The Parent Education Game: The Politics of Child Psychology in the 1970s

by Steven L. Schlossman - 1978

This essay is a critical overview of the ideology, politics, and implications of recent federal initiatives in parent education. (Source: ERIC)

This paper is part of a larger study, under the sponsorship of the Childhood and Government Project, Boalt Law School, University of California, Berkeley, on the relationship of the state to children and families. For enthusiastic discussion of the themes contained herein, I wish to thank especially W. Norton Grubb of Berkeley and Alison Clarke-Stewart of Chicago. Responsibility for errors in fact or interpretation is, of course, my own.

This essay is a critical overview of the ideology, politics, and implications of recent federal initiatives in parent education. The essay is in two main parts. Part one examines the intellectual and political context in which federal programs first emerged in the early 1970s; part two analyzes two of these programs, less to evaluate their immediate impact than to critique their original design. My goals are to explain why parent education has become so popular a tool of social reform, and to point up the inherent weaknesses of parent education programs as vehicles for social change.


For many academics and child development "experts" in Washington, parent education became the social panacea of the 1970s. Particularly at the Office of Child Development (OCD) and the Office of Education (OE), parent education was acclaimed as the most effective method yet devised to equalize educational opportunity for children of the poor. Moreover, it was also asserted that parent education would add new dignity to the domestic pursuits of the everyday citizen-mother, whose role was being debunked in the woman's movement. Parent education was therefore doubly valuable: It would "save the children" (to use the old rallying cry of the Children's Bureau) and, at the same time, conserve and upbuild the family. To comprehend the growing appeal of parent education, however, we need to look beyond the particular objectives of diverse programs and examine, more generally, the political viability of the parent education concept at a particular moment in time. In this regard it is instructive to compare parent education with its immediate predecessor in the sympathies of child development experts: compensatory education, best represented by Head Start, and, to a lesser extent, "developmental" day care.1

At first glance, programs in parent education appear to derive quite naturally from the oft-expressed concern in the 1960s for "parent involvement" and "parent input" in all aspects of education.2 A noteworthy feature of Head Start (and of some day care centers), for example, was that at all stages of design and implementation funding was contingent on consultation with parents; in addition, parents were often integrated into advisory and instructional roles. The appearance of continuity is, however, deceiving. Recent enthusiasm for parent education is better understood in political terms as more a rejection of, than an evolution from, 1960s compensatory education.

Programs in compensatory education and parent education are both conceived, in equal measure, as strategies of child development and poverty prevention. Their ultimate goals are similar: Each seeks to remove handicaps to school learning acquired in early childhood that, it is assumed, are largely responsible for the educational and occupational failure poor children commonly experience.3 In spite of this similarity, each educational strategy proposes a fundamentally different method of eliminating childhood handicaps. Parent education represents what can be termed a "facilitative" solution; compensatory education represents, by contrast, an "interventionist" solution. In the former the policy focus is on poverty parents rather than on their children. Parents become the principal agents of educational change: Mothers learn scientifically approved child-rearing techniques so that they can raise their children to compete on equal intellectual terms with middle-class youth. The facilitative approach, then, is parent centered and home based. The interventionist strategy, on the other hand, is child centered and center based. Poor children are the direct recipients of supplementary education, provided in new learning environments, and designed to compensate for their relative (and continuing) intellectual deprivation at home.

I do not draw these distinctions in order to argue for the inherent superiority of one or the other strategy in equalizing educational opportunity. It is still much too early to judge—despite the confident assertions of many psychologists—whether either approach is dramatically more effective in the long run, or, indeed, whether either produces any significant impact on adult intellectual or occupational achievements. But these distinctions are nonetheless important for their political implications. Consider the following. When, early in the Nixon administration, the much-heralded compensatory programs of the 1960s were widely attacked as failures, the burden of blame fell primarily on the programs' inadequacies. The squandering and insufficiency of financial resources and the insensitivity of pedagogical theories and methods were the aspects most criticized. Blame, in short, rested mainly with the programs themselves; the clientele (the children) were seen as innocent victims of academic and bureaucratic bungling in theory, design, and implementation. If, however, ongoing programs in parent education are similarly adjudged failures in the future (a result, I shall argue, that is almost inevitable), the conclusion about who is primarily to blame will surely be different. These programs, after all, view poverty mothers rather than professional educators as the critical agents in developing their children's intellectual potential. How well or poorly mothers stimulate their children's minds daily at home becomes the key variable in explaining the children's later success or failure in school and work. Parent education programs thereby shift the burden of accountability for failure from the government-sponsored professional educator to the poverty parent. In William Ryan's terms, they sharply increase the likelihood of "blaming the victim" in rationalizing the inability of federal programs to equalize educational opportunity.4

For these reasons, I believe, the shift in emphasis from compensatory education to parent education should be viewed primarily in terms of its political implications. Washington child development experts, assisted by some of the nation's leading psychologists, successfully promoted an educational "reform" which had the effect of diminishing government responsibility for future failure. In retrospect, perhaps, this change in strategy is not very surprising. The compensatory programs of the 1960s, after all, had made politicians and child development specialists unusually vulnerable to criticism and directly accountable for the scientific validity of their proposals. The parent education programs of the 1970s, on the other hand, decentralized responsibility for educational outcomes by isolating poverty mothers as the principal agents of change. From a political standpoint, then—without ascribing specific motivation to any of the key decision makers—the switch from compensatory education to parent education represented "smart" social policy indeed.

