Family and Consumer Sciences Education

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Family and consumer sciences education is a field of study that focuses on families and workand on their interrelationships. Family and consumer sciences education tries to empower individuals and families to identify and create alternative solutions to significant everyday challenges and to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions in a diverse global society. These challenges are experienced by people of all ages in their families, workplaces, and communities. Consequently, the central concern of the field is the physical, economic, and sociopsychological well-being of individuals and families within that diverse society. From its inception in the nineteenth century, the field has used knowledge to improve people's quality of life.

Goals and Purposes

Family and consumer sciences education contributes to a broad range of intellectual, moral, and workforce development goals. Its mission is to prepare students for family life, work life, and careers in family and consumer sciences. Nine specific goals, developed in 1994 by the Family and Consumer Sciences Division of the American Vocational Association (now the Association for Career and Technical Education [ACTE]) provide the direction for curriculum:

  1. Strengthen the well-being of individuals and families across the life span
  2. Become responsible citizens and leaders for family, community, and work settings
  3. Promote optimal nutrition and wellness across the life span
  4. Manage resources to meet the material needs of individuals and families
  5. Balance personal, home, family, and work lives
  6. Use critical and creative thinking skills to address problems in diverse family, community, and work environments
  7. Foster successful life management, employment, and career development
  8. Function as providers and consumers of goods and services for families
  9. Appreciate human worth and accept responsibility for one's actions and success in family and work life

These goals guided the development of national family and consumer sciences content standards during the 1990s. Recommended content includes reasoning for action; career, community, and family connections; consumer and family resources; family development; human development; interpersonal relationships; nutrition and wellness; and parenting. In addition, standards were recommended for the knowledge, skills, and practices required for careers in consumer service; early childhood education and services; facilities management and maintenance; family and consumer services; food production and services; food science, dietetics, and nutrition; hospitality, tourism, and recreation; and housing, interiors, and furnishings.

Family and consumer sciences education is an interdisciplinary field. Teachers integrate knowledge and processes from empirical, interpretive, and critical sciences to help students identify, understand, and solve continuing human concerns or problems that individuals and families experience. To address these concerns, the field draws on social sciences, physical and biological sciences, arts, humanities, and mathematics. Core processes are integrated in most courses and programs. Scientific and practical reasoning processes are integrated to learn about and solve what-to-do problems. Communication processes, including the use of information technology, are integrated to sensitively identify and meet the needs of self and others through caregiving and education. Shared democratic leadership processes are integrated in classroom and community service learning experiences. Management and other processes, such as mathematics, are also incorporated, as needed, into concrete learning activities like those experienced in homes, families, and communities. Academic partnerships between family and consumer sciences and colleagues in science, language arts, and social studies result in team-taught courses in food and nutrition and family issues and relationships.

Family and consumer sciences education is an action-oriented field. It is concerned with the work of the family through everyday life-enhancing, care-giving activities and interactions carried out privately within the family and publicly in the community. Private caregiving focuses on the optimum development of family members. Public caregiving is provided through public service and service careers, such as child-care and food service careers. These personal service careers provide the caregiving that was provided only in homes before the twentieth century.

Educational experiences focus on developing three interrelated and interdependent kinds of reasoned action or processes needed for the work of the family in the home and community: communicative, reflective, and technical action. Communicative action involves developing learning and interpersonal skills needed for sharing meanings and understanding the needs, intentions, and values of family and community members. Reflective action involves developing the critical and ethical thinking skills needed for evaluating and changing social conditions, norms, and power relationships that may be accepted without question, but may be harmful to families, their members, and, ultimately, to society. This critical reflective action focuses on enhancing human capabilities and the physical, psychosocial, and economic well-being of the family and its members in a rapidly changing society. Finally, technical action involves developing the care-giving skills needed for using a variety of methods and technology to meet family needs for food, clothing, shelter, protection, and the development of family members. Such technical action varies historically and from culture to culture.

Action-oriented classrooms develop and extend these skills into homes and communities. For example, students in a high school parenting education course take communicative, reflective, and technical actions as they analyze, discuss, and evaluate the effects that violence in Saturday morning cartoons has on children. These kinds of actions can then be integrated and used when students or family members plan and work together to effect change in this type of programmingwhich has become a cultural norm for many childrensuch as through community education activities for parents and legislators and for companies who sponsor violent programming.

History of Family and Consumer Sciences Education

From its inception, the field has been concerned with using knowledge to improve the quality of life. Family and consumer sciences education began in the mid-nineteenth century as domestic economy for girls. During this timeand into the early twentieth centurywomen were relegated to the private life of the family and separated from the public life of the community. The educational reformer Catharine Beecher (18001878) envisioned a field to help students develop the critical thinking skills needed in their homes and in the wider community. Initially, this new field of study was an integral part of a general science-based liberal arts education that prepared females for their "professions" as wives and mothers. By the late 1800s, land-grant colleges offered domestic science courses for young women, thus making it acceptable for women to attend coeducational institutions. Two prevailing cultural assumptions supported this new field: (1) domestic tasks are women's work; and (2) women need specific formal training for their home-centered duties.

