Assessment, Policy, Promising Practices, School Community

Educated Parents, Educated Children: Toward a Multiple Life Cycles Education Policy

Philanthropists and policymakers sometimes opt to fund childhood education to “stop illiteracy at the source” at the expense of funding for adult literacy education. In 2000, The New York Times published an article about a gift of $100 million being given to schools in Mississippi to promote the teaching of reading to children. The article says that the philanthropist giving the money and “many experts are less than bullish on the prospects for attacking adult illiteracy.” The philanthropist is then quoted as saying, “What this program says is that we can’t solve the adult literacy problem but we can work with the children.”[1]

In Canada in 2006, the new Tory government announced cuts of $17.7 million in what was already a skimpy federal budget for adult literacy education. According to a government official, “[T]hey want to focus instead on better teaching children how to read and write.” Adult literacy education was characterized as “repair work after the fact”; the government needs to “get it right from the get-go…rather than doing it after the fact.”[2]

This type of thinking is based largely on a mistaken understanding of “the source of illiteracy” and leads to half-hearted strategies for improving both children’s and adult’s literacy. It focuses on each new child as the beginning of a new life cycle, and then thinks in terms of doing whatever can be done to help the child acquire literacy skills. If this does not turn out well, then a small amount of remedial help may be given in adulthood to help the person acquire higher levels of literacy in a “cradle to grave, lifelong education” policy of education.

However, this focus upon a single life cycle fails to recognize the key role that the education of adults plays in the transfer of literacy from one generation to the next. That is, adult literacy education may promote the development of literacy not only in one life cycle but in multiple life cycles, depending on how many children the adults have. From this point of view, the potential for developing literacy actually begins before birth in the dispositions, skills, knowledge, language, and literacy of children’s parents.

I will argue here that the value of adult literacy education is a good investment for improving the educability of children. First, however, I need to deal with a couple of mistaken ideas that are widely held and that hinder the development of adequate resources for adult literacy education.

IQ, Brain Development, and Early Childhood Education

Cultural beliefs about cognitive development – and when it is possible and/or desirable to develop it – appear to contribute to the marginalization of adult literacy students and the system that serves them. One of those beliefs is that the brain’s intellectual capacity is developed in early childhood, and if children’s early childhood development is not properly stimulated there is likely to be intellectual underdevelopment leading to academic failures, low aptitude, and social problems such as criminal activity, teenage pregnancy, and welfare dependency. Since it will be difficult – if not impossible – to overcome these disadvantages later in adulthood, why invest much in adult education?

This sentiment was revealed by articles written in the Chicago Tribune by prominent columnist Joan Beck. First, she argued for early childhood education because “[h]alf of adult intellectual capacity is already present by age 4 and 80 percent by age 8… the opportunity to influence [a child’s] basic intelligence ­– considered to be a stable characteristic by age 17 – is greatest in early life.” Two years later, in another article, she said the earliest years of life can make a permanent difference in the lifelong level of a person’s intelligence: “It’s not just that the child will learn more. It’s that his brain actually will have more neurons and interconnections so it will become more intelligent and more capable of learning and thinking for the rest of life.”[3]

But Joan Beck was wrong about early stimulation, both for intellectual development and for the development of the brain. Regarding intellectual development, Beck based her statements about half of intellectual capacity or learning on research by Benjamin Bloom in 1964.[4] But Bloom did not show that half of one’s intellect was achieved by age four. Rather, he argued that IQ at age four was correlated .7 with IQ at age 17. This means that almost half (.7 squared, or 49%) of the variance among a group of 17-year-olds’ IQ scores could be predicted from their group of scores at age four. But the ability to predict half of the variability among a group of people’s IQ scores is a long way from the idea that half of an individual’s IQ is developed by age four. Furthermore, it does not necessarily say anything about intelligence. That prediction could be due to internal factors such as the child’s intelligence, but it could just as well be due to external factors, such as parental styles, schools, or socio-economic level.

In fact, developing half of one’s intellectual capacity is not even conceptually possible because, for one thing, there is no universal understanding of what “intelligence” is. Further, even if we could agree on what “intelligence” is, there is no such thing as “half of one’s intellect” because no one knows what 0 or 100 percent intelligence is. Without knowing the beginning and end of something, we can’t know when we have half of it.

Regarding the unique importance of early childhood brain stimulation for intellectual development, for over a decade the James S. McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis has supported extensive research in neuroscience. In 1999, John Bruer, President of the Foundation, wrote a book in which he explains that the findings of neuroscience do not support the claims made about early stimulation of infants and children under three years of age and their brain development.[5] Earlier, Bruer discussed major misconceptions that educators have of brain science. For instance:

(a) Claim: Enriched early childhood environments cause synapses to multiply rapidly. Bruer states, “What little direct evidence we have – all based on studies of monkeys – indicates these claims are inaccurate…. The rate of synaptic formation and synaptic density seems to be impervious to quantity of stimulation. …Early experience does not cause synapses to form rapidly. Early enriched environments will not put our children on synaptic fast tracks.”

