Kindergartners across the country are kicking off their official schooling careers over the next several weeks (some are already underway), but up to 45 percent of them won't be "ready to learn," under a definition that includes certain cognitive skills, but also physical and mental health, emotional well-being, and the ability to relate to others.
Most of the children who fall short of that definition of school readiness come from low-income communities in households often headed by a single mother.
That sobering reminder about the gaps that exist even as children are just embarking on their schooling comes from the Pew Center on the States and its campaign for state governments to invest more resources into voluntary home visiting programs for expectant and new families. There are scores of home visiting programs designed to address a slew of health, social, and educational challenges that manifest in the earliest stages of a child's life (even in utero). These programs pair professionals such as nurses or social workers with parents who volunteer to receive support and information about good parenting that can start as early as pregnancy and reach into a child's fifth year of life.
Pew's home visiting campaign advocates for a dozen home visiting programs that have proven to deliver good outcomes and that can be closely monitored for results.
Libby Doggett, the director of Pew's home visiting campaign, told me that as the new school year gets underway and the usual discussions resume on how to boost achievement and raise graduation rates, superintendents, school board leaders, and other education policymakers need to consider strategies that start way before kindergarten, and even before preschool.
"School boards and policy leaders need to look much farther back and see that lo and behold, one of the great interventions that can affect their graduation rates is home visiting," she said. "It's a simple concept that has really never been more powerful."
One study of a particular home visiting program—done in 1998—found that 84 percent of students whose families had participated graduated from high school, while 54 percent of students who did not participate earned diplomas.
Ms. Doggett said the federal government has sunk more money into home visiting programs based on that same research and more recent studies have shown strong positive outcomes for children (including higher reading and math test scores) whose families were in nurse home visiting. In the Affordable Care Act, for example, $1.5 billion was allocated to create the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program, which provides grants to states, she said. The feds have also defined the 12 models of home visiting that meet the highest levels of evidence for good outcomes, she said, and those are the programs that Pew is pushing in its campaign in the states.
Already this year, three states—Iowa, Michigan, and Maryland—passed legislation supported by Pew that will ensure that those states' investments in home visiting will go to proven programs.
Like just about any government-funded program, home visiting does get ensnared in politics. Just this week, Florida turned down the nearly $5 million that the federal government was set to award home visiting programs around the state. According to the Tampa Bay Times, state lawmakers rejected the money because of its connection to the controversial Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare."