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Although it is not easy to alter the fatalism and lower expectations that often beset the educationally disadvantaged, it is possible. Martha Sellers of Tufts University in Medford, Mass., has guided a promising pilot project of parental coaching for economically and educationally disadvantaged mothers of 2-year-olds who migrated to Boston from Central America.
Ms. Sellers has found that only 10 two-hour visits to these women's homes can lead to positive changes in the behaviors (those that affect early education, school preparedness, and intellectual growth) of at least one-third of the mothers and children. And these changes should help the child when it is time to enter school.
The cost of this intervention is far less than the cost of special educational tutoring in the third or fourth grades, when teachers note that some children are unable to read at grade level. And with school dropouts eight times more likely to be incarcerated than students who complete their high school education, such targeted programs can be seen as even more cost-effective. Targeting parental behavior for preschool-age children costs far less than the burden of youth incarceration. The inability to read in the third grade is a better predictor of juvenile delinquency or adult criminality than any genetic factor.
We must ask, therefore, why similar programs are not being implemented broadly in either advanced democracies or developing nations. One reason is a resistance to intruding into a family's privacy and trying to alter people's values. Sellers notes, however, that most of the parents in her program appreciated the visits and were eager to learn what strategies might help their child prepare for the demands of school.
Parents wanting to give their children a better shot at success reflects a universal value, not one tied to socioeconomic status or race.
A second reason such early intervention programs are not widespread stems from reluctance to imply that these parents are not socializing their children properly. Our egalitarian ethos mandates that we inhibit all temptations to "blame the victims" for their circumstances, and instead place the responsibility solely on outside forces over which a family has no control.
But such an attitude makes an even more patronizing assumption – that less-educated (often low-income and minority) parents aren't concerned with their children's academic achievement. These programs merely aim to give parents the right tools for helping their children be better students.
These ethical considerations are inadequate excuses for failing to implement programs designed to help families caught in poverty – many of whom have lost faith in the national premise that all citizens are entitled to an equal opportunity for a satisfying life.
These programs can enhance the prospects of many children who otherwise might later require costly remediation programs that do not guarantee success because they intervene too late to offset the child's already entrenched educational disadvantage and discouragement. Such later interventions rarely mute a family's anger at a system that, by then, seems to be indifferent to their plight.
Programs that target early parental instruction don't just change students' lives, they have the potential to reform entire education systems.