(b) Claim: More synapses mean more brainpower. Bruer states, “The neuroscientific evidence does not support this claim, either…. Synaptic densities at birth and in early adulthood are approximately the same, yet by any measure adults are more intelligent, have more highly flexible behavior, and learn more rapidly than infants.”[6]

While brain science has the potential to help us understand human learning, it does not offer evidence-based information to guide education in the classroom.

More recently, in a 2007 update of that position, Bruer and his colleague Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek reported the outcomes of a meeting of a distinguished international group of neuroscientists and cognitive scientists convened at the University of Chile in Santiago for a conference on Early Education and Human Brain Development. During the meeting it became clear that, while brain science has the potential to help us understand human learning, it does not offer evidence-based information to guide education in the classroom.[7]

To make this point about brain science in a strong voice, the participants drafted the Santiago Declaration (presently available at the McDonnell Foundation’s website, www.jsmf.org/declaration). The Declaration lists several principles about education on which there was consensus among the participants, concluding with this statement: “The principles enunciated above are based primarily on findings from social and behavioral research, not brain research. Neuroscientific research, at this stage in its development, does not offer scientific guidelines for policy, practice, or parenting.”

The Intergenerational Transfer of Literacy

Importantly for adult education and literacy educators, in his 1999 book Bruer makes the policy argument that, with a better understanding of the limitations of present day neuroscience for understanding education, “[w]e might question the prudence of decreasing expenditures for adult education or special education on the grounds that a person’s intellectual and emotional course is firmly set during the early years.”[8]

Consistent with Bruer’s point of view, I have for some years been struck by the many data sets that indicate the strong relationship between parents’ education level and their children’s achievement in literacy. In 1983, I argued that a body of research existed to suggest that more highly educated parents transmit literacy intergenerationally via oral language skills and the modeling of literacy skills. Therefore, if we could find ways to provide education for adults, we might get double value from education dollars because investing in the education of adults could improve the educability of their children. I have referred to this as getting “double duty dollars” when investing in adult education. We pay for the adults’ education, and we get improved education for both the adults and their children.[9]

More recent research studies have confirmed the importance of the intergenerational transfer effects of parents’ education levels on children’s literacy achievement.[10] According to Feinstein and associates, in a 2004 report from the Center for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning in London, “The intergenerational transmission of educational success is a key driver of the persistence of social class differences and a barrier to equality of opportunity…. Parental beliefs, values, aspirations and attitudes (termed here ‘cognitions’) are very important, as is parental well-being. …Parenting skills in terms of warmth, discipline and educational behaviours are all major factors in the formation of school success.…We conclude that the intergenerational transmission of educational success is a key element in equality of opportunity. There are substantial benefits of education that accrue to individuals and society in terms of what education enables parents to pass on to their children.”

As it turns out, what many have considered to be the long-term cost-beneficial effects of educating children in early childhood education programs may actually have been the results that the programs had on educating the children’s parents.

It is not only parents’ education level that can have an intergenerational transfer of literacy effect. Their measured levels of basic skills also influence this transfer. Augustin De Coulon and associates reported, “The impact of parents’ basic skills on children’s cognitive outcomes is positive and highly significant…. This relationship holds even when we allow for the myriad of other factors that also influence child development, including parental qualification levels and parental ability. This means that parents’ basic skills have a positive impact on their children’s cognitive skills, regardless of the education level and early ability of the parent…. The intergenerational transfer of basic skills is always significant, and it is particularly large for parents with low levels of qualifications.”[11]

Early Childhood Education as Adult Education

Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman, in an interview in 2005 at the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, argued against universal preschool and in favour of focusing preschool programs on disadvantaged children. Asked whether public funding should go for universal early childhood programs or for at-risk children, he pointed out that the evidence is very strong that family background is a major predictor of children’s future behaviour. Because a disproportionate number of problem kids come from disadvantaged families, Heckman said, “[t]he simple economics of intervention…suggests that society should focus its investment where it’s likely to have very high returns. Right now, that is the disadvantaged population. It is foolish to try to substitute for what the middle-class and upper-middle-class parents are already doing.”

As it turns out, what many have considered to be the long-term cost-beneficial effects of educating children in early childhood education programs may actually have been the results that the programs had on educating the children’s parents. Robert G. Lynch, of the Economic Policy Institute, in citing research on the importance of preschool programs, noted in 2004 that many early childhood education programs also provide adult education and parenting classes.[12] This suggests that perhaps a significant percentage of the benefits these preschool programs produce might result from the effects of their parenting and literacy education activities for adults.

This idea is supported in The Obama Education Plan: An Education Week Guide, compiled by the staff of the Education Week newspaper. In the chapter on early childhood education, the position is taken that many of the benefits measured in longitudinal studies of early childhood programs appear to reflect, at least to a certain degree, the effects on the parenting behaviours of parents whose children participated in these programs. In this chapter, Lawrence Schweinhart – one of the developers of the well-known Perry Preschool program, which is generally cited as evidence for the cost-benefits of early childhood education – says, “All the programs in the long-term studies worked with parents. In fact, in the High/Scope Perry Preschool program, teachers spent half their work time engaged in such activities.”[13] Clearly, this strongly suggests that much, if not most, of the success of early childhood, preschool programs depends on adult education to improve the skills and knowledge of parents.

