An Interview with David Kirp: Kids First

Michael F. Shaughnessy – My experience as a member of the 2008 Presidential Transition Team, where I was working on education policy, prompted me to write Kids First.

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico 

1)      David, your latest book, Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives and America’s Future is really getting a lot of publicity and discussion. What led up to this book? 

My experience as a member of the 2008 Presidential Transition Team, where I was working on education policy, prompted me to write Kids First. We must have met with 150 groups, each with its’ particular cause-the needs of English language learners, Vocational Education Students, Native American, Head Start students and so on—and while each group was doubtlessly well-intentioned, no one was interested in linking these concerns. Instead of thinking in terms of system of support, there was a raft of disconnected programs, each with its own advocates.  KIDS FIRST aims at building those links, developing a cradle to college strategy that meets the golden rule test- every child deserves what you’d want for a child you love.

2)      Why do we have to renew, revamp and re-energized public support for children? (Especially now in these bad economic times?)


Americans consistently tell pollsters that the needs of children are high on their priority list. For some it’s a matter of making a sound investment in the future- for kids are our best investment—and for others, it a matter of being a good steward, leaving our children at least as well off as we are, but parents aren’t politically savvy, children’s organizations can’t agree on priorities and too many politicians still believe that aside from providing great photo ops, kids don’t matter because kids don’t vote. They’re wrong, but they need convincing.

3)      David, I think every American wants all children to have a shot at the American dream. Yet, teenage pregnancy runs rampant (and yes I have the statistics to show you ). Should we first start at attempting to end teenage pregnancy, so that sincerely wanted, and desired children can be nurtured, mentored and well educated?

Teen pregnancy does indeed remain a real problem, though the data shows that the rate of teen pregnancy has been slowly steadily declining. But as I discuss in KIDS FIRST the research demonstrates that the most effective way to discourage teens from becoming pregnant isn’t with a finger wagging abstinence class or a banana-and-condom demonstration of safe sex but by showing adolescents that there are alternative possibilities. This means embedding education about responsible sex in the context of youth development; that’s one thing community schools can accomplish.

4)      Let’s face it. You have to take a paper test , then a road test to get a driver’s license. Yet any two 18 year olds can get married and have kids and proceed to wreck the lives of those kids. What do we need to be doing to ensure that all kids get good parenting?

Everyone understands that parents are children’s first and most influential teachers, but as you rightly say, little is done to help them do the best job they can. Most of the policy makers’ attention has focused on evidence based programs that target poor families, like the Nurse- Family partnership. The problem is that such initiatives are expensive and reach relatively few families. In KIDS FIRST I write about an initiative called Triple P (Positive Parenting Program) that aims to change parenting practices across entire communities by applying top parenting the social marketing lessons learned in the campaigns to combat smoking and drunk driving. There’s solid data showing that the program works including a recent 22 Country study in South Carolina sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control. Though Triple OP is widely used in Australia and Europe it may well be the best kept secret for improving parenting in the U.S.  If it is widely implemented, Triple P has the Potential of Turning Parenting Support from “ Poor People Need Help “ into something as taken-for-granted as kindergarten or public libraries.

5)      I have been a Head Start evaluator, and have worked with Head Start. How do we ensure that nationwide all kids in Head Start get a very good quality education?

By coincidence, I just met with the Whip Smart Head Start Director in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His program has been evaluated many times, he told me, but on no occasion did the evaluators ask how the kids were doing and what metric the program was using to evaluate their progress. Instead, the evaluators were fixated on making sure that teachers had the right number of child development courses and that all the electric sockets were covered. Head Start is the one nationwide program for poor kids; we need to make it better, not trash it. But Washington needs to get local programs to adopt evidence-based curricula and to help with their implementation. Otherwise, we’ll continue to get the kind of dismal outcomes that were reported in the 2010 National Head Start Impact Study- results that embolden conservative politicians to gut the program.

6)      David, you can look me up as I have been writing about mentoring since the early 80’s. But so few adults actually get involved in mentoring? How do you and I (and maybe Peter Benson) turn this around?

Getting adults involved in mentoring is, as you point out, the hardest thing to achieve, but 10,000 men and women are turning sixty every day. When polled, many of them say they want to get involved in their communities, and next to church activities helping kids is their number one priority. A National organization called Experience Corps, which I talk about in KIDS FIRST, is bringing thousands of adults into the classrooms, but more need to be done. More needs to be done as well to sustain the interest of college students: They volunteer a lot while they’re in school, but then do far less once they graduate. The most critical shortage is African-American men; here, black churches need to be enlisted in getting the word out, expanding programs like Atachi, which have been so valuable to African American youth.


7)      David, I have to agree with you 1000 percent on trying to provide a nest egg for college  (and maybe even graduate school) for kids. Who are going to tell parents that they had better start saving or else their kids are going to up to the necks in debt?

The miracle of compound interest is that putting aside a little bit of money-say $50.00 a month, generates a sizeable return. And $40 isn’t unrealistic; it what poor families in Britain were able to do when a national child savings account program was in place (It was eliminated as part of the Tory Government’s cuts last spring). If the government kick starts the program by investing, say $500.00 for each newborn, $ 1000 for families earning less than $40,000, and then offering to match contributions that those families make, the evidence suggests that those families will get into the savings habit. When that happens, parents think harder about options for their kids- and the kids become more money-smart. It’s an idea that should have bipartisan appeal; for liberals, it promotes equity, and for conservatives, it creates a generation of little capitalists

8)           What are some of your ideas of linking schools and communities?

At present, most schools run on a 19th Century Model: 8AM- 3 PM, five days a week, from September to June. As Arne Duncan has said, schools should be neighborhood hubs, open from sunrise to sunset, 12 months a year. That means more opportunities for kids, including medical care on the school premises, engaging activities (science projects, art and music, sports) . It also means bringing the talents of the community into the schools, and every community, however blighted, has something to contribute. Ideally, parents should be able to draw on the resources of the school. It should be a place where they can study for the GED or learn English or learn a trade. That approach which is similar to what the Education Department  has promoted with its Promise Neighborhoods Initiative is a potential game-changer for kids and for communities as well.  

9)           What have I neglected to ask?

You’ve asked great questions about the Big Five Ideas I write about in KIDS FIRST. Each of these ideas , by itself, can make a difference, but we need to think about connecting the dots ,  looking at the synergies between programs, building a system of supports that can help helping kids acquire both human capital ( better–trained minds) and social capital ( the capacity to navigate the world around them ).


10)        Where can people get a copy of your book? Do you have a web site?

The book is available through the publisher, public affairs, on Amazon, and at bookstores near you (if it’s not there, nudge the bookstore to order it. Here’s an offer that authors don’t usually make. If you buy KIDS FIRST and don’t like it, send me an e-mail at  and I will refund your money. I am that confident that anyone from parents to policy makers, with a stake in kids’ futures will get something of value from the book.



Leave a comment


February 24th, 2011

Michael F. Shaughnessy Senior Columnist

Career Index

Plan your career as an educator using our free online datacase of useful information.

View All

On Twitter

OECD report shows #education spending in US falling, but rising in the UK #edchat #ukedchat #edreform

13 hours ago

Not only do kids want more #edtech in the classroom, they think they know more tech than teachers #education #edchat

13 hours ago

Normandy students can transfer, but one school requiring individual court order for each student #education #edchat

13 hours ago

On Facebook


Enter your email to subscribe to daily Education News!

Hot Topics