Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Parenting Gap for Pre-Preschool

For a number of American children, a preschool program like Head Start is too late and too little. It's too late because it doesn't start until age 3 or 4, and for a number of at-risk groups substantial cognitive gaps are already apparent at that age. It's too little because whatever the merits of Head Start (and I've expressed some skepticism about the program here and here), it's a program that only has the children for a few hours a day. It's time to tackle a more controversial and difficult reality that is blocking equality of opportunity for many American children: the low quality of the parenting they receive. Richard V. Reeves, Isabel Sawhill and Kimberley Howard open up this subject in their essay "The Parenting Gap," which appears in the Fall 2013 issue of Democracy. (A background paper with some statistics and numerical calculations by Reeves and Howard is available here.)

Reeves, Sawhill, and Howard discuss some of the evidence that parents with lower levels of income or education provide a lower quality of parenting in terms of time and enrichment For example: 

"High-income parents talk with their school-aged children for three hours more per week than low-income parents, according to research by Meredith Phillips of UCLA.They also provide around four-and-a-half extra hours per week of time in novel or stimulating places, such as parks or churches, for their infants and toddlers. Less-advantaged parents are struggling to make a living and often lack a partner to help them build better lives. Less money typically means more stress, tougher neighborhoods, and fewer choices. This is not to say that there has been a deterioration in parental investment in poorer families. In fact, parents without a high-school diploma spent more than twice as much time each day with their children in the 2000s than they did in the mid-1970s, according to data from the American Heritage Time Use Study, marshaled by Harvard’s Robert Putnam. But parents with at least a bachelor’s degree increased their investment of time more than fourfold over the same period, opening up a gap in time spent with kids, especially in the preschool years. The quality of time matters as much as the quantity of time, of course. In a famous study from the mid-1990s, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley from the University of Kansas found large gaps in the amount of conversation by social and economic background. Children in families on welfare heard about 600 words per hour, working-class children heard 1,200 words, while children from professional families heard 2,100 words. By the age of three, Hart and Risley estimated, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words at home than one from a professional family. .... Our analysis suggests that the biggest gaps are not between the helicopter parents at the top and ordinary families in the middle, but between the middle and the bottom.  "

The effects of different qualities of parenting are apparent early in life.

"Gaps in cognitive ability by income background open up early in life, according to research by Tamara Halle and her colleagues at Child Trends, a non-profit research center focused on children and youth. Children in families with incomes lower than 200 percent of the federal poverty line score, on average, one-fifth of a standard deviation below higher-income children on the standard Bayley Cognitive Assessment at nine months—but more than half a standard deviation below higher-income peers at two years. This is the social science equivalent of the difference between a gully and a valley. These early months are critical for developing skills in language and reasoning—and, of course, months in which parents play the most important role. Closing ability gaps in the first two years of life—pre-pre-K, if you like—means, by definition, closing the parenting gap. ... Research to date suggests that parenting accounts for around one-third of the gaps in development ..."

 As the authors point out, public policy about parenting is an ideological hot potato. Conservatives tend to be comfortable with judging some parenting as low quality, but uncomfortable with enacting any public policy to change the situation. Liberals are in theory more comfortable enacting policies to help low-income children, but are often so deeply uncomfortable with making any judgments about the quality of parenting that they prefer to advocate policies like government support of preschool, or assistance with income and jobs for those in need. The authors are also brutally honest that the evidence for the effectiveness of public policy in this area is not strong: "Let us be blunt: The evidence, in fact, is that many attempts  to use tax dollars to improve parenting have failed to show significant effects. In particular, it is hard to find evaluations providing strong evidence that outcomes for the children are permanently influenced—surely the ultimate objective."

However, they also point out that other countries like Netherlands and the United Kingdom have much more active programs of home visitation for parents of newborns. In the U.S., the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010 allocates $1.5 billion over five years for increased home visitation programs. Studies by the Department of Human Services have identified several home visitation programs that had some effect at least one year after enrollment. A private organization called the Nurse Family Partnership has been testing and expanding approached to home visitation for several decades. Under these kinds of programs, new parents and parents of pre-school children might receive biweekly home visits invitations to regular meeting groups of new parents, and perhaps also some access to educational books and toys.

Again, the evidence about long-term efficacy of such programs, especially at a large scale, is still in a nascent stage. But these authors offer a radical thought: It may well be true that the government should reallocate a substantial share of the money that it currently spends on preschool programs and move it toward parental visit programs for families with very young children. Reeves, Sawhill, and Howard write: "Parents influence their child’s fortunes right from their first breath, while pre-K is aimed at 4-year-olds. In child-development terms, four years is an eon. By the time pre-K kicks in, big differentials in test scores are already apparent. ... In the last five years, the federal government has allocated $37.5 billion to Head Start—25 times as much as promised to home-visiting programs over the next five. This may not be the optimum ratio in terms of promoting greater mobility and opportunity. ..."