It is one thing to point up the political attractiveness of parent education, quite another to trace the process by which parent education replaced compensatory education as the preferred national policy for equalizing opportunity among children of the poor. Washington's growing preference for parent education can best be explained as a response to three interrelated developments: first, the attack on compensatory education fueled by the report of the Westinghouse Learning Corporation in 1969; second, the subtle shifts in developmental psychology that undermined the theoretical base of compensatory education; and third, the organizational necessity for OCD to find a rats on d'etre.


Until the publication of the Westinghouse report, Head Start remained a remarkably popular program throughout the country and especially in Washington. But the report deflated the naive dream of many psychologists, politicians, and community organizations that at last an educational panacea for poor children had been found. More concretely, the report led to the withdrawal of promised presidential support for major expansion of compensatory education, and to efforts by experts in Washington and academia to save face, intellectually and politically.5

The Westinghouse report made three main points: first, the later children entered Head Start programs, the less they benefited; second, the positive effects of Head Start dissipated soon after children left the program; and third, the more actively parents participated, the greater and longer lasting were the children's gains. The first finding surprised child development specialists least; in fact, it was quite consistent with the original mandate for Head Start. Washington had already anticipated and attempted to defuse this criticism when, in 1967, it created three dozen Parent and Child Centers for poor children under age three (we shall return to these centers again shortly). The second Westinghouse conclusion received the most publicity and did much to undermine support for compensatory education among behavioral scientists. In truth, though, Washington accommodated rather quickly and easily to this challenge by creating a new program, Follow Through, to extend Head Start benefits to children after they entered regular public schools. Follow Through, in other words, provided more of the same.6

Washington adjusted least easily to the third main criticism of the Westinghouse report, that concerning parent participation, due to the political volatility of the entire issue of parent involvement in the continuing community school controversies.7 Eventually, though, this third point evoked the federal government's most original response. Essentially, Washington child development experts blunted the criticism by transforming it into a call for new federal action. What was needed, they argued, was not simply more parent participation in existing programs but, instead, a new policy orientation that focused on the poverty mother at home as the instrument of educational reform. The mother's influence was omnipresent, the experts affirmed, and hence was inevitably greater than the intermittent instruction provided by the professional teacher. Rather intriguingly, then, child development specialists in Washington transformed a direct rebuke of their 1960s program into a mandate for new and different programs in the 1970s. Their goal was still to equalize educational opportunity and their concentration was still on early childhood as the critical period; but their method was different: a facilitative strategy was substituted for the recently maligned interventionist approach.


Two trends in developmental psychology laid a theoretical base for using the Westinghouse report as a spur for new programs in parent education. First was the increasing attention psychologists were paying to children's social, as opposed to intellectual, development. Head Start had taken its theoretical cues largely from Benjamin Bloom's authoritative synthesis of previous research, Stability and Change in Human Characteristics,8 which concentrated almost entirely on cognition and environmental deprivation. By the late 1960s many psychologists were coming to believe that Bloom's concerns were unnecessarily narrow and potentially harmful in promoting children's overall growth. As Edward Zigler, first chief of OCD, has recalled: "When the history of compensatory education in the Sixties is finally written, it will be reported that our early efforts embraced a cognitive emphasis tied to a naive environmentalism.”9 Equal attention should be paid to children's physical, social, and emotional maturation, the psychologists now said. Given this drift in psychological research, it was natural to look to the child's own home rather than to the preschool center as the appropriate setting for stimulating development of "competence" and of the "whole child."

Even more influential on new policy formulations, though, was psychological research that retained the focus on cognition but scorned "naive environmentalism," emphasizing instead the family supports necessary to sustain children's cognitive growth. Earl Schaefer has traced the evolution of ideas as follows:

I think the early research suggested a need for early education. At that point, some of us thought that if we educated in the early years, that was sufficient. It turned out that early education was not enough. Then we began to realize the need for continued education through Follow Through and other programs, but continued education in the schools was not enough. Then we began to see the need for parent-centered education and for involving the parent in the child's education from birth to maturity. That is the concept which Home Start [to be examined shortly] is working on.10

Drawing on the latest psychological research, one commentator after another—university scholars, Washington child development specialists, and politicians alike—argued that compensatory education, while kind-hearted and expressive of good intentions, embodied a naive theory of learning. The most effective way to improve the life chances of poor children, they asserted, was to teach mothers how to improve their children's intellectual promise at home.11 The publication of Urie Bronfenbrenner's Is Early Intervention Effective? appeared to confirm this viewpoint as the new conventional wisdom among psychologists,12 and encouraged leading government officials, for example Commissioner of Education Terrel Bell, to view parent education as critical to the survival of public schools as levers of social mobility. "The key to dramatic progress in American education," Bell stated, "is to gain a rededication to learning in the home."13 Providing "equal education in the home as well as in the school" became the new rallying cry of reformers in Washington child-development circles.14

