Changing the Odds for Children at Risk


Data show that children who are born in poverty to young, poorly educated parents have much lower chances of succeeding in school, college, and the workforce than their less-disadvantaged peers. They are also at greater risk for a host of negative outcomes, including poor academic performance, being held back a grade, dropping out of high school, being unemployed, and participating in criminal activity.
At a December 1 discussion, University of Michigan professor and former Assistant Secretary of Education Susan Neuman described how federal policies can be best targeted to help the most at-risk children. She was joined in the discussion by Douglas Besharov, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Sara Mead, director of New America’s Early Education Initiative, moderated the event. MaryEllen McGuire, director of New America’s Education Policy Program, introduced the panel.

To begin the discussion, Neuman outlined seven principles that she says will help reorient federal policies from helping a few disadvantaged kids beat the odds against academic, to fundamentally changing the odds so that many more low-income children succeed in school. She recommends we:

  • Actively target the neediest when developing federal programming;
  • Provide services early in children’s lives as it is easier to prevent problems than remediate them;
  • Emphasize coordinated services, especially as it relates to meeting children’s health needs;
  • Focus on boosting academic achievement through compensatory high-quality instruction;
  • Ensure instruction is delivered by trained professionals, not volunteers or aides;
  • Acknowledge that intensity matters, defending against dilution of program quality; and,
  • Hold programs accountable, conduct rigorous assessments, and change course as needed.

To watch a brief (4 min) presentation by Susan Neuman of her seven principles for changing the odds, click here. 

In his response, Besharov said that while on the whole he agrees with Neuman’s arguments, he would like to see more emphasis on making sure parents are fulfilling their responsibility as primary instructors for their children. He would also like to hear more discussion and policy solutions that address persistent racial and gender gaps in educational achievement, particularly the plight of poor African-American boys.

Besharov also stressed that while early education, the focal point of Neuman’s prescription, is important, it should not come at the expense of policies that help older students. The high rate of high school dropouts among poor and minority students is a big problem, he said, and there are not currently enough effective programs available to get them back on track. He also called for additional career-oriented programs that would serve as an alternative for students who do not go on to college.

One question raised in the discussion was how the existing K-12 system fits into Neuman’s prescriptions. Neuman focuses heavily on early childhood and afterschool educational programs, and the role of community-based organizations in delivering “360-degree” comprehensive interventions. Neuman said that ideally she would like schools to serve as the nexus for a comprehensive, coordinated service approach but currently, community-based organizations are often more flexible and able to assume these responsibilities.

Another question that came up was about Reading First, a program that Neuman helped create but which has come under intense scrutiny following a series of underwhelming impact reports. Neuman said that while the reports indicate that the program is not working as well as she would hope, it is not a reason to end the program outright. What Reading First needs, she said, is a new infusion of content, to address the knowledge and vocabulary gaps that make it hard for disadvantaged youngsters to understand what they read.

Both participants said that they expect to see some sort of new early education program in the Obama administration, though both also warned that politics often influence program design in ways that undermine the effectiveness of new early education investments. They agreed, however, that the new administration has an important opportunity to strengthen federal policies to change the odds for children at risk.


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Featured Speakers
Susan Neuman
Professor, University of Michigan School of Education
Former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education

Douglas Besharov
Joseph J. and Violet Jacobs Senior Scholar in Social Welfare Studies, American Enterprise Institute
Professor, University of Maryland School of Public Policy

Sara Mead
Director, Early Education Initiative, New America Foundation


MaryEllen McGuire
Director, Education Policy Program, New America Foundation