At Risk Students: The Case for Early Intervention

Summary: Though the case for early intervention, before kids reach school age, is persuasively cost effective, preciously little suggests the political culture is wise or mature enough to be so rational.

Wouldn’t it be nice if wishing were to make it so?

Much of what I write, including the story of Travis and his employer, Starbuck’s, in my last post (now three weeks ago as I return from the Caribbean surf), examines how we as teachers, principals, and school communities deal with the hand we are dealt by the kids walking in our doors, and how we try to help them transition into the scholars many of them now ain’t.

Occasionally I have deviated from that norm, and have written about the social conditions and family life circumstances that produce behaviors that leave kids other than school ready; for example, I borrowed from Ruby Payne to illuminate the deficits many low income students present to their teachers from an early age, the same students many of whom are exhibit one in the annals of school reform. (1/1/13 At-Risk Students: The Decline of Marriage and the Low Income Student)

It is an old story that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” As early as my college days I remember a study reported in Time magazine (sorry, don’t have the citation) that one dollar spent now on some social welfare issue would save four in medical costs, incarceration, welfare, and other consequences that would otherwise burden society down the road.

So it is important to pause and acknowledge recent journalistic reminders that it is cheaper in the long run, beneficial to the social fabric, and transformative to the outcomes of our students in school, that money be focused in programs supportive of kids below five years old, even those prenatal.

In this conversation the logic predicts our school problems will diminish with early childhood intervention, as will the cost to society and individuals, but it is difficult for this dog to be anything but pessimistic that such rational thinking will prevail now when it has prevailed only in isolated episodes in the decades of social struggle with which I am personally familiar.

I am dismayed by my negativity, and wonder how this stems from my otherwise relatively optimistic soul. After all, there seems to be a growing quantitative quality in the social sciences, and in the measurement of other human activity, and perhaps the obvious efficiency of investment before the very young become more elder will guide social policy more consistently in our future deliberations. It’s just that so far such social wisdom occurs haltingly, and more commonly school folk and social health folk have to fight for the same elusive and all too singular dollar.

But let us be reminded. Jerry Large is a columnist for the Seattle Times whose down to earth commentary on mostly social issues I have referenced before. In the January 14,2013 edition Large reports (“A Cure for Social Ills? Prevention”) the work of researcher Richard Catalano and the Social Development Research Group at the University of Washington, the website of which ( catalogs various prevention programs that already boast a research base that demonstrates their efficacy.

Large himself focuses on the Nurse-Family Partnership, which hooks up a visiting nurse with a pregnant young woman, and mentors her through the child’s first two years of life. Long story short, a complex of social costs down the road — three dollars for every dollar spent on the visiting nurse program — are saved by such enlightened human investment.

Catalano suggests to Large that small communities of 25,000 to 40,000 be identified and thoroughly saturated with a sampling of research proven prevention programs.

The Harlem Childrens’ Zone, widely identified as a successful community based intervention in the school lives of students under its wing, uses a version of the Nurse-Family Partnership program, going so far as to seek out pregnant young women to offer its prenatal services, among other wrap around efforts coordinated with local social services agencies.

Also, I am reminded of an observation out of the American immigrant community by Claudia Koller, author of The Immigrant Advantage, as reported on the PBS NewsHour on January 2, 2013. Though visiting nurses are not involved, something of the same role is played by the extended family. For the first period of time after giving birth, as much as forty days, the new mother is relieved of her normal duties as cook, house-cleaner, and general provider for family to focus solely on her needs and those of the newborn. Koller asserts that such early bonding and support cements enduring communion of parent and child, and the early security of the child needed for healthy psychological development.

It is only speculation, but compare each of these examples with the circumstances of the harried low income mother who must hasten back to work after giving birth in order to simply put food on the table, and whose child is left to the care of well meaning relatives, or some quasi-professional daycare.

As I mentioned in the Ruby Payne post, the gap in nurture by comparison with middle and upper middle class families only widens as the latter can afford both time and money for enrichment activities, while lower class parents, equally loving, are left to scramble for the basic necessities of existence, food and shelter.

Nicholas Kristof (Seattle Times, January 26, 2013: “Get All Children to the Starting Line”) echoes many of the same themes. Mr. Kristof often reports on incipient causes of strong moral imperative but long road ahead, such as that of girls’ education in traditionally Muslim societies, so my pessimism on this topic raises its ugly head when I say that he is right in his element advocating for early prevention strategies, which he acknowledges are currently “underfinanced and serve only a tiny fraction of children in need.” Kristof often serves as moral compass, a kind of Diogenes searching for a just and enlightened society.