I term the psychological ideas underlying federal parent education programs the "new domesticity." My intent is not to deride their foundations in scientific research but to draw out their social implications, something that psychologists, in the interest of maintaining scientific distance and objectivity, are usually unwilling to do.15 Implicit in the new domesticity, I believe, are a conservative social philosophy, a parochial view of the family's relation to larger social, economic, political, and historical forces, and a stereotypical image of woman's social role. Of course not all modern psychologists think alike on these issues; they vary considerably in their social awareness and sensitivity to the political implications of behavioral science research. Bronfenbrenner, for example, is careful to align his support of "family centered intervention" with recommendations for "major changes in the institutions of the society and the invention of new institutional forms." He further observes:

The first and most essential requirement is to provide those conditions which are necessary for life and for the family to function as a childrearing system. These include adequate health care, nutrition, housing, employment, and opportunity and status for parenthood. These are also precisely the conditions that are absent for millions of disadvantaged families in our country.16

But many other psychologists are considerably less sophisticated, socially and politically, in their applications of new psychological research to federal educational policy. The single most important example for present purposes is Harvard University's Burton White (not to be confused with Sheldon White, also at Harvard). White has played a major personal role at OCD and OE in generating interest and legitimating investment in parent-education programs.17 The social and political implications of his work consequently merit serious consideration.

White contends that psychologists like himself hold the key to equalizing opportunity in our society; social reform is less a matter of providing the poor with new economic resources than of teaching poverty mothers scientific child-rearing methods. Viewing American family life in near total isolation from the rest of society, he holds mothers wholly responsible for the intellectual development and competence of their children. Children who fail in school do so mainly because of their mothers' prior neglect. Almost needless to add, White's work is incredibly demanding and anxiety producing for women. White judges women as shortsighted and overly self-involved if they fail to see that child rearing is the most challenging and fulfilling social role possible. No rational woman, in his view, would sacrifice the privilege and joy of child rearing for alternative sources of employment or pleasure, or shirk her responsibilities by relying primarily on day care during the child's early years.18 In White's work, despite the scientific jargon, one sees a clear parallel to the nineteenth century "cult of domesticity," which placed women on pedestals as objects of reverence so long as they confined their energies to domestic pursuits.19 Under the sponsorship of experts like Burton White—whom I have singled out only because of his direct influence and continuing role in federal programs—parent education not only tends to blame the victim; it places an inordinate share of the blame on women alone.


When OCD came into being in 1969, it ostensibly embodied the Nixon administration's commitment to expansion of children's services and comprehensive welfare reform; the two were seen as going hand in hand. It soon became apparent, however, that the president's commitment to children's services was highly problematic, and that his so-called family assistance plan would never be fully developed or implemented. Gilbert Steiner has astutely recalled what this meant for OCD:

Expecting to marry Head Start's concern for children to its broader interest in workfare-in-lieu-of-welfare, the Nixon administration had quickly created the child development office to spotlight the children's side of that plan. Welfare reform, so called, never came to pass, leaving the administration stuck with an OCD of its own making.20

And, one might add, leaving OCD with no special purpose.

OCD inherited Head Start from the Office of Economic Opportunity just as the Westinghouse report was beginning to weaken its prior support. To be sure, Head Start was far from being dead and maintained considerable congressional and grass-roots appeal; but it was clearly headed for a period of no growth and was consequently not what a new federal agency needed to establish a distinctive identity. OCD inherited two additional programs that represented other potential sources of organizational identity—the previously mentioned Parent and Child Centers, and Community Coordinated Child Care. Within a year, however, it became clear that these programs were, respectively, too politically suspect and too hazy in conception and operation to make systematic evaluation possible.21 Thus by the early 1970s OCD was very much in search of a new set of ideas and programs. Obviously parent education suited OCD's organizational needs quite well, and Zigler, in rapid succession, approved three new, varied parent education programs: Parent and Child Development Centers (PCDCs), for children under age three; Home Start, for children age three to six; and Education for Parenthood, for young teens in grades seven to twelve. (This is not to say, of course, that OCD saw the issue this way or did not genuinely believe that the new programs were more scientifically valid; it is simply to point up a coincidence in time between an organization's survival needs and policy proposals, leaving questions of motivation ambiguous.) By the end of 1971 OCD could at last claim a unique purpose, a distinctive set of programs, and a secure place among the avant-garde in developmental psychology.

Considering OCD's growing identification with parent education in 1971, it is not surprising that some of its leading spokespersons were quick to rationalize the president's December veto of the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have vastly increased Washington's commitment to center-based children's services.22 The veto was, from OCD's political standpoint, a blessing in disguise; it eliminated competition from educational/welfare programs representing different psychological assumptions and strategies. OCD believed that parent education, not Head Start or developmental day care, embodied the best scientific knowledge available. Nixon's veto sharply politicized the latest child development research by giving Washington's imprimatur to the new domesticity. Of course OCD did not seek the Nixon veto. But the president's action nonetheless provided OCD with a mandate for programs to which it had already committed itself. Nixon's veto, in short, buttressed OCD's raison d'etre at a critical time in its search for organizational identity.


I turn now to a brief examination of two of the more important federal programs in parent education: PCDCs and Home Start. Both programs originated on the premises that compensatory education failed to improve the life chances of poor children because it offered too little too late, and because it insufficiently recognized the significance of the mother-child relationship in fostering and sustaining cognitive growth.

