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Review: Kids First

David L. Kirp (2011). Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives and America’s Future. New York: Public Affairs.


David L. Kirp’s Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives and America’s Future is a critique of American policy regarding children. Compared to other rich countries, Kirp says, the United States is strangely neglectful of children:

The child poverty rate in this country is twice the OECD average. We spend a third less than the OECD average on young children; we rank near the bottom when it comes to infant mortality and child mortality; and the average educational achievement of an American youngster is seventh worst, behind the Slovak Republic. (p. 5)

Kirp - Kids FirstThe federal government spends seven times more on the average senior citizen than on the average child.

These numbers have been getting worse in recent decades, rather than improving: “the share of domestic expenditures devoted to youth has fallen a jaw-dropping 22 percent” (p. 6) between 1960 and 2008.

Americans are becoming quite pessimistic about their children’s futures. Kirp cites a 2008 poll from the nonpartisan think tank First Focus showing that “just 27 percent of voters said the lives of children would be better than their own; more than twice as many said that things would be worse” (p. 5).

This is disastrous not just for social reasons but for economic reasons as well. Giving our nation’s children what they need is not just good parenting, it’s also good business: a well-supported child is more likely to be a contributing member of society, so when the government spends money on an effective child-serving program it makes it back again in taxes a generation later. Kirp cites that, “The cost to the American economy of a high school dropout is about a quarter of a million dollars, and a career criminal costs the country $1.5 million” (p. 7). According to a study by McKinsey and Co., if the United States could have achieved the educational levels of countries like Finland or Korea, “the gross domestic product in 2008 could have been between $1.3 and $2.3 trillion higher” (p. 7), a 9 to 16 percent increase.

Kirp argues that our neglect of the needs of children is senseless because “we know what needs to be done to improve children’s capacity for success and with it the future of the nation. What’s more, we know how to do it” (p. 5). Yet as a nation we are steadfastly refusing to do it.

As his title declares, Kirp’s holistic solution consists of five distinct elements: programs that support parents, high-quality preschools, community-oriented schools, mentoring programs, and providing a “nest egg” to pay for college or help start a career. Kirp consistently grounds his arguments in hard data and empirical evaluations, saying that the government is only justified in supporting programs that are proven to work. With this approach, he surveys the landscape of child-serving programs, giving a lively history of the various attempts to help children, along with clearly-articulated conclusions as to what works and what doesn’t. His account is down-to-earth and rigorously practical—it will be most engaging to readers who are interested in government policy and seriously want to see our government changed for the better.

Kirp tackles each of his five ideas chapter by chapter.

Idea #1: The Littlest Schoolhouse: Teaching Parents to Teach Their Kids

Kirp cites an interdisciplinary array of studies to impress upon his reader the importance of the first few years of a child’s life in developing long term health, intelligence and social skills. Neuroscience has found that “at no other time in a person’s life does the brain develop as rapidly as during the first years” (p. 22). Psychologist Michel Duyme found that when “children who had been abused or neglected as infants were adopted by caring families, their IQ scores increased by as much as 25 points” (p. 23). Much of the findings are common knowledge: children will do better in school if they are read to as infants, if parents spend time with them and teach them new things. Children who have been neglected or abused face stark disadvantages. According to NYU psychologist Lawrence Aber, “The infant brain is hardwired for relationships, and the optimal growth and development of the human brain in the early years is largely dependent on the nature and quality of a child’s few and most important human relationships” (p. 26).

In response to this situation, Kirp describes a type of program called “parent education,” “parent support,” or “home visiting.” These programs have been supported by state governments for the past few decades, though in 2010 the federal government budgeted $1.5 billion for them. These programs currently serve about half a million parents every year. Kirp gives a brief history of some of the more effective ones.

The Nurse-Family Partnership, for example, emphasizes the health needs of young children. This program consists of regular visits from nurses to new parents to discuss the needs of a new baby, under the assumption that parents are more likely to listen to a uniformed healthcare professional–the so-called “white coat effect”. The program was first found to be effective at reducing incidences of abuse and neglect back in the 1970s and has since been successfully scaled-up to the national level.

To show the program in action, Kirp went along on one of these visits to a 17-year old mother in a poor neighborhood in New York City and listened as the nurse and the mother talked about child care options, birth control, and where the mother could go to finish high school. The child was two and a half months old, and the nurse had made 21 of these visits, yet the mother was only just beginning to trust her. Kirp talks at great length about how the effectiveness of these programs is dependent on the frequency of the visits and the preparedness of the visiting professionals. After observing several of these visits, Kirp says, “I watched young mothers make room during drama-filled days–boyfriends coming and going, part-time jobs disappearing, gang trouble in the streets, drug deals going down, eviction pending–to talk candidly about the most intimate aspects of their lives” (p. 38).

