I’ve come across a few reports in the news recently about the tendencies of certain demographic groups to send their children to preschool (or not). For example, I read this recently: “In Illinois, Latino children were half as likely to enroll in preschool as white and African-American students, a disparity that threatens to widen the academic divide between them, according to a new report out Tuesday.” There were also the recent reports about the shockingly huge achievement gaps between African-American boys and White boys on the National Assessment of Educational Progress assessment in fourth grade. Most reports that I read on these NAEP results highlighted the idea that these gaps start well before children enter kindergarten.
I was pondering these two news reports when the latest issue of Child Development arrived in my mailbox. Included was an article by Daphna Bassok entitled “Do Black and Hispanic Children Benefit More From Preschool? Understanding Differences in Preschool Effects Across Racial Groups?” Using a nationally representative sample of over 7000 children, she examined differences in the effect of preschool for different racial and ethnic groups after first taking into account a wide variety of child and family characteristics that might be related to choosing to put a child in care and to child development. She found that, among children living in poverty, there were no racial or ethnic differences in the impact of preschool. Poor children who attended preschool scored about a quarter of a standard deviation higher on a literacy assessment, on average, than their peers who did not attend preschool, regardless of their racial or ethnic background. Among the non-poor sample, the effects of attending preschool were much larger for Black children and Hispanic children whose families primarily speak Spanish than for White children and Hispanic children whose families primarily speak English.
These findings are interesting, but they leave me feeling unsettled. As I pondered these results, I came to the conclusion that this research cannot be used to inform policy and practice until we really understand why we see this pattern of results. All of my academic training was heavily influenced by the ideas of Urie Bronfenbrenner and his students (one of his students was my advisor in graduate school). Bronfenbrenner argued that it is impossible to understand child development without examining the context in which children develop. Groundbreaking at the time, these ideas are well-known and accepted now. Bronfenbrenner also warned against too much reliance on what he called “social address variables” in research. These are demographic characteristics (e.g., race, ethnicity, poverty status) that are often related to differences in development, but they tell you absolutely nothing about why such differences exist. Social address variables are useful as a starting point for researchers because they are easy to collect. It is a lot easier to ask someone their race than it is to delve deeply into every aspect of what their culture means to them. However, Bronfenbrenner argued that we should always strive to go a step further to understand the processes or mechanisms that produce differences that we see among social address groups. For example, there could be differences is parenting beliefs or the quality of preschool that are associated with race that might, in part, explain the differences we see in child outcomes. Bassok’s study used data from a large-scale study that was simply not designed to go much beyond the social address. However, we as a community have an opportunity to generate hypotheses about why she found what she did. What do you think is going on in children’s everyday lives that might explain why these differences exist? And perhaps more importantly, what hypotheses do you have about how our ECE policies and practices could be shaped to meet all children where they are and prepare them well for school?