Sociologist separates truth from rhetoric in studies of educational experience
Eighteen years ago, the federal government enlisted leading researchers to study the effects of childcare on early development. What the researchers couldn’t have anticipated was that this monumental research would still be going on today.
What began as a 10-site study of 1,300 children, all born in 1991, expected to last up to three years has evolved into much more, as approximately 1,000 of those children, now teenagers, continue to be studied in additional research.
That’s where Robert Crosnoe, a University of Texas at Austin sociologist specializing in adolescents and inequality, comes in. As some of the initial infant and early childhood experts dropped out of the research to make way for new areas of specialization, Crosnoe became the network’s only sociologist.
“I spent all this time studying inequality in high school and what do you do about that,” Crosnoe, who is affiliated with the university’s Population Research Center and has worked with Austin high schools to develop college-readiness programs, says of his previous work. “Well, you go back ten years earlier and try to do something about it.”
Four phases of the study were funded — at approximately $10 million or more apiece — by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Aletha Huston, Priscilla Pond Flawn Regents Professor of Child Development at The University of Texas at Austin, was one of the founding scientists of the study. Crosnoe joined as part of the fourth phase.
He has published numerous follow up studies on topics ranging from how socioeconomic status and race, teacher/student relationships, and course selection affect academic trajectories, as well as how the environments at preschool, home and elementary school factor into education.
This year, he received an additional $300,000 grant from the William T. Grant Foundation to collect high school transcripts and follow the sample group two years after high school graduation.
The Early Years
The initial research, prior to Crosnoe’s involvement, included a review of childcare arrangements for all 1,300 children. It found that receiving childcare outside the home had no effect on children’s attachment with their mothers and only slight effects on cognitive development and behavior. High quality center care produced higher cognitive skills, while longer periods of time spent in childcare produced slightly more aggressive behavior.
“The families have taken every test you can think of,” says Crosnoe. “They’ve been brought into the laboratories for observation, had their DNA tested, their classrooms and schools assessed, the whole bit. Every time they do that the researchers go back to this original question: Does childcare have effects and do they last over time?
“Every time they find something similar,” adds Crosnoe. “Good cognitive development and slightly problematic behavior.”
This has been tracked through 9th grade and the same trends hold true, however the behavioral effects seem to diminish over time according to research conducted by the NICHD network. The findings are periodically published in the journal Child Development.
“It gets picked up by the national media and every time the focus is on the aggressive behavior,” says Crosnoe. “In reality, the take home message is there’s no huge effects and the one that you should really take to the bank is that if you put your kids in high quality center care they’re probably going to be more school ready and that school readiness pays off over time.”
While it probably comes as no surprise that the more positive settings a child is exposed to the better, what if only one or two of the settings were good? Which one would you want it to be? According to Crosnoe’s findings, a high quality, cognitively stimulating family environment and preschool matter most.
“You can give up a little of the [elementary] school quality,” explains Crosnoe. “School readiness in those first few years are really what you bring into school with you. The school is set up to run a certain way and those kids come in ready to take advantage of that.
“There’s a saying that all good things go together,” say Crosnoe, “So kids that are in a good preschool by the time they are four probably have lots of advantages. They may live in neighborhoods that are better organized and have more resources. Their parents are probably focused on their education and are doing things to help them.”
According to Crosnoe’s research findings, students who come into school with more advanced skills and who appear to be smarter, regardless of whether or not they are more intelligent, are treated differently by teachers. “We know elementary schools have high groups and low groups,” says Crosnoe. “And the students more likely to go up into those high groups have had better instruction and more resources, so you can see how this is going to accumulate over time.”
As is often the case with Pre-K, it can be difficult to show the maintenance of the gains over time, says Cathy Malerba, Ph.D, evaluation analyst for Austin Independent School District. But she added, “we show a trend in this direction among low income 3rd graders who attended Pre-K in AISD compared to those who did not.”
A review of third graders’ scores on the 2008 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test provides insight into Pre-K’s possible long-term impact on reading and mathematics achievement.
Sixty-three percent of the 2003–2004 Pre-K cohort were enrolled in AISD in 2008 and took the test. Low-income third-graders who attended AISD Pre-K and took the test in English more often passed reading and mathematics (93.6 percent and 75.6 percent, respectively) than did low-income third-graders who were not enrolled in Pre-K (92.2 percent and 72.4 percent, respectively). These findings are published in the AISD Prekindergarten Expansion Grant Evaluation Report, 2007–2008.
“Dr. Crosnoe’s work with the NICHD data has begun to open up this black box and helps explain why early gains may be lost or maintained over time,” says Malerba.
One approach by policymakers to level the playing field is to make curriculum, beginning as early as elementary school, more rigorous, especially in math and science. However, Crosnoe’s research has identified that curriculum is just one piece of the academic puzzle. When a challenging classroom lacks a supportive teacher/student bond, the students who entered school with less developed math skills scored 16 points lower on standardized math tests than their peers. If they are in math classrooms with advanced curriculum and supportive teachers, they tend to make up about four points of that gap, on average.
“If you try to change the curriculum without changing the whole climate of the classroom,” cautions Crosnoe, “kids will actually do worse.”
He also notes that better educated parents tend to know what it takes to succeed in the educational system because they’ve done it themselves. They are savvier about surveying educational settings and navigating their children into high quality ones. “The best way to predict how a kid does in school is how well their parents did,” says Crosnoe. “Partly that’s genetic, but there’s something else going on there too.
“What we are trying to do is help those kids who enter on the first day of school at a major disadvantage because they didn’t have those opportunities,” he says. “The idea is to narrow that gap on the first day of school.”