Can We Be REALLY Hard-Headed About Preschool?

Grover Whitehurst, now a scholar at the Brookings Institution, has spent much of his career developing learning programs for young children.  He recently wrote two very good essays asking if we could be “hard headed” about Head Start and Universal Pre-K by admitting that the data shows that such programs have no lasting effect on the low-income children who participate in them.

Conversation together

Conversation together

But let’s take it a step further.  Can we be really hard-headed and confront the question: what if there is nothing the government can do for low-income children to improve their educational performance?  That’s a question that needs asking because, first, Whitehurst doesn’t want to ask it:

I hope you will agree that we must do something.  A program that is supposed to prepare the neediest children in the nation for school and fails to do so is a program that needs fixing.

Second, the reason to ask it is that low-income children may not be getting the one thing that has been shown to have lasting educational benefits:  parents reading to their toddlers.  A lot of evidence shows that parents endow their children with a lot of advantages in school if they read to them when they are three and four years old.

As one summary of the research states:

When parents hold positive attitudes towards reading, they are more likely to create opportunities for their children that promote positive attitudes towards literacy and they can help children develop solid language and literacy skills. When parents share books with children, they also can promote children’s understanding of the world, their social skills and their ability to learning coping strategies. When this message is supported by child health professionals during well child care and parents are given the tool, in this case a book, to be successful, the impact can be even greater. This effect may be more important among high risk children in low income families, who have parents with little education, belong to a minority group and do not speak English since they are less likely to be exposed to frequent and interactive shared reading. (Emphasis added). 

The problem is that many low-income parents don’t regularly read to their toddlers.  A study in Child Development found that only about half of low-income mothers were reading regularly to their children.

In short, the practices that endow children with lasting educational benefits begin at home.  Low-income families are less likely to engage in those practices.  And the research on Head Start shows that there is not much these programs can do to overcome what isn’t present in the home.

So, to reiterate, what if there is nothing the government can do for low-income children to improve their educational performance?  It’s understandable why Whitehurst doesn’t want to raise this question—many, many people don’t.  Clearly, it isn’t fair that upper- and middle-class children get the benefit of a parent reading to them when they are young, and so many low-income children do not.  We all want to cling to the belief that there is something that can done for those children who did not receive the necessary development at home.  Sadly, it’s a belief that isn’t supported by the evidence.  And if we persist in it with programs like Head Start, then we are spending resources in a way that will do little good.

If we are really going to be hard headed about early childhood education, we need to ask if there is any government program that can compensate for parents that fail to read to their young children and face the implications if the answer is “no.”

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