FORTY YEARS AGO, AS MARIAN Wright Edelman and her fellow pioneers at the Child Development Group of Mississippi were organizing sharecroppers, fending off Jim Crow, and cobbling together a model for the nation's Head Start program, Betty Hart and Todd Risley were up in Kansas City working on an early childhood program of their own. First, Hart and Risley designed a state-of-the-art preschool curriculum for children at the Turner House in Kansas City's impoverished Juniper Gardens neighborhood. The children made rapid progress, but when they were tested a year later, their vocabularies again lagged far behind those of better-off children. Hart and Risley tried other teaching strategies: an Afrocentric approach, field trips, structured discussions to help children integrate new experiences into their daily conversation. These efforts failed, too.
So Hart and Risley delved deeper into children's lives. For more than two years, the professors and their team paid monthly visits to 42 children as young as 7 months old--some from families on welfare, others from working-class and professional homes. They recorded every word spoken by child or parent, every gesture, every question. The results showed a contrast starker than Hart and Risley ever imagined: By age 3, upper-income toddlers not only had vocabularies twice as large as the welfare children; they also had bigger vocabularies than the welfare parents. The data explained why: Affluent parents spoke an average of 487 words to their children every hour, compared with 301 words for working-class parents and 176 words for welfare parents. Extrapolated over the first four years of life, that meant well-to-do kids heard an astonishing 30 million more words than kids from the poorest families. What's more, affluent parents showered their children with encouragement, while welfare parents--reflecting the greater stress in their lives--offered less praise and more frequent criticism. By third grade, the children's success in school mirrored their vocabulary growth at age 3, which closely tracked the levels of positive stimulation by their parents. In fact, differences in parenting during the first three years were far more powerful predictors of children's success in third grade than socioeconomic status.
Hart and Risley weren't the first to suggest that parents play a crucial role in their children's success, of course. But their eye-opening data raise an important question: How can we hope to leave no child behind if we do not first help disadvantaged parents give their children richer and more positive sup port in the early years?
THE QUESTION RESONATES FURther when you consider the success of efforts like Phyllis Levenstein's Parent-Child Home Program. Beginning in the mid-1960s, Levenstein trained visitors to go into the homes of new parents and help teach them positive parenting strategies. Twice weekly for the better part of two years, these visitors went to the homes of 2- and 3-year-olds, bringing gifts for the child and sitting with the parent and child while modeling positive parenting behaviors. The strategy worked, and it continues to work with more than 4,000 children each year at 139 sites nationwide. In South Carolina, a 2002 study found that a mostly African American group of first-graders who had participated in the program as tots scored above the state and district averages for school readiness and far above the averages for other poor children. A long-term follow-up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, found that at-risk children who took part in the program had an 84-percent high-school-graduation rate, compared with 53 percent for eligible children who didn't participate.
Some scholars have questioned the research on Levenstein's program, and most other research has suggested more moderate benefits from home-visiting programs. But a mountain of evidence shows that combining parental support with high-quality child care offers the most powerful approach for erasing the school-readiness gap facing poor children. …