The Partnership Between Colleges and Helicopter Parents

A few days after dropping off her youngest child at college, Andrea got a phone call. The wounds in her daughter’s mouth from a recent wisdom-tooth surgery had gone septic. Andrea drove there immediately, located an oral surgeon in town, booked a room at the university hotel, and put her daughter to bed to recover. The next morning, Andrea went to her daughter’s classes, taking notes on her behalf. It was important to Andrea, a professor, and her husband, an MBA, that their daughter head into the first semester of college without missing a beat: A future dental career required four years of a stellar undergraduate academic record.

At the same time, another parent faced a different type of problem. Alexis had handpicked her daughter’s new university specifically for its Greek life, big-time sports, and array of not particularly challenging majors. She and her husband, a CFO of a major Fortune 500 company, were intent on giving their daughter the ideal social experience in college. But when she got there, she seemed not to hit her stride. Alexis blamed it on a working-class roommate who “didn’t ever want to go out [and] meet people”—and told her daughter, in no uncertain terms, to change roommates. Alexis also shipped bags of designer clothes to help her child fit in with affluent sorority members.

Both Andrea and Alexis are examples of “helicopter parents,” defined by their hovering and readiness with supplies, assistance, and guidance. Their interventions were costly—requiring time, financial reserves, social savvy, comfort with authority figures, and knowledge of higher education—though they had different purposes. While Andrea was a focused on her daughter’s human capital—the skills, credentials, and knowledge that often lead to career success and economic security—Alexis was invested in her daughter’s social and extracurricular activities, consumption, and sorority status. Her husband explicitly told their daughter to “marry rich” in the years after college.

I had the chance to observe these parents—and many others—from 2004 to 2009, when I followed 41 families as their children moved through a public flagship university. (As is typical practice in sociology research, the name of the university will remain anonymous—but it is representative of a typical experience for many public-university students across the U.S.) Parents of college students are rarely studied. However, many U.S. universities, particularly those lacking the deep pockets and extensive resources of elite privates, have come to rely on parents to fill numerous financial, advisory, and support functions.

My focus on parents of daughters was not incidental, as today the majority of college students are women; they enroll in and complete college at higher rates than men. The university these women attended has increasingly catered to out-of-state families who are willing to pay full tuition and board in exchange for a degree from a “name” school. And while the number of families I studied is small, I made up for it with depth of knowledge: All the students started college in same residence hall, where I observed them during their first year, after which I interviewed them every year for five years. As the women approached graduation, I also interviewed both their mothers and fathers.

Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College Women’s Success.

Bringing College to Students Who Can’t Leave Home

As more students stay close to home for college, universities face the challenge of rethinking not only the education they offer, but how they deliver it to an increasingly diverse student body.

In a paper published earlier this year, researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison noted that most new students now attend college nearby. For reasons both financial and cultural, this is especially true for poor students and those of color, who make up a growing segment of college-goers. Where there are good options, staying local works just fine. But where there aren’t quality choices, students—and local economies—lose out.

A few decades ago, Montgomery County, Maryland, found itself hurting for quality four-year college options. Business, particularly the science and tech sectors, was booming and companies were hiring. And they were increasingly looking for people with bachelor’s degrees. Montgomery County had a good community college, but no public university where locals could get a four-year degree. So kids from families who could swing it went away. But the county’s demographics were also shifting. Schools were filling with more poor children from families unfamiliar with college, who were less likely to pack up and head elsewhere for school.

“You look at what’s happening in the school system and you look at what the needs in the workforce are, and you see an immediate disconnect,” said Stewart Edelstein, the executive director of what would ultimately become something of a solution: The Universities at Shady Grove (USG). Created in 2000, USG essentially lets Montgomery County residents earn bachelor’s and even master’s degrees from nine of the 12 schools that make up the state’s university system all at one stand-alone campus 20 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., in Montgomery County. Most students go to local community colleges and then apply to a school (Towson University or the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, for instance) for the final half of a bachelor’s degree or for a graduate degree, specifying that they want to enroll at the USG campus. The individual universities hire their own faculty, and students’ diplomas don’t bear any mark of USG. Graduates are, for all intents and purposes, earning a degree from Towson or a degree from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. But they don’t have to move to do it. And local businesses, from Marriott to Lockheed Martin, know they’ve got college graduates nearby who are already committed to staying in the area.

Next America: Higher Education

Understanding the opportunity and achievement gaps in U.S. universities
Read more

“We have local talent and what we’re trying to do is build a local workforce that supports the growth of the local economy,” Edelstein said during an interview at his office on campus as students took final exams in the classrooms nearby. Right now, people of color and Maryland natives are less likely than their white peers and residents who were born in other states to have a college degree. More jobs than ever require a degree, but the state frequently imports educated workers instead of educating the ones it has. “It’s not a talent gap, it’s an opportunity gap,” Edelstein said. “There is talent that is not being nurtured and we’re trying to identify that talent as early as we can and find the things we can do to intervene.” On average, USG’s undergraduate students are in their late 20s, and they are more racially diverse (36 percent are white, 20 percent are black, 14 percent are Asian, and 17 percent are Hispanic) than most colleges. Half are the first in their families to go to college, and most come from families with incomes much lower than the county’s $99,000 median household income.

Ohio has had regional campuses for decades, and they’ve been developed in Oregon, New York, and Massachusetts. But Edelstein says the collaboration between different stakeholders, and the robust centralized student services and academic support at USG, are not often found in other models. The idea especially appeals to Hillman because it’s not reinventing the wheel. States from California to Ohio have contemplated allowing their community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees, which would require the (costly) creation of entirely new programs. But Maryland’s approach makes sense to Hillman because it takes pathways to a degree that already exist and connects them, which could ultimately help states curb costs. USG says it saves the state nearly $14,000 per student.

It also saves students money. The cost of going to Montgomery College, the local community college, and then transferring to USG for the final two years of a degree is about $29,000. Students can earn scholarships both from their individual universities and from USG, and they can also rely on Pell grants and financial aid (loan amounts for USG students are well-below national averages). Students who attend Montgomery College and then transfer to a four-year university elsewhere in the state and live on campus for the final two years of a degree pay about $48,100, while students who go straight into a four-year school pay about $78,400, making USG much more feasible for low-income students.

