Why the “adopted kids do bad in school” study is wrong

Why the "adopted kids do bad in school" study is wrongLast week the Atlantic Monthly published an article titled “The Adoption Paradox” based on a similarly titled report from The Blog of the Institute of Family Studies. The gist of the report can be summed up in this paragraph from the Atlantic:

As measured by their teachers, young adoptive children were more likely than biological ones to get angry easily and to fight with other students. If a 50 percent score represents an average level of this type of “problem behavior,” adopted kindergarteners were higher than average, at 64 percent, while children with two biological parents were at 44 percent. Children in single-parent, step, and foster families all had fewer behavioral issues than adopted kindergarteners, at 58 percent, although this difference was not significant. A similar pattern (63 percent versus 43 percent) emerged for adopted and biological first graders. For his research, Zill examined a longitudinal study of 19,000 students that was conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics beginning in 1998. Zill is the former head of the Child and Family Study Area at Westat, a social-science research corporation.

This is a clinically insignificant report that never should have seen the light of day and here is why.

  • Zill did examine a longitudinal study of 19,000 students but that included only 160 adoptees, hardly a compelling sample size to make a gross generalization about all adopted children.
  • The study looked at teacher report, not at all an objective way of measuring children’s behavior.
  • Zill buries the lede by saving any discussion of neglect, abuse and attachment for the very end of his report. Instead he focuses on the savior narrative of “good” adoptive parents (in fact, if you click a “share” button the Atlantic article, the title changes to “Adopted Children Do Worse In School, Despite Having Better Parents, equating “well educated” and “affluent” with “better”).

These kinds of reports and articles are harmful to adopted people and they need to stop.

  • Adoptive parents and adoptive parenting tends to drive the narrative about adoption. In this report and the accompanying article, adoption is about how “good” parents can’t make damaged children “better.” Heck, the article begins with the line, “Being adopted is one of the best things that can happen to a kid.” This ignores the incredibly complicated experience of children who join families via adoption and puts the heroism straight on the adoptive parents.
  • I know nothing about these 160 children who were adopted except that they were adopted. I know nothing about their teachers. I am curious about whether or not the teachers knew which children were adopted. I am curious how many of these children were children of color in mostly white schools. Generally I’m curious about how reliable these teacher reports are since we’re using them to make sweeping generalizations about all adopted kids.
  • As I said before, these articles bury the lede. We know for certain that trauma impacts a child’s learning and experience (read this article from PBS: Giving traumatized kids a head start in healing)  and we know that many of our children have experienced trauma before arriving to our family (even those adopted at birth). This does not make them damaged goods that adoption ought to heal; this makes them survivors who need special trauma-informed support and care.

There’s also this (hold on to your hats):

Because the educational attainments of adoptive parents are exceptionally high, the genetic endowment of most children available for adoption is likely to be less favorable to intellectual accomplishment than the endowments of their adoptive parents. No matter how much intellectual stimulation and encouragement the parents provide the child, they may not be able to overcome the limitations of the child’s genetic heritage.

Whoa. Did this guy just say that adopted kids are stupider than kids raised with their birth families? Did he seriously just say that? Because it sure sounds like he did. First off, educational attainment has a whole lot to do with access, which means money and we already know that adoptive parents tend to have money. But where did he find this information that “the genetic endowment of most children available for adoption is likely to be less favorable to intellectual accomplishment?” Answer: He didn’t because it doesn’t exist. He just made it up!

So here he had the opportunity to write a compelling article that says, “Hey, kids who are adopted may have some needs that we’re missing and we ought to look at that. We ought to look at the research we have about trauma-informed care and we need to look more closely about how we’re failing some kids.” And instead he wrote an article about how adopted parents ought to keep adopting (“none of the findings presented here is meant to minimize the tremendous contribution that adoptive parents make to the children they take in or to society in general,” he writes) but just don’t get your hopes up too high, “to be realistic about what adoption can and cannot accomplish.”

See how he takes this study all about kids and makes it all about the adoptive parents?

Now who is this Nicholas Zill who penned this report anyway? That bears looking into. First of all he’s a psychologist and data researcher, which means he likes to dig around in data that already exists and pull more info from it. He takes these broad surveys and draws conclusions from them that espouse a certain point of view.  The Institute for Family Studies is a conservative think tank “dedicated to strengthening marriage and family life, and advancing the well-being of children, through research and public education.” This is important to know because all research reports have a bias and biases can lead to shoddy research (you look for what you want to find and ignore what you don’t want to see). Now this isn’t always true but when we’re making blanket statements about say, smart adoptive parents and the limited “genetic endowment” of adoptees, it might be important to know that the Institute has a whole lot of biases. (Just look at this report about Red State Families where Zill and his co-author confidently states that the reason Utah has more stable marriages than other Red States is in part that it has “relatively low proportions of minorities … whose families are less stable on average than white and Asian families” with no context for that statement whatsoever.)

This adoptive parent-centric attitude is also apparent in The (equally conservative) Family Research Counsel’s Report, Adoption Works Well: A Synthesis of the Literature, which uses much of Zill’s earlier research. “On the whole,” says that report. “[Adoptive] parents are very satisfied with their adopted children.”

Ugh, that language!

Ultimately the only value of this report is understanding that this is the kind of prejudice that adoptees face every single day — that they are an investment and need to make good for their adoptive parents; that adoptive parents are saints for taking in these sinners; that birth families are just a big old mess without the “genetic endowment” of adoptive parents.

(This last one kills me in part because one can assume that some of those kids in that big old survey they’re citing are growing up in homes that look an awful lot like the homes that the adopted kids left. I mean, statistically speaking, right? And they’re doing great — better than the adopted kids. So what does that say?)

It’s unfortunate that when we say “adoption” we generalize a whole population of unique individuals with unique histories, experiences, challenges and strengths. It’s unfortunate that reports like this one get media play and make it harder for our children to be seen as those unique individuals.

I’m sure tired of it. Aren’t you?

Comments 2

  1. Pingback: ‘Adoption Paradox’ Neglects To Mention This Common Cause Of Cognitive And Behavior Issues |

  2. Pingback: Not an Adoption Paradox, but a Hoax | a Mindful Meal

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