The potential of parenting programs, as well as pre-K programs

A recent report by the Center on Children & Families of the Brookings Institution has some useful information on parenting in the United States, and some useful research results for the HIPPY parenting program. The report is by Richard V. Reeves and Kimberly Howard, who are respectively Policy Director and Research Assistant at the Center.

Unfortunately, the report is also marred by a few paragraphs on pages 1 and 2, and page 16, that pit parenting programs against pre-K programs.  These few paragraphs have already drawn attention from Susan Ochshorn of ECE PolicyWorks. These paragraphs are not well backed by the available research. However, before getting to those paragraphs, let’s focus on the main content of the report, on what parenting programs can do.

The report documents that there are a great many issues that might be raised with parenting in the U.S. These issues are based on home observation of the cognitive and emotional environment provided by parents. Perhaps the key finding is that there is a much bigger gap, all else equal, between the quality of the home parenting environment for low-income families versus middle-income families than between middle-income families and upper-income families.

This should not be surprising. Low-income families face many stressors such as inadequate wages, irregular employment, and unstable housing situations, all of which create emotional and time pressures on parents and in turn stress their children. As I’ve mentioned before, research by Greg Duncan and his colleagues provides good evidence that income increases, especially in the early childhood years, have large effects on improving adult outcomes for children.

As the Brookings report documents, research suggests that parenting problems will contribute to higher high school dropout rates and other problems with adult outcomes. If we could somehow wave a magic wand and improve parenting, this would help improve these outcomes, although they appropriately add that “better parenting is very far, on its own, from being a magic cure”.  (p. 10).

The Brookings report also documents that both cognitive and emotional aspects of parenting matter to later outcomes. This is not a surprise to researchers, or indeed, to any parent or to the average person reflecting on his or her own life experience.

The policy issue is what, if anything, can be done about problems with parenting, in the absence of a magic wand. The Brookings Report focuses on home visiting programs, under which the program provides a number of home visits during some phase of early childhood to the parent and perhaps child, with an attempt to provide support, help, advice, and modeling of some better parenting practices.

The Brookings report states that “most home visiting programs have shown disappointing results”. (I might have said “many” because it is unclear to me how one counts successes and failures, but it is certainly the case that not all home visiting programs work.) However, they argue that programs can work if they are intensive and have well trained and supervised home visitors.

In particular, the Brookings report cites the well-known research evidence for the success of the Nurse Family Partnership.  In addition, they cite the evidence compiled by Mathematica Policy Research that sought to identify successful home visiting programs that would be eligible for federal funding under the Affordable Care Act.

The Brookings report goes on to focus on the potential effects on adult outcomes of the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) program, which was identified by Mathematica as a successful program based on research.  The Brookings report describes HIPPY as working with parents of children ages 3 to 5 by biweekly home visits for 30 weeks per year and biweekly group meetings, along with the provision of some educational books and toys.

The Brookings report uses short-term results from HIPPY on test score in first grade to estimate effects on high school graduation. (This simulation is based on the Brookings Social Genome Model.) The estimate is that the program might increase high school graduation rates from 75.4% to 77.5%, or 2.1%.

How does this translate into benefits and costs? According to Brookings, HIPPY costs about $3,500 per child. They cite research that says a high school graduate earns about $260,000 more than a dropout. My own research in chapter 12 of my book, if recalculated on a national scale, implies that the present value as of age 4 of a high school graduate’s earnings are about $318,000 more than a dropout. (Wonk note: This recalculates the $175,000 of Table 12.1 in chapter 12 without any out-migration.)

If we multiply $318,000 by 0.021, the change in the probability of getting a high school diploma, we get an earnings gain of $6,678 per the “average” HIPPY participant. The ratio of the present value of the earnings gain to the cost of the program is 1.91. (Alternatively, if we ran this program for 1000 children, we would have costs of $3.5 million. 21 extra children would graduate from high school, for a gain of $6,678,000 (=$318,000 times 21) in present value of earnings.)

All of this is good and valuable research. Parenting is an issue for some low-income families, and some programs can help, with good benefit-cost ratios.

However, the report for some reason decides to have a few paragraphs at the beginning and end of the report that contrasts “parenting programs” with “early childhood education programs” such as pre-K.  Personally, it seems to me that parenting programs are a form of early childhood education, but they choose to make a big contrast as to whether the program primarily interacts with the parent or the child. In the real world of quality pre-K programs and quality parenting programs, both sets of programs include significant interactions with both child and parent.

The report includes the rhetoric that early childhood education programs seek “to make [parents] less relevant” (p. 1) and “The goal is, in effect, to detach the opportunities of the child from the abilities of the parents.” (p.2).

