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Changing the Odds for Children at Risk: Seven Essential Principles of Educational Programs That Break the Cycle of Poverty

reviewed by Taniesha A. Woods - July 06, 2010

coverTitle: Changing the Odds for Children at Risk: Seven Essential Principles of Educational Programs That Break the Cycle of Poverty
Author(s): Susan B. Neuman
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807750484, Pages: 240, Year: 2009
Search for book at Amazon.com

Changing the Odds for Children at Risk: Seven Essential Principles of Educational Programs That Break the Cycle of Poverty by Susan Neuman is especially timely given the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and what appears to be the law’s renewed focus on early childhood education. An important lesson learned from the implementation of NCLB is that when accountability systems are situated in a high-stakes environment where outcomes are tied to significant sanctions or rewards, there is generally less focus on improvement efforts (e.g., improved teaching or learning), and instead the main focus is on producing positive results. In Changing the Odds for Children at Risk, Neuman provides a thoughtful analysis of how high-quality early childhood interventions that are proven effective can improve the learning outcomes of poor children, shape family interactions, and effect community change.   

A useful way to think about the organization of Changing the Odds for Children at Risk is that the book consists of four main sections. The first section includes the Introduction and Chapter 1 and introduces readers to the problem that Neuman sees in early childhood intervention programs that serve poor children and their families. Neuman then highlights the seven principles that she has generally found in effective early childhood interventions. In the second section of the book, Chapters 2 and 3, Neuman lays out the research methodology for evaluating early childhood interventions’ effectiveness, and she discusses the evidence base for the seven essential principles found in effective programs. In the third section of the book, Chapters 4 through 7, Neuman provides concrete examples and findings from studies of specific early childhood interventions. In the fourth and final section, Chapter 8 and the appendices, Neuman draws on evidence presented in earlier chapters and provides research and policy recommendations for how to improve the effectiveness of early childhood interventions. In the following paragraphs, I provide a more detailed description of these sections, and I discuss the implications of Neuman’s analysis and recommendations.  

The Introductory chapter, which provides an overview of the premise of the book, suggests that funding for early childhood interventions should be prioritized so that these limited dollars go to programs that are proven effective, and Neuman presents the seven principles found in programs that work (I will talk more about these principles later). Chapter 1 establishes the importance of the earliest years, and presents evidence from research on child development and neuroscience that focuses on children’s lives, beginning with the prenatal period. Children’s brain development and significant changes in its structure and capacity are related to genetic and environmental stimuli, and for infants from poor families living in environments that are stressful with parents who may receive little support, and thus, themselves are stressed, the outcomes, though not immutable, are typically not good. “Disrupted parenting or otherwise negative environmental circumstances of extreme poverty and neglect may expose children to circumstances that one might euphemistically call ‘canaries in the mineshaft’ – early warnings of serious problems to come” (p. 9). Neuman also acknowledges the work of Bronfenbrenner which shows that multiple layers in children’s environments shape their development.  

In the second section of the book, Neuman indicates that effective intervention programs can improve the learning and developmental outcomes of poor children, positively influence family interactions, and effect community change. She then provides a thoughtful analysis of how high-quality early childhood interventions are proven effective. One of the most important chapters of the book is Chapter 2, which suggests that poor policy implementation, rather than a lack of funding, is the reason that early childhood and K – 12 intervention programs have not reduced the achievement gap between the rich and poor, and children of color and whites. “The problem is not funding. Since 1965, federal spending on K – 12 education has ballooned from slightly more than $9 billion to nearly $68 billion. The problem is poor policy implementation” (p. 27). In Chapter 2, Neuman also states that indicators or benchmarks which provide immediate and consistent feedback as part of results-based accountability are necessary for improvement efforts. And, these indicators should account for the unique contexts in which intervention programs take place, children’s individual variation, and their environments to fully understand whether programs are effective or not. In the remainder of the chapter, Neuman describes research methodology, including randomized control trials, descriptive studies, such as qualitative analyses, case studies, and formative experiments that can be used to assess the evidence of results. Further, although randomized control trials are often considered the “gold standard” for program evaluation, there are times when they may not be appropriate or sufficient. Thus, other research methods, including what Neuman describes as the formative experiment, which I found quite compelling, should be seriously considered for evaluating early childhood intervention programs. In part, I found this methodology compelling because it is complementary to formative assessment. Formative assessment is the process by which the teacher gains insight about the child’s learning and thinking, and uses this information to guide instruction (Ginsburg, 1997; National Research Council, 2009). Major methods of formative assessment include everyday observations, tasks, and interviews.  Similar to the formative assessment, the formative experiment is designed to move beyond a sole reliance on standardized testing methods, and it includes multiple indicators of whether an intervention program is effective. Additionally, Neuman notes that the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) out of the Office of Management and Budget provides information about early childhood intervention programs’ effectiveness. In Chapter 3, Neuman describes the evidence base for early childhood intervention programs and discusses in detail the seven principles necessary for early intervention programs to be effective. The seven principles range from the need for intervention programs to actively target the neediest children to the implementation of results-based accountability systems. The chapter also provides a listing of programs with a strong evidence base as well as those with a promising evidence base, ranging from the Abecedarian Project to Oklahoma Pre-K.  

