Despite its promise, Even Start didn't work, at least not according to researchers funded by the Education Department who found in 2003 that parents and children gained no more literacy skills after a year than did a control group. Obama invoked these findings in targeting the program for elimination in 2010. (Congress hasn't held a final vote on his proposal.)
The demand for accountability from Even Start suggests that the Obama administration will seek similar evidence that other parent-involvement policies are working. "I am a deep believer in the power of data to drive our decisions," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a speech in June. "It tells us where we are, where we need to go, and who is most at risk."
He announced that his department is launching a survey to measure levels of parent and family involvement in education nationally.
But what educators need more urgently is hard evidence of what kinds of support make the most difference. There are some promising places to look.
Joyce Epstein, a sociologist who directs the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University, has helped low-income schools raise student achievement by involving both parents and local institutions in learning. "You don't have to give parents a college education," Epstein said. "You just have to give them a strategy for having an interesting conversation with their third-grader about a book they're reading even if the parents haven't read the book."
The New York City Department of Education's Office of Family Engagement has involved large numbers of parents by holding workshops early in the morning and on weekends, when parents who work multiple jobs are free. They also provide translators in more than a dozen languages and classes on how to advocate for one's child and how to help children of every age in every subject.
There are many such strategies that the government could subject to rigorous examination and guide districts on how to implement those that bring results. Rather than chanting the familiar mantra that parental involvement helps students, it is time to tackle the reasons the current approach isn't working for everyone and seize this opportunity to lower the tall barriers to achievement facing low-income children.
Dale Russakoff is a freelance writer in Montclair, N.J. A longer version of this article appeared in the Foundation for Child Development's annual report, "How do families matter?" http://www.fcd-us.org/about/about_