In the late 1960s, education researchers in Israel began to notice a problem. An achievement gap had developed between preschool immigrant children and their peers. On their first day of school, kids from elsewhere in Asia and North Africa were substantially behind in educational outcomes. This gap would grow in school and have knock-on effects throughout their lives.
In response, in 1969 the NCJW Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem created the “Home Instruction for Parents and Preschool Youngsters” (HIPPY) program to boost the educational attainment of disadvantaged children. Nearly 50 years later, it works with around 30,000 families worldwide in 12 countries, soon to expand to 14.
The program empowers parents to become their child’s first teacher. Parents are partnered with trained home visitors, who are recruited from the community they are serving. These visitors — who are also parents — deliver a 30-week educational curriculum for parents to use with their children. This involves materials including role-play activities and storybooks, along with supplies like scissors and crayons. Each fortnight, a program coordinator brings the partners together to discuss any problems and offer reciprocal support.
As opposed to traditional teaching, HIPPY emphasises action and play, known to be essential for children’s early learning, which means parents do not need to be educated themselves. In fact, they don’t even need to be literate.
HIPPY has gained high-profile plaudits. Hillary Clinton, who helped the program’s transfer from Israel to Arkansas in the 1980s, extolled its virtues during the 2016 presidential campaign. Her husband Bill Clinton said during his speech at the Democratic National Committee that “there are a lot of young adults in America who are enjoying better lives because they were in that program.”
So what has HIPPY done to garner so much praise, and does it really improve the life chances of disadvantaged kids?
Closing the achievement gap
When HIPPY was first piloted in a poor neighbourhood in Tel Aviv, the results were encouraging: kids who had HIPPY support were better-prepared for school than those who didn’t. As a result, it was adopted by the Israeli Ministry of Education and soon gained international attention in the 1980s.
A number of studies suggest that HIPPY works. One study in New Zealand showed HIPPY boosted kids’ reading ability and school readiness. Another, in Texas, found HIPPY improved language proficiency. And, in Australia, HIPPY was found to enhance child behaviour and reduce hostile parenting.
What’s more, the US program was selected as one of the first set of home-visiting interventions to meet evidence standards for federal funding. One US study even suggested that for every $1,837 invested per child, it yields $3,313 in future benefits, including the avoidance of future costs such as crime and teen pregnancy.
“When children go into kindergarten and we ask the teachers who don’t know who’s been in the program, they can pick those kids out right away,” said Dr Miriam Westheimer, HIPPY’s International Director.
But HIPPY fared less successfully in a randomised controlled trial (RCT), sometimes considered the gold standard of evidence. In the one trial which has been run, the results were inconclusive. Importantly, the study identified considerable variation in parental involvement in HIPPY, which suggests that poor implementation may undermine the program’s impact.
“RCTs are very expensive and if I can find an extra couple of hundred thousand dollars, I’m going to put it into African countries,” explained Westheimer. While evidence is important, she said, it should not get in the way of helping more families.
HIPPY is relatively low-cost which helps explain why it has scaled so successfully: staff only tend to need low-level training and interventions take place in the home as opposed to expensive centres.
Westheimer first brought the program to the US herself. She said transplanting it was laborious at first, but now the program spreads very quickly. “My philosophy is that we have to get it off the ground quickly, see how it works in that country and then find investment to work on the curriculum,” she said.
In order to get started rapidly in a new country, the materials are initially re-used from somewhere else, such as in Liberia (which started with HIPPY USA’s English-language texts) or Guatemala (which started with HIPPY USA Spanish). A tiny pilot project is set up, aiming to provide results that prompt government to scale it up. Although HIPPY is an NGO, it provides its services on behalf of numerous government agencies, from the German Ministry of the Interior to the municipal government of Buenos Aires.
“In the early days, it seemed quite challenging actually, translating materials and training people and all of that,” said Westheimer. However, after years of experience, they can now get it up and running “in about a week.”
Importantly, the concept eventually has to be adapted to each local context. That works by drawing the home visitors from the same community as the parents they’re visiting, so as to avoid any problems of miscommunication or cultural dissonance.
In countries like Liberia, Australia or New Zealand, the storybooks have been replaced with local narratives, re-written to fit the curriculum. And countries with the resources to do it, such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, have taken the concept and written entirely new curricula and created new materials.
But ultimately the model always runs on the same principles: in a child’s early years, parents are their first teachers and have a great deal of scope to impact their child’s educational development.
“The core concept is that we work with parents who want to help their children succeed, and that’s a universal concept,” said Westheimer. “It’s as true in New York City as it is in Monrovia or aboriginal Australia.”
(Picture credit: Pexels)