PCDCs evolved out of the Parent and Child Centers. From the start, these centers were beset by conflicts between child development specialists in Washington and the dispersed community action organizations that administered the centers. The experts wanted the centers to serve as scientific pilot projects to test the value of center-based educational services for very young children. The community action organizations, on the other hand, minimized research goals, objected to the elitism of the experts, and stressed delivery of concrete social services to poverty mothers. The result—according to critics of the centers and sponsors of PCDCs—was that the centers were nearly worthless: Their design was inadequate to generate scientific knowledge about infant learning; they were operated so unsystematically that they were impossible to evaluate; they delivered minimal services at exceptional cost; and, judging from the responses of parents who participated, they created more child-rearing anxieties than they relieved.23

PCDCs, then, were seen as alternatives to the Parent and Child Centers, their principal goal being to verify, integrate, and disseminate the psychological discoveries of the new domesticity. The first step was the creation in 1971 of three pilot projects in Houston, New Orleans, and Birmingham. The projects were organizationally varied and designed to compare the relative merits of center-based versus home-based delivery systems. Of the three pilots, for example, the one in Birmingham was wholly center based, the one in Houston employed home visiting the first year and a center-based program the second year, while the one in New Orleans compared a three-year home-visiting arrangement with a three-year center-based program. The clientele in each instance were relatively poor; in Houston the mothers were Mexican-American, in New Orleans entirely black, and in Birmingham mixed black and white. In each of the settings, though, the emphasis—in accord with the new domesticity—was on the mothers' interaction with their children. Mothers were shown alternative ways of coping with specific behaviors, were taught the rudiments of child-development literature, and were introduced to a variety of toys and materials they could use to stimulate their children's development. Based on highly optimistic evaluations of the three pilot projects, the PCDC concept began to be replicated in scattered locations throughout the country in 1976.24

PCDCs are sustained politically by various psychological, economic, and philosophic rationales, all geared to prove that parent education is a scientifically superior substitute for compensatory education. According to Mary Robinson, the leading Washington expert associated with them, the PCDCs were a direct outcome of "the disappointing experience with remedial preschool and subsequent school-based compensatory education interventions." The Westinghouse report, she believed, merely confirmed what the Coleman report had stated several years earlier, namely "that the factors that contribute most strongly to later school achievement lie largely outside the school and are concentrated in the home . . . ." And both of these reports corroborated on a large scale what developmental psychologists were demonstrating in small experiments with young poverty children—"the importance of parent-child interaction as a shaper of the child's early intellectual, social, physical development and as a major determinant of his subsequent IQ and school and economic success."25 Or as the Houston project summarized the relevant psychological literature: "Tutoring the child without helping the parent to develop her teaching abilities, formally or informally, was a waste of time."26

Economic arguments further buttress the view that poverty mothers ought to be at home devoting themselves full-time to the intellectual development of their children. According to government analysts, only 12 percent of the PCDC target population is employed full-time, and the costs of child care for working women—especially given the types of jobs for which poor women tend to be qualified—are high. The opportunity costs of participating in PCDCs are thus relatively low, and PCDCs, consequently, are considered cheaper as well as more effective than the chief alternative, developmental day care for infants.27

Other rationales for PCDCs are more dubious, and highlight OCD's tendency to see parent education as the quintessential antipoverty strategy. For example, spokespersons argue that lower-class children do less well in school and later life than middle-class children mainly because of their mothers' ignorance of intellectually stimulating child-rearing techniques. Robinson predicted, for instance, that through wide sharing of "the infant development knowledge base" with poverty mothers, OCD "stood a good chance of closing the knowledge and skill gaps between the middle- and low-income parents. . . . direct and indirect access to such knowledge had served through time as a major cumulative influence shaping middle-class maternal behaviors and thus had contributed significantly to the difference in competence between poor and non-poor children."28 In other words, according to Robinson, the lower competence of poor children derives less from differential access to economic resources than from differential access to scientific child-rearing knowledge. By distributing that knowledge equally, she believes, the federal government will be taking a great step forward in assuring that every child enjoys equal educational opportunity.

Equally dubious are what might be termed the "populistic" rationales for PCDCs. Proponents claim to be speaking against elitism and for the masses in challenging the implicit assumption in compensatory education programs that only experts working directly with poverty children can stimulate their intellectual development.

The idea that garden variety, low-income parents might become as good as, or perhaps better agents of their own children's development than paid child-care professionals and para-professionals flew in the face of much long established conventional European and American thinking which had long allocated critical educational roles to "experts" and challenged the emergent vested interests of an ambitious child-care establishment.29

It is further claimed that PCDCs have populistic, grass-roots political goals. Experience in the PCDCs will so sensitize mothers to the importance of healthy home environments for young children that the mothers will become vocal advocates of social change at the community level. As the Houston project puts it: "The parent is in a position to be the child's best advocate."30

It seems ironical at best for PCDC advocates to have adopted this populistic stance. These were, after all, the same Washington experts who, in the controversies surrounding the Parent and Child Centers, had scorned the stress of community action organizations on delivery of services and upheld scientific research as the only worthy use of pilot projects. Indeed, the final irony is the argument that child development specialists are snobs and that the "child-care establishment" is self-seeking; for this is precisely what PCDC proponents had been accused of by defenders of the Parent and Child Centers! The populistic rationale, then, is best understood as a politically oriented promotional device clearly belied by the genesis and operation of PCDCs.