As does Jerry Large, Kristof cites the Nurse-Family Partnership, and reminds us that Head Start has long lasting positive effects according to longitudinal studies, and would possibly be even more effective if followed up with similar enrichment as target individuals grow up and out of Head Start itself.

Kristof also reports on a new book by Susan Neman and Donna Celano, Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance, which echoes Ruby Payne by comparing the educational resources and child rearing time available to the parents and children of middle and upper middle class with those heavily impacted by poverty. As a result of the discrepancy, children of poverty are “left behind at the starting line.” Ergo, “the most cost-effective anti-poverty programs are aimed at the earlier years….”

Large and Kristof, good men, and true telling, both.

Yet I remain pessimistic. Why so?

Partly it is ground level experience. For years until my recent retirement, I have seen things I and my colleagues could personally do, and were doing, to successfully mentor and instruct low income kids in our high school. But we simply did not have enough people time to do all that was needed, against diminished funding for schools as the national economy floundered and state tax revenues, the life blood of school funding, diminished.

If any time, this was a time for cost effectiveness; yet if more investment was being made in early interventions, I have not been aware of it. In fact, in my community funding for public health access has decreased in recent years, which would have been a system nominated to implement a prenatal nursing program, for example.

Moreover, thorough going prevention programming across a wide population would be expensive, and would compete for scarce dollars with corrective efforts in the school lives of older kids, most of whom would have missed any early intervention.

In my state, the business community has been prominent in pushing for educational reform. No doubt some are motivated by altruistic public spirit, but practical self interest has been a strong motivator because our local graduates have not been as a group up to the standards that industry needs in writing skills, interpersonal skills, computation, and critical thinking skills. And with a concentration of highly technical industry in the Seattle area, those needs are particularly acute locally.

So my pessimism is stoked by a recent article in the Seattle Times by technology columnist Brier Dudley (January 28, 2013: “High-Tech Expects Tax Breaks While Education Funding Suffers”). In fact, the title tells the story well. While the state of Washington looks for over a billion dollars in additional educational funding mandated by a State Supreme Court decision, the Microsofts and the Amazons of our fair Puget Sound seek to maintain or expand a multiplicity of tax breaks that would slough off their share of the financial burden for educational upgrades that they themselves have lobbied for strongly (and correctly) with the state legislature, as well as with more local official bodies.

Hypocrisy may be too strong a word; more likely different systems within these large organizations are poorly aligned, or the companies are guilty only of aiming at the bottom line in a capital driven economy, and Bill Gates gets a certain number of passes for his sterling work in education and elsewhere on the base of his fortune, but the upshot is to fuel my pessimism that we will be ever enlightened enough as a composite society to do the rational thing.

In my more deeply pessimistic moments I think we contemplate the age old problem of “other”. By comparison with the Finnish example (“School Reform: “Finnish Lessons” 12/23/2012), which deals with a more largely homogeneous society, a good proportion of our low income and at risk population are children of color, in contrast to the Caucasian-ness of our power structure. That subtle, yet profound difference in a society still heavily in transition toward social color-blindness, can leave too many decision makers stuck on unconscious default, on blame of the victim as lazy, or not caring, or one of the other host of epithets that can justify one’s own intellectually lazy position.

More moderately, the psyche of the voter and taxpayer in the street, him and herself scrambling to find a secure niche in a competitive society, are loathe to spare too much of their hard earned currency when there is little enough for their own family and responsibilities.

I share the view that we all rise or fall ultimately by the fortunes of the society of which we are an inextricable part. Further, the winners in the game have an obligation to give back to the system which has given them rise. In the American experience, more often we choose, when we are wise, to provide conditions in which individuals can prosper by their dint of their own efforts and native intelligence. Fair enough; then let us level the playing field.

I am reminded of passages in my current reading of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals. Reflecting on the 1830’s and 1840’s Kearns Goodwin comments several times on the internal urgings within young men of the era to seek their fortunes in the newly opening lands out west, by which was meant west of the Appalachians, spurred by the success of the new country of America in the years since the American Revolution, still then within relatively near memory. Such was both the myth and the founding real opportunity of the country. Born in Kentucky in 1809, Lincoln was of that generation, as were his “rivals” for the presidency later in the century.

Our current charge as educators, and as a country, is to provide the same incentive to self improvement that too many of our young charges, both boys and girls, seem to lack. By extension from Kearns Goodwin, as a culture we have failed to incubate for these kids the hope, belief, and anticipation Lincoln and his counterparts followed to the West, as response to broad cultural imperatives of their time.

Our own interventions are best focused to the first five years of life in order to incubate a contemporary version of that resilience. We may need yet to mature further as a culture, a bit more to the communitarian, ironically, before we can act in such a way in this, our mutual self interest.

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