Eric Funt, a 20-year-old nursing student who spent part of his childhood in a nursing home in Bethesda where his mom worked as a live-in nurse, heard about the campus from his brother’s friend and liked the idea of staying nearby. The campus is “not daunting; it’s welcoming,” he said. While he’s fielded negative comments about the fact that he began his college career at a two-year school, Funt isn’t bothered. “A lot of people take this kind of opportunity for granted,” he said. “This makes financial sense.” And he thinks he gets more support at USG as a transfer student because the entire campus is designed to help students like him succeed. His girlfriend, also a nursing student, recently transferred to an Ivy-League university from a community college. Funt says the transition has been hard, especially socially, for her, while he’s had an easy time meeting friends and study partners.

Dakota Bucci, a junior at the campus studying special education through Towson, grew up a half-hour drive away in Damascus and wanted to go to college nearby to be near her autistic brother. She heard about USG from her older sister and liked the idea of small class sizes and the opportunity to intern at schools where she might ultimately end up working. Bucci, who lives at home, realizes she might be missing out on some of the social aspects of dorm life, but insists the home-cooked meals and friendships she’s made because of USG’s small class sizes are worth more.

“We’re in the community and of the community and I think the students see this as a place that’s safe for them and also accessible and gives them the access they need for jobs,” Edelstein said. While USG currently serves about 4,000 students, there are plans to build a new biomedical sciences and engineering building. Right now, there are more of those jobs in Maryland than qualified people to fill them. “This model is a really important model for the future,” he said. “Being local, being connected to the community-college system as we are, being connected to the school system as we are, being connected to business locally, it’s the way to go.”

High Schools for Addicts

INDIANAPOLIS—When Avalon Dugan got out of treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, she had a choice: head back to the mainstream high school where she spent her freshman year or enroll in a tiny high school on the campus of the rehabilitation facility. Dugan choose the school for kids in recovery—a decision she says has helped her stay sober for over a year.

Hope Academy, a charter school that has been operating out of Fairbanks Addiction Treatment Center in Indianapolis for 10 years, offers services for teens grappling with addiction along with typical classes like math, English, and art.

Dugan initially struggled with relapse after she got out of rehab but Hope Academy’s close-knit community and regular drug testing made it difficult for her to hide her drug use from her parents and teachers, she said.


“Teachers at larger schools don’t really see one kid out of like 300 walking through a hallway,” Dugan said. “There’s a lot of people in recovery that work here, so they … pick up on things because they were there are one point.”

Hope Academy is among about 30 recovery high schools around the country that offer a unique approach to helping students stay sober and graduate from high school but, as the programs mature, they’re finding that many students are enrolling earlier in their recovery processes. That has put pressure on the schools to offer more support to students. In Indiana, Hope officials say the problem is that insurance companies are offering less coverage for rehab for kids addicted to opioids as opposed to alcohol, since detoxing from opioids isn’t considered life-threatening.

When Hope opened in 2006, it largely served students who had abused alcohol or marijuana—and typically had been in treatment more than 30 days before enrolling in Hope. But as more kids use opioids like heroin and oxycodone, even students with access to health care are less likely to get the kind of long-term treatment they used to, said Rachelle Gardner, the school’s chief operating officer. “We may have students that come to us with a week or so of inpatient treatment,” Gardner said. “They’re just starting to get clean.”

The first Hope students had been through treatment at Fairbanks, and they were well into the recovery process, Gardner said. That helped build a foundation for the kind of supportive culture the school is based on, and for the first few years, most students came to them after long-term treatment.

But the landscape has changed: Students now are coming to the school after brief stints in recovery programs—or no treatment at all, Gardner said. These teens need more support and they can struggle to integrate into the school culture. “That’s a different student then we had five years ago,” she said.

Located on the second floor of a Fairbanks building, Hope has just eight classrooms and seven teachers. Enrollment fluctuates, with students joining and leaving the school throughout the year, but it usually hovers around 35 teens.

Andy Finch, a Vanderbilt University researcher who is leading the first large-scale study into recovery-school outcomes, says many of the recovery schools around the country are also serving new, more challenging students because they are intentionally targeting more diverse students. “When you look at recovery high schools historically,” Finch said, “they are not very diverse racially and ethnically and really not all that diverse economically.”

Hope is a free, publicly funded charter school, but many recovery schools are private schools that charge tuition. The teens served by recovery schools in the past tended to be relatively privileged, with access to substance-abuse treatment, Finch said. But that is changing as some schools have actively tried to open their services up to needier kids including those with limited or no health insurance. “Recovery high schools are having to face the fact that not everybody has access to treatment,” he said.

Avalon Dugan (Dylan Peers McCoy / Chalkbeat Indiana)

At Hope, incorporating teens who are new to recovery can be a strain on committed students who’ve been at the school for months or years, Gardner said. “They’re still living in the old mindset of an addiction kind of culture,” she said. “You lie, you cheat—those kinds of values.”

About five years ago, Hope leaders decided they needed a place to help new students, or students who had relapsed, acclimate to the school. That’s why they created the STARR room, a therapeutic setting where students spend their morning catching up on academic work and their afternoons doing art and discussing recovery with school staff. Usually teens spend about three weeks in the STARR room before integrating into traditional classes, but with an increasing population of high-needs students, the school is considering expanding the services or extending the time students spend there before joining the rest of their peers, she said.

The first recovery high school opened in 1979, Finch said. But there hasn’t been much rigorous research into how well the programs work compared to traditional schools. In fact, Hope is at the forefront of site-based research, he said. A study of Hope’s program from 2014 found that when students stop using drugs, their academic outcomes improve, said Mary Jo Rattermann, an educational consultant. Hope students who don’t relapse actually show more growth than similar peers at mainstream high schools.

Rattermann initially evaluated Hope for the Mayor’s Office of Education Innovation, which charters the school. When that contract ended, she continued to study the school, first through a contract paid for by Hope and now as part of a national project funded by the Association of Recovery High Schools, she said.

“What Hope Academy is doing is nationally acknowledged as a very successful model,” Rattermann said. “This is a school and it’s about academics, and it’s about being a high-school kid as much as you can give that to them.”

The per student cost at Hope is about $23,000. The school receives more than half that amount from the state, including the per-student funding every charter school receives and a special grant for support services. The rest of the school’s funding comes Fairbanks, grants, and philanthropy, Gardner said.

Part of the reason the bill is so high is because the school is committed to having teachers for every subject rather than relying on online learning, said Gardner. The school can serve as many as 60 students without increasing the number of teachers, she said. Since only about 35 students are currently attending, Hope could push down per-student costs by increasing the number of teens enrolled.

Gardner is certain that more students in the region could benefit from recovery high school, but there’s a stigma to attending a school for teens with substance-abuse problems and some families simply don’t know about Hope, she said. “I tell new schools,” Gardner said, “if I would’ve done anything different, I would’ve put a lot more money in marketing.”