Current expectations for PCDCs remain as grand as at their origin. Restated in 1976, prior to the funding of replication projects:

By sharing the lore of child development with parents, especially mothers, in low-income families to enable them to become effective agents of their own children's social, emotional and intellectual development during the years from birth to three, it was hypothesized that much of the environmentally based, cumulative disadvantagement of low-income children could be prevented.

Other benefits were also expected to accrue to participating parents, children and families, including: the acquisition of a wide range of social skills and intellectual competencies on the part of mothers; more positive attitudes and motivations; increased potential for employment of mothers when infants reach school age; involvement of fathers and their increased understanding and psychological support of mothers in the child-rearing task; greater family solidarity; positive effects on older children and on subsequent infants born to participant families.31

Based on evaluations of the pilot projects, OCD feels that these goals have substantially been realized: The child-rearing abilities of participating mothers have significantly improved and their children show development in cognitive and social-emotional areas that promise their future success in. school. In addition, PCDC mothers "feel less restricted by child rearing and home making tasks; find children more interesting and enjoyable."32

It is difficult for a layman to judge the validity of a fairly rigorous behavioral science experiment like the PCDCs. Nonetheless, it is readily apparent that OCD's congratulatory self-evaluation skirts a number of critical issues.33 For example, the problems of measuring the social and cognitive capacities of infants are obvious; it is highly problematic to predict, on the basis of such measures, children's future levels of accomplishment. Also, the reliability of program evaluations that do not constantly monitor the home activities of parents and children are suspect. In the PCDCs, as in many behavioral science experiments, the tendency is to attribute all positive results to the educational program when any number of other undetermined causes or simple "maturation effects" may be responsible. Finally, OCD's evaluation plays down the matter of cost-effectiveness, a crucial consideration given the fact that PCDCs cost considerably more to operate than other forms of parent education or traditional center-based programs. None of my reservations is meant to deny that for many parents and children PCDCs have produced positive and welcome results, but simply to point up the danger-witnessed time and again in the evolution of the behavioral sciences—of publicizing early results as scientific truth when methods of evaluation remain uncertain, and of hiding legitimate doubt under the cloak of science.34

For my purposes, moreover, the unstated social assumptions underlying PCDCs are most important. Whether scientifically valid or not, PCDCs reinforce stereotypes about women and lay a groundwork for blaming the victim. Interestingly, the Houston project recognizes the latter possibility but dismisses it.

Calling attention to the family's role in the child's school achievement has been described by some as "blaming the victim." It is seen as shifting attention from the quality of schooling offered, or from the role of society at large in providing for all of its citizens, to the family as the source of the problems. This misses the real point which is that home and school must both be involved in the child's education, sharing skills and knowledge in the best interest of the child.35

True enough; indeed, this statement could serve as a springboard for sophisticated analysis of educational configurations in modern America. It is only a short conceptual step from recognizing the interdependence of home and school to recognizing the impossibility of evaluating either home or school apart from the larger social environment. But neither OCD nor the Houston project follows through in this direction; they raise larger issues only to retreat from them. As we have seen, PCDC proponents contend that the assistance provided poverty mothers is sufficient to enable their children to compete on equal terms with middle-class youth. Should children whose mothers participate in PCDCs fail to achieve at equal levels, the likely inference is apparent: Their mothers must have shirked their domestic/educational duties. The blame, in other words, must lie in lax implementation by uncaring poverty mothers. Similarly for the Houston project: Despite sensitivity to the blaming-the-victim issue, they also view PCDCs as genuine equalizers of educational opportunity. Witness, for example, the following hypothesis, which their evidence purports to substantiate:

If the environment is encouraging, rewarding, rich with verbal interaction and responsive to the child's developing curiosity, as is presumed to be the case in the middle- or upper-income home, then the child's intellect is expected to thrive. Given the presence of these environmental conditions, irregardless of family income, we would expect the child to do well.36

Here, then, in the jargon of science, is a round of applause for the "virtuous poor" and for parent education as an effective substitute for more direct means of reducing social inequities. PCDC advocates assume that middle-class mothers rear smart, successful children while lower-class mothers rear stupid, unsuccessful children primarily because the former are more attuned to the dictates of science. Their solution to poverty is to reduce the knowledge gap between middle- and lower-class mothers and thereby provide "equal opportunity in the home." "Irregardless of family income, we would expect the child to do well": a more succinct revelation of the Pollyannish thinking underlying parent-education programs can hardly be imagined.

