At the Democratic National Convention this week, Bill Clinton gave a shout-out to a program called Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youth. In HIPPY, as it's called, parents receive free books, educational materials and weekly home visits to coach them on how to get their young children ready for school.
"Twenty years of research has shown how well this program works to improve readiness for school and academic achievement. There are a lot of young adults in America ... who are enjoying better lives because they were in that program," Clinton said.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, has been a champion of HIPPY for decades. She has made assistance in childcare and early childhood education a key plank of her campaign, including doubling funding for home-visit programs like HIPPY.
A Clinton campaign video features Bill Clinton, in a speech, crediting his wife with bringing the program to the U.S. from Israel when she was first lady of Arkansas in 1985.
"She comes in one day, jumping up and down happy," the former president says in the video. "She says, 'I found it. A preschool program in Israel that teaches people to be their children's first teachers even if they're illiterate. I think it could work here.' "
"Clinton discovered the program many years ago when it came to the U.S.," says Margie Margolies, the chairwoman of HIPPY USA's board (no relation to Marjorie Margolies, Chelsea Clinton's mother-in-law). "She was instrumental in growing the program in Arkansas when Bill was governor. She had been working for a way to boost the educational start of children in Arkansas, so she reached out to the Israeli founder to find out how to scale it up. Arkansas is still one of our largest programs."
HIPPY is currently in 21 states and D.C., with 15,000 participants each year. Could HIPPY scale up nationwide? Should it?
Decades of independent research, including randomized controlled trials, shows that children ages 3, 4 and 5 who participate in HIPPY are more prepared for school. Studies in four states found that higher reading, math and social studies scores persisted into third, fifth and sixth grades.
Teachers report that parents who participate in HIPPY become more involved in their children's educations for years to come. HIPPY seems to blunt the impact on school performance of factors like being an English-language learner. Children who go through the program also seem to have better attendance, behavior, peer interactions and academic self-esteem.
Although Margolies says that she wouldn't want to "pit" HIPPY against universal pre-K programs, the fact remains that the home-visit program seems to produce similar effects on kids at a lower cost per participant. And there are ancillary benefits, like connecting families to housing, health care and job assistance.
Of course, it's hard to control for the enthusiasm factor. Low-income, working parents who are willing to sign up for 30 straight weeks of home visits, and then actually stick with the program (with no payments or other incentives beyond a few free books), must be exceptionally committed to their children's welfare.
But, if nothing else, the success of HIPPY demonstrates that it is possible to close the notorious "word gap" and change parents' behavior.
"It really makes a huge difference in people's lives," says Margolies, who has been with the program in Milwaukee for nearly two decades. "I'm lucky enough to have seen in many years how much more confidence the parents have."
Many of the home-visit coaches, she says, began as parents in the program. "We have a woman right now, it's her first job ever. She was a parent and she's being trained as a home visitor. ... It's a great start for parents too, not just for kids."
A version of this story ran on NPR Ed in May 2016.