While President Obama launched a $1 billion dollar public/private push to expand early childhood education this week, some are arguing that better preschool, however helpful, may be too little too late for many kids.
Fawn Johnson at The Atlantic, who lives in a mixed neighborhood in Washington, D.C., describes a recent conversation she had with a lower income single parent neighbor. The neighbor was struck at how sophisticated Johnson’s child’s vocabulary was and wanted to know what she could do for her own four-year old daughter.
Read to her out loud, Johnson answered, echoing advice offered by the nation’s pediatricians earlier this year, as reported in the Deseret News.
“Reading aloud introduces more and different words into the vocabulary of both parent and child at a time when the child’s brain is growing at its fastest,” Johnson writes in the Atlantic. “Researchers have found that 86 percent to 98 percent of a child’s vocabulary by age 3 consists of words used by his or her parents. It’s no wonder, then, that young kids of professional parents know twice as many words as the kids of low-income parents. By age 4, the average child in a poor family might have experienced 13 million fewer words than the average child in a working-class family.”
“Research says the more highly educated the parent is, the better a child’s vocabulary and learning ability will be, almost automatically,” Johnson writes.
The elephant in the living room, which Johnson points to, is that the greatest risk falls on the children of poor, uneducated and single mothers.
Educating and helping those mothers move forward in their lives is a double win policy proposition, Johnson argues, because it will help the child while also create a more productive adult.
“A mother who has a baby at 17 will still only be 29 by the time her kid is 12. That’s plenty of time to help her become productive in work and home. And once her child is grown, she has years ahead of her to contribute to the economy,” Johnson writes.
The impact of either parent’s education levels on the life chances of a child are significant, Brookings Institution scholar Richard Reeves noted in an earlier piece in the Deseret News.
“It hugely helps if you are raised by married parents,” Reeves said. “I don’t think anyone disagrees now that family stability matters hugely for kids’ life chances.”
Reeves argued that upward mobility among Asian immigrants is higher than Latinos or African Americans in part because they enjoy greater family stability.
In the same article, Richard Lerman of American University noted that the best way to improve life chances for children is to be married before having children. “Growing up with both parents increases your odds of becoming highly educated, which in turn leads to higher odds of being married as an adult,” Lerman said.