Alignment is critical in early education policy. That goes for curriculum, instruction, standards, and much more. To be highly effective, public early education programs need to be: 1) accessible to those who need them, 2) high-quality, and 3) aligned with the rest of the education system. The last part is certainly key; we know, for example, that pre-K programs work best when they are designed in tandem with the K–12 system into which they feed. However, it is a mistake to think of alignment as perfectly linear, running from pre-K straight through college admission. Students are also their parents’ children—and those parents’ influence can support or undermine educators’ work. Can targeted policies help align parenting with schooling? Should policymakers dare to try?
“The Parenting Gap,” a new paper from Brookings’ Center on Children and Families, explores the state of public investments designed to "improve parenting” in the United States. Authors Richard V. Reeves and Kimberly Howard note the core problem at the outset of their analysis: “Parents...are mostly private agents whose actions have dramatic public consequences for education, crime, welfare, mobility and productivity.”
That about covers it. Parenting is a touchy subject in education policy. It largely falls beyond schools’ locus of control, so it often serves as a convenient excuse (or unexpected bonus) for educational efforts. Teachers and legislators alike are generally unwilling, and unable, to substantively intervene in parenting, though nearly all agree that parents’ behavior has huge consequences for students.
Reeves and Howard’s paper sketches the empirical outlines of this challenge. They draw upon research that finds parenting alone accounts for “about 40 percent of the income-related gaps in cognitive outcomes for children at age four.” If this sounds low—less than half, after all—note that parenting’s 40 percent share is much larger than any other single variable’s (including race, family size, maternal education levels, family resources, neighborhood environment, etc). In the early years, parenting is the biggest variable by some margin.
Unfortunately—and predictably—the parenting gap often corresponds with other gaps in American opportunity. This amplifies the challenges they face:
Children who already face higher hurdles to personal success in the form of poverty, worse schooling, or racism are also disadvantaged by the weaker performance of their parents in preparing them for the world.
Of course, gaps in 4-year-olds’ cognitive outcomes have long-term consequences. Reeves and Howard use the Home Observation for Measurement of the Environment-Short Form (HOME-SF) scale to measure parenting quality. The researchers found that only 30 percent of “children with the weakest parents” ultimately graduate high school with a GPA over 2.50, without a criminal record, and without becoming teen parents. For children whose parents rank at the top of the HOME-SF scale, that number is 75 percent.
The paper uses the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) program to illustrate the potential of public investments to change children’s trajectories. Were the program available to “all low-income families,” Reeves and Howard estimate that “three percent more low-income children would graduate from high school and six percent fewer would become teen parents.” Even these relatively small improvements in students’ outcomes would have an important economic benefit for the community. For every dollar invested in the program, the efforts translate into approximately $1.80 in returns, thanks to the reductions in high school attrition and teen parenthood.
There’s no question that parenting matters. But where do we go from here?
Reeves and Howard argue that the bulk of public investment related to parenting goes into “providing services to supplement [parents’] efforts…[and] make them less relevant” to their children’s long-term prospects. Reeves and Howard argue that this is a mistake; policymakers should instead invest more in programs designed to improve American parenting skills.
As is customary in policy debates, their argument gets especially sticky when it converts into dollar signs:
Currently the U.S. spends significantly more on pre-K education than on parenting programs. In the last 5 years (2009–2013), the federal government has allocated $37.5 billion to Head Start, 25 times the $1.5 billion that it has allocated to evidence-based home visiting programs over the next five years...The analysis presented in this paper suggests that parenting may be worthy of a greater share of public investment.
Tilt some of the pre-K money to parenting, Reeves and Howard argue, because public spending on early childhood education hasn’t been adequately effective on its own. For instance, they note that Head Start “appears to have no measurable impact on academic performance through third grade.”
This is true under a relatively narrow definition of academic outcomes. The Head Start Impact Study found that the program’s academic effects appear to fade out within a few years. But this is unfair, since Reeves and Howard touted the social and economic benefits of public investments in parenting programs like HIPPY—not just the academic effects. If we include Head Start’s social and economic benefits, the comparison looks very different. In a post earlier this year, economist Tim Bartik summarized Harvard Professor David Deming’s research on some of Head Start’s positive long-term effects:
Head Start is estimated to have an effect size of 0.23 on an index of various age 19 or above measures of educational attainment, crime involvement, employment status, unwed teen parenthood, and health. He predicts that this increase in his adult outcomes index would be expected to increase future wages by about 11 percent. This large predicted future effect on wages occurs even though the estimated effect of Head Start on test scores at ages 11-14 is small and statistically insignificant. The real rate of return to Head Start is calculated to be 7.9 percent, which compares very favorably to many social and private investments.
Sound familiar? That’s because these are largely the same set of benefits that Reeves and Howard estimate would come from parenting investments. That’s why the Brookings proposal to divert Head Start funding to parenting programs misses the mark. A more reasonable comparison would consider how Head Start and parenting improvement programs both affect children’s long-term social and economic outcomes. This paper credits parenting programs for these benefits and ignores them for Head Start.
We shouldn’t frame investments in improving parenting as an alternative to investments in early childhood education, but as a support. A productive conversation about improving outcomes for at-risk children needs to treat these initiatives as complements to one another, not as competitors. As Reeves and Howard note, President Obama has proposed expanding federal investments in both. That's why they are on much stronger ground when they write, “Better parenting is very far, on its own, from being a magic cure. Parenting matters. But so do schooling, pre-K, community action, teen pregnancy campaigns, and so on.” Precisely. It’s about aligning parents' and teachers' efforts on behalf of children—not expanding public investment in one at the expense of the other.
Want more? Read Tim Bartik’s and Susan Ochshorn’s responses to Reeves and Howard’s paper.