Other parent-targeted programs deal with the educational side of raising children, employing teachers and social workers to do the visits. Unlike the nurse visitations programs, which are aimed at low-income parents, these educational programs are generally open to all. According to one Yale psychology professor who is a supporter of the program, “I’m supposed to be a world authority on child development, but when we brought my son home from the hospital, I didn’t know what to do” (p. 43). A program called Parents as Teachers eventually won over the support of the governor of Missouri in the 1980s, and was made available to all parents in the state. Early results of the program were not encouraging, though, as visits were infrequent and irregular. Over time, however, the program learned from its mistakes and evaluations now show that families of all income levels who participate in the program see “notably higher” school-readiness scores for their children.

Idea #2: A Garden of Earthly Delights: Delivering Brainy Education to Tots

Kirp’s account of preschool education begins with two ideal cases. First, he describes the Educare Centers, which are well-staffed schools providing excellent support and education, but are too expensive at $20,000 per student to be a viable national model. There are several Educare Centers around the country, most of them supported by large-scale philanthropists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

Another national model is the Perry Preschool, initially started in 1961 and hailed as “the most powerfully influential group in the recent history of social science” (p. 66). The Perry school and its supporters were the ones to first describe their effectiveness in economic terms, showing that the money saved in long-term crime prevention and contribution to the economy (and to taxes) vastly outweighs the initial cost of the program. One study in 2005 “calculated the benefit-to-cost ratio to be an astronomical seventeen-to-one, and the annual return on the initial investment exceeded 11 percent” (p. 69).

With these results to support them, preschools on the Perry model have been growing steadily around the country, even as the government overall has been cutting back support for children’s programs. The trouble with expanding these programs to a larger scale, though, is balancing quality versus quantity. Obviously it’s good for the programs to reach as many children as possible, “[b]ut a shoddy program where television is the palliative doesn’t give children an educational leg up. Indeed, enrolling kids in an overcrowded preschool with an inept teacher can make their lives worse” (p. 72).

Kirp offers Union City, New Jersey as a case study in how to provide excellent preschool care at a low cost, adapting to the individual needs of the community. Union City is one of the poorest municipalities in the country, yet its students test at around the national average in reading and math right up through eighth grade. Kirp goes into one of the preschools there and finds the quality of education to be top-drawer, yet the materials are fairly simple and the teachers are not graduate-degree-holding elites. The program is the result of a state-wide requirement to provide high-quality preschools for every student in the state’s poorest districts, mandated by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1998. The statewide initiative costs about $12,000 per student, teachers must have or be on track to obtain a bachelor’s degree, and student-teacher ratios cannot be higher than 7.5 to 1.

Idea #3: All Together Now: Creating Academies of Learning and Life

In this chapter, Kirp argues for the idea of community schools. He describes this concept as a school that offers “one-stop shopping for harried parents who lack the time to ferry their children to pediatricians, psychologists, sculpture classes, and baseball classes” (p. 106). According to one Stanford education professor,

Youth of all descriptions–not just so-called disadvantaged youth–find insufficient supports in their communities to be able to move confidently and safely to adulthood. Many schools lock up tightly at 3 PM, sending children and youth into empty houses, barren neighborhoods, street corners, or malls. Youth interpret a local landscape void of engaging things for them to do as adult indifference (p. 107).

Community schools are usually formed out of partnerships with community agencies—health clinics, afterschool programs, tutoring programs—so that the school staff themselves can keep focusing on what goes on during the school day.

The community schools movement is supported by everyone from non-profits like the YMCA and Boys and Girls Club to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the two largest teachers’ unions in the country.

But once again, Kirp reminds us, this is a good idea that can still be poorly executed. There are good community schools and there are ineffective ones, and outcome measurements for community programs are often sorely lacking.

Kirp’s ideal in this category is the Children’s Aid Society, which runs 21 community schools in New York City. He describes in detail how these schools support teachers, cater to students’ extracurricular interest, and ultimately get results. Evaluations show better reading and math scores, higher attendance rates for both students and teachers, greater parental involvement, and fewer students being sent to special education.

Idea # 4: The Kindness of Strangers: Offering Kids a Helping Hand

The next step in Kirp’s agenda is mentoring. It’s not always enough, he says, to offer kids a stimulating school environment and to work with their parents. Kids often need a supportive adult from outside of their family and outside of the classroom, particularly in those situations where family and classroom are lacking.

