Residential education urged toward self-examination

Residential education urged toward self-examination
13 March 2009

The continuing popularity of residential education in the US despite a lack of certainty about its effectiveness is an example of the problems prevention science faces until there is more widespread public confidence in its methods and messages.

Applications for residential places for disadvantaged youth and foster children, for example, exceed capacity twice over, when there is very little evidence as to its impact on outcomes.

There are some promising indications that it indeed does have a positive effect, but the search for proof is hindered by the lack of rigorous evaluation and a failure to distinguish residential education from other forms of group care.

Introducing their own contribution to improving knowledge as authors of a report on the first national US survey of residential education, Bethany Lee and Richard Barth at the University of Maryland’s Department of Social Work note that educational inequalities experienced by “at-risk” young people, and in particular those in foster care, are becoming a policy priority on both sides of the Atlantic.

Over 10,000 applications are made each year for fewer than 4,000 places in residential education programs for this target group.

The term residential education applies to a variety of models. There are college-preparatory schools such as the Milton Hershey School, long term foster placements such as those offered by the San Pasquale Academy and other schools that send children home at the weekends.

This diversity represents a challenge to evaluators: it makes it hard to distinguish between residential education from other types of group or residential care that have been shown to have poor and in some cases harmful effects.

The identified risks include those associated with increased contact with deviant peers (the iatrogenic effect) and separation from family and community. There are also worries about cost benefit: can the small gains be justified in relation to the huge costs involved? Whether or not these anxieties apply equally across all types of residential education has yet to be determined; not enough research has been done.

Among the few studies that have been conducted in the US, just one – a largely descriptive study of the San Pasquale Academy in Southern California – has focused on foster youth in residential education.

Indications were that, compared to foster youth not in residential education, San Pasquale students displayed higher rates of attainment, school completion and college attendance.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Royal Wanstead Children’s Foundation found that two years after enrollment, almost all of the disadvantaged and at-risk youth at the school were doing as well as if not better than their peers.

The survey Lee and Barth report on was conducted by the Coalition for Residential Education (CORE) where Bethany Lee also holds an appointment. CORE criteria were met by 119 programs. This meant that students enrolled voluntarily, there was a school or some other significant focus on educational services on site and the program targeted mostly disadvantaged at-risk youth. Only 56% of of the 119 responded to the survey.

It emerged that most programs involve a stay of at least a year during which time children live in a “cottage style” arrangement where small groups of children were under the eye of permanent

Clearer differences between residential care and residential education start to emerge in in relation to length of stay and the emphasis given to creating a family environment and keeping parents involved.

The researchers say that the new evidence should inform the development of specific criteria to differentiate the two. “Only by ensuring that residential schools are truly a distinct intervention can residential education begin to build an evidence base separate from less impressive findings of other group care models.”

Lee and Barth place the responsibility for evaluating and monitoring outcomes firmly in the hands of residential education providers.

“Building this research foundation will provide an answer to the question of what type of resource residential education can be for improving educational outcomes for which foster youth.”

See: Lee B and Barth R (2009) “Residential education: An emerging resource for improving educational outcomes for youth in foster care?” Children and Youth Services Review, 31, pp 155-160.


Rick Barth

Richard P Barth is Dean of the School of Social Work and Professor at the University of Maryland. He was Co-principal Investigator for the “National Study of Child and Adolescent Well-Being,” the first examination of the US child welfare system to use a nationally representative sample. He is also originator of the Shared Family Care program in California, in which parents and their children are placed together in the home of a host family for mentoring and support. His main research interests are adoption, child welfare, families and children, and evidenced-based practice.

Bethany Lee

Bethany Lee is Assistant Professor in the University of Maryland School of Social Work. She is also secretary of the Coalition of Residential Education (CORE). Her main research interests are out-of-home care, residential treatment and treatment foster care.

iatrogenic effect

The iatrogenic effect describes the unintentional harmful effects of medical intervention or advice. The term is used in prevention science where programs are shown to have detrimental effects on children’s outcomes. The effect has been found most frequently among services that involve group work with anti-social youth. See, for example the work of Tom Dishion.

residential education

Residential education describes an educationally focused out-of-home placement setting that integrates both home and school life. The different types include college-preparatory schools and long term foster placements. Residential education programs are becoming more common but clear evidence about their impact on outcomes is lacking.

randomized controlled trials

Sometimes referred to as experimental evaluations, randomized controlled trials or RCTs randomly allocate potential beneficiaries of an intervention to a program or treatment group (who receive the intervention) or a control group (who do not). Outcomes for the two groups are then compared.

They are most often used to test medicines or medical procedures, but they are becoming more common in social interventions, particularly in relation to early years programs and education interventions in the US.

RCTs are considered the most reliable way of testing the effect of an intervention on outcomes for the potential beneficiary. Since the subjects of a trial are allocated at random to program and control groups, both are statistically equivalent and comparisons of outcome will reflect the effect of the intervention and not the characteristic of the groups.

Most importantly, RCTs eliminate selection effects. For example, if entry to the program tested was not random, the outcome might be the result of one group wanting the intervention more than another.

RCTs are strong at estimating the size of the difference in predefined outcomes between program and control groups. It is possible, therefore, to estimate how much change is the result of the intervention.

Other evaluation designs, including quasi-experimental designs that include a control group can detect associations between an intervention and an outcome but they cannot rule out the possibility that the association was caused by a third factor linked to both.

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