Why Stop In Early Childhood? Two-Generation Strategies To Improve Educational Outcomes

In education research, it is now widely accepted that ages 0 to 5 are crucial years for child development. In addition, there is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that children perform better behaviorally and academically in families with stable employment and rising incomes, families with stable employment and those where parents themselves are improving their own educational levels.

Although it’s clear that increasing parents’ human capital protects and enhances the investments made in their children, "few programs have addressed the postsecondary education and training needs of low-income parents" (p. 2) through comprehensive, family-(child- and parent-) centered strategies.*

I learned about some remarkable exceptions at a recent New America Foundation discussion on innovations in child care and early learning. Four providers from around the country were asked to describe their programs, all largely focused on helping parents achieve the kind of economic stability needed to support their children’s educational attainment.**

CareerAdvance, an initiative implemented in Tulsa, Oklahoma, caught my attention. The program, which started in 2009, is a workforce development program that offers sectoral job-training – in nursing and healthcare IT – to parents with a child enrolled in Head Start or Early Head Start. The program is operated by the Community Action Project of Tulsa County (CAP), a comprehensive antipoverty agency, and was designed in partnership with the Ray Marshall Center at the University of Texas Austin and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The driving theory behind this and similar programs is that parents’ economic self-sufficiency protects and enhances the gains children make through quality early childhood programs by creating a more stable environment for children and families.

The Tulsa initiative has a long list of interesting and innovative features. First, extensive research was conducted so that the program would be specifically tailored to the needs and workforce structure of the local labor market – e.g., focusing on selective occupations within the growing healthcare industry, working closely with and engaging local employers, etc. Second, the program offers “stackable” training, allowing participants to stop at multiple points but always walk out with an industry-recognized, employment-enhancing credential. Third, participation rests on a shared agreement on expectations, which spells out the mutual responsibilities and commitments of the involved parties. Another important, psycho-social component is that participants are trained in cohort groups, so as to encourage peer mentoring and support (an element found to be essential to the program’s success). Last, the program offers incentives for good performance, pays for all school-related expenses, and provides wrap-around services, such as coaching, tutoring, and childcare. In sum, CareerAdvance is designed so that nothing gets in the way of participant success.

Even though it should be obvious that parents can’t work without child care, nor afford child care without work, coordinated strategies such as CareerAdvance are still an anomaly. The egg-crate, silo model seems to prevail in education. Grades and curricula form a poorly stitched sequence rather than a cumulative continuum; teachers instruct their students in separate classrooms and have little opportunity to collaborate; our debates are still very much shaped by the in-school versus out-of-school rhetoric, as if these factors had independent effects on children’s educational attainment. In reality, "a student’s academic career extends throughout the school from class to class and grade to grade" and follows them home to their family and community environments.

CareerAdvance has already produced positive results, but program administrators caution that timing is key; once children start elementary school, families fall beyond the scope of the program. If parents wait to enroll in CareerAdvance until their child is 4 or 5, they will have little time in which to earn a certification that would qualify them for a well-paid job.

The benefits of this dual-generation approach seem to go beyond increased financial stability for families. These programs also demonstrate the value of education – fostering a family culture where schooling is valued and prioritized (e.g., learning the importance of attendance, homework, etc.) And interestingly, this seems to work both ways – with parents influencing children, and children influencing parents. For example, a recent analysis by Sommers and colleagues found that mothers who “observe their children thriving in an early childhood program may be more motivated to pursue their own education." As for children, a participant quoted in the "Expanding the CareerAdvance Program in Tulsa" report explained:

Even though my daughter is only three, she asks, ‘Mommy, are you going to do your homework? She is like ‘Okay, I will do my homework too.
In a separate post I will address an important dimension that seems neglected in this dual-generation approach: What is the role of early childhood educators? Why not simultaneously promote the postsecondary achievement and workforce development of this workforce?

- Esther Quintero


* To learn about these four and other community-based efforts, see this recent report.

** For exceptions other than Tulsa’s CareerAdvance, described at length in this post, see: Annie E. Casey Foundation Civic Sites in Atlanta and Baltimore featuring several dual-generation strategies; the Jeremiah Program, which focuses on single mothers and their children and operates in Minneapolis and St. Paul (MN), Austin (TX) and Fargo (ND). Slightly more centered on parents but also considered dual-generation is the Endicott’s Keys to Degrees, a program created in 1993, to provide an immersion college experience for student parents while ensuring quality early education for their children. Other programs like the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, the Carolina Abecedarian Project, and Harlem Children’s Zone, to name a few, include a specific parent component but are not explicitly focused on parents’ postsecondary education and training.