U.K. Report: Millions of Children Held Back by Their Parents’ Poor Basic Skills

The U.K.’s National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) has just released a report that serves as something of a response to the latest international survey of adult basic skills conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), aka PIAAC (the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies). Adults in England and Wales generally scored below average in the survey—especially among 16-24 year-olds.

The NIACE’s Inquiry into Family Learning was launched about a year ago to look at the impact of family learning and “develop new thinking and to influence public policy.” The Inquiry commissioners’ report, Family Learning Works, cites a strong link between children’s success in school and their parent’s educational attainment and suggest that learning opportunities for the entire family should be an integral to the country’s strategies to raise children’s attainment in school. They argue that investing in family learning programs would save money in the long run by cutting back on the need for other government programs that serve vulnerable families.

In the forward to the report, the Chair of the Inquiry writes:

“The recent results of the OECD’s survey of adult skills show that parents’ educational attainment has a stronger-than-average impact on adults’ proficiency in both literacy and numeracy. Adults whose parents have low levels of education are eight times more likely to have poor proficiency in literacy than adults whose parents had higher levels of education. Surely it is a moral outrage that a nation such as ours should be in this position. Evidence shows that family learning could increase the overall level of children’s development by as much as 15 percentage points for those from disadvantaged groups. Family learning has multiple positive outcomes for adults and children, for families and communities. It could, in one generation, change the lives of a whole generation. We would be foolish to miss such an opportunity.” (my emphasis)

Investing in Parents

A couple of weeks ago, in a post about a meeting between a group of adult learners and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, I mentioned being struck by how often the discussion turned to the non-academic barriers that can make adult education a challenge for many people.

Yesterday the National Journal published a story about the Jeremiah Program in Minneapolis, which provides low-income single mothers enrolled in college with subsidized housing in residential communities with on-site child care, in the belief that a lack of secure housing and child care are the biggest barriers preventing these young women from finishing college. (A pilot program in Austin, Texas is also underway, and there are plans to open a new campus in Fargo, North Dakota, next year)

To qualify for the program, these women have to be enrolled in college, but it’s not difficult to envision how this model could be adapted for adult learners seeking to improve their literacy and/or earn a high-school credential.

Jeremiah’s return on investment numbers also demonstrate, once again, the wisdom of investing in parents (especially mothers) in order to improve school readiness and reduce child poverty:

An independent study from Wilder Research of St. Paul found that every dollar invested in Jeremiah Program families can return up to $7 to society at large, both by reducing the family’s dependence on public assistance and by increasing the economic prospects of both mother and child. Sixty percent of the program’s 2011 graduates were unemployed when they entered the program, and the rest were earning an average of $9.46 per hour. Upon graduation, the women started earning an average wage of $19.35 per hour. Graduates leave with better parenting skills, and their children get the benefit of high-quality early-childhood care. 

Gloria Perez, Jeremiah’s president and CEO, told the National Journal that “everybody seems to acknowledge, across all political lines, that the mother tends to be the primary educator of the child and role model for the child,” but unlike the calls to invest in pre-K education, you don’t hear as much about scaling up programs that invest in parents. And yet the return on investment numbers here are just as powerful as those used to support the case for investing in pre-K.