No, not reform schools; re-form schools –– but I will get to that later.
All of us are aware that children from high-risk families, especially those living in urban ghettos, are over-represented in our prison population and have little chance of fulfilling the American dream. Some would say that our Constitution speaks only of the pursuit of happiness and doesn't guarantee anything. But we are a bit naïve if we believe children from high-risk families in a ghetto environment have any shot at “pursuit of happiness.” A tiny few might succeed and we've all heard of those “miracles,” but they are rare indeed.
One approach is early intellectual stimulation and emotional intervention. At one time, educators and other researchers were encouraged by animal studies showing that early brain stimulation exercises, such as wheels and tunnels for rats, improved their cognitive abilities. However, those studies were flawed because the subjects showing improvement were compared to a control group that was isolated in cages.
The grand scheme to stimulate the young child's brain was President Lyndon Johnson's Head Start program, which was introduced in the late 1960s. It was hoped that offering intellectual stimulation and academic teaching to 3- and 4-year-olds would give them the boost needed to compete with classmates from low-risk homes. This intervention would also benefit their emotional development, reducing hyperactivity and negative acting-out.
Unfortunately, Head Start as instituted has not resulted in hoped-for gains. Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services released a comprehensive, multi-year study of Head Start. The study followed 3- and 4-year-olds who won lotteries to join Head Start and compared them with youngsters who did not win lotteries and who were not offered this program. The results? For children from high-risk households, there were no measurable differences between them and the control group across 47 outcome measures tested at the end of the third grade, and only moderate benefits through the first grade. Those children from moderate-risk homes showed even fewer academic gains, but scored higher for emotional growth than did the kids from high-risk homes.
Despite this report, the government is proposing universal preschool which would be offered to all 3- and 4-year-olds. Perhaps the government is hopeful because two studies conducted 40 years ago showed great academic improvement which was sustained through the school years. These studies, however, involved massive interventions including home visits, parent counseling, nutrition, health care and other social services carried out by a select group of educational experts. This level of expertise would be difficult to replicate across programs in all American schools. According to The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, these programs cost between $16,000 and $41,000 per child per year.
I can recall other early intervention programs that did not produce promised results. The Doman-Delacato Patterning program attempted to reorganize the brain through hours of daily exercise following prescribed patterns. Children suffering significant brain damage would be “ready to attend school with their peers by the age of six.” Many good people made a real effort to follow these patterning regimens, but they were difficult to implement and, as with Head Start, positive results never materialized.
I have commented before on parents who claim their 3- and 4-year-olds are now reading at a second – or third– grade level through the use of electronic learning games. I question these results for several reasons: the first is that these children may be learning word-calling, but true reading requires comprehension and comprehension requires a more mature brain. There’s an old saying that up to fourth grade one learns to read and after fourth grade one reads to learn. Also, follow-up reading tests are not nationally standardized and are provided by commercial enterprises that want to see improvement.
So what are we to do? One possibility is to replicate the old studies that showed some real improvement in intensive Head Start programs. If they hold up, intervention could be provided only to children who are at risk –– despite the cost. If the program did work, aside from the obvious value of helping a human being succeed in our society, we would have fewer costs resulting from criminality and we would produce taxpaying citizens who could offset this initial expenditure through their tax payments.
Experienced teachers are dubious about all of these programs because the unhappy and troublesome kids in their classes have parents who are often harder to deal with than the students themselves! Many of these teachers believe that until the child is out of that family and out of that destructive neighborhood, nothing will work.
One answer to this very real concern would be to provide an academic setting outside of the urban ghetto, perhaps in a rural area, where children, beginning at age 8 or so, could go and stay until the home environment was stable enough for them to re-enter their family and neighborhood. Some parents in high-risk families in crime-ridden neighborhoods might relish the idea of their children getting out of that environment. These would be re-form schools; not reform schools. One can think of them as equivalent to prep schools for the wealthy –– only at the other end of the socio-economic continuum.
So far, I have referred to a program, but the solution could lie in innovative and varying programs instituted at state and local levels and involving private input through vouchers and charters. A charter school approach would dovetail nicely into the re-form school concept.
Allowing every child to enjoy the tremendous economic opportunities available in our market-driven society is a most worthy endeavor, but it's not enough to promise help and then not deliver.