THE BLOG
10/23/2013 02:23 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Education: All in the Family

This is the final in a series of four blogs that we have posted during Connected Educator Month.

In our first blog, titled "Education: Making the Connections," we introduced the concept of a triangle with the student at the center and with the family at the top and the school and the community at either tip. We see the tips of the triangle as the pivotal points at which we need to make the proper connections in order to improve the quality of education.

In our next two blogs, we focused on schools and communities. In this blog we place the lens on the family connection and how pivotal it is to educational advancement and economic mobility.

In the middle of 2012, the Brookings Institution released a significant study titled "Pathways to Middle Class: Balancing Personal and Public Responsibilities" (Pathways). That study showed that children born into middle-income families have a "roughly even chance of moving up or down once they become adults."

More important, however, is the Brookings finding that "those born into rich or poor families have a high probability of remaining rich or poor as adults." The Brookings study revealed that the chance for a child born into a family in the bottom quintile into one of the three top quintiles was only 30 percent.

We would like to think that this is where school comes in and becomes the great equalizer. Unfortunately, this is not so. That's because the current system does too little, too late for disadvantaged youth in their early and formative years and to strengthen or compensate for the family connection.

Eduardo Porter makes this case in his April 3, 2013, New York Times article, "Misdirected Investments in Education." In his article, Porter quotes Nobel economist James Heckman who specializes in human development as stating, "The gap is there before kids walk into kindergarten. School neither increases nor reduces it." He cites other experts such as Julia Isaacs of the Urban Institute in Washington who says that more than half of poor 5-year-olds "don't have the math, reading or behavioral skills needed to profitably start kindergarten."

Dr. Betty Hart, along with Todd R. Risley, did extensive pioneering research on the manner in which families from various socio-economic levels communicated with young children. In 1995, they published a book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, presenting their findings.

Hart and Risley discovered that, "Simply in words heard, the average child on welfare was having half as much experience per hour (616 words per hour) as the average working-class child (1,251 words per hour) and less than one-third that of the average child in a professional family (2,153 words per hour)." They also found differences in other areas such as tone of voice and positive and negative feedback to the child.

Together all of this evidence provides a compelling argument for a comprehensive program of early childhood education in each state and throughout the United States. We advocated for such a student-centered approach in our first blog in this series. In this blog, we advocate going beyond the early childhood classroom into the child's family setting and the home.

Esther Cepeda, opinion columnist with the Washington Post Writer's Group and a former teacher, has written extensively on educational issues. In her columns, she has drawn upon a variety of research to illustrate how parental behavior (e.g., yelling and using abusive language with kids; not having regular bedtime hours for them; and, not developing planning skills) impacts the success and failure of children from low income families and high poverty environments.

Cepeda ends two recent columns as follows:

  • "Ultimately, ingraining the qualities associated with planning and perseverance in low-income children is the really remarkably bigger challenge of how to instill them in their parents."
  • "Universal parenting school might seem fanciful compared to universal preschool, but it's an idea that should be given serious consideration if we really want to address all that is holding back today's students."

We agree with Ms. Cepeda that focusing on the family unit and the parent is an idea that should be given serious consideration. We present an idea of our own in this regard at the end of this blog. Before we get there, let us highlight a couple of initiatives headed in this direction.

The first comes to us via Detroit. Two years ago United Way of Southeastern Michigan (United Way) received a $4 million Social Innovation Fund grant to support its Early Learning Communities initiatives. United Way awarded smaller grants to 11 non-profits that "formed a web of nearly every aspect of early learning in the city, from family, friend and neighborhood child care to nutritional counseling." In writing about this in a guest post for the New America Foundation, Paul Nyhan, journalist and early childhood expert, observes, "Of all the project's initiatives, its effort to improve the quality of child care provided in the homes of family, friends and neighbors could have the biggest impact."

The concept of home is central to our second example which comes to us via Springfield, Mass., and Seattle, Wash., courtesy of Sacramento, Calif. Springfield and Seattle are both implementing parent/teacher home visits as a "core strategy for improving student achievement in low performing schools."

Each city has developed its own model for those visits. The Springfield model draws upon the experience of Sacramento and is structured on the core belief that "parents and teachers are equally important co-educators..." An independent study in Sacramento found that the performance of home visit schools on standardized tests increased at a higher rate than in the district as a whole.

How important is it to strengthen the home and the family in order to improve educational opportunity and performance for those who are most disadvantaged? We believe critically.

Jonetta Rose Barras, in her Washington Post op-ed, "Education Reform is Strengthened at Home," quotes Carla Thompson, vice president of W.W. Kellogg Foundation (Kellogg Foundation) in this regard as follows, "If we want to see improved outcomes for children, we cannot do that without the engagement of families." The Kellogg Foundation is providing $5 million in grants of up to $500,000 each for innovative education programs directed at families of children from birth to age 8.

The Kellogg Foundation and the many other foundations and groups that are putting up dollars to support initiatives to make the family connection for better education are to be commended. But, in our opinion, we need to hit this with a much bigger stick.

Here's our radical idea: In 1996, in good economic times, the federal government launched a bipartisan Welfare to Work initiative, which for a period of time appeared to end welfare as we knew it. We're not certain where things stand today.

We are certain in these tough economic times for disadvantaged students from low-income families that we need a comparable initiative. Therefore, we propose a Welfare to Homework program. In this program, parents would be trained and paid not to leave home to go to work but to stay home and become part of the educational team. These parents might even been paid a bonus for their children's attendance and performance at school.

This proposal might seem far-fetched as the obsession within the Beltway continues to be the debt and deficit "crisis." There is a far worse deficit staring us in the face and that is the unrealized human potential gap for those at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

In its "Pathways" report, the Brookings Institution puts it this way, "There are not just large, but widening gaps by socio-economic status in family formation patterns, test scores, college going and adult earnings. These gaps should be addressed or the nation risks becoming increasingly divided over time."

We ignore these gaps at our risk. We either address them now or we will need to address them later when the costs will be much higher.

The American dream cannot survive with a permanent underclass. If we can bring communities, schools and families in a holistic common cause focused on students, we can begin to renew that dream now by tearing down the socio-economic boundaries and barriers that are entrapping too many of our children today.

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