Today's date:
Winter 1993

Education and Repairing the Family

Bill Clinton - President of the United States
The greatest problem that Americans face today is not drugs or even atrophy of our public institutions. It is the dramatic alteration in relationships between parents and children. Because of this, our first goal must be to help parents succeed, and when they fail, to save as many children as we can.

Unfortunately, improving school performance of poor kids from disadvantaged homes has proven more difficult than most of us expected. Our civil rights laws, which helped give equal opportunities to so many blacks, also led to an exodus from the inner city of the strongest, healthiest black families that once served as role models for their troubled neighbors.

Divorce rates and out-of-wedlock birth rates for people at risk-those living in depressed rural areas and minorities living in the inner city-have been exacerbated. Further, we have an unconscionable infant mortality rate: It is insane for a country of our level of wealth to have only the 19th lowest infant mortality rate. And we also have large numbers of babies born with low birth weight and kids born with diminished capacities. When diminished capacity is combined with diminished support, we have a prescription for social and educational failure, disorganization and dislocation. Young people are growing up in conditions that weaken their motivation, their capacity to learn, their concern for others and their belief in the future.

Congress now requires every state to provide maternal and child health - from pregnancy to age five- for mothers whose incomes are below 133 percent of the federal poverty level. This is a good start, but it is not enough. We must also support parenting by providing preschool programs and then a supportive school environment.

Every state should have a policy of imposing some personal responsibility on parents. Whenever that is not possible, we must find an adult that children can relate to as a person, not necessarily as a teacher or authority figure. People who grew up in difficult circumstances and yet are successful have one thing in common: at a critical juncture in their early adolescence, they had a positive relationship with a caring adult. The "Turning Points" report of the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, of which I was a member, made this insight the cornerstone of junior high school reform.

Arkansas now has more than 2,400 families involved in a project called "HIPPY"- Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters. The project utilizes simple workbooks to enable disadvantaged parents to teach their children basic concepts: big and small, open and shut, bright and dark, left and right, as well as colors, the alphabet, shapes, numbers and basic reasoning skills.

For 20 minutes each day, the mother sits with the child and goes through the workbook-more time than most middle-class parents spend with their children. Then, every week a HIPPY worker- often a paraprofessional who may have been a HIPPY mother herself at one time - visits to see how the week's instruction went and to plan the next weeks program. A mother who has no education can still be taught to read well enough to prepare her child to go to kindergarten.

After 16 months of HIPPY, participating children showed learning gains Of 33 months. Last year, only six percent of the kids tested average or above average going into the program and at the end of the year, 74 percent tested average or above average. In one project, 18 of the 39 participating welfare mothers enrolled in education courses for themselves after the first year. The HIPPY program builds in its own follow-up by changing the parent into the child's first teacher, which is what every parent should be.

We should also address the difficulties of business and move ahead with a national parental leave policy; people should be able to get off work not only when they have babies but when their children are sick or are in trouble at school, or if there is a school event where parents should be. If the private sector cannot afford to accommodate good, strong parenting policies, then there is something wrong with the free enterprise system.

An adult literacy program would also help our at-risk children by guaranteeing more self-confident parents who could have greater involvement in their children's learning, creating an education ethic in their homes as they begin to learn to read.

Adult literacy would also inevitably raise productivity of factories and small businesses while increasing employees' ability to participate in company training, community college, or vocational-technical programs. Eighty percent of the work force in the year 2000 is already there. The most immediate way to raise per capita income in America would be to teach everybody now employed to read at the high-school level.

A community necessarily implies obligations as well as rights. I believe that the future of the Democratic Party depends on its ability to articulate a set of policies that not only embody values that we all share, but impose responsibilities on the beneficiaries of our support programs.

In France, for example, all families-even middle-class families- receive a parenting allowance. However, to get the allowance mothers must check in regularly with their doctor and follow a rigorous health program to prepare them to have and care for healthy babies. This program increases both their sense of responsibility and their effectiveness as parents. In the US, when people on welfare become pregnant we should also require that in return for receiving benefits they comply with basic health requirements -see a doctor in the first trimester, follow-up the visits throughout the pregnancy, and then participate in some of our literacy and preschool programs. Perhaps participation in a HIPPY-type program should be mandatory.

Finally, there has to be some responsibility on the part of the student. The dropout rate dropped 30 percent in West Virginia when they started revoking driver's licenses of dropouts. We undersell children when we assume they are not capable of taking responsibility for themselves by understanding the consequences of their actions.

The US has a lousy system for youth who don't go to college. For these kids, we need to use government incentives to integrate school with work. In Arkansas, we are developing just such a program, encouraging companies to establish part-time paid apprenticeships for youth still in high school. These apprenticeships should not just be for careers in the crafts, but for the more highly skilled service and technical careers for which a good high school education should prepare the non-college bound.

The worst way to fill the minimum wage, dead-end, no-skill jobs we've been creating in the last decade is with high-school students and dropouts. In today's system, when employers hire students for jobs that the students certainly won't hold after high school, employers have no involvement at all in the students' education. For the students' part, if there is any incentive, it is to take the easier courses so as to have more time to work to make car payments and buy clothes. Even though working students learn how to show up on time and, in many cases, deal with the public, it is not worth the cost of being stuck in a minimum wage job with no career path.

Those minimum-wage jobs could be filled by college students working part time, elderly people supplementing social security or pensions, or immigrants seeking a foothold in their new world. If a youth is going to work while in high school, they should be working for an employer who will hire them after graduation for a job where they can continue their education and look forward to growing income. This would give the employer an interest in the student while in school, and may even encourage them to take the more difficult courses.

We need political support for school reform and for involving business and social services in public schools. How people feel about these programs is a function of how they feel about themselves as citizens. If they see themselves as part of the larger community, whether it is a church, a city or a club, they are more likely to be supportive of education reform. To believe in the education enterprise, we must believe that we cannot pursue our individual interest independent of others' interests.

America's economic revival depends on our ability to recreate a sense of community. There is no point to supporting education reform and long-term investment policies unless we believe that the stock broker in New York, the farmer in Iowa and the accountant in California are bound together in a common purpose. We have got to believe there is a role for government in solving common problems. We have got to believe that if the government acts on behalf of individuals who are themselves disabled or irresponsible, those individuals must then learn to take responsibility for themselves-or have it imposed upon them. We must also believe that all children can learn if they have supportive early childhood experiences. So, we must believe in repairing the family and, when we can't do that, in trying to substitute for it the best we can.


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