The same rhetoric could of course of applied to any educational intervention, including all of K-12 education. (For that matter, it could be applied to ANY program that benefits children in any direct way – recreation programs, etc.) But this is wrong-headed in that quality pre-K programs, for example, aim at complementing whatever it is that parents do to improve their child’s development. Quality pre-K programs provide educational services such as socialization, and learning in a group context, that would be quite difficult for even the best parents to provide on their own.   Quality pre-K programs also seek to inform parents of what the program is doing and to involve parents in the child’s progress.

It is very hard to see how a voluntary pre-K program that operates for half-a-day at age 4 for one school year, or even for two school years full-day at ages 3 and 4, is somehow doing anything to hurt parents. It is helping children from all families. In that sense, we can say that the program is making the handicaps of income and poor parenting less relevant. But for a good parent, or even any parent who intends for the good for their child, which I think is the overwhelming majority of all parents, what pre-K programs are doing to help child development does not diminish the parent as a human being. Rather, it helps the parent achieve what she or he wants, which is a better future for the child.

They combine this with rhetoric on page 2 that goes after Head Start as representing all pre-K programs: “A particular disappointment is that Head Start, a flagship early childhood program, appears to be having no measurable impact on academic performance through third grade”.

I’ve addressed Head Start in previous posts. But briefly: (1) there is considerable rigorous research showing long-term effects of Head Start;  (2) even after test scores effects fade, there is research by Deming that suggests large Head Start effects on adult wages;  (3) Head Start is far from the only pre-K program, in that we have state and local pre-K programs of a wide variety.

As I’ve outlined, based on kindergarten entry test score effects, my paper  with Gormley and Adelstein on Tulsa pre-K predicts adult earnings effects whose present value is from 2.82 to 4.08 times the cost of the program. The highest returns are for half-day pre-K, which costs $4403 per child, and increases the present value of earnings for the lowest income children by 4.08 times this cost. Similar high returns are implied by a recent study of Boston pre-K.

If one wants more direct measures of earnings gains than these projections based on early test scores, as done both in my own work and in the Brookings report, this can be found in the various benefit-cost analyses of the Chicago Child-Parent Center program, which was a half-day pre-K program for age 4 for about half the sample, and a half-day pre-K program for ages 3 and 4 for the other half of the sample. We now have follow-up on adult outcomes through ages 26 and 28, not just test score effects at first grade or kindergarten.   The overall benefit-cost analysis as of age 26 for CPC suggests that it increases the average present value of the child’s future earnings by $28,844, at a cost that averages $8, 512 per child. The implied ratio of earnings effects to costs is 3.39. The benefit-cost ratios appear to be about 30% greater for children who only attend the program for one year, due to costs declining by a higher percentage than benefits.

In its next to last paragraph, the Brookings report makes the following arguments:

“Currently, the U.S. spends significantly more on pre-K education than on parenting  programs. In the last 5 years (2009-2013), the federal government has allocated $37.5 billion to Head Start, 25 times the $1.5 billion that it has allocated to evidence-based home visiting programs over the next five years. The Obama administration is proposing an increase in investments on both. But the relative weight of policy remains strongly on the side of supplementing parenting, rather than improving parenting. The analysis presented in this paper suggests that parenting may be worthy of a greater share of public investment. There is strong evidence that parenting influences child outcomes, and some evidence that good programs can improve parenting.”

So, apparently the policy choice is either: fully fund Head Start, or divert some of its funds for parenting programs that show promising results.

Why is the choice phrased in this way? Let’s do some division. If we divide $37.5 billion by 5, we get $7.5 billion per year for Head Start. This is hardly an exorbitant sum of money in the context of the entire U.S. economy. U.S. GDP is currently over $16.5 trillion annually, so the Head Start spending is 0.05% of GDP, or 5 pennies in $100.  Total federal spending is over $3.5 trillion annually, so the Head Start spending is 0.2% of total federal spending, or 2 pennies out of $10.  

In other words, why don’t we expand both research-proven pre-K programs AND expand research-proven parenting programs? For that matter, why don’t we expand research-proven child care programs with educational components, such as the Educare program? Where should the money come from? Quite simply, by either increased taxes, or by reallocating priorities in government budgets.

In my book, Investing in Kids, I estimated that a program that did all this might annually spend an extra $14 billion for half-day universal pre-K, $40 billion for an Educare style program, and about $4 billion for proven parenting programs such as the Nurse Family Partnership.  The total price tag is $58 billion per year.  

This cost amounts to about $200 per capita. This is a cost that could in fact be absorbed by state governments without any federal action.  A sizable piece of it could also be paid for locally if state governments were willing to authorize local policy initiatives.

