff" conversation.

The good news is that rates of dangerous and risky behaviors among youth have also decreased dramatically in the past decade; today's teens are less likely to binge drink, smoke, or have children as teens. They're also--and this is worth remembering in light of last week's events--much safer than they once were. Teens are dramatically less likely to perpetrate or be victims of violent crime today than they were in the mid-1990s. All of these trends reflect a story of social progress that's too little acknowledged or understood in current policy or education conversations.

Speaking of which: The education findings here are a resounding "Meh." 4th grade reading scores are up over the past decade, consistently so. But the pace of improvement has been near molasses in January slow: The authors calculate that it will take 35 years of continued gains at the current rate before 50% of 4th graders read proficiently on NAEP. That's a looooong time to wait, particularly in light of global and economic trends. Pre-k enrollment--which may have helped fuel some of the education progress--has also pretty much stalled after a decade of expansion. That said, the fact these increases have occurred even in light of decreased economic circumstances for many children shouldn't be ignored.

The real challenge here is how we can dramatically accelerate the rate of progress in educational outcomes AND also reverse some of the trends in family economic well-being over the past decade.

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