Obituary for Even Start?

Family literacy was a passion of First Lady Barbara Bush, but federal funding for Even Start was a casualty of the FY2011 budget cuts.  Update since May 2011: Congress has de-authorized the program, which means that Congress would have to pass new legislation in order for family literacy to become a federally funded program again.  In looking at this situation, I had several questions:

  1. What is family literacy?
  2. What model of family literacy is Even Start?
  3. What is the impact of family literacy?
  4. Why isn’t Even Start a federal funding priority any more?

Family Literacy

Mentor Reads to ChildIn the reality of literacy programs, family literacy can describe any program that gets family members to learn about learning together.  The phrase is used to describe schools’ parent/caregiver-education programs, intergenerational tutoring, book give-aways, parenting classes, and more.  Here are some examples:

Florence  G. Phillips, Executive Director of ESL In-Home Program of Northern Nevada writes:

“I consider my program intergenerational because we tutor the parents and grandparents of children. These adults are now helping their children with homework. Also, they practice English together when not in session.”

Isa Ponce-Jiménez, Ph.D., Executive  Director of Central Coast Literacy Council describes:

“We have had a family literacy program for 2 years. We meet three Mondays in a month for 80 -90 minutes a session. Every session is a reminder to the parents of how crucial is that they learn that they are the best teachers for their children and that they can impact their children’s life just by getting more involved in their education. [Teen] Mentors usually work in pairs with two families. The mentors’ main job is to model activities so that parents can do the same at home. Parents are shown the importance of having a “Communication Box.” All the family members work in putting that box together and decorating. The box goes home and is hopefully used as a daily bridge between home and school. Parents learn how to ask question about what they read to their children (who, what, how, etc) either in English or another language. They also learn other strategies for teaching their children with games and activities around the home. One thing is for sure, as teens – especially juniors and seniors – learn about the benefits of volunteering with this program, a very long list is beginning to form (we give certificates for the hours they mentor and write letters of recommendation for scholarships and college entry when that times comes). Now we have about 100 prospective mentors willing to join us in August.”

Widely quoted research had shown the biggest predictor of a child’s success in education is the education level of the child’s mother.  In addition, evaluations have demonstrated that philanthropic investments in early childhood education pays off 5 times in educational attainment & productivity later in life.  The basic principle behind family literacy is that the family is the core learning environment of a young child.  The theory is that you can make a big impact in learning by teaching parents and caregivers how they can help their children succeed in education.

Even Start

Even Start was the federally authorized model for family literacy.  Even Start programs must include 4 ingredients:

Early Childhood Education + Adult Education + Parenting Education + Families Interacting Through Literacy

What is the Impact of Family Literacy?

Here is where the story of family literacy gets interesting.  When you look at the performance of Even Start programs, the types of statistics being measured are:

  • How many families are enrolled for 12 months?
  • How many adults earn their GEDs or improve their academic levels?
  • How many children can identify letters or show age-appropriate oral language skills?

Two boys in stroller reading board booksHere are some stories about the impacts of family literacy programs:

Susan Perez of the Martin County Library System shared:

“One of the most poignant moments for me was when a pre-literate mom sat on the family’s couch embracing her 4-year old son talking through Good Dog, Carl, when the son jumped off the couch to announce in the proudest of voices, ‘My mom is reading! My mom is READING!!!'”

Jeanne Sargeant of Eau Claire Family Literacy stresses:

“The value added in Family Literacy is great:
•Parents gain confidence and skills in parenting their children.
•Parents gain understanding of how schools work and are able to communicate with teachers/advocate for their children.
•Parents and children learn to understand and value the differences in development rates, in learning styles and in social aptitudes.
•Parents gain skills in how to help their children learn…especially in how to help them learn to read.
•Children model after their parents as they see them enjoy school and learning.
•Parents play with their children…..time to have fun !

We have seen our families grow in all of these ways and become so much stonger as families and community members.”

Why is Family Literacy Not a Federal Funding Priority?

It’s become clear that as literacy advocates, we haven’t been able to make a strong enough argument to defend the Even Start program against the rising tide of federal funding cuts. The fundamental question of Even Start is: What is the difference in outcomes between the even start model of family literacy and stand-alone programs that provide any of the components separately?  Basically, does it make sense as a model to force a program to provide early childhood education, adult education, interactive literacy, and parenting education to one family unit simultaneously, or would you make the same impact by offering (and funding) those components separately?  What is the “value-added”?  Is the cost worth the results?

I haven’t seen or heard of any research that tackles this fundamental question.  As Susan Perez comments: “The Martin County Library System is no longer providing its grant-funded Red Bench Family Literacy program because of the cost of the home mentoring component.  Unfortunately warm and fuzzy do not translate into statistics.”  If you are an education researcher or evaluator looking for a research question that would make an impact on real practice, please consider looking deeper into this field.  If you are a philanthropist looking for a real need to address, consider the scar left by the absence of Even Start.

AmeriCorps member reads a book to little girl at shelterIn my mind, the tragedy with the drop in funding for Even Start is that translates to millions of dollars lost for literacy as whole (early childhood, parenting, adult education, family interaction) that will not be replaced by anything else in the funding system.  Jeanne Sargeant shares this statistic: “150,000 people are affected by the loss of EvenStart.  All low income people.  Some English Language learners.”  Pat Hughes of SPICE Family Literacy Program takes a different angle: “One way family literacy programs can prove impact is by showing evidence of an actual need response in their area.” This is good advice for local programs to become sustainable, but what is good for a region is not always good for the nation.

Nowadays, need does not make an argument for federal funding.  The theory of family literacy seems to suggest that educating not only adults, but specifically parents and making that education contextualized to parenting skills would be a significant value-added to increase educational attainment & reduce poverty in our country.  But before Congress, philanthropists, and regular citizens can be convinced of its value–not just to our local communities but to our nation as a whole–we have to measure: Is the total of the Even Start formula greater than the sum of its parts?  It looks like the lack of an answer may mean the end of the program, and is a story of warning to other literacy programs and advocates.

The moral of the Even Start story?  Invest the time & money to look system-wide to evaluate and reflect on the impact of your specific program model, otherwise the tightening belt may squeeze you out.

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