While it is difficult to evaluate a sophisticated social experiment like the PCDCs, it is easier to judge a much less rigorous program like Home Start. Fifteen Home Start projects began in 1972 with the intent of bringing the benefits of Head Start to children of the same age range but without removing them from their homes. Home Start operates by sending "home visitors" into family settings, to teach parents—almost always mothers—about child development, to assist in specific child-rearing tasks, and to serve as "a sympathetic listener, a helper, an adviser, and friend to the entire family being served."37 So that home visitors will share the community, class, racial, and language characteristics of families they befriend, Home Start hires mainly indigenous nonprofessionals and gives them brief periods of training, generally a few weeks. Home Start carries OCD's hopes for an alternative to center-based pre-schools that is cheaper, more effective educationally, and more viable politically than compensatory education.38

Funding patterns for Home Start suggest that OCD saw it more as a substitute for than as an addition to Head Start. Thus Washington did not authorize Home Start programs to begin anew; instead they had to be operated by existing Head Start centers or by other community organizations authorized to receive Head Start funding. This proviso accomplished two things: It placed the weight of OCD on the side of Home Start and set a financial ceiling on potential federal involvement. An OCD directive in 1973 indicated to Head Start centers that the burden of justifying existing center-based programs would fall on them:

Continuation of the present five-day-per-week, center-based classroom format will be optional. Communities electing to continue this format are free to do so provided that they demonstrate through a careful assessment of their needs and capabilities that continuing the present program is in the best interest of the individual children and families served. If this assessment indicates that the present format is not adequately meeting local needs, the program is to consider whether these needs could be met more effectively by one or more of the other options.39

By so phrasing the choice, OCD doubtless hoped that Head Start centers would get the message: The way to avoid review was to adopt the Home Start concept in whole or in part.

To OCD's chagrin, relatively few Head Start centers chose to adopt any aspect of the home-based approach, much less to convert entirely to Home Start. By late 1976 only 13 percent of enrolled children were partaking in home-based options—a total of 12,179 children, mainly between ages three and five. Of these, 20 percent were handicapped youth for whom center-based programs were inappropriate and who could be reached in no other way. Though OCD has staged several major conferences to demonstrate the superiority of Home Start, the great majority of parents who use Head Start have refused to switch.40

Are these parents obstinately and irrationally attached to the status quo? Are they selfish enough not to want to forgo the use of Head Start as government-financed babysitting? Are they simply ignorant of the latest behavioral science research on child development? Are the professionals and paraprofessionals who operate Head Start centers calculatingly protecting a vested interest? Or—while not necessarily denying any of the above—is there good reason for poverty parents to doubt the vaunted superiority of Home Start to Head Start, and to continue to place their hopes and trust in center-based programs? My review of Home Start, as idea and reality, suggests that there is good reason indeed for poor parents to distrust it and to conclude that Head Start is unquestionably the safer bet.

The promotional literature for Home Start emphasizes innumerable benefits for participating mothers and children. For the same amount of money as Head Start centers usually spend, it is claimed, Home Start will provide significantly lower staff-clientele ratios and more personal, individualized service. Better yet, Home Start will educate children not formally enrolled in the program, especially older siblings; it will even extend to "neighbors, and friends [who] may be getting development services as a result."41 These purported spillover effects are obviously appealing at a time when Head Start is in a period of no growth. In addition, Home Start is flexible enough to reach isolated rural families; unlike Head Start, it can bring services to needy people wherever they are (more populism). Home Start will involve fathers more actively than Head Start, since home visitors can arrange to meet with families on weeknights and weekends. Home Start will also provide career access for participating mothers, who will learn skills necessary to become operators of family-based day-care centers. Finally, and still more heroically, Home Start will strengthen the (presumably) declining family spirit among the poor by getting all family members to recognize their mutual responsibilities, and by revitalizing family life into such an enjoyable experience that no rational mother would ever want to leave the family hearth.

It is still too early to judge the long-term impact of Home Start on the school and occupational performances of poor children. But the intrinsic conceptual and operational weaknesses of Home Start raise serious doubts about its potential, and that of parent education generally, as an antipoverty strategy.42 At its core Home Start embodies pedagogical methods so anachronistic it is remarkable they were advanced as original in the 1970s. It is as if Home Start were trying to reinvent casework as it was practiced before the turn of the century; the home visitors bear an alarming similarity in function to the "friendly visitors" who dispensed love, religion, and advice on child care and household management as cure-alls for poverty.43 Of course there is a great deal that is new and appealing about having indigenous community members serve as the principal teachers of poverty mothers. But considering the magnitude of their tasks and the extraordinary expectations for Home Start, the role devised for the home visitors seems nothing short of impossible. Failure is virtually built-in. Having only the ability to dispense advice at their disposal (and only ninety minutes per week at that), the home visitors are expected to teach mothers how to become "child development specialists," to rear their children so that they can compete on equal intellectual terms with middle-class children, and to adopt "a positive, 'preventive' approach . . . so that the atmosphere and attitudes conducive to a happy home environment are encouraged."44 But home visitors must accomplish all this without dealing directly with the material deprivations that defined the Home Start clientele in the first place. The "happy home" approach smacks of trying to convince the poor to adapt to their poverty by altering the dynamics of intrafamily life, holding out to poor parents only the hope of a better future for their children.45 In short, Home Start seeks to change attitudes and assumes that the right attitudes will obviate the effects of poverty on children's social and economic achievement.

