It Is Not As Easy As ABC
A recently released study finds that children from poor families are better off if they spend more time in day care starting at an earlier age. The Abecedarian Project (named for the first four letters of the alphabet), conducted at the University of North Carolina, followed "treated" underprivileged Black children and a control group from the same population for twenty years starting from infancy. According to the Boston Globe, the study found that after enrollment in a high quality, full-day, year-round day care, "young black adults from poor families were twice as likely to still be in school as children in conventional care programs or who stayed at home with a parent. They also scored significantly higher on reading and math achievement tests, were more likely to have a job and had their first children later in life."
It may very well be true that day care has positive effects - academic and otherwise - on children, and therefore is worthy of support. But when studies like this get published and the press releases make the rounds in the media, I think it's important to examine some of the underlying assumptions about what we think is positive for children, what it means when poor Black children are "treated" and evaluated for 20 years, and how progressives can lobby for short-term goals while keeping a long-range vision in mind.
I have no competing studies or scientific data to compare to the work produced by the Abecedarian folks, but here are my questions and critical comments.
According to an article in The American Scientist, the Abecedarian Project participants scored about 5 points higher than control group children in IQ tests, and they maintained the advantage. The IQ scores of both groups seem to hover in the 95 to 100 range. Since IQ test have been widely criticized as employing language and concepts that favor white, middle-class children, and since IQ tests do not test for all kinds of "intelligence," and since it 's questionable anyway if there is much of a scientific definition of intelligence, how meaningful is it that one group scored on average 5 points more than the other? Even if you believe IQ tests have some value, is a 5-point difference significant? My guess is that, at least in part, children in full-time, year-round day care would score better on IQ tests because they would be better test-takers, better at knowing what authorities expected of them, and more schooled in white middle-class language and communication norms.
Much of what we consider academic achievement is a measure of how well students give back to the teacher what she or he wants to hear and how well they adapt to the rote work that dominates most school rooms. The Abecedarian study implies that being touched by "high quality" day care during the early years somehow improves childrens' brain function. It may be that instead what is happening is that many years of full-time preschool helps prepare children to better fit into a school environment and score higher on achievement tests.
Is it inherently positive for children to do better in school? That depends on a number of questions. Is the school any good? Is it teaching things that you hope children will be good at? Is there a cost to helping children do better in school? For example, in the case of the Abecedarian participants, what did they miss by being spending so much time in day care? While they were learning to function well in a full-time school environment, they missed time being part of their families and communities, and learning and affirming the values, cultural norms, and attachments that spring from that environment. Whether or not that is a loss or a gain, and how one would attempt to measure it, are big questions. But the Abecedarian study seems to skirt such issues altogether.
When we read about studies like this one, which remove poor Black children from their families and communities for most of their waking hours, we should remember how white middle class norms and culture tend to be elevated while all "others" are pathologized and "corrected" by well-meaning social workers, educators, and other professionals.
Abecedarian participants were more likely to have a job (though what kinds of jobs they had, the study does not mention), and were more likely to have their children later in life - on average at age 19 rather than age 17. Is it inherently better to have a job than not? Not necessarily. Many who work are still poor, have no benefits, few opportunities for advancement, and few opportunities to be creative or control the design and outcome of their labors. If the mostly Black Abecedarian participants are getting pre-schooled and schooled to join the ranks of underpaid, underutilized, rote workers, is that a significant achievement?
Likewise, the age of becoming parents. Is it significantly different to have children at age 19 rather than age 17? In both cases, it seems to me, you are an extremely young adult. In neither case have you had time to finish college, launch a career, satisfy adult goals or projects that would be facilitated by being childless.
For many families - underprivileged and otherwise - access to a full-time, year-round, high-quality day care would be a boon. Let's fight to make sure those who want it have access to it, and that communities have a say over what day cares offer to children. Let's also fight to ensure that families and communities do not have to have their children whisked away to a "highly stimulating" environment to get their needs met. Decent health care, rewarding work, fair pay across race, gender and class, and well-nurtured communities would go a long way toward supporting families to give their children what they determine they need.