During his State of the Union Address a few weeks ago, President Obama proposed a huge expansion to state-provided preschool education and early education programs, such as Early Head Start and home visiting. The feasibility of getting these costly improvements through the current Congressional climate notwithstanding, it’s great stuff. If we can ensure quality — and that’s a big IF — the long-term benefits could outweigh the costs by as much as 7 to 1.
I’m discouraged, though, that our national conversation keeps focusing almost exclusively on educational settings, which, let’s face it, seem to be in constant need of reform precisely because we do have so much trouble ensuring quality, especially when it comes to educating poor children. I’m frustrated that we keep overlooking the crucial role of parents in educating their children. I’m not alone. A big percentage of the comments posted online to articles about how to solve our poverty and achievement-gap problems point this out.
What the average person knows (and the average policymaker fails to grasp) is that parents are on this earth to provide more than any program or even school ever can — namely, the love, family routines, and life-long bonds that children need to thrive. Politician and pundit Sarah Palin once coined the term “Mamma Grizzlies” to describe how mothers care for their children, but I think we’re more like hawks. Moms provide the nest and we watch, watch, watch every move our chicks make, swooping in to provide love, address danger, and ensure they are getting what they need to venture out of the nest eventually. That’s how it’s supposed to work anyway, and it would work that way — for all mothers — if we started thinking in terms of BOTH tangible and tangential supports. Tangential supports, like those proposed by the President, allocate the bulk of the money to train and pay third parties — like home visitors and teachers — to help parents raise their children. Tangible support give resources — like post-secondary education and money — directly to parents to apply directly to their family well-being.
In the age of welfare reform, we are allowed to talk about the tangential, but not the tangible because the myth of the welfare queen has poisoned our ability to discuss the tangible. That’s a shame, because as a middle-class mom I can tell you that the tangible dominates and leverages the tangential when it comes to raising academically successful children. If my kids need something like a quiet, well-equipped place to study, I AM the change. I use my education and money to come up with what they need. And if third parties like teachers aren’t doing their part, then I MAKE the change. I lobby the school to address their needs specifically and, if necessary, I buy additional or new educational services. Contrary to that welfare-queen myth, lots of poor moms do these same things, but their capacity and options are so much more limited than those of rich moms, and the stress they face while doing so is so much higher. We could fix this, but, first, we have to put the role of parents back into the national conversation.