There is significant research evidence that a wide variety of early childhood educational interventions can work, including high-quality parenting programs, high-quality developmental child care, and high-quality pre-K.  These programs complement each other, as well as complementing what parents do on their own. We need to expand all these programs as warranted by the research evidence on benefits and costs, rather than fighting over a fixed government budget for programs affecting children. 

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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3 Responses to The potential of parenting programs, as well as pre-K programs

  1. Tim, I totally agree with your words, “There is significant research evidence that a wide variety of early childhood educational interventions can work, including high-quality parenting programs, high-quality developmental child care, and high-quality pre-K. These programs complement each other, as well as complementing what parents do on their own. We need to expand all these programs as warranted by the research evidence on benefits and costs, rather than fighting over a meager fixed government budget for programs affecting children.” That seems to be the path that the highest quality comprehensive programs, such as Abecedarian and Perry Preschool, have taken. Rather than operating as silos, why not fold funding for parenting programs into collaboratives that offer high quality home visits regarding parenting, with high quality childcare and educational programs? We seem to have forgotten the lessens learned about strong focus on both parent and child from early intervention research.
    That said, why do you (and others) propose spending so much less for evidence-based parenting programs aimed primarily at families of children birth to 5, than the evidence-based pre-K programs for 4-year-olds? Raising taxes to pay for high quality programs sounds easy, but isn’t in the current political climate. Wall Street is booming. Would private-public partnerships, such as those in Nebraska and Washington State, be a more feasible strategy to bring early parenting/early childhood initiatives to scale in the real world where state and local governments are pinching pennies?

    • timbartik says:

      As an additional reply, you or other readers might find of interest my discussion and comparison of universal pre-K vs. a parenting program (NFP) vs. the Abecedarian program/Educare (full-time child care and preschool for disadvantaged birth to age 5), in chapter 8 of my book “investing in KIds”. This particular chapter is available for free at .

      Esssentially even a half-day universal pre-K program for one school year has over 3 times the aggregate effect of an NFP program operated at full scale. (see Table 8.8). And about half of NFP’s benefits are due to benefits for parents. So in terms of benefits for children, a half-day universal pre-K program would have about 6 or 7 times the long-term impact of NFP.

      Why? Largely because the number of people participating in universal pre-K is so much larger.

      I think the difference in perspectives may be because I’m not focusing so much on the “micro” effects of early childhood programs on a particular individual who we might have in mind. For a particular individual, a parenting program might make more of a difference than a pre-K program.

      However, the essential argument is that it is somewhat easier economically and politically to scale up universal pre-K to a sufficient size that it can actually impact the future of an entire state economy. This is more of a “macro” perspective on the issue.

  2. timbartik says:

    I think we need to do both parenting and pre-K programs, but there are several factors to consider:

    (1) On the whole, the evidence suggests that high-quality pre-K is needed for all children, or at least 90% of all children, whereas research-based parenting programs seem to be only needed for a much smaller percentage of the population. If a program serves 90% of all kids, it is going to have higher aggregate costs than a program that serves 10% of all kids, all else equal.

    (2) Parenting programs seem a bit trickier to carry out than pre-K programs. I don’t want to exaggerate this, but it does seem as if an ordinary school district or ordinary state agency can run a quality pre-K progarm if it has sufficient funding per child. Parenting programs seem a bit trickier to carry out. I believe this is in part because political figures seem to assume they can get away with running a parenting program that costs $1,000 per family, and get results. Not so. NFP costs $10,000 per family. As the Brookings article and other research suggests, there are a lot of parenting programs that simply don’t work. You need to spend enough money, and when you actually look at it, programs that work end up costing about the same amount per kid as pre-K.

    (3) Part of the issue is that you can run pre-K with larger class sizes, even up to 20 to 2 , and still get results, although 17 to 2 or 15 to 2 is better, whereas parenting programs need to be run one-on-one for the most part, and probably need frequent visits over a long period of time. I think we should be experimenting with much more intensive parenting programs.I highlighted the Jamaica experiment in a previous blog post. In economics jargon, pre-K programs for age 4 or age 3 have some advantages of economies of scale.

    (4) From a political perspective, I think universal pre-K is a much easier sell to politicians and the public for local financing than is true of parenting programs. Or rather I would put it this way: I think it is very hard to get public funding for running parenting programs AT SCALE, that is , providing services to all parents who could benefit, even if that is only 5% or 10% of all parents. There is support for running a small symbolic program that helps one-tenth or one-twentieth of the parents who need help. In contrast, in several states, they have in fact enacted via the legislature or via popular UNIVERSAL pre-K programs that serve all children and have very large aggregate costs.

    Having said that, I am in favor of BOTH universal pre-K, and running parenting programs at scale.

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