Early Childhood at the Table: A Forum on Social Mobility

Early childhood is not a hot topic in the nation’s intellectual salons.  Which makes the Boston Review’s “New Democracy Forum” on promoting social mobility nothing short of a revelation.  Since early fall, I’ve been lugging around the magazine, whose cover is graced by an adorable infant and a cover line that asks: “IS THIS CHILD DOOMED to a life of low wages, poor health, and crime?  Sensationalistic, you bet, but could the cause be better?

Hosting this salon is Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman, whose praises I often sing, and who, once again, delivers his compelling argument for supporting young children and families: “To foster individual success, greater equality of opportunity, a more dynamic economy, and a healthier society,” he writes, “we need a major shift in social policy toward early intervention.”

In recent years, mentored by the likes of Jack Shonkoff, and a host of early childhood experts, Heckman has moved beyond his esoteric sphere, and has begun to sound like…well…like an ECE professional.  Social policy, he now says, should be “directed toward the malleable early years…guided by the goal of promoting the quality of parenting and the early life environments of disadvantaged children, while also respecting the primacy of the family, showing cultural sensitivity and recognizing America’s social diversity.”  What Heckman has also brought into the mainstream is the overwhelming emphasis in American public policy—he cites No Child Left Behind—on cognitive ability, or “smarts,” through testing.  Motivation, the ability to act on long-term plans, he says, as well as social-emotional regulation (executive function, anyone?) have a sizable impact on earnings, employment, college attendance, teenage pregnancy, and criminal behavior.  Sound familiar?

The “respondents” to Heckman’s article represent a variety of constituencies and points of view: from Charles Murray, of the American Enterprise Institute, who lambasts the early childhood intervention research base, to Stanford Psychology professor, Carol Dweck, who makes the case for investment in older children and adolescents, lest we have to “decide who will be the have and who will be the have-nots.”  All of their critiques are worth reading, but in the interest of space, I’ll summarize just a few:

Mike Rose, author of Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance, not surprisingly weighs in on the benefits of adult education as an inter-generational anti-poverty strategy, and laments “the troubling increase in policy interventions in poor people’s lives that don’t address the fact that they are poor.”  I’m with him on that one (See “Children, Poverty, and Outcomes: Who’s Distorting Reality?”)

Robin West, a professor of law and philosophy at Georgetown takes Heckman to task for his focus on mothering, rather than on the quality of parenting, and wonders if he understands the political challenges of his proposal.  “Stigmatizing large swaths of the population—unmarried women, women of color, and poor women—as unfit to parent,” she says “will trigger justified worries about the right to conceive and bear children without fearing an overly intrusive state.”  The unintended consequences are frightening, she warns, as Heckman’s response to poverty meets a “remarkably effective parents’ rights movement, whose first goal is to minimize—indeed eliminate—the role of the state in the education and upbringing of children.”  Not to mention the policymakers who, depending on the outcome of next week’s election, may have the stage.

Lelac Almagor, a young Washington, D.C. charter school teacher, asks : “What is it, exactly, that makes for an effective program, and how effective can we expect it to be?”  THE questions of the day, of course.  She sounds an idealistic note, tinged with the growing wisdom gleaned from her own experience in the classroom.  Even when we’ve identified and funded the best programs,” she says,  “we will still see serious disparities among children born into families with dissimilar histories and resources.”    Still, there’s that moral imperative:

… all of us—teachers, kids, families, communities, and social scientists—will keep doing this work together anyway, not because we can count on a reliable return on  our investment but because it still needs to be done.

I know I’m speaking to the choir here, but I’d love to know what you’re thinking about early care, education, and intervention as promoters of social mobility.


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1 comment to Early Childhood at the Table: A Forum on Social Mobility

  • Linda

    I truly believe EVERY child in this country needs, and is entitled to, the following: (1) parents who understand how a child develops- not only physically and cognitively, but also socially and emotionally- into a well functioning adult and (2) an effective early care and learning system staffed by well-educated and competent professionals that implement developmentally appropriate programs for all children. The only advantage that folks with money have, in nurturing and raising their children, is they can afford to purchase the services of more qualified staff and send their children to better funded, and sometimes better staffed, public or private schools. And they can supplement that education with other activities and resources that low income families can not provide. It’s an old concept, that the public education system is society’s equalizer, and we try to believe it’s true in the country. Unfortunately it is not, and our inner city and low income rural communities prove it. Large class sizes, outdated learning materials, decaying buildings, poorly performing staff, etc. etc. The challenges are insurmountable.

    Does early care, education and intervention promote social mobility. Sometimes yes. The problems of poverty (and economic and social mobility) are more complex than just educational attainment. All schools, but especially those in communities afflicted by poverty, have the opportunity to affect the destiny of the children and families in their community. However, they must broaden their focus beyond the grade-step education of the children. Parents must have opportunities to learn effective parenting. Adult education needs to be able to provide pathways to employment and careers. Law enforcement must have zero tollerance for illegal activity. The entire community must be committed to eliminating poverty in its midst. But it takes a local, state or national commitment to tackle the problem.

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