The mothers’ commonality was primarily lack of education, usually complicated by poverty and single-parent status. The children’s commonality was failure to thrive in school. Dr. Levenstein noted the tight correlation and set out to do something about it.
The program that she created, now known as the Parent-Child Home Program, consists of home visitors who go to a home twice a week to work with a mother and a 2- or 3-year-old child. On the first visit, the home visitor demonstrates the use of a book or educational toy for the mother to observe. On the second visit, the mother uses the materials and gets feedback from the home visitor. All the while, the child is being exposed to the rich vocabulary of children’s literature and the variety of both commonplace and unusual words associated with the carefully selected toys. Participants in the program get to keep the books and toys at the end of the program. This is particularly helpful in the event that other siblings arrive.
Why is this stress on verbal interaction so important? Much research has shown conclusively that children of professional parents have twice the vocabulary as children of welfare parents on entering first grade, with children from “blue collar” homes somewhere in the middle. The gap generally widens over time. High-performing high school seniors have vocabularies about four times those of lower-performing classmates. High-performing third-grade students’ vocabularies are about equal to low-performing high school seniors.
The Parent-Child program changes this situation dramatically. In kindergarten screenings, Parent-Child grads do twice as well as preschoolers who did not have the program, including those with preschool experiences. Even more importantly and beyond test results, Parent-Child participants graduate from high school at an 84 percent rate, as compared to the 64 percent of low-income children and 83 percent for middle-class children.