The third section of the book, Chapters 4 through 7, highlight specific early intervention programs that focus on strengthening families, high-quality early care and education, community-based, and after-school programs, and this section serves as a primer on the multitude of early childhood intervention programs that exist. Neuman artfully describes the programs’ history, purposes, challenges to implementation, and whether they have been found effective. For example, she talks about the findings of the Nurse-Family Partnership Program, where nurses trained in prenatal care, visit the homes of vulnerable, first-time mothers before and after the birth of their children. These visits provide mothers with health information and an opportunity for a consistent relationship with someone who is genuinely concerned about their well-being. Using the story of a nurse and struggling soon-to-be mom in Detroit as the backdrop, Neuman brings “reality” to the reader as she shows how evidence-based early intervention programs are implemented and what they look like in practice.  

In the fourth section of Neuman’s book, she discusses policy and research recommendations that are meant to ensure that young children and their families participate in high-quality early intervention programs that are proven to work. In addition to drawing on the evidence presented in earlier chapters, some of the recommendations in Chapter 8 are informed by the appendices. The appendices give suggestions for where to find evidence on program effectiveness and orient readers to the complexity in the early childhood system by listing programs housed in the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.     

Overall, Neuman’s thought-provoking book leaves readers with insights and critiques, especially in the context of the upcoming ESEA reauthorization. One argument presented in the book that I am especially intrigued by is the notion that early childhood accountability systems should include progress monitoring and quality improvement mechanisms. Neuman states, “Some scholars believe that accountability must include consequences – both sanctions and rewards…Such “high-stakes” accountability mechanisms, I believe, are not in our best interests. Rather, accountability is about making the process of teaching and learning a transparent and dynamic one, engaging everyone as a community in continuous improvement. It should not to be used as a crude evaluation tool for teachers or children” (pp. 69-71). Currently, Quality Rating Improvement Systems (QRIS) exist in 20 states, and these systems are supposed to provide supports for on-going professional development and quality improvements in early care and education programs (Child Trends, 2010; Smith & Kreader, 2010). QRIS are a potential policy lever that might be useful in translating some of Neuman’s ideas into practice.

Despite the overall quality of Changing the Odds for Children at Risk, there are specific weaknesses to some of the arguments presented. For example, in Chapter 2 Neuman suggests that federal spending is the main driver of public education, but evidence shows that school districts with higher property values have more funding for their public schools (Darling-Hammond, 2007).  From this evidence it follows that low achievement outcomes are not simply a matter of poor policy implementation, but that disparities in funding are also problematic. Although there has been an increase in federal spending on public education, these dollars only account for 10.5% of funding, and public education is viewed as primarily the responsibility of local and state authorities (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). Making equitable funding a reality for all children is a complex structural issue that will need to be addressed beyond the scope of early childhood intervention policies.

