With California’s Democratic legislators practically licking their chops at the thought of a leader who might loosen the state’s purse strings, Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom must quickly rank his spending priorities.
Among them will be early childhood education, but how aggressively Newsom will pursue this goal remains to be seen. He has spoken with restraint about universal preschool since his election but will likely try to expand pre-kindergarten education.
Preschool is a smart investment. It has been shown to improve fourth-grade reading scores in Oklahoma and to boost cognitive function among students in other states. But Newsom should remember a campaign pledge he made to start improving children’s education even before preschool.
When I asked him early last year about his thoughts on education – charter schools, accountability and the like – Newsom said his plan was to avoid thinking along those narrow, divisive lines.
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Instead, he said, he planned to introduce a program of home visitation for the families of newborns.
Under such a program, visitors would check on maternal and baby health, on family adjustments to the new addition and, importantly, introduce the easy steps that parents could take for their children’s cognitive growth from the earliest weeks, months and years.
Exposing children to a large vocabulary while talking with them is a big one. Many studies have shown vocabulary size as children enter kindergarten is a major predictor of their future academic success. But a 2015 study in the journal Child Development took that understanding an important step further.
Researchers at UC Irvine, Columbia University and Penn State found that vocabulary at age 2 predicted how prepared children would be for kindergarten.
“Children with a larger oral vocabulary at age 2 not only entered kindergarten with higher levels of math and literacy achievement,” a New America report on the study said, “but were also found to display greater behavioral self-regulation and fewer anxiety-related behavior problems, such as excessive worrying and extreme shyness.”
The researchers controlled for a wide variety of factors, including cognitive function at age 2, making it all the more likely that vocabulary was the decisive advantage.
A 2012 study in the journal Developmental Science found big gaps in vocabulary in 18-month-old babies. In other words, preschool is valuable, but it’s already too late for some key developmental milestones. And the best way to nurture those important skills from the start is with home visits as well as better education for daycare center staff.
More talking and singing helps, as well as children’s books. Not only do books bring new vocabulary into the home, and expose children to worlds outside their own experience, they also unlock an early liking for books and the stories within. English skills and even parental literacy aren’t required; just turning the pages and talking about the pictures is a positive and word-enriching experience. You’d be surprised by the number of children who enter kindergarten not knowing such basic concepts as colors.
Would home visits make that happen? The research says yes, and much more – if a proven program is used. Not all home visits are created equal.
“Rigorous evaluation of high-quality home visiting programs has also shown positive impact on reducing incidences of child abuse and neglect, improvement in birth outcomes such as decreased pre-term births and low-birthweight babies, improved school readiness for children and increased high school graduation rates for mothers participating in the program,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Cost-benefit analyses show that high quality home visiting programs offer returns on investment ranging from $1.75 to $5.70 for every dollar spent due to reduced costs of child protection, K-12 special education and grade retention and criminal justice expenses.”
The California Budget and Policy Center reached the same conclusion, reporting, “While later interventions can be successful, they also are likely to require more effort and public expenditures to address the harm.”
By putting families in touch with resources available in their communities, the visits also can increase parents’ employment and earnings, the center said. In other words, a worthy program helps parents and siblings as well as the new babies.
The state is embarking on a pilot home-visiting program through CalWorks starting this month. It’s going to skip a lot of families who could benefit, but there’s wisdom in starting slowly and assessing carefully before expanding. After his early assurances, Newsom should be watching the program carefully, and making sure that he doesn’t commit so much money to other public benefit initiatives that there’s nothing left for holistically strengthening entire families.