Tom Sticht, International Consultant in Adult Education (Ret.)
There has been substantial advocacy by hundreds of organizations for implementing various pre-school programs for children from economically poorer homes across the U.S. for many years. This large scale advocacy has paid off with hundreds of billions of dollars being invested in pre-school programs such as Head Start, Early Head Start, and numerous others funded by both state and federal dollars.
In contrast, investments in adult basic education have been minimal, reflecting minimal advocacy primarily mounted by those most intimately involved in adult education, that is, adult program administrators, adult teachers, and their adult learners.
Recently, Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, earlier director of the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education, has called attention to the broader focus on families, including both adults and their children, as a means of improving both educational and economic achievements for lower income families.
Writing in the July 28, 2016 Washington Post, Whitehurst said he had compared: “… the effects of direct income transfers to low-income families (such as the earned-income tax credit, or EITC) with programs designed to increase school readiness (universal preschool and Head Start). It turns out that putting money directly into the pockets of low-income parents, as many other countries do, produces substantially larger gains in children’s school achievement per dollar of expenditure than does a year of preschool or participation in Head Start. …The results show that while the EITC isn’t specifically designed to boost academic achievement, it does so anyway — and not just for younger kids. The EITC is also a bargain compared with the programs specifically designed to help poor kids academically.”
I found it particularly interesting that simply providing additional money to families not only helped the adults in terms of their economic needs, it also produced the collateral effect of stimulating academic achievement for the adult’s children. In 1991 I found a similar collateral outcome from investing in the education of adults. In research conducted in partnership with Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) in Washington, DC we found that providing workforce education integrated with basic skills training for mothers on welfare not only improved the employability of the women, it also lead to intergenerational effects on the women’s children. This was true for both cognitive behaviors, such as reading more to their children, improving school performance, and non-cognitive behaviors such as greater motivation to do their homework on the part of the women’s children.
Later, in the mid-1990s, I had the opportunity to again test the idea that investing in the education of adult language, literacy, or mathematics in the workplace could improve both the skills of the employees and the educability of children. In several manufacturing plants in the Chicago area staff of the Center for Education Resources in Des Plaines, IL had developed literacy programs integrated with job-related materials and I was asked to serve as an external evaluator of the programs in six plants. I found that not only were large improvements in job-related English language, literacy, or mathematics achieved, but with those workers who were parents, some 40 percent reported that they now read more to their children. This result, which is typically one of the goals of compensatory pre-school programs, was obtained as a collateral spin-off of the adult workplace literacy programs.
In his 2016 Washington Post article, Whitehurst rhetorically asks, “…if our goal is to help poor families, is universal pre-K really the best, most efficient way? The answer is no. …Perhaps it is time to rethink our paradigm for supporting poor families. Let’s give them what they desperately need — more money — and let them decide how to spend it on the early care and education of their children.”
To this I add, by investing in adult education, we can help adults from poor families acquire the knowledge and skills they need to find work paying more money and raise families out of poverty, and we can help stimulate the educational achievement of their children so as adults they can find jobs and earn living wages above the poverty level.
While Whitehurst may be right when he says that the earned-income tax credit (EITC) may help adults help children achieve better in school, it seems likely that investing in the education of adults is a more cost-effective way to improve the educability of children.