“The ‘achievement gap’ is not a metaphor,” according to a powerful reminder from the Chicago-based Ounce of Prevention Fund. “It is a social outcome that we can see and measure. Research shows that the achievement gap appears long before children reach kindergarten – in fact it can become evident as early as nine months.”
Dedicated to ensuring that all children, particularly those born into poverty, have high-quality early childhood experiences, the fund’s work was featured in an article about home visiting programs from the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news agency, that ran on the Atlantic’s website.
The article tells the story of Dwana Harris, 28, whose first child was, tragically, stillborn.
“More than three years later, when a second chance at motherhood finally came her way, Dwana Harris was determined to do everything right,” the article says. “So last fall, Harris was intrigued when she unexpectedly met a woman bearing information about healthy child development in the living room of a cousin with a newborn.” Soon that woman started visiting Harris, too.
“The crux of home visiting work is relationship building with a mother and, by extension, an entire family,” the article explains. “To begin to alleviate poverty’s devastating effects on a child’s development, the thinking goes, a family needs a positive frame of reference for relationships. Provide a young mother whose life may be filled with chaos and drama with the opportunity to be heard and valued. Arm her with the information she needs to speak up in institutional settings, whether a hospital delivery room or a kindergarten class, and in personal relationships. Show her how to develop a baby’s vocabulary through reading, singing and stimulating conversation — starting in utero. Guide her to nurture her child and herself.”
Also featured in the article is Celina Hernandez, 18. Hernandez found out about an Ounce of Prevention Fund program through a teen parenting support group at her high school, “where she is completing junior year primarily in self-contained special education classes. She was eager to give the doula and home visiting program a try, interested in learning about her baby’s development.”
Hernandez worked with a doula named Patricia Ceja-Muhsen, who, the article says, worked “With a loving yet no-nonsense demeanor,” and offered information drawn from years of working with teen parents.
Like other teenagers, however, Hernandez sometimes struggled to meet the goals her doula set. She couldn’t participate in the home visiting program because it ended at five p.m., and due to a long commute she was unable to get home from school in time. Still she reaped benefits, and her experience points to ways in which programs could grow to better reach teenagers who may be juggling parenting, education, jobs and other family obligations.
This year, home visiting programs were a major component of President Obama’s education proposal. As the article notes, “part of the president’s plan would provide $15 billion over a decade for home visiting. The federal government has already provided $1.5 billion for home visitation under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, and states are funding the service for hundreds of thousands of families nationwide. But still only a small fraction of babies born into poverty receive this earliest intervention.”
With any program or initiative, assessing implementation effectiveness is key. So, how effective then are home visiting programs?
The article points out that: “One study of two home visitation programs in Ohio found mothers had decreased depression and stress levels and an improved sense of competence in as few as 15 visits. The Ounce’s programs have high rates of breastfeeding, of teen mothers staying in high school and graduating, and of fathers present for babies’ births, which increases their likelihood of involvement in the children’s lives. The programs reduce teens’ chances of a second pregnancy within two years.”
In addition, a University of Chicago study is looking into program effectiveness. A study that’s in progress will measure the impact on “parenting practices, maternal health and child health, including the family’s experience with domestic violence and the criminal justice system.”
Unfortunately, the study won’t measure children’s later academic outcomes, the article explains, “since doing so would require tracking families over many years. So far no one has drawn the connections between doulas, home visitors and a child’s later test scores, but a link with school readiness seems not just plausible but obvious to those in the field.”
Recent national reports have examined the effectiveness of home visiting programs. In 2012, The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reviewed high-quality studies of 32 different home visiting program models. The report points to 13 models that produced beneficial effects in a range of areas including maternal health, parenting practices, child development and school readiness.
Earlier this year, the Pew Charitable Trusts issued a report on home visiting, noting that “Research indicates that home visiting can improve children’s lives by increasing their chances for early school success and eventual high school graduation, which in turn enhances their employment and earnings potential.”
Here in Massachusetts, there will be a State House hearing today at 1 p.m. for proposed home visiting legislation (S. 32), An Act Relative to Strengthening Early Support and Education. The bill calls for strengthening standards for home visiting programs in Massachusetts.
Home visiting alone can’t close the achievement gap, but evidence does suggest that it is a crucial first step toward doing so.