Early Childhood and Mobility: An Interview with Jane Waldfogel

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
May 21, 2012

economic-mobilityJane Waldfogel is a professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University School of Social Work. She has written extensively on the impact of public policies on child and family well-being. She also contributed research to the RSF volumes Persistence, Privilege and Parenting and From Parents to Children.

Q: As part of our volume Privilege, Parenting and Persistence, you and Elizabeth Washbrook examined income-related gaps in school readiness among children in the U.S. and the U.K. You found that parenting behavior played a big part in the significant disparities between the children. What parental practices are we talking about here?

A: The most important aspect of parenting, in particular for young children, is whether it is responsive and sensitive to the child. This is of course difficult to measure, so often in large datasets we have to rely on measures of other aspects of parenting, such as whether the parent provides cognitively stimulating materials (such as books and toys), whether the parent is warm and supportive of the child, or whether the parent uses harsh discipline. Reading with children is also important, particularly for early literacy and language development.

Q: Several policymakers have suggested that improving children's outcomes needs to involve encouraging better parenting. Barack Obama, for example, often exhorts parents to read more to their children. But what does the research tell us about the success of initiatives in changing family practices? Are there any promising efforts on the horizon?

A: We have known for some time that parenting is really important for children’s outcomes, but until recently, the consensus among social scientists was that we did not have much rigorous evidence that parenting programs are effective at improving parenting and children’s outcomes. But this has been changing. We now have good evidence, from randomized controlled trials, that well-designed programs can be effective at improving parenting and child outcomes. One of the best examples in this regard is the Nurse-Family Partnership Program, which is now being expanded nationwide (and in other countries such as the United Kingdom).

Q: Let's move to your two chapters in From Parents to Children. Your analysis of early childhood outcomes in the U.S., UK, Australia and Canada finds that even as early as age 5, there are significant gaps in readiness to learn between children of advantaged and disadvantaged families. Are these gaps caused more by advantaged families pulling away from the rest, or disadvantaged families raising children well below the mainstream?

A: Although we often think of school readiness or achievement gaps in terms of disadvantaged children lagging behind the mainstream, there is also a gap at the top, caused by children of more advantaged families pulling away from the rest. So both types of gaps exist, and when you add up the two gaps, the resulting disparity—between children of the most advantaged and children of the most advantaged—is large.

Q: These early childhood inequalities would be less alarming if the gaps decreased as children progressed through the school system. But in another chapter, you and co-authors found that in the U.S. and the U.K., these gaps persist or even widen as children move through school. Do we know why that’s the case?

A: We are still working on understanding why gaps don’t close, and may even widen, during the school years. It may be that factors having to do with schools are disequalizing, and/or it may be that out of school influences are acting to increase inequality. Our analysis of the U.S. and the U.K. does however suggest that the gaps evolve in different ways in the two countries. For example, gaps seem to narrow in the first few years of school in the U.S., but not thereafter. In the U.K., gaps are pretty flat during primary school, but then widen notably in secondary school. These results suggest that school factors are playing a role.

Q: So now that we know these disparities exist—and that they tend to be larger among younger kids in the U.S. and the U.K. than Australia and Canada—what are the next steps in terms of research? Can we reach a point where we identify particular policies that equalize the playing field?

A: That’s our goal. We’d like to know if early childhood policies are playing a role in producing smaller gaps in Australia and Canada than in the U.S. and the U.K., and if so, which policies are responsible. We’d also like to know how these gaps evolve as children move through the school years in the 4 countries. In particular, if gaps are reduced during the school years in Australia or Canada, there may be some lessons for the U.S. and the U.K.


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