Frederick Morrison and colleagues conducted an extensive review of research on childcare and preschool, which led them to question the effectiveness of both childcare and preschool programs that do not focus on improving parenting skills. Concerning childcare, they say, “Overall, parenting appears to be a more important source of influence on children’s development than is childcare. …high-quality childcare will not offset the negative effect of poor parenting, and poor-quality childcare will not prevent success for children with effective parents.”[14]

Poorly educated children are the source of adult functional illiteracy, and functionally illiterate adults are the source of poorly educated children.

Given this emerging understanding of the role of parents in such programs, it seems reasonable to consider that many of the long-term changes in children following their participation in early childhood education result from changes in their very highly disadvantaged parents. This would help explain why a generally short-term education program for children could sustain them through primary, middle, secondary school, and into adulthood long after they had completed preschool. It would also help explain why such programs are likely to have a greater effect on disadvantaged families than on more highly advantaged families who, as Heckman said, already do what preschools teach parents to do.

From Parents to Progeny: Toward a Multiple Life Cycles Education Policy

Given the important intergenerational effects of parents’ education level on the achievement of their children, I believe we need to shift our education policies from a focus on one life cycle to a focus on “multiple life cycles” education. Such a policy would explicitly recognize that adults transfer their educational achievements to the achievement of their children.

It would also recognize that adult education should be valued as much as is early childhood education, and that nations should provide adult education systems on a par with children’s education systems. Poorly educated children are the source of adult functional illiteracy, and functionally illiterate adults are the source of poorly educated children.

Perhaps through education based on a Multiple Life Cycles policy, in which children are guaranteed a right to educated parents, the vicious intergenerational cycles of functional illiteracy can be stopped at both sources.

EN BREF – Compte tenu des importants effets intergénérationnels du niveau d’instruction des parents sur la réussite de leurs enfants, les politiques d’éducation devraient mettre l’accent sur les « cycles multiples de vie » plutôt que sur un seul cycle de vie, reconnaissant explicitement que les adultes transfèrent leurs réalisations en éducation au succès scolaire de leurs enfants. De telles politiques affirmeraient également que l’éducation des adultes devrait être aussi valorisée que l’éducation de la petite enfance et que les nations devraient offrir des systèmes d’éducation autant aux adultes qu’aux enfants. Une mauvaise instruction des jeunes est à la source de l’analphabétisme fonctionnelle des adultes, et les adultes analphabètes sont à la source des enfants mal instruits. Grâce à une instruction fondée sur une politique de cycles multiples de vie garantissant aux enfants le droit à des parents instruits, il pourrait être possible de faire cesser aux deux sources le cercle vicieux intergénérationnel de l’analphabétisme.

[1] Kevin Sack, “Gift of $100 Million Planned to Aid Literacy in Mississippi,” The New York Times (January 20, 2000).

[2] The Headline News web page of the National Adult Literacy Database (NALD), October 4, 2006 www.nald.ca

[3] Reprinted in the San Diego Union, 13 October 1991 and 21 April 1993.

[4] B. Bloom, Stability and Change in Human Characteristics (New York: Wiley, 1964).

[5] John Bruer, The Myth of the First Three Years (New York, The Free Press, 1999).

[6] John Bruer, “Education and the Brain: A Bridge Too Far,” Educational Researcher 26, no. 8 (1997): 4-16.

[7] Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek and John Bruer, “The Brain/Education Barrier,” Science 317 (7 September 2007): 1293.

[8] Bruer, 1999, 26.

[9] Thomas G. Sticht, Literacy and Human Resources Development at Work: Investing in the Education of Adults to Improve the Educability of Children (Alexandria, VA: Human Resources Research Organization, 1983).

[10] L. Feinstein, K. Duckworth, and R. Sabates, A Model of the Inter-Generational Transmission of Educational Success (London: Center for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning, 2004); A. De Coulon, E. Meschi, and A. Vignoles, Research Note: Parent’s Basic Skills and Their Children’s Test Scores (London: Institute of Education, National Research and Development Center for Adult Literacy and Numeracy, May 2008).

[11] DeCoulon, Meschi, and Vignoles.

[12] R. Lynch, Exceptional Returns: Economic, Fiscal, and Social Benefits of Investment in Early Childhood Development (Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute, 2004), www.epinet.org; F. Morrison, H. Bachman, and C. Connor, Improving Literacy in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005).

[13] The OBAMA Education Plan: An Education Week Guide (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009), 23.

[14] Frederick Morrison, Heather Bachman, and Carol Connor, Improving Literacy in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 48-49.

Meet the Expert(s)

Thomas G. Sticht

Thomas G. Sticht is an International Consultant in Adult Education, a 2003 recipient of UNESCO’s Mahatma Gandhi Medal for his work in adult literacy, and has taught at Harvard University and the University of British Columbia.

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