The idea of mentoring has a long history. Kirp cites the 1882 “Handbook of Charity Organizations” which stated that, “The chief need of the poor today is not almsgiving, but the moral support of true friendship” (p. 144). Modern mentoring first came to the national stage when the Big Brothers Big Sisters program was found to have an empirically verifiable effect on mentees. Before that, Kirp says, mentoring programs could often sway private donors with anecdotes of individual cases where a mentor played a key role in a young person’s life, but the scientific study won over the government funders who could support the program on a national level. Ever since then mentoring has received strong non-partisan support in Washington.

The key to a successful mentoring program is commitment: the mentor must be able to meet with the mentee one-on-one, every week, for the long term. Anything less is counterproductive: “A relationship between an adult and a youngster that falls apart within six months can be psychologically damaging because it represents yet another instance of an undependable adult drifting through a kid’s life” (p. 146).

There have been a number of unsuccessful and untested programs, but “the textbook example of the tried-and-true” (p. 147) approach is still Big Brothers Big Sisters, which serves kids from all economic backgrounds nationwide. The program has been in operation for more than a century, and emphasizes the importance of social, casual activities rather than academics. The goal is to build a friendship, and their motto is “length + strength = outcomes.” According to the 1995 study, young people who have been in the program are considerably less likely to start using drugs or alcohol, are less aggressive, get along better with their families and do better in school.

Kirp adds, however, that the national population of volunteer mentors is always going to be lower than the number of young people who need them. Because of this he emphasizes the importance of a system-wide approach to supporting children, including all the other strategies described in this book.

When Big Brothers Big Sisters was expanding as a result of the evaluation, they initially cut down on the intensiveness of the commitment required from mentors in order to recruit more volunteers. A further evaluation found that watering down the program like this made it considerably less effective, so mentors are now much better trained, and their involvement is more rigorous. In order to sustain these results, the program takes surveys of each mentor and mentee before the program begins and then again after one year. The numbers are then made available to each affiliate program around the country, and underperforming programs are encouraged to learn from their more successful counterparts. The hardest part of the program is finding good mentors: men are harder to recruit than women, and men of color are harder to recruit than white men.

Idea #5: The Universal Piggy Bank: Giving Every Child a Nest Egg

Kirp’s final idea is a bit more direct: sometimes, what kids really need is just money. Even with support from birth through high school, it is still prohibitively expensive to go to college, and starting a career or a family is also financially precarious. The book’s fifth idea is to provide a trust fund for every child–even if it’s only a small amount of money, it will encourage parents and other supporters (and even the children themselves) to give more to the fund, and the money will be used as the child grows up for some career-starting endeavor like college. One incentive would be for the program to match 1-for-1 every dollar that the parents save for their child’s future. The primary goal is simply to encourage families to save rather than spend–the idea is that parents plan differently when they know they have money in the bank. A program like this has already been initiated for every child in the state of Maine, called the Harold Alfond College Challenge.

Although these programs have bipartisan support—conservatives see them as a way to “turn supplicants into investors” (p. 182), while liberals see them as a way to fight poverty—they are very rarely a high priority for lawmakers.

Conclusion: The Smart Politics of the Heart

Kirp concludes his analysis with a brief survey of the recent history of child-centric policies in the federal government and describes what the future might look like. He offers up some criticism of the children’s advocacy lobby, which is fractured into competing interests and unable to unify in support of a single agenda.

All of these initiatives Kirp describes could be implemented universally, are empirically shown to be effective, would not require any new government bureaucracy, and are comparably inexpensive per child. In fact, Kirp includes an appendix showing how much it would cost to implement these policies across the country, drawn from his experience as an advisor to policymakers. In order to completely implement the “kids first” agenda, he says, it would cost the government less than $70 billion dollars–which is, in the context of the federal budget, not very much, given that it would mean doing everything we can to support the nation’s children.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1. Do you have any personal experience with any of these programs—whether as a child, a teacher or a parent? Was your experience good or bad?

2. Do you know of any good children’s programs that Kirp neglects to mention? If you were to make your own list of five “big ideas” for children, would your list look like his?

3. Can you think of any challenge to Kirp’s assertion that spending on children’s programs is a good financial investment in the long run? Are there any economic reasons why the government should not spend more on these programs?

4. What would it take to get the government to support the “kids first agenda”? What is the biggest obstacle in the way?


1. Research has shown that there are a variety of ways that society can effectively meet the needs of children, from the moment of conception through the start of their career.

2. Programs that work with children should learn from the examples of the most effective programs. They should also evaluate their own work to prove to clients and supporters that they are really being effective.

3. Empirical evaluations are the key to getting public support for social programs.

Peter Bass
© 2018 CYS

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