In view of the startling gap between means and ends in the Home Start design, it is not surprising that so few Head Start centers have adopted a Home Start component, and that the majority of parents have refused to switch out of Head Start.46 Home Start symbolizes on a small scale the conservative social philosophy that has triumphed in Washington and the rest of the nation in the 1970s.47 This philosophy redirects responsibility for failure toward the victims of social injustice, focusing blame for unsuccessful child rearing on poor families rather than on extrafamilial institutions. By citing ''scientific" evidence that poverty mothers alone hold the key to their children's intellectual potential, it becomes impossible to hold social institutions accountable for educational outcomes. Home Start is symptomatic of a new politics of child psychology in America, which relies on science to defuse the need for more thorough reforms of social institutions and which absolves government of responsibility for glaring disparities in achievement between lower-class and middle-class youth.48


Implicit in the recent federal enthusiasm for parent education is a remarkably anachronistic view, namely, that parents wholly determine their children's futures. Today more than ever, as Lawrence Cremin argues in his theory of modern educational configurations, this view is absurd.49 It is fruitless to try to isolate the impact of individual educational institutions—whether the family, the school, or the television—and assign them full responsibility for educational outcomes. The incredible variety of institutions that socialize children, and the complex manner in which they touch, overlap, and interact, demands that we exercise considerable caution in parceling out blame for educational failures. To subscribe to "parent determinism" or "school determinism" or "television determinism "is to indulge in that characteristically American sport Richard Hofstadter called the "educational jeremiad," whose goal is to exorcise devils rather than to increase understanding of institutional relationships.50 After reviewing the development of parent education programs in the 1970s, I am not so much against them as appalled by their pretense as social panaceas.51 If parent education programs engaged adults in appraising the role of the family as educator today, or in assessing the utility of educational reform as a means of reducing social inequities, then they might serve a valuable public purpose.52 But to the extent that such programs hold poverty mothers mainly responsible for their children's later failures, I believe they do a grievous disservice. It is no sport at all to increase the burdens of the poor.

1 My approach to these subjects has been much influenced by discussions with W. Norton Grubb, and by several of his unpublished papers, for example, "Alternative Futures for Child Care," Working Paper # 11, Childhood and Government Project, Boalt Law School, University of California, Berkeley. See also W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson, "Child Care, Government Financing, and the Public Schools: Lessons from the California Children's Centers," School Review 86 (November 1977): 5-37.

2 This aspect of 1960s educational and welfare reform thought has been nicely parodied in Daniel Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding (New York: Free Press, 1969).

3 For background see, for example, Sar Levitan and Robert Taggart, The Promise of Greatness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976); and Sar Levitan and Karen Alderman, Child Care and ABC's Too (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975).

4 William Ryan, Blaming the Victim (New York: Random House, 1971).

5 I have found Gilbert Steiner, The Children's Cause (Washington, D.C.: Blockings Institution, 1976), pp. 32-35 and passim very useful in charting the relevant chronology and politics.

6 Ibid., pp. 54-59, 82.

7 The depth of emotion generated by the role of parents in community schools in the late 1960s is vividly recaptured in Diane Ravitch, The Great School Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1974).

8 Benjamin Bloom, Stability and Change in Human Characteristics (New York: John Wiley, 1964).

9 Edward Zigler, "Head Start and Home Start: Their Past and Their Future," in Report of a National Conference on Home Start and Other Programs for Parents and Children (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1975), p. 60. See also Edward Zigler, "Project Head Start: Success or Failure?" Children Today 2 (November-December 1973): 2-7, 36.

10 Earl Schaefer, "Summary of Research on Parent-Focused Child Development Programs," in Report of a National Conference on Home Start and Other Programs for Parents and Children, p. 53-54.

11 The literature is voluminous. See, for example, David Weikart, "Implications for Education from a Decade of Early Intervention Research*' (Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association meeting, April 19 76); David Weikart, "Parental Involvement through Home Teaching," in High/Scope Report of 1974-75 (Ypsilanti, Mich.: High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, 1975), pp. 2-5; Earl Schaefer, "Parents as Educators: Evidence from Cross-Sectional, Longitudinal and Intervention Research," Young Children 4 (April 1972): 227-39; May Aaronson, "Review of Early Childhood Education Studies Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health" (Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association meeting, March 1975); and May Aaronson, "Future Directions in Parent Education Research" (Paper presented at the Society for Research in Child Development meeting, April 1975).

12 Urie Bronfenbrenner, Is Early Intervention Effective? (Washington, D.C.: DHEW Publication No. [OHD] 76-30025, 1974). As will soon become apparent, though, I believe that Bronfenbrenner was selectively misquoted by enthusiasts of parent education.

13 Terrel Bell, quoted in report of the National Conference on Parent/Early Childhood Education (Denver: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1975), p. viii.

14 Schaefer, "Parents as Educators," p. 238.

15 I am presently engaged on a book, tentatively entitled For Mothers' Sake? Feminism, Science, and the "Modern" American Parent, which will develop this theme in historical perspective. My general approach is exemplified in three pieces: Steven Schlossman, "G. Stanley Hall and the Boys' Club: Conservative Applications of Recapitulation Theory," Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 9 (April 1973): 140-47; idem, "The 'Culture of Poverty' in Antebellum Social Thought," Science and Society 38 (Summer 1974): 150-66; and idem, "Before Home Start: Notes toward a History of Parent Education in America, 1897-1929," Harvard Educational Review 46 (August 1976): 436-67.

16 Bronfenbrenner, Is Early Intervention Effective, p. 55. See also idem, "Developmental Research, Public Policy, and the Ecology of Childhood," Child Development 45 (March 1974): 1-5.

17 I reach my conclusion about White's influence not only on the basis of his published work and his promotional activities at government-sponsored parent-education conferences, but also from conversation with several major administrators at OCD and observation of the number of White's published and unpublished papers reprinted and widely available at OCD. For an important critique of White's work, see Alison Clarke-Stewart, "Dr. White's Patent Elixir for Parents," The Review of Education 3 (March/April 1977): 101-11.