Hope won’t work for every teen. Some students drop out or leave for more intensive treatment. When teens continue to use drugs and alcohol, they are sometimes suspended or expelled. In fact, Dugan herself was briefly expelled from Hope. In her second year at the school, she had fallen deeper into addiction, going from using alcohol and marijuana to injecting heroin. It got so bad in the spring, that she was expelled from the school. But she continued to come back for tutoring and regular drug tests. It was her drug tests that changed everything for Dugan.

For months, she had managed to clean up enough for her heroin use to slip under the radar, Dugan said. But on a spring day in 2014, she made a mistake and her drug test came back positive for opioids. When Dugan’s mother walked into her room to tell her the test result, Dugan could see the pain and resignation in her face. “I just didn’t lie to her,” she said. “I just said, ‘Yeah, I’m still using.’” And that was the end, Dugan said. She stopped using drugs that day and she’s been clean ever since.

When she came back to Hope that fall, she was totally changed, said principal Linda Gagyi. “We had kind of a contract,” she said. “She did amazing … She was truly committed to recovery.”

This article appears courtesy of Chalkbeat Indiana.

A More Inclusive Harvard

Harvard University’s announcement on Friday—that it would place sanctions on all single-gender social groups—is the latest step in an ongoing effort by the university to address the inequality perpetuated by and inherent to many of these organizations. The new policy, which applies to final clubs, fraternities, and sororities, prevents anyone who is a member of these groups from becoming the leader of a recognized student organization, captain of an athletics team, or college-endorsed candidate for fellowships including the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships. The policies will apply to any student who joins the groups starting with the class of 2021 and does not affect anyone who’s currently a member.

While the sanctions may seem severe (and have been criticized for infringing on students’ freedom of association), they are likely this extreme in order to tackle deeply-rooted issues, predominantly at all-male final clubs. The clubs, which closely resemble Greek organizations, have increasingly become more democratic, but have a long history of invitation-only male elitism, and were called out in a university report this past March for contributing disproportionately to instances of sexual assault. As reported by The Harvard Crimson, a study commissioned by the University’s Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention discovered that 47 percent of female seniors who “participated in final clubs” said they had experienced nonconsensual sexual contact since entering college, compared to 31 percent of female seniors overall.

In a statement explaining the sanctions, Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana highlighted the “power imbalance” caused by single-gender social organizations as a major reason for the decision. “The most entrenched of these spaces send an unambiguous message that they are the exclusive preserves of men,” he said.

Although the sanctions appear to be aimed at pressuring all social groups to go co-ed and become more inclusive, students have raised questions about why the organizations are collectively being treated the same way—especially when the greatest “power imbalances” have repeatedly been linked specifically to the all-male clubs. A huge aspect of this power asymmetry stems from the fact that, compared to female final clubs (or fraternities and sororities), all-male ones own significant units of property near campus (many worth upwards of millions of dollars) and consequently have control over several large informal social spaces, who can gain access to them, and what goes on there. Today, as Khurana noted, these spaces are solely the provinces of their male members. As such, the gender inequities these groups embody go far beyond simply being single-gender organizations—they’re baked into the very physical structures they own. (More recently, many of the female clubs and Greek organizations have acquired their own properties—but none with such scale.)

But because of the differences among the social groups, questions remain about whether across-the-board sanctions are the most effective strategy for tackling these disparities.

Over the last year, President Drew Faust and Khurana have steadily called on male final clubs to open their doors to men and women, outlining stringent recommendations on how best to promote gender equity and student safety. These talks follow decades of conflict and conversation between the university and these clubs, which opted to become unrecognized student groups in 1984 to evade the regulations, including a request to go co-ed.

More than 30 years later, last fall, two of what were once eight all-male final clubs welcomed their first classes of women under pressure from the administration. However, the discussion continued to encounter significant resistance from the groups’ respective alumni graduate boards (as one club’s leadership explicitly noted, “Harvard forced our hand”). Negotiations between the university and the remaining organizations have broadly stalled.

Students and alumni have since questioned whether further discussion could have been a more productive approach to these problems—rather than this show of power from the university. Several of the male and female organizations had also previously complained about a lack of transparency from the administration; Khurana had mentioned the potential for sanctions in an earlier meeting. The ultimate announcement seems to have resulted because the university felt like it had little choice when it came to addressing issues that have prevailed for years.

These efforts, among the most decisive the administration has ever taken with regard to final clubs, should be applauded for their intention. But their sweeping nature obscures some of the exact problems they aim to address. There has been an overwhelming uproar from female final clubs and sororities over this wholesale policy, which treats them the same way as it does all-male final clubs even though they don’t face the same types of critiques and problems. Previously, organization leaders from these groups have even protested the university’s failure to include them in pivotal conversations on the subject. Greek groups, overall, were given little warning before the sanctions were issued.

As a member of a sorority on campus while I was a student at Harvard, I’ve seen and felt a tremendous outpouring of concern about what such regulations will mean for the groups that women have created to feel safe and supported. In a society and campus community where women continue to be marginalized, many students have sought out these organizations as places to bond with other women, gain a support system, and build their identities. (Promoting women’s groups and not men’s ones is admittedly a double standard, but one that may still be necessary given the current systems of power in place.)

By issuing a decree that treats all single-gender social groups as comparable, the university also glosses over the fact that problems such as sexual assault need their own specific solutions—and not just a blanket one. Similarly, this approach doesn’t offer a targeted response to the entitlement and misogyny that’s historically been associated primarily with certain organizations.

An underlying thread of this debate, too, is the lack of accessible social space on campus. While Harvard’s 12 residential houses have incredible support networks and their own respective venues, the student demand for such single-gender social groups suggests that they provide both a kind of support, and in some cases, space, that’s not currently available elsewhere. To achieve its aims of fostering a positive and constructive college environment, the administration must take care to offer new options and further build its community up, rather than simply tearing aspects of it down.

As flawed as the policy is, however, it does begin to address a key issue that all-male and all-female social groups (as well as several co-ed ones) at Harvard have in common (along with, ironically, the institution itself): They are founded on the premise of exclusivity. “[In their recruitment practices and through their extensive resources and access to networks of power, these organizations propagate exclusionary values that undermine those of the larger Harvard College community,” said Khurana.

Such “exclusionary values,” are something that students have written about at the college across several different contexts including race, gender, sexuality, income, and social status. All facets of the university struggle with this problem, but Harvard’s single-gender social groups play a significant role in exacerbating these differences—by explicitly placing yet another label on them. In pressuring these organizations to change, the administration could severely weaken part of the social infrastructure that calcifies these divides.