In addition, Neuman provides suggestions for quality improvements in early childhood intervention programs with her seven principles, but she suggests that these improvements take place in the context of a high-stakes, result-oriented framework where programs found to be ineffective lose their funding. “A focus on results unveils—perhaps for the first time—the sheer number of ineffective programs that are continually funded despite countless evaluations indicating little or no impact on achievement” (p. 28). In a high-stakes environment, instructional practices tend to be more aligned with desired outcomes, where teachers “teach to the test,” rather than promoting improvements in instruction or children’s learning and attitudes about self-efficacy (Meisels, 2007).  Neuman’s position is problematic because the inputs that support children and families in these programs receive less attention, and instead the focus is on outcomes that prove effectiveness, and thus, rich experiences that promote a positive approach to learning may be lost. I do not mean to suggest that early childhood accountability systems are all bad, in fact,I believe they are necessary, and the program evaluation methodology discussed in Chapter 2 may mitigate some of the issues found in a high-stakes environment.  However, this is a complicated issue with no easy answers, and there is room for improvement in the recommendations Neuman offers.  

Finally, Neuman does not address the consequences of shutting down early childhood intervention programs for the children and families served by them. A recent National Research Council report (2008) suggests using extreme caution when considering shutting down early childhood programs because there is a possibility for unintended consequences that can be worse for children than leaving the programs open. Realistic alternatives are necessary if an ineffective child care program, for example, is to be shut down; otherwise children will have no place to go and parents will not be able to work.  

Taken as a whole, Changing the Odds for Children at Risk is a must read for Congressional staff and policymakers, early childhood policy advocates, and lobbyists as they work on the reauthorization of ESEA, and for early childhood researchers who will benefit from the research ideas and policy debates that arise from Neuman’s well-informed analysis and recommendations. Though Neuman’s recommendations are not unequivocal answers on how to improve early learning outcomes for poor children, they provide a thoughtful and promising starting point. Changing the Odds for Children at Risk also clearly shows Neuman’s passion about these issues from both a personal and professional standpoint, and her extensive experience conducting early childhood education research and policy work, both of which are essential for promoting policy change.


Child Trends. (2010, May). Quality rating and improvement systems for early care and education. (Vol. 1, No. 1). Washington, DC.  

Darling-Hammond, L. (2007). The flat earth and education: How America’s commitment to

equity will determine our future. Educational Researcher, 36 (6), 318-334.

Ginsburg, H. P. (1997). Entering the child’s mind: The clinical interview in psychological research and practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.    

Meisels, S. J. (2007). Accountability in early childhood: No easy answers. In R. C. Pianta, M. J. Cox, & K. L. Snow (Eds.), School readiness and the transition to kindergarten in the era of accountability (pp. 31 – 47). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.  

National Research Council. (2008). Early childhood assessment: Why, what, and how. Committee on Developmental Outcomes and Assessments for Young Children, Catherine E. Snow and Susan B. Van Hamel, Editors. Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Board on Testing and Assessment, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2009). Mathematics learning in early childhood: Paths toward excellence and equity. Committee on Early Childhood Mathematics, Christopher T. Cross, Taniesha A. Woods, and Heidi Schweingruber, Editors. Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Smith, S. and Kreader, J. L. (2010, June). Quality assistance activities aligned with quality rating improvement systems: Results of a National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) survey. Symposium conducted at the meeting of the National Association for the Education of Young Children Professional Development Institute, Phoenix, AZ.

United States Department of Education. (n.d.). The Federal role in education. Retrieved June  30, 2010 from http://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/fed/role.html?src=ln

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 06, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16056, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 1:57:21 PM

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About the Author
  • Taniesha Woods
    Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    TANIESHA A. WOODS is a Senior Research Associate at the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Her research focuses on the promotion of young children’s intellectual development, early childhood mathematics teaching and learning, professional development for early childhood teachers and care providers, and equitable education policy. Currently, Woods is director and co-principal investigator of the Pathways to Early School Success: Building State and Local Capacity project. Her recent publications include Promoting the Social-emotional Wellbeing of Infants and Toddlers in Early Intervention Programs: Promising Strategies in Four Communities (2010) and she co-edited Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood: Paths Toward Excellence and Equity (2009). Previously, Woods served as a Society for Research in Child Development-American Association for the Advancement of Science Congressional Fellow and she was a study director at the National Academy of Sciences.
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