18 See Burton White, The First Three Years of Life (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975); and idem, "Reassessing Our Educational Priorities (To Put More Emphasis on Parent Education)" (Unpublished paper, edited version, presented to the Educational Commission of the States' Task Force on Early Learning, August 1974).

19 Barbara Welter, "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860," American Quarterly 18 (Summer 1966): 151-74; Anne Kuhn, The Mother's Role in Childhood Education (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1947); and Kathryn Sklar, Catharine Beecher (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).

20 Steiner, The Children's Cause, p. 60.

21 Ibid., pp. 46-59.

22 On the act and its political downfall, see Margaret Steinfels, Who's Minding the Children? (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), especially pp. 185-215. For a different viewpoint see B. Bruce-Briggs, " 'Child Care': The Fiscal Time Bomb," The Public Interest 49 (Fall 1977): 87-102.

23 Steiner, The Children's Cause, pp. 54-59; and Mary Robinson, "Parent/Child Development Centers: An Experiment in Infant-Parent Interventions and Systematic Testing of Social Innovations" (R&D Planning Memorandum, Office of Research Plans and Evaluation, Office of Economic Opportunity, 1971-1972), pp. 15-17.

24 Office of Child Development, "Parent Child Development Centers: An Experiment in Model Building and Model Replication, Description and Status Report" (U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, April 1976), p. 1.

25 Robinson, "Parent/Child Development Centers," pp. 5, 10.

26 Dale Johnson, Houston Parent-Child Development Center (Washington, D.C.: Office of Child Development, Final Report, Grant No. DHEW-90-C-379, 1976), p. 19.

27 Robinson, "Parent/Child Development Centers," pp. 18-27.

28 Ibid., p. 9. See also Johnson, Houston Parent-Child Development Center, p. 1.

29 Robinson, "Parent/Child Development Centers," p. 6.

30 Johnson, Houston Parent-Child Development Center, p. 18.

31 Office of Child Development, "Parent Child Development Centers," p. 2.

32 ibid., p. 6.

33 For a discussion of these basic, and often unacknowledged, methodological difficulties, see Alison Clarke-Stewart, Child Care in the Family (New York: Academic Press, 1977); and Alison Clarke-Stewart and Nancy Apfel, "Evaluating Parental Effects on Child Development," in Review of Research in Education, AERA, ed. L. Shulman (Itaska, Ill.: F.E. Peacock, 1978, in press).

34 See Schlossman, "Before Home Start,” for historical examples of these tendencies.

35 Johnson, Houston Parent-Child Development Center, p. 6.

36 Ibid., p. 126.

37 Office of Child Development, A Guide for Planning and Operating Home-Based Child Development Programs (Washington, B.C.: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1974), p. E-3.

38 On the genesis of Home Start, see Steiner, The Children's Cause, pp. 79-85.

39 Office of Child Development, A Guide for Planning and Operating Home-Based Child Development Programs, p. H-6.

40 Ann O'Keefe, Head Start Home-Based Programs: A Preliminary Report (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1976).

41 Office of Child Development, A Guide for Planning and Operating Home-Based Child Development Programs, p. 7.

42 My judgments derive from reading the aforementioned sources on Home Start plus Office of Child Development, The Home Start Demonstration Program: An Overview (Washington, B.C.: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1973); and Office of Chad Development, Report of a Joint Conference: Home Start/Child and Family Resource Program (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1974).

43 See Roy Lubove, The Professional Altruist (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), chap. 1; and Steven Schlossman, Love and the American Delinquent (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), chap. 4.

44 Office of Child Development, Home Start Demonstration Program, p. 8.

45 Along these lines see the rather embarrassing "national Home Start song," discussed by Steiner, The Children's Cause, p. 84.

46 For a sampling of parents' specific complaints about Home Start, see Office of Child Development, A Guide for Planning and Operating Home-Eased Child Development Programs, pp. 7, 32.

47 See Kenneth Keniston, All Our Children (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), for a lucid analysis of how this has affected American family policy.

48 For imaginative discussion of related themes, see Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World (New York: Basic Books, 1977); Mary Jo Bane, "A Review of Child Care Books," Harvard Educational Review 43 (November 1973): 669-80; Edgar Friedenberg, "Save the Children!" The Review of Education 3 (July/August 1977): 256-60; and Arlene Skolnick, "The Myth of the Vulnerable Child," Psychology Today 11 (February 1978): pp. 56, 58, 60, 65.

49 Lawrence A. Cremin, Public Education (New York: Basic Books, 1976); and idem, Traditions of American Education (New York: Basic Books, 1977).

50 Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Random House, 1962).

51 Not only am I not unalterably opposed to parent education, but I have been working for the National PTA to develop more socially responsible forms of parent education. See Steven Schlossrnan, ed., Today's Family in Focus (Chicago: National Congress of Parents and Teachers, 1977).

52 See Hope Jensen Leichter, ed., The Family as Educator (New York: Teachers College Press, 1976); and Henry Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea (New York: Random House, 1968).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 79 Number 4, 1978, p. 788-808 ID Number: 1170, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 6:50:29 PM

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