By Sara Mead
July 27, 2017
Upper-middle-class American professionals spend a lot on their children's education and development. That fact – hardly news to anyone who has spent time with such parents – has gotten a lot of media attention lately, thanks to a new book by Brookings scholar Richard Reeves and a David Brooks column.
Reeves' contention – that affluent professionals' investments in their kids serve to entrench a system of education-based privilege that makes it very hard for children from less advantaged backgrounds to advance up the socioeconomic ladder – has spurred heated debates on mainstream and social media.
These debates, however, often overlook just how early disparities in learning begin. Abundant research also shows that children's earliest learning experiences and outcomes also vary considerable based on their parents' incomes and education.
The famous Hart and Risley study shows that children of professional parents are exposed to 30 million more words before age three than children from families in poverty, with significant consequences for language and cognitive development.
Middle-class children are also more likely to be read to or exposed to educational and cultural opportunities, such as museums, zoos and libraries, than children in poverty.
As a result, by the time they enter kindergarten, children from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds are already far behind their peers in the highest quartile of socioeconomic status on measures of early reading and math skills.
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High-quality early childhood education programs can prevent or mitigate these disparities, but our current early care and education arrangements often exacerbate them instead. With 65 percent of mothers of young children working, most families need some type of child care for their children while mom is at work, but families' ability to access quality care varies based on income.
Paying for care is a big challenge for low-income families: Census data indicates that poor families who pay for childcare spend 30 percent of their incomes on care, compared to 8 percent for families not in poverty.
This means that lower-income families are less likely to send their children to formal child care at all, instead relying on a patchwork of informal arrangements. But such unstable arrangements don't support children's development or their parents' ability to maintain stable employment.
For low-income families who do use formal child care, the high percentage of income going to care means less money for other investments in children's learning and development, such as books, museum trips or college savings.
The upshot is that children who most need quality early learning are the least likely to get it: Nearly 90 percent of 4-year-olds from families making over $100,000 attend preschool, compared to less than two-thirds of children in poverty. Programs like Head Start and state-funded preschool help many low-income children.
But working-class and moderate-income children, whose parents make too much to qualify for publicly funded programs, but not enough to afford private preschool, are less likely than either rich or poor kids to attend preschool, amplifying the growing education disparities between children of professional and working class parents.
Are these early learning disparities solely a reflection of professional parents' type-A approach to childrearing? Sure, some upper-middle-class parents do some ridiculous things in the name of supporting their preschoolers' development.
The deeper issue here, however, is that our country lacks systems of support for parents across the income spectrum to raise their children.
The United States is the only developed country that does not guarantee some paid maternity leave. We are also unique among developed countries in that our public policies and systems for early childhood education are not built on an expectation of universal access to preschool for all children ages 3-5. And we spend a smaller percentage of GDP on supporting young children and their families than most developed countries.
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To be clear, parents, not government, are responsible for raising young children. But public policies can support parents to fulfill their responsibilities by helping them balance family and work responsibilities, cultivating a stable and thriving child care market, and helping lower and moderate income families pay for the costs of child care and early education. Our current systems and policies by and large don't do that. And as a result, too many American families are largely on their own.
This has particularly negative effects for low-income children and their families, who lack the resources that enable affluent families to compensate for gaps in our current systems. But the status quo doesn't work that well for affluent families, either. Much has been written about elite professional parents' struggles to balance demands of work and family. And in many urban areas, highly educated professionals can't find the kinds of high-quality early-learning experiences they want for their children, even when they can afford to pay dearly for them. The same forces that price low-income families out of the market also undermine supply of the services that higher-income families want.
Yet that depressing reality may also provide a reason for hope: In his book and articles, Reeves highlights policies and systemic arrangements, in both public K-12 schooling and higher education, that entrench the educational advantage of affluent Americans, creating a perceived zero sum game where efforts to advance equity for disadvantaged youngsters garner opposition from affluent parents seeking to preserve their children's advantages.
There is room for disagreement about Reeves' diagnosis.
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In early childhood, however, where current systemic arrangements fail to meet the needs of both low-income families and more affluent parents, there's an opportunity to build common cause around strategies to support parents and strengthen the early childhood sector in ways that both enhance equity for disadvantaged children and help affluent parents to find and purchase the kinds of high-quality care they want.
Some critics have argued that increased public investment in early childhood programs, such as universal preschool, will increase, rather than mitigate educational inequities, because affluent parents will find ways to manipulate new programs to further advance their children's advantages. This is largely a policy design, question, however.
Many other countries have been able to build systems that make preschool universally accessible and support all families, while also targeting increased support to the most at-risk children, thereby mitigating inequities. And these systems seem to work better in addressing inequality than the patchwork of means-tested early learning programs that exists in the United States today.
Inequitable access to educational opportunity is a serious problem in our country today – and one that starts far sooner than we often realize. If we're serious about extending opportunity and increasing social mobility for all children, we need to start sooner.
Sara Mead is a partner with Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping education organizations become more effective in their work and achieve dramatic results for students. In this role, she writes and conducts policy analysis on issues related to early childhood education and K-12 education reform and provides strategic advising support to clients serving high-need students. Follow her on Twitter at @saramead.