During the twentieth century, the family and consumer sciences field evolved along with cultural, political, legislative, and pedagogical change to meet the needs of diverse populations. In the early 1900s, concern for the deterioration of the family and its members in a rapidly changing society motivated Ellen H. Richards (18421911) to found the American Home Economics Association (now the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences). She envisioned this professional organization as one that would emphasize cultural, ethical, and social ideals, and the scientific management of household work.

Soon after the establishment of this organization, changing political circumstances culminated in federal legislation that extended the field into communities and schools throughout the country. First, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 established the Cooperative Extension system to provide community educational programs in every county throughout the United States. Home economics education was established as part of this community-based educational system, which continues to provide links between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and land-grant universities for family and consumer education programming in an effort to improve lives and communities.

The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 established vocational education for paid employment and vocational home economics education in most public schools. By providing funding for teachers and equipment, this legislature transformed the field of study from a female version of general liberal arts and science education for a few women in colleges to vocational home economics education for girls in secondary schools throughout the country. Even though this act defined vocational education as technical education for paid employment, home economics education was meant for useful employment and merged two diverse curricular goals: (1) a general liberal arts and science education for family and community members, and (2) preparation for their assumed life work as homemakers. This educational and social reform played a liberating role for girls, since they were encouraged to stay in school at a time when girls tended to drop out after the eighth grade. It also prepared them to participate in their communities. Community leadership was developed through a cocurricular high school student organization, the Future Homemakers of America (FHA), which was established in 1945. Gradually, home economics education prepared girls for every area of home life in the first half of the twentieth century; namely, clothing construction, food preparation and preservation, sanitation, home furnishings, child care, health care, and family relations. Social benefits centered on the country having wise, prepared mothers; responsible family members and citizens; healthy and moral households; and productive and confident homemakers.

By the 1950s the country and the field had begun a transformation as a result of changing cultural assumptions that had limited women's work to the homeand men to work outside the home. Production of food, clothing, and home furnishingsand home care of children and sick, elderly, and handicapped family membersbegan to occur outside the home. Most families were becoming consumers rather than producers of these goods and services, and career choices expanded for males and females. More women entered wage-earning careers outside the homeincluding, but not limited to, home-and family-related service careers. Some men's work expanded to homemaking and parenting roles within the home. Consequently, both males and females needed help with recognizing and meeting new challenges of families and consumers, including deciding the direction of their careers and preparing for and managing family, career, and community responsibilities. To meet these needs, many schools offered at least one home economics course for young men, and when Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 prohibited sex discrimination in education, all courses were suddenly open to males and females. Consequently, male enrollment increased in middle school and high school career and family-related programs, and especially in food and interpersonal relationships courses, to approximately 40 percent in the 1990s. By 1994 the field changed its name and emphasis to family and consumer sciences to reflect these and other cultural and educational developments. Subsequently, the Future Homemakers of America student organization was renamed the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA).

Major Trends, Issues, and Controversies

These name changes reflect major trends and issues within the field. Over the years the field has shifted between technical and critical-science approaches. In the early twenty-first century the trend is toward a critical science approach, as educators focus on perennial and evolving issues concerning families and communities. Problem solving occurs within the context of real-world issues, and this approach integrates academic and workforce preparation. Skill development continues, but rather than emphasizing the development of homemaking skills, the thinking and interpersonal skills needed in families, workplaces, and communities are emphasized. In addition to scientific reasoning, practical or ethical reasoning is being added to the curriculum. While economic values such as efficiency and productivity continue to be reflected in the curriculum, moral and ethical values, such as personal and social responsibility and respect for all people, and all other types of values are openly discussed (rather than assumed) when discussing and solving problems affecting family and community members.

Grounded in the concrete and abstract experiences of the home, family, and community, family and consumer sciences education provides meaningful ways of knowing and learning for young people and adults with varying abilities and needs. Courses are being designed to help all students (including students at risk for dropping out of school) meet high academic expectations and stay in school. Authentic experiences help students make connections with other academic disciplines and the world beyond the classroom.

With this approach, family and consumer sciences education has become an integral part of the current educational reform movement. Yearlong, comprehensive courses and programs are being redesigned to meet high academic standards and student needs. National and state academic and family and consumer sciences content standards are used to strengthen programs and plans, and courses are becoming more specialized. However, academics, technology, and workforce-development skills are now integrated into the way students learn. These transferable skills are core learnings in process-centered family and consumer sciences classrooms. Real-world, problem-based instruction often includes service learning and other ways of extending learning beyond the classroom. Teachers are designing courses to fit flexible scheduling options, including semester, nine-week, and block-scheduling courses, to replace comprehensive yearlong courses.

Professionals continue to debate the role of family and consumer sciences in schools, as well as teacher preparation needs, teacher certification/licensure requirements, and ways to recruit teachers. These are interrelated issues, since inadequate numbers of teachers are being prepared to replace and expand the family and consumer sciences teaching force.

School and Community Curriculum Offerings

Family and consumer sciences educational programs are provided for youth and adults in schools and communities throughout the world. School programs for elementary age children are more likely to be offered in other countries, such as Japan and Malaysia, than in the United States. However, middle schools, high schools, and colleges around the world offer elective and required courses in family and consumer sciences education. Such programs have varying names, such as family and consumer sciences, human development and family science, family studies, work and family life, human ecology, or home economics.

High school curriculum offerings include comprehensive home and family life-skills courses and specialized personal, family, career, or community-focused courses. Comprehensive courses are more likely to be offered in the elementary and middle school levels, and specialized courses tend to be at the high school and college levels. Personal development courses are designed to help adolescents and adults learn about themselves, careers, and family responsibilities so they can make reasoned life choices. Course titles reflect these comprehensive emphases: Building Life Skills, Orientation to Life and Careers, Independent Living, Adult Roles and Responsibilities, Leadership in the Workplace, Career Connections, and Career Choices.

More specialized family-oriented courses include titles such as Family Relationships, Interpersonal Relationships, Human Behavior, Parenting and Child Development, Family and Technology, Families in Society Today, Dynamics of Relationships, Families of Many Cultures, and Families in Crisis. Food, nutrition, and wellness courses may be designed to meet personal, family, and career needsas well as science requirements. Courses offered include Nutrition and Wellness; Family, Food and Society; Sports Nutrition; Modern Meals; Global Cuisine; Food Science; Chemistry of Food and Nutrition; and Experimental Foods. Consumer and family resource management courses, such as Consumer Economics, Life Management, Financial Management, and Life Planning, tend to be more comprehensive in that they are designed to prepare students for their adult roles and responsibilities.

Career-oriented courses in high schools, colleges, and universities prepare students for their family work and an array of personal service careers. High school courses range from exploring career options and developing core processes in a nine-week or semester course to a one-or two-year workforce development course focused on developing the knowledge and skills necessary for careers in food service, child care, hospitality and tourism, facilities care and management, housing and interiors, or apparel and textiles related careers. Two-year and four-year college programs include combinations of specialized courses to prepare for professional careers in early childhood education; consumer services; financial planning; dietetics; food science; hospitality and food management; interior design; fashion design and merchandising; and product research and development. Baccalaureate and master's degree programs prepare family and consumer sciences educators for schools and Cooperative Extension. Master's and Ph.D. programs prepare researchers, specialists, and university educators.

Family and consumer sciences content may be combined in a variety of ways to meet the special needs of students and communities. School-based programs and courses are offered for pregnant and parenting students, dropout-prone students, and developmentally handicapped students. Graduation rates for pregnant and parenting students from these programs is more than 85 percent, while the national retention rate for these teenagers is 40 percent. Rates of subsequent pregnancies and low birth weights are also lower than state and national averages. School-based and community-based entrepreneurship courses help students, especially in small communities and developing countries, create their own businesses, often providing family and consumer sciencesrelated services.

Community-based family and consumer sciences community programs are offered by Cooperative Extension and other community agencies and organizations. These family and consumer sciences programs address a variety of individual, family, and community needs and issues. Cooperative Extension is a non-formal educational system concerned with issues faced throughout the life cycle, including child care, parenting, family life, nutrition and food safety, money management, and adult development and aging. Cooperative Extension family and consumer sciences educators collaborate with other county and state Cooperative Extension educators to provide community programming. Basic programming includes 4-H (a non-formal educational program for five-to nineteen-year olds focused on developing their "head, heart, hands, and health") youth and adult leadership development and adult education; agriculture; community resources and economic development; family development and resource management; leadership and volunteer development; natural resources and environment management; and nutrition, diet, and health. National initiative programming focuses on nationally important issues, such as financial security, caring for children and youth, food safety and quality, healthy people and communities, and workforce preparation.

Current Status

Family and consumer sciences education is an integral component of the U.S. educational system, and of some other countries' systems. Some countries, such as Japan, require home economics at all levels of their public schools. Most U.S. secondary schools offer family and consumer sciences courses, and some require middle school life-skills courses and/or high school career connections, parenting and child development, and interpersonal relationships courses for all their students. State and local school funding has replaced most federal funding for these programs. Many family and consumer sciences programs strengthened their place in the middle and high school curriculum during the 1990s, especially when curriculum was revised to contribute to academic, technological, workplace, and family and consumer sciences standards and local and state needs. For example, enrollment more than doubled in Ohio's Work and Family Life program during this period. While family and consumer sciences programs have maintained or expanded enrollment in many middle schools and high schools, some schools have eliminated their programs due to the unavailability of teachers.

Cooperative Extension family and consumer sciences programs have maintained their community educational role in rural and small towns and expanded their urban programs. Websites connect families to sources of information and resources such as fact sheets, educational events, self-directed studies, and research findings. All states provide educational programming with varying emphases to meet local needs.

See also: Curriculum, School; Secondary Education, subentries on Current Trends, History of; Vocational and Technical Education, subentries on History of, Trends.


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Janet Fentress Laster

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