Forty years ago, as Marian Wright Edelman and her fellow pioneers at the Child Development Group of Mississippi were organizing sharecroppers, fending off Jim Crow, and cobbling together a model for the nation's Head Start program, Betty Hart and Todd Risley were up in Kansas City working on an early childhood program of their own. First, Hart and Risley designed a state-of-the-art preschool curriculum for children at the Turner House in Kansas City's impoverished Juniper Gardens neighborhood. The children made rapid progress, but when they were tested a year later, their vocabularies again lagged far behind those of better-off children. Hart and Risley tried other teaching strategies: an Afrocentric approach, field trips, structured discussions to help children integrate new experiences into their daily conversation. These efforts failed, too.
So Hart and Risley delved deeper into children's lives. For more than two years, the professors and their team paid monthly visits to 42 children as young as 7 months old -- some from families on welfare, others from working-class and professional homes. They recorded every word spoken by child or parent, every gesture, every question. The results showed a contrast starker than Hart and Risley ever imagined: By age 3, upper-income toddlers not only had vocabularies twice as large as the welfare children; they also had bigger vocabularies than the welfare parents. The data explained why: Affluent parents spoke an average of 487 words to their children every hour, compared with 301 words for working-class parents and 176 words for welfare parents. Extrapolated over the first four years of life, that meant well-to-do kids heard an astonishing 30 million more words than kids from the poorest families. What's more, affluent parents showered their children with encouragement, while welfare parents -- reflecting the greater stress in their lives -- offered less praise and more frequent criticism. By third grade, the children's success in school mirrored their vocabulary growth at age 3, which closely tracked the levels of positive stimulation by their parents. In fact, differences in parenting during the first three years were far more powerful predictors of children's success in third grade than socioeconomic status.
Hart and Risley weren't the first to suggest that parents play a crucial role in their children's success, of course. But their eye-opening data raise an important question: How can we hope to leave no child behind if we do not first help disadvantaged parents give their children richer and more positive support in the early years?
The question resonates further when you consider the success of efforts like Phyllis Levenstein's Parent-Child Home Program. Beginning in the mid-1960s, Levenstein trained visitors to go into the homes of new parents and help teach them positive parenting strategies. Twice weekly for the better part of two years, these visitors went to the homes of 2- and 3-year-olds, bringing gifts for the child and sitting with the parent and child while modeling positive parenting behaviors. The strategy worked, and it continues to work with more than 4,000 children each year at 139 sites nationwide. In South Carolina, a 2002 study found that a mostly African American group of first-graders who had participated in the program as tots scored above the state and district averages for school readiness and far above the averages for other poor children. A long-term follow-up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, found that at-risk children who took part in the program had an 84-percent high-school-graduation rate, compared with 53 percent for eligible children who didn't participate.
Some scholars have questioned the research on Levenstein's program, and most other research has suggested more moderate benefits from home-visiting programs. But a mountain of evidence shows that combining parental support with high-quality child care offers the most powerful approach for erasing the school-readiness gap facing poor children.
These and other results led a National Academy of Sciences panel to conclude in 2000, "Programs that combine child-focused educational activities with explicit attention to parent-child interaction patterns and relationship building appear to have the greatest impacts."
To its credit, the Head Start program has included much more parental involvement than most state-funded and private preschools. It requires two home visits and two parent-teacher meetings yearly, and supports parents in getting health insurance, medical care, education for themselves, and social services. Parents also play a key role in governing local programs. That said, Head Start's work with parents misses important opportunities. "We're still not looking at 'what do you want every Head Start parent doing for their own kid?'" says Heather Weiss of the Harvard Family Research Project. What's more, says Arthur Reynolds, a University of Wisconsin scholar, "There is no family-resource room in each Head Start facility, no place for parents to go within the particular center, and that limits what you can actually do with the parents."
For 20 years, Reynolds has been studying an alternative called Child-Parent Centers (CPC), which has operated in Chicago's neediest neighborhoods since 1967. The CPC model differs from Head Start in several ways, including a much greater investment in parental support. In addition to hiring a paraprofessional home visitor for each center, CPC sets aside a separate classroom for parents at every site and staffs the room full time with a trained parent-resource teacher. The results are striking. In data released three years ago, Reynolds found that children in the CPC program were 29 percent more likely than a comparison group to graduate from high school, had a 33 percent lower arrest rate, and were 40 percent less likely to be left back or placed in special education -- far surpassing the results of any Head Start program ever evaluated. When Reynolds analyzed the data further, he found that parental involvement was one of three important factors linked to CPC children's success.
In Seattle, The Incredible Years program has also compounded Head Start's impact through greater investment in parental support. Working with children enrolled in Head Start, The Incredible Years combats behavioral problems with age-appropriate behavioral training for the children and parental training. In one project for children with behavioral problems, the combination of child and parent training returned 95 percent of the children to a normal range of behavior. The Incredible Years curriculum has also reduced problem behavior in a general population of Head Start children.
The most important window for engaging parents comes during the infant and toddler years -- before children even reach preschool. Historically, Head Start paid almost no attention to children under 3, but in 1994, Congress and the Clinton administration enacted the Early Head Start program to begin filling that void. But as is detailed elsewhere in this special report, the program will consume just 10 percent of the total Head Start budget.
Likewise, whereas 46 states now operate pre-kindergarten programs and state funding for pre-K has skyrocketed from $700 million in the early 1990s to more than $2 billion today, only a few states have invested heavily in parent-focused services for 0- to 3-year-olds like Parents as Teachers, the Home Instructional Program for Preschool Youth, or the Parent-Child Home Program. Even including Early Head Start and projects funded by local governments and charities, parent-focused early-learning projects combined probably serve fewer than 150,000 children a year. That's a tiny fraction of the nearly 2 million children attending state-funded pre-K or traditional Head Start programs.
That gap is crippling, suggests Harvard's Heather Weiss. "Not only is a lot of your vocabulary and language set by age 3," she says, "but your notions of what you can learn … are also set in those first three years of life." Parenting practices, she adds, "play a critical role." A 2002 evaluation showed that Early Head Start children had better cognitive and language development and showed better behavior than a control group. Early Head Start programs offering both center-based care and home visits for parents consistently yielded the best results.
"All of the research shows we have the capacity to change life trajectories," says Jack Shonkoff, dean of the Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and co-editor of an influential National Academy of Sciences report on early-childhood development in 2000. "The strong science tells us that early-intervention programs that work with parents in addition to working with children themselves are more effective than programs that work only with the children." The question is, when will policy-makers start paying attention?
Dick Mendel is a freelance writer and editor based in Baltimore.