This post reviews Edward Zigler, Judy C. Pfannenstiel, and Victoria Seitz, “The Parents as Teachers Program and School Success: A Replication and Extension” in Journal of Primary Prevention 29, no. 2 (March 2008): 103-120 [Available fulltext here].
Many government programs exist to try to help parents, especially low-income parents, better prepare their children for school. Programs like Head Start’s “Home Start” (now called “Home-Based Program“) have proliferated in recent years, and some lawmakers have been pushing for years to allocate more federal money to the cause of parent education through the “Education Begins at Home Act.”
Much scholarly effort has been expended studying the efficacy of such programs, with mixed results. This article enters into the debate and offers evidence that the “Parents as Teachers” (PAT) program does help low income parents prepare their children for academic success.
The article begins with a very helpful orientation to the discussion, noting a general scholarly consensus on the efficacy of “two generation” programs, or programs where home visitors teach both parent and child. But what of programs that offer only at-home parent instruction? Do these help children succeed? Here the research is inconclusive. This article’s goal is to provide evidence that such programs can be effective.
In the PAT program, professional educators visit the homes of families with very young children (prenatal up to age five) and “teach principles of child development, model appropriate activities, and facilitate access to social and supportive services.” The researchers in this study drew on data from the Missouri School Assessment Project to determine to what degree if any the PAT program impacted children’s school readiness for kindergarten and their later performance in the third grade. A sample of 7,710 children entering children was originally obtained, though by the 3rd grade only 5,721 of them were left. Using a very sophisticated “path analysis” of results obtained both from the “School Entry Profile,” a parent/guardian survey, and the Missouri Assessment Prorgam’s testing data, all of which allowed the researchers to track children longitudinally and to isolate such variables as poverty, race, and length of participation in PAT, this study found the following:
In general, PAT students outperformed their peers whose parents had not received PAT training, and they were about as well prepared for kindergarten as were more wealthy children. Why? Because parents in the PAT program engaged in better parenting practices, read to their children more, and were more likely to take advantage of preschool programs for their children.
Significantly, social class variables were more predictive than racial variables in determining the school readiness of children.
By the third grade, however, students who had experienced PAT continued to be ahead of peers in the same economic bracket, but they had been surpassed by children from more wealthy homes who had not received such services. The researchers admit that while programs like PAT “can reduce the achievement gap between children in the two classes, they will not totally eliminate this gap” because you just can’t “offset the negative consequences of growing up in impoverished homes and experiencing the multiple risk factors encountered in such environments. Also, the typical middle-class family provides a level of enrichment (e.g., field trips, internet access, reading materials, and educational games) that is not matched in impoverished homes regardless of the level of intervention.”
I should mention that this whole issue has long been a contentious one among homeschoolers. It was Head Start that got Raymond Moore angry enough back in the 1970s to start writing books against sending children to school too early. In more recent years HSLDA has come out strong against the “Education Begins at Home Act” every time it has been proposed, for two reasons. First, it worries that programs that seem voluntary might turn out to impose an objectionable parenting philosophy on all parents. Secondly, it tends to be against any expansion of federal funding for parenting or early childhood education on principle.
We have here two colliding interests. Researchers and policymakers who favor programs like PAT are interested in reducing the achievement gap between wealthy and poor children in the nation’s schools, and they rarely stop to think about what their policy recommendations look like to those who are philsophically opposed to government schooling on principle. Homeschoolers opposed to such programs tend to be middle class themselves and interested more in their own families and the preservation of their own beliefs than in dealing with poverty. The study reviewed here doesn’t address these underlying theoretical issues, but it does offer compelling evidence that PAT and other programs like it, when done well, can help children from poor families be better prepared for school and, by extension, for success in the modern economy.