A mother’s level of educational attainment has important implications for her children’s economic well-being, education, and health, says a new Foundation for Child Development report by Donald Hernandez and Jeffrey Napierala. Their findings reaffirm previous research, suggesting that less maternal education is associated with higher levels of poverty, child obesity, and infant mortality, and lower levels of preschool enrollment and academic proficiency for children.
Though levels of parental education have increased in recent years, approximately one in eight children are still raised by a mother without a high school diploma. The relationship between educational achievement and poverty is well-documented. According to the report, more than 80 percent of children whose mothers did not graduate high school are living in poverty. The instability and stress that come with poverty have serious implications for children, which are often revealed in their education outcomes.
As the graph displays, less than 40 percent of children whose mothers didn’t graduate high school are enrolled in pre-K. The benefits of pre-K have shown to be especially effective on children from low-income families. When limited early learning opportunities are coupled with the effects of economic instability, it doesn’t come as a surprise that this group of children does not do as well as their more advantaged peers in later years. It’s clear that children of mothers with low educational achievement are at a disadvantage. While providing high-quality educational opportunities can help children overcome such barriers, helping mothers attain higher levels of education may also help to improve children’s outcomes. Higher levels of education are associated with gainful employment and greater economic stability. And since most children spend the majority of their time with a parent, a stable home environment is important for reinforcing the benefits of high-quality early education. It isn’t possible to determine causation in this case, but the strong correlation depicted in the graph between parental education and children’s proficiency suggests that educating parents could improve children’s academic outcomes.
Dual-generation interventions simultaneously address the needs of parents and children, and may be an effective way to increase disadvantaged families’ economic security and break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. The authors suggest such strategies include three components: high-quality early education, job training that leads to a relevant credential, and wrap-around services.
First, Hernandez and Naperiala recommend a PreK-3rd grade approach to early education, providing children with access to high-quality pre-K programs that are followed by strong teaching and learning in kindergarten and early grades. My colleagues offer recommendations for building cohesive PreK-3rd systems in their recent report, Beyond Subprime Learning. One way is to ensure that children have access to pre-K and kindergarten programs that last for as many hours as the regular 1st grade school day, providing sufficient time for high-quality interactions between children and educators.
Second, the authors explain that effective job training must help parents take concrete steps toward well-paid and in-demand jobs. This may mean earning a credential, participating in an apprenticeship, or enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program.
The third component is wrap-around services. The authors note that these supports could encompass a variety of things (such as career coaching, transportation, or affordable housing) and should be based on their families’ specific needs.
The problem isn’t necessarily that these services aren’t available to families, but the lack of coordination between programs with regards to funding and implementation leads to a fragmented, inefficient system that doesn’t address the intergenerational nature of poverty. By siloing these programs, policymakers are missing the opportunity to have a larger impact.
Hernandez and Napierala suggest, for example, combining early education and job training programs so that mothers and children receive services at the same time. The Washington Post recently highlighted a charter school in DC that is doing just that.
As programs that aim to serve both parents and children pop up around the country, some policymakers are looking to one of our country’s oldest dual-generation programs, Head Start, as a model. Also the country’s largest pre-K, Head Start was designed to support disadvantaged families, and has a specific requirement for parent involvement. As researchers discussed at Head Start’s 12th National Research Conference last month, this parent engagement requirement makes Head Start a strong platform on which to build and experiment with comprehensive dual-generation strategies. The depth of parent involvement varies significantly among Head Start programs. But some providers are making family engagement a strong priority, focusing on more than parenting by providing parents with tools to improve their family’s well-being.
One promising example is the Community Action Project of Tulsa’s (CAP Tulsa) CareerAdvance® program. It serves hundreds of families in the Tulsa, Oklahoma area, training parents for careers in health care while their children attend Head Start. The program attempts to develop parents’ human capital by offering services like career coaching, peer support, academic skills building, and tuition assistance. Parents aren’t just taking arbitrary courses, they are gaining the skills and credits they need to qualify for in-demand jobs, such as a Certified Nurse Assistant or Pharmacy Technician. Researchers are in the early stages of evaluating the program’s effectiveness.
Head Start already reaches many of the country’s most impoverished children and provides them with early education and comprehensive services. Using Head Start as a vehicle to reach parents and increase their educational attainment is a logical next step to enhance family well-being. As Hernandez and Naperiala explain, dual-generation programs “can act in a mutually reinforcing or synergistic fashion that does not occur in programs focused only on children or only on mothers.”
Here, at New America, we will be looking more closely at strategies like those discussed above. With our new family-centered social policy initiative, we’ll be assessing current conditions, exploring promising family-centered strategies, and proposing forward-looking reforms to strengthen family well-being.