While these sanctions are harsh, imperfect, and for many, quite painful, what they do offer is a glimpse of what a more inclusive Harvard could look like—and a stronger one as a result.

When All Kids Eat for Free

Much has been made recently of Detroit’s resurgence and growth. In January, President Obama made a swing through the Motor City, touting “something special happening in Detroit.” Yet the comeback has not been evenly felt across the city. The Michigan League for Public Policy’s 2016 Kids Count Data Profile revealed a major fault line earlier this year. From 2006 to 2014, child poverty in Detroit increased some 13 percent, to about 94,000 children or well more than half (57 percent) of the city’s population under the age of 18. The unavoidable conclusion: Many of Detroit’s youngest residents remain mired in hardship and hunger.

During the school day, the job of filling children’s empty stomachs rests with Betti J. Wiggins, the executive director of Detroit Public Schools office of school nutrition. The district enrolls about 46,000 students, and advertises free breakfast and lunch for every child—not just those who qualify and apply for the benefit. Wiggins credits a little-known provision in the federal child-nutrition bill for boosting participation and feeding more of Detroit’s students at school. But those nutritional benefits are now at risk, as Congress moves to reauthorize the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. A proposed rule change to the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP)—widely praised by budget experts and school officials—would effectively leave thousands of impoverished Detroit students, who now eat breakfast and lunch at school, unfed.

The rationale for the program is fairly straightforward. CEP, now in its second year of nationwide availability, allows high-poverty schools to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students at no cost, instead of collecting individual applications for free or reduced-price meals for students who qualify based on family income. Whether a school is eligible for the provision is based on data illustrating how many children are food insecure, whether they live in households that receive food stamps, live in foster care, are homeless, or other criteria that identify them as part of a food-vulnerable group. Under the program, a school district, group of schools, or single school with 40 percent or more “identified students”—those who automatically qualify for free school meals because they fall within the prior special classification—is eligible to adopt community eligibility. The House bill would raise the eligibility threshold to 60 percent, forcing thousands of high-poverty schools nationally to rollback school meals.

Wiggins said the program allows districts like hers to feed more hungry kids. “In income-insecure households, the first item to be reduced is food, in both quantity and quality,” she said. Since CEP, Detroit has experienced an average daily participation increase of 22 percent across the district. She anticipates that with the higher eligibility limit almost 8,000 fewer breakfasts and about 9,300 fewer lunches would be served to students each day. This represents a projected 40 percent drop in eligible high-school students who will abandon school meals, Wiggins said, because of the “consequential identification” of being a free-lunch student. Additionally, CEP reduces administrative costs associated with processing school meals applications. Wiggins said the cost of printing, distributing, and processing school-meals forms—both materials and staff time—ran close to $200,000 annually before schoolwide free meals.

An analysis of the House bill by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities echoes Wiggins’ dire predictions. In urban school districts like Detroit, Baltimore, and Chicago—along with rural districts across the country with large numbers of low-income families—there are upwards of 7,000 schools that have adopted community eligibility but would fail to meet the proposed 60 percent criteria. Another 11,000 schools that qualify for the program, but have not yet adopted community eligibility, would also lose the option because they fall below the 60 percent mark. According to the CBPP report, the change would deal a serious blow to districts from Arizona—with six schools on the Navajo Nation serving about 1,500 students—to Alabama—with dozens of schools in Mobile and Montgomery and tens of thousands of students affected.

What Do Unpaid Lunch Tabs Mean for Schools?

Zoë Neuberger, a senior policy analyst for CBPP who studies nutrition-assistance programs, said that a good amount of confusion and misinformation surrounds the CEP. “Changing the threshold for community eligibility from 40 percent to 60 percent will make it harder for schools serving very low-income communities to offer school meals,” Neuberger said. She emphasized that USDA’s evaluation, which compared participation in schools that had adopted community eligibility to similar schools that hadn’t, found that lunch participation was 5.2 percent higher in community eligibility schools and breakfast participation was 9.4 percent higher. And she stressed that community-eligibility schools are reimbursed based on a formula so that the higher the poverty level, the higher the reimbursement. “Congress should stay out of the way of these schools, which already face plenty of challenges, so they can focus on providing high quality meals and educating their students,” she said.

A spokesman for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce countered that the new legislation does not change who is eligible to receive nutrition assistance in schools, and noted that the broader consequences of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act include “higher costs for schools and fewer students being served.” To help substantiate this claim, he cited a National Schools Boards Association poll of school leaders. But the survey queried school officials on the national nutrition standards for school meals, not specifically on the community-eligibility provision.

Some of the most vocal opponents of the proposed bill are educators who live in Indiana, the home state of the bill’s author. The Republican Congressman Todd Rokita, who chairs the subcommittee that introduced the bill, represents an area in Indiana where nearly 34,000 children were rated “food insecure”—living in a household with limited or uncertain access to adequate food—according to the latest data from Feeding America.

The disconnect between politics and policy seems most glaring in the one aspect of school meals that is hardest to measure: the widespread stigma that students and families often attach to free meals at school. Morris C. Leis, the superintendent of Coffee County Schools in south central Georgia, said that community eligibility allows the district to serve free breakfast and lunch to over 6,400 kids—84 percent of the entire student population—but with the proposed change, six schools would be unable to participate, affecting some 3,800 children. A racially and ethnically diverse district, 28 percent of his community lives at or below the federal poverty level. “Coffee County has many [families] living paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “For some students, the meals they eat at school may be the only meals they get during the day or even on the weekend.”

Jill Pruitt, the eighth-grade counselor at Coffee Middle School, said students want so desperately to fit in that they are even willing to skip lunch instead of being called poor. “Peer pressure is very powerful, and students have often felt ashamed of being on the ‘free lunch’ list,” she said. Thanks to the CEP, this year all students at the school are allowed to eat free lunch. “Students are free to eat without being categorized and stigmatized, and this has created a wonderful climate of equality and cooperation,” said Pruitt. She describes students with the confidence to now eat lunch with friends of higher socioeconomic status without feeling self-conscious, and a middle-schooler who “cleans his plate happily every day without worrying about others’ comments, even though he knows he will probably not eat again until tomorrow.”

While Leis commends CEP for eliminating paperwork and administrative costs, mostly he also applauds the program for removing the overt identification of those students of lesser means, and shifting the culture in his schools regarding equity. “This prevents embarrassment for some students and puts all [children] on an even playing field when it comes to getting their meals.”

Back in Detroit, Wiggins said her biggest concern in raising the community-eligibility threshold are the students whose middle-class parents are barely making ends meet and are struggling to stall or ward off a slide into poverty. Because it is her professional duty to feed them all—the haves, the “presumptuous haves,” and the have-nots.

“Many students whose household incomes say they are full-pay may in reality be the household where our students are the most food insecure,” she said, attributing community eligibility with tackling “the hunger at the end of the cul-de-sac.”

Navigating Campus Together

I knew Sarah was one of them on the first day of class.  We made eye contact as I reviewed the lengthy roll of campus resources listed on my syllabus. “Just so you know,” I said, “all of these people are here to help you. No extra charge. You’ve already paid tuition. These services are included.” Sarah’s classmates doodled on the syllabus. Some transferred essay due dates from the course schedule into their calendars. But Sarah drew a star next to one of the resources. “You might as well use them, right?” I added. Writing centers and campus counselors and diversity-inclusion programs want students to succeed. But as a first-generation college student I avoided all of them, assuming I couldn’t afford the extra bill. Now, as college faculty, I want my students to know what I didn’t.

According to College Board, more than 30 percent of today’s undergraduate students are the first in their families to go to college. Two-thirds of first-generation students attend community college, many part-time. They are disproportionately minorities from low-income backgrounds. And even for those of us who win the elusive admission ticket, three out of five won’t graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Very few of us attend graduate school.

Next America: Higher Education

Understanding the opportunity and achievement gaps in U.S. universities
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First-generation college students who are now college faculty, such as myself, learn to keep our status quiet. We know better than to admit how much we still don’t know. Most of my colleagues at American University in Washington, D.C., where I’ve been teaching for five years, attended Ivy League institutions. A faculty member in another department once commiserated, “Well, I was the first in my family to attend Harvard, so I know how you feel.” The distance I’d traveled from a rural Missouri town with a population less than American University’s first-year class to college was a far more uncertain path.

I decided I was college-bound in ninth grade. My class was on a field trip to General Mills and Watlow Manufacturing, two industrial plants that fueled our hometown economy. We formed a circle around our guidance counselor, Mr. Eggleston. “Look around,” he said, gesturing toward the assembly line. “These are good jobs. These are good people. We can get you plant jobs that pay $10 an hour or more. You can live in town on that.” Mr. Eggleston waved to a few high-school graduates he knew. “Or you leave. Go to college. Be something more than a factory worker. Choice is yours. I’ll help you either way.” And he did. He showed me how to fill out college applications and apply for scholarships. He talked to my parents about my academic potential and suggested we schedule campus visits. At first, my parents refused to fill out the FAFSA; they thought it was an invasion of privacy. Mr. Eggleston convinced them that without those numbers, a college wouldn’t consider my application.

Delaying entering the workforce was an investment, even if it seemed a risk to my family. College Board reports that over a 40-year working life, a college graduate will earn 66 percent more than their peers with only a high-school diploma.  Like Mr. Eggleston, my parents supported my choices, even when they didn’t understand them.

Sarah says that her family also brags about her college path. She’s the smart one, the brave kid from a tiny town in Virginia who graduated from high school in a class of 11. But when she visits home, just like I did, she’s expected to have more answers than she does. “What are you studying?” people ask. “What are you going to do with that expensive degree?” Sarah doesn’t know yet. Neither did I.

Compared to their peers whose parents went to college, most first-generation students need more time to declare a major and are more likely to switch majors. As a first-year student, I pledged myself to the business school at Monmouth College in Illinois. It made sense. I’d grown up in a small family pest-control business. We lived in the country and grew corn, raised chickens, and sold firewood by the side of the road. I knew how to do whatever the job was and to make customers happy. But then I took an accounting class and ran from the major. I switched to government. An internship at a prosecutor’s office saved me from law school. The reading load in my classes was entirely manageable, but a summer spent at the Missouri State Archives showed me that I didn’t want to use my history degree to trace genealogies.

reports that these students have lower grade-point averages and the majority need one or more remedial classes to catch up with their peers. Faculty ought to be more patient with what they come to us not knowing, just like Dr. Cordery, and meet them where they are.

Two months into the semester, Sarah shared that she’d missed a deadline for something unrelated to our class. This one seemed inflexible, though, and the consequences were dire. “I got an email about signing up for next year’s housing. I thought it was for something else,” she said. We’d just finished class and lingered packing up our bags. “I was trying to keep all the registrations straight but I messed up. I got my courses, but I don’t know where I’m going to live.”

The next morning, I called my dean’s office. I told them her enrollment was precarious without the ability to use her scholarship on housing. They reached out to Sarah immediately and suggested she file an appeal.

Being flexible and helpful with first-generation college students doesn’t mean that they are getting special treatment. The same resources are available to all students, regardless of what it took to gain admission. But faculty who were also first-generation students need watch closely for those that slip through the cracks because those students can’t see the sidewalk. Like Sarah, I was hard-working and motivated, but I didn’t even know the questions to ask. I had to learn the hard way how to “do” college.

When I was on the other side of this desk, as a college senior with an internship in Washington, D.C., I drove from Missouri in my car. How else could I move around the city? I’d never travelled on mass transit. I’d never ridden a bus. I brought maps and, apparently, guts.

My family joked that my stay in D.C. was “studying abroad.” When I spoke to my brother by phone, he gave me the weather report like all good Midwesterners do. “Looks like it rains out in those parts a lot.”

“Seems sunny, actually. The leaves are changing colors,” I reported. “I was at the Lincoln Memorial this morning. Gorgeous.”

“Huh. Weather map shows nothing but storms.”

Then, I got it. “I’m in Washington, D.C.,—not Washington state. They’re on opposite sides of the country.”

“Oh.” There was a pause on the other side of the phone. “How’s the car holding up? Did you find a place to get your oil changed?”

When the College of Arts & Sciences at American University organized a first-generation faculty meet up, I hesitated to join. Who would be in the room? Would I be outing myself and confirm their suspicions that I really didn’t belong?

Instead, I found administrators, department chairs, and accomplished scholars sitting around a conference table unpacking their brown-bag lunches. We talked about the masks we often wear with our colleagues and how even our achievements still feel unmerited.

After the first meet-up, we invited first-generation students to a Q & A where they could ask us the questions they were too afraid to ask elsewhere. We shared stories of our mentors and the faculty who chose not to laugh at our naiveté but to hold out their hands and help when we fumbled. Sharing our experiences as first-generation faculty doesn’t hurt our credibility. It helps build it. First-generation college students need role models that have navigated similar paths and succeeded against the odds. We bring a diversity of backgrounds and working-class experiences to the ivory tower. And there are benefits to not knowing the rules. In college and my career, I didn’t know not to knock so I learned to knock louder.

As she left office hours one day, Sarah asked, “Do you know if the gym is free, too? A lot of my friends have been bugging me to go but you know.”

“I’ll find out,” I promised.

And I did. No additional fee is charged. Faculty, though, still have to pay.

What Is Trump’s Education Agenda?

With Donald Trump now seen as the presumptive Republican nominee for president, after his strong victory in the Indiana primary, attention surely will grow to what he would actually do if elected.

If you want to know where Trump stands on education, you might think the first place to go would be his campaign website.

But don’t expect to find much information there. Education is not among the seven “positions” cited, which include “pay for the wall” with Mexico, health-care reform, and 2nd Amendment rights. Under “issues,” education is one in a series of 20 videos on Trump’s campaign site and lasts all of 52 seconds.

“I’m a tremendous believer in education,” Trump begins, “but education has to be at a local level. We cannot have the bureaucrats in Washington telling you how to manage your child’s education.”

The real-estate mogul, who has never held elected office, then pivots in the video to the Common Core standards, adopted by most states (though some have since made changes). “Common Core is a total disaster. We can’t let it continue.”

Education Writers Association

Some analysts have noted a disconnect between Trump’s focus on local control and the desire to dismantle Common Core. After all, to do so would mean forcing states to undo their own standards.

As the U.S. News & World Report journalist Lauren Camera recently explained, federal law prohibits the federal government from requiring particular standards, and the newly enacted Every Student Succeeds Act features very explicit language to reinforce this. (The Obama administration created financial incentives for states to adopt the Common Core—which some saw as inappropriate pressure—but they were not required to do so.)

To date, the Trump campaign has issued no position papers on education.

Many analysts, education advocates, and journalists have struggled to understand what a Trump presidency would mean for education (and other issues, for that matter).

“He hasn’t spoken at great length about the topic at any one time, and he doesn’t have the kind of record on the issue that, say, a governor would,” writes the Education Week reporter Andrew Ujifusa on the Politics K-12 blog. Also, “Trump has baffled education wonks,” Ujifusa notes.

However, Ujifusa helpfully supplies a few quotes and tidbits from the campaign, including a reminder that during a March debate, Trump hinted that he might name former surgeon and GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson to a key education post if elected. (Top education priorities in Carson’s campaign included school choice and local control of education.)

The Harvard University Professor Martin West described Trump as a “wild card” on education during an Education Writers Association panel this week in Boston. Another panelist at the EWA National Seminar in Boston, Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, has said much the same.

“[W]hat would a President Trump mean for education? I have no idea. And neither does anyone else,” he wrote on his blog earlier this year.

Andrew Rotherham, a former education adviser to President Bill Clinton and co-founder of Bellwether Education, made this point more broadly about Trump.

“We’ve never seen anybody practice politics like this,” he said during the EWA panel.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said that in her many years in New York City (where Trump has long lived), she can recall no time when he got involved in an education issue, or even supported an individual school, suggesting it’s just not been an issue on his radar. (The AFT last fall endorsed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for president.) That said, Politics K-12 notes that Trump has previously donated money to Teach For America.

Leaving aside what Trump has said about education, his charged campaign rhetoric on other issues has drawn attention, and criticism, from some educators. Politico education journalist Caitlin Emma reported last month on that a state teachers’ union president in Maryland protested his planned visit to a high school there. She argued that the GOP candidate’s “divisive fear-mongering rhetoric” has no place in Maryland’s public schools.

So, back to the 52-second video. Trump states, repeatedly, that the U.S. is “28 in the world” in education, and even suggests we are behind some “Third World” countries.

He does not cite any particular source for this information, or name the countries. But the 28 nations appears to be a reference to 2012 results from the global PISA exam in mathematics. The United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, scored behind 27 other industrialized countries in that round of testing. As for the Third World comparison, it’s not clear where that comes from.

Trump concludes the campaign video by saying: “We’re going to make education an absolute priority.” So, what does that mean? With no track record on the issue, the answer will only be known if American voters hand him the presidency in the general election.

This article appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.

How Can South Africa Kickstart Its Tech Industry?

In South Africa, where cellphones are as common as they are in the U.S., tech is often associated with violence and even death. Last December, a ninth-grader was stabbed repeatedly in the chest for refusing to hand over her cellphone to a robber in Durban. The year before, South Africa’s soccer captain Senzo Meyiwa was shot down by armed men in a botched attempt to steal his mobile phone in Johannesburg. But sometimes, technology is used to try and circumvent violence in the country.

“Ongoing issues of personal security affect most South Africans,” said Nancy Odendaal, an urban planner and senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town. Odendaal has interviewed immigrants in major South African cities who’ve been subjected to, as she put it, “dreadful xenophobia.” “My respondents used their cellphones to stay in touch with one another, give advice on what places to avoid, and what to wear to not stand out to foreigners,” she said.

Still, it’s mostly the non-poor who benefit from these advances, she said, pointing to apps developed by security firms and targeted at people who have money. “But, of course, those most adversely affected by violence are poorer folks living in informal settlements and townships.”

Twenty years after the Apartheid government was overthrown, more than half of the country’s 52 million people survive on about $53 a month. The government acknowledged at the end of its latest poverty-trends report that the way to address this issue is by placing a greater emphasis on battling structural issues like a lack of education, historical segregation, and areas of high crime that perpetuate inequality in South Africa. And as technology begins to become a part of South African culture, a handful of companies and nonprofits in the country are trying to harness the fledgling information-and-communications-technology industry (ICT) to take on these issues. The hope is that people heavily hit by violence and inequality can be recruited to stable jobs in a booming industry—but the results of these efforts are still in beta.

The programs aim to train people from disadvantaged backgrounds to be able to work in ICT, equipping them with skills such as computer programming, app building, and web design. The ideal outcome is two-fold: Disadvantaged South Africans can learn a coveted skill set that has the potential to energize the economy and consistently give younger generations plenty of job opportunities. However, the ICT industry has not made much of a dent in the country’s poverty thus far. So how successful are these well-intentioned tech initiatives in making lasting change? And, when students agree to participate, do they really understand what they’re signing up for?

* * *

Lungi Zungu, 28, was born in a mixed-race township in Durban, a city in the coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal.* One of a handful of people from her community to study ICT at the university level, she applied to complete a program at a tech development organization called CapaCITI after struggling to find a job post-graduation. CapaCITI works to train South Africans in software development, programming, and IT support, then connects students with companies for permanent positions. Zungu is now a full-time software developer at Sanlam.

“What we are trying to do is simultaneously address the tech skill shortage that companies face in the Western cape, as well as provide opportunities to unemployed youth,” said Alethea Hagemann, a skills-development-program lead at CapaCITI, describing her organization’s work as a “win-win situation.”

according to World Policy. Before 1994, education in South Africa was racially organized, with separate schools, universities, and teacher colleges. Today, high-school students don’t take general technology as a subject, and students who live in historically resource-starved areas don’t necessarily develop technological literacy from a young age. A lack of reliable electricity also makes it difficult to have working technology inside the classroom, and the Internet itself is pricey. What’s more—even if students like Zungu have a university degree, there aren’t necessarily enough companies who can employ them, in part because of a saturated tech market, budget constraints, and a lack of consumers.

Bryan Pon, the research director at Caribou Digital, a think tank that analyzes how technology is changing in emerging markets, believes that it’s overly optimistic to expect nonprofit or start-up programs to lead to sustainable economic opportunity. After all, if a large percentage of the population doesn’t have money to pay for Internet, there’s little demand for the development of products that live online. And the South African tech industry can’t provide the kind of funding, mentor networks, or institutional advantages to budding developers that are available in the West, so it’s harder for companies to get off the ground.

“When you don’t have [these advantages], especially in a resource-constrained setting, it becomes very hard to launch and scale digital businesses,” Pon said.

It’s also a matter of connectivity. Internet access in South Africa is dominated by a company called Telkom, and sent out in throttled, expensive packages to paying customers. That means that, for many township residents, Internet is a luxury that will remain out of reach.

Another barrier is that the social framework these digital businesses need to stand on remains fractured by the ghost of the Apartheid government. Apartheid forced non-white South Africans into separate living areas known as townships, and communication with white people was limited. Driving black South Africans from their homes plunged them into poverty and exacerbated income inequality. In 2016, whites and non-whites are still deeply segregated. Socioeconomic rights are included in the constitution written after the Apartheid regime fell, but the country still grapples with high rates of crime and unemployment. Many non-white South Africans still live in the townships like Zungu grew up in, and it’s rare that people leave to go to college.

find, evaluate, create, and communicate information”—to communities that don’t have it. “Most governments look at digital literacy as basic tech skills of using computers, but there is another social side of how we interact in the digital world,” Surman said. “You want digital literacy in the schools, but also need much more popular culture involved, or we will not go fast enough.”

In order for this to happen, Surman believes, children need to engage with information online. They need to understand that being able to create and communicate, whether that is putting content on a blog, or learning how to code, is just as important as interacting and consuming data. It could mean video games or social media—anything that is a big enough part of the popular culture to have an influence.

Zungu is optimistic as well, and plans to use her skills to give back to township communities.

“I feel like I am a role model,” she said. “You don’t find many young black women who are software developers. Technology is something that everybody should be exposed to. People shouldn’t only just see things on TV, and then think that things are only possible to certain people.”

Oliver Hagan contributed reporting.

* A previous version of this article misidentified the province in which Durban is located. We regret the error.

When a Classmate Is a Former Inmate

These days, American colleges are eager to boast about their number of women enrollees, their percentage of ethnic minorities, even their ratio of low-income students. They’re very proud of their inclusiveness and outreach. But many colleges are mum when it comes to the students on their campuses with criminal records.

Next America: Criminal Justice

Crime and punishment in the age of mass incarceration
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To be fair, it’s a very delicate issue, one that requires reassuring students and parents that safety has not been compromised while also ensuring that some students with records are not singled out or treated differently. Finding that balance has proved elusive for some colleges, but others have successfully untangled the complexities created by this increasingly common phenomenon. At hundreds of colleges, students have to disclose any criminal history during the admissions process and may be prescreened by a special committee. A quick online search yields multiple websites—like the one at the University of Colorado, Boulder—with guidelines for admissions for students with criminal records. At some schools, a formerly incarcerated student’s movements on campus and his or her access to facilities may be restricted. At a number of colleges and universities, students who have committed certain crimes may be jointly monitored by campus authorities and state officials. The measures are set up based on state requirements, school policy, and the institution’s comfort level.

“It’s just incredibly stigmatizing,” said Emily NaPier, the director of justice strategies at the Center for Community Alternatives, which conducts research in this area. She said that some students with records complain that some schools “don’t allow them to live on campus housing,” “some have a probation period,” and others “have some level of tracking and surveillance regarding their grades.” NaPier added that the center is also aware of schools that require students with criminal records “to sign a declaration that they will only come to campus for classes and will not participate in any extracurricular activity on campus, that they will not linger on campus, that they will not be on campus for any other reason other than classes.”

That used to be the case at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. For students who had answered “yes” to an application question asking if they had a criminal history, their admissions letter informed them that they could enroll in school, but they couldn’t live on campus. However, the school recently removed the measure after it expanded the use of the background question to applications that are given to high-schoolers, which could have meant that “freshmen would not be able to live on campus housing,” said Pamela Brown, IUPUI’s associate director of undergraduate admissions for operations. She said the school regularly modifies its policies as conflicts come up. “It just didn’t make sense to exclude them from campus housing,” she said. Now, the incoming fall 2016 class will be the first to be allowed to live on campus no matter their backgrounds.

But, in some instances, there are situations that are entirely out of a school’s control. Students with criminal records who want to apply for certain professional programs often hit dead-ends. “People are not rejected solely based on having a criminal record but can end up being excluded from certain academic programs that do not allow those with criminal histories to work in the field,” said Jason Ebbeling, executive director of the Student Success Center at Connecticut State Colleges & Universities. Due to licensure requirements or clinical-rotation guidelines, future teachers, nurses, and others who might work in sensitive areas are not allowed to have past criminal histories.

“Why is someone in a classroom with a record more dangerous than someone sitting next to me in a movie theater or a restaurant?” asked Barmak Nassirian during my conversation with him. Nassirian has worked in higher education for 25 years and is the director of policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “People do have a responsibility for maintaining safe campuses, I don’t dismiss that.” But he fervently opposes asking students to divulge the information, considering it as part of admissions, and subsequently monitoring students once on campus. “We essentially condemn people to a life of underemployment and poverty if we deny them the one medicine that actually cures criminal behavior: education.”

“We have a number of students that do have a criminal background,” Ebbeling said. “We work at the community-college level with people that have been sex offenders and people who have other convictions.” CSCU asks questions about criminal backgrounds and felony convictions at its universities but not at its community colleges. Some cases don’t necessarily even require a background question. “We have a very formalized process for sex offenders: The state has a registry for sex offenders; deans of students at the community-college level meet with students to discuss behavioral expectations; in fact, we place a hold on their account until the meeting happens,” Ebbeling said. “We start from a place where they are given the opportunities any other students are given until there are any behavioral disruptions,” he said. But he also explained that for the sexual-assault registry, there are state requirements that Connecticut schools must comply with and of course they must collaborate with state agencies on any pending investigations.

College administrators, according to several of the experts I spoke to, try to put in place as many mechanisms and safety precautions as possible to reinforce how safe their campuses are, especially for the peace of mind of prospective families. And yet, there are no statistically valid relationships between asking about criminal histories, the ratio of such students on campus, and the incidences of campus crime. One glaring example of this is sexual assault, one of the most common campus crimes.

Walter DeKeseredy, a professor of sociology and the director of the Research Center on Violence at West Virginia University, has spent over 30 years conducting research on violence against women, but he is best known for his work on sexual assault on college campuses. He sees no merit in efforts to identify and monitor students with prior criminal records on campus. “Two of the high-risk groups on campus are fraternity brothers and men who are in combative sports—football, hockey, and lacrosse,” DeKeseredy said. “We have the data. They are among the highest-risk men on campus for committing sexual assault. You have a subculture that promotes and rewards a hypermasculine masculinity.”

Another researcher believes there are other important factors at play. “The issue of race and class are primary, and they get focused on young black men, but it’s really young white men who created the problem,” said Natalie Sokoloff, professor emerita of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. So even though in the United States black men are more likely to have a record and thus more likely to be under scrutiny by collegiate safety policies, it is actually white men who commit the majority of serious crimes, like sexual assault, on campus. “What we try to highlight is that these kinds of practices really are a de facto form of race-based discrimination … They undermine the goal of higher education, restrict access, and result in less diverse applicant pools. It’s so counterproductive.”

One measure that has emerged from the growing awareness of crimes on campus is the practice of signaling in students’ transcripts when disciplinary action has been taken against them. In most instances, schools do this of their own volition, but in several states, it is the law. One university has even started tracking states and colleges that annotate transcripts. “An issue that pops up is perpetrators of sexual violence who leave campus just ahead of the sheriff, who quietly transfer before any evidence is gathered against them,” Nassirian said, referring to troublemaking students who voluntarily leave school before any disciplinary or legal measures have been taken against them—only to later transfer into a new college with a fresh start. “There is a real risk, and real pressure, to annotate the transcript with any instances of disciplinary actions to warn the future institution about the student.”

A student could in theory simply not admit to a criminal background and circumvent all of the hassle and stigma—but hiding it can have severe consequences. In Connecticut’s state-university system, it “could be grounds for dismissal if the student does not self-identify in [the] admissions process, and there’s an issue later on,” according to Ebbeling. The same is true at the University of Washington. “It could be grounds for disciplinary action or dismissal if it were discovered later on,” said Paul Seegert, U.W.’s director of admissions. “But it’s the same for lying or withholding information on any part of the application.”

Educators want to welcome and serve qualified students. But they are also charged with maintaining safe and conducive atmospheres for learning. And so, for the student with a criminal background who wants an education, it can seem like there is no easy way around having a record—stigmatization now or dismissal later.

Bringing Brain Science to Early Childhood

A group of scholars at Harvard University is spearheading a campaign to make sure the early-childhood programs policymakers put in place to disrupt intergenerational poverty are backed by the latest science.

The idea sounds entirely reasonable, but it’s all too rare in practice, says Jack P. Shonkoff, the director of the university’s Center on the Developing Child and the chair of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. That’s because program grants and policies are generally structured in ways that incentivize “positive” results. Agreements along the lines of, “We’ll give you funding to test this specific policy intervention and if you can prove it worked in three years, we’ll give you more,” are standard. Shonkoff and his colleagues think that model needs a major update.

On Wednesday, the center will publish a report that calls for an online and in-person network that uses recent advances in scientists’ understanding of the way young brains grow to create and test early-childhood interventions. “The absence of a science-based R&D platform in the early childhood field threatens the future of all children, families, and communities whose challenges are not being addressed adequately by existing policies and programs,” write the authors.

Brain science is evolving quickly, Shonkoff said. Scientists now understand in great detail, for instance, that exposure to stress can speed up the opening and closing of certain periods of brain development, suggesting that countering the lifelong consequences of toxic stress is something best tackled in the first several years of life. Scientists also know now how children’s brain architecture changes when they have relationships with strong, caring adults. The science indicates that helping parents improve the way they interact with their babies has real impact on physical and mental health as those children grow into adulthood.

Next America: Early Childhood

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But many existing programs focus on either providing services for babies or, separately, for parents. Fewer focus on helping vulnerable adults turn their lives around with an eye toward improving their parenting skills, in part, Shonkoff thinks, because people with ideas for those kinds of interventions haven’t had the space to test them and, crucially, to fail and try again. Right now, “there’s no place for people to be talking about things that aren’t working,” he said. “Where is the culture of innovation here?”

Consider Early Head Start, a program aimed at helping disadvantaged children ages 0 to 3 across the United States. While Early Head Start has the infrastructure in place to test and scale a variety of programs, the report argues that it has so far provided little clarity on which of its programs work best for which people, and how they might be replicated.

Shonkoff says the current focus on determining so-called “best practices” by looking at average impact when it comes to interventions for children living in poverty is tantamount to searching for a single treatment for “cancer,” even though cancer comes in many forms and is caused by many factors. Take acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). In 1965, the year the first Head Start center was opened, the survival rate for ALL was below 5 percent. Now, it’s above 90 percent because doctors choose different treatment plans for different patients. They know how to do that because researchers have developed and tested those treatment plans. That’s not happening, Shonkoff said, for early childhood.

In short, the idea is to invest in different people and programs who understand the science behind child development and give them the ability to test different interventions. Shonkoff isn’t delusional; he knows that trying to convince cash-strapped government officials to fund speculation isn’t going to work. “It really requires a new breed of philanthropy,” he said—investors who made their fortunes in the high-risk, high-yield world of venture capital and are comfortable in that space, for example.

The Center on the Developing Child has already begun working with several programs to test the early-childhood R&D concept in what it’s calling an “innovation cluster” in Washington state. The Children’s Home Society piloted a video coaching program there aimed at improving executive function and self-regulation skills (things like self-control and the ability to retain and use new information) in both children and their parents. Parents were filmed interacting with their babies. Instead of focusing on what they did wrong, coaches clipped a few seconds of good interaction and used that to positively reinforce the ways caregivers could help their babies develop. The researchers originally tested the idea primarily with mothers but found, after several adaptations, that it was fathers who had previously been disengaged who benefited the most, which allowed them to tailor the program to dads. A separate intervention to bring mental health services to moms flopped, but when adapted, proved effective when it was targeted at teen moms specifically.