The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation recently committed up to $60 million to launching Strong American Schools (ED in 8). Their goal is to pressure presidential candidates to address our country's educational crisis. As they see it, something dramatic has to be done to decrease high school drop out rates (more than one million students quit each year) and improve academic achievement, or our standard of living, economy, and democracy will be endangered.
While they have not made education the top priority that ED in 8 demands, Democratic presidential front-runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have recognized the importance of pre-school education in terms of improving our children's educational achievement, and have committed themselves to increasing its availability.
In fact, without drawing the necessary practical conclusions, they have both gone even further, (or one might say even earlier) and pointed out the importance of the first three years of life in terms of later academic achievement. In a 2006 speech, Senator Obama stated that research shows that "by age three, roughly 85 percent of the brain's core structure is formed." Senator Clinton writes "during the first three years of any child's life, his or her brain expands to three times its size at birth. Infants and toddlers need to be stimulated, read to, and nurtured..."
If the first three years of a child's life are so very important, then preschool is too late to start ensuring that our children get the early mental stimulation necessary for doing well in school.
Many parents are unaware that verbal interaction stimulates brain development; they rarely speak to their babies or toddlers, and even more rarely read to them. Nor do they provide toys that stimulate the brain's verbal and spatial relations centers. Many think that corporal punishment is the only way to discipline children, including toddlers. Some children are so traumatized by severe physical punishment that their ability to learn and relate in a positive way to teachers is seriously impaired.
Educational reform must begin with improving the skills of childrens' earliest teachers -- their parents. ED in 8 should make sure that this issue is at the forefront for all Presidential candidates. One (past) candidate, Al Gore, did address it some years ago. He was a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show when he said: "...parenting education is an idea whose time has come...The curriculum in a school is always locally determined, but I am very much in favor of parenting education."
We urgently need to introduce parenting classes in all our schools, so that young people are provided with basic information about child development before they become parents. Because they serve as a deterrent to teenage pregnancy, these classes should start no later than 5th grade --some girls become pregnant as early as age 12. Once young people understand how demanding children are emotionally and financially, girls lose their fantasy of a doll like baby that will provide unconditional love, and boys lose their belief that impregnating a lot of girls is cool.
In June 2006, when Senator Obama co-sponsored a bill to encourage responsible fathering, he stated "We need to teach our boys that having a child doesn't make you a man. What makes you a man is having the courage to raise a child." Parenting classes are probably the single most effective way to encourage responsible fathering.
A large majority of teen mothers are on their own in raising their children. They generally are unable to provide as stimulating home environments as do dual parent families. They also represent the most impoverished segment of our population. Their children do not do as well as others in academic achievement.
The U.S. rate of birth to 15-19 year olds is 49 per 1,000 --much higher than any other advanced, industrialized country. Japan's rate is four, France's rate is nine, and Germany's rate is 11 per 1,000. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that there is some connection between our high teenage pregnancy rates and the fact that in spite of spending more per student on education than any other country with the exception of Switzerland our students continue to lag behind.
In developing parenting curricula there is no need to start from scratch. Some excellent programs exist already. Programs for younger children often include a monthly class visit by a parent and baby or toddler. The rest of the month trained teachers impart information about childrens' physical and psychological needs. At a high school level, students are offered classes in child development akin to those taught at universities. Some programs use "Baby Think It Over," an electronically programmed baby simulator. Each student has to take the "baby" home a few days a month. "Babies" wake up several times a night as newborns do, and often cry during the day. They cannot be turned off and so students get a very real sense of the responsibilities of being a parent.
The cost of child rearing programs is approximately $25 per student, per school year. Given the enormous deficit that the Bush administration's war on Iraq has saddled us with and its repercussions on state finances, states are unlikely to pay for these programs even if they mandate them. In 2005, New York became the first state to require that all high school graduates take a child-rearing class, but no funds have been provided.
It would be money well spent if The Bill and Melinda Gates and other foundations concerned about education took the lead and began to finance parenting classes.
Social philosopher and author Myriam Miedzian is a Board Member of Prepare Tomorrow's Parents which is sponsoring the 6th annual Prepare Tomorrow's Parents Month, from Mothers Day through Father's Day. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org