Volume 25

The Even Start Family Literacy Program: The Rise and Fall of Family Literacy and the Need for its Return

by Jennifer Soliman

In 1988, the federal government launched the Even Start Program, later to be called the Even Start Family Literacy Program, to address the nation’s growing illiteracy issues. Millions of adults in America were illiterate and their children often followed suit, making America’s illiteracy an intergenerational issue. The program was built on the belief that children’s early learning is greatly influenced by their parents, and so a child’s educational success was tied to parents’ ability to be their child’s “first teacher.” It aimed to attack illiteracy through the family unit by simultaneously providing adult and child education and enhancing parenting skills. The program grew nationally, reaching its peak in 2002, but soon after met its demise because three national evaluations could not find support for its success.

There is a need for a program that moves with the family and within the home. Nonetheless, Even Start should not be revived as it once was but should be revised so as to allow projects funded under the program to better focus on the needs of the local communities being served. Part I of this Note will analyze the purpose of the family focused illiteracy solution and the evolution of one such example, Even Start. It will first examine the rise of family literacy programs. It will then describe the design of Even Start, its subsequent expansion through federal legislation to better utilize the family unit to alleviate illiteracy, and finally its demise. Part II will analyze the evaluations of the program noting the positive gains of participants. It will examine the inconsistent national evaluations that both did and did not support Even Start’s success by first explaining how the target population was served, and then demonstrating the positive, but statistically insignificant, gains of the program’s core focus areas: Child education outcomes, parent education outcomes, and the parent-child relationship. Part II will then analyze the flaws in the design of the national evaluations arguing they should not have been the basis for the program’s elimination. Part III will analyze the insufficiency of current literacy approaches and need for a program similar to Even Start to address the illiteracy issue. It will examine how current federal programs do not address the intergenerational illiteracy issue because of their one-dimensional focus. It will conclude with possible revisions to the Even Start program if it were to be reinvigorated.

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