Campus & Community

Looking behind headlines on preschools

6 min read
Kathleen McCartney says that media responses to the NICHD study are “simplistic.” (Staff photo by Kris Snibbe)

“Study links child care to aggression.” This recent headline, and others like it, has some parents wondering if preschool might be the first step to reform school.

Not likely, says Kathleen McCartney, professor at the Graduate School of Education (GSE) and a principal investigator of the spotlight-grabbing National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) study. “It’s not that the effect isn’t there, but a simplistic version of the findings was reported by the press,” says McCartney. What’s more, she says, the media focus on aggressive behavior overshadowed some good news about child care that came from the study, findings that McCartney hopes will change the way America views preschool education.

McCartney has been a researcher for the NICHD Study of Child Care and Youth Development since its inception in 1989. The study, the most comprehensive look at child care to date, has tracked 1,364 children from birth through the first 10 years of life, looking closely at the effects of early child care on such areas as parent-child relationships, a child’s development, and a child’s transition to school.

The study made news in April, when McCartney and her colleagues presented their recent research at a conference in Minneapolis. “We were presenting lots of data … the media focused on the bad news aspect of one paper,” says McCartney, who talks about the study in People magazine this week. That bad news was that 17 percent of children who were in child care for more than 30 hours per week were rated as often aggressive toward other children when they got to kindergarten.

Before parents rush to pull their children from child care – not an economic reality for most families – McCartney highlights some subtleties of the research that the media may have missed. For instance, she says, the study showed that higher-quality child care and parenting lessen the association between hours in child care and aggression. “These are things that parents can control,” McCartney says.

She also points out that cause and effect are sometimes hard to tease apart. “Could it be that children who have more behavior problems have parents who are challenged by them and therefore decide to enroll them in full-time child care?” she asks. And finally, McCartney notes that the 17 percent of children in child care who were rated as being aggressive mirrors the rate of problem behavior in the general population. “We have lots more work to do, but right now, I don’t think we have any evidence to suggest that children are at risk being in child care 30 or 40 hours a week,” she says.

If McCartney had been writing the headline, it might have read “High-quality child care leads to better outcomes for America’s children.” Eclipsed by the aggression attention-grabber, the NICHD study also showed that children in higher-quality child-care arrangements – measured by observation of caregiver behavior as well as by regulated aspects of care, such as education of caregivers or adult-child ratio – scored higher on tests of cognitive skills and language ability.

McCartney approaches child care not only as a researcher, but also as a practitioner and a parent. Before joining the GSE faculty in fall 2000, she was on the faculty of the University of New Hampshire (UNH), where she directed the UNH Child Study & Development Center, a laboratory school for 138 children.

And in 1982, when she began her academic career at Harvard as an assistant professor of psychology and social relations, her daughter was only 3 months old. At first the Medford native turned to her mother for Kaitlin’s early care. But when McCartney’s second daughter, Kimberly, was born three years later, Kaitlin began attending the Radcliffe Child Care Center. “I was fortunate in that I never worried about the quality of my child care,” says McCartney, singing the praises of the center’s staff. “I very much appreciated the support they were able to give to an overwhelmed working mother,” she adds.

Not all families are so lucky. “Poor mothers in particular are stuck between a rock and a hard place. If they work, they’re not going to make enough money to pay their child-care bills as well as their other bills,” McCartney says, noting that even middle-class families struggle with child-care costs, which can soar to more than $1,000 per month per child. “Right now we have a system that’s grossly underfunded. It’s expensive for parents and it’s being subsidized by child-care workers,” most of whom are underpaid, she says. In 1998, child-care teachers earned an average of $14,820 with almost no benefits.

McCartney hopes that the data from the study showing the link between higher-quality child care and better learning skills will support further economic research that might ultimately lead to policy changes, such as public funding of preschool education. Government subsidies account for 39 percent of child-care costs; higher education, on the other hand, receives 73 percent of its costs from government. “We need to increase the revenue base of child care, to make child care public responsibility. Parents can’t shoulder the burden alone,” she says.

More than research, however, McCartney believes that some deeply held cultural values stand in the way of making America’s child-care system the best it can be. “Americans are very individualistic,” she says. “It takes time for us to realize which things are legitimate public responsibilities.” Child care in this country, she notes, has a relatively short history.

Then, according to McCartney, there’s the motherhood myth. “I think we are ambivalent as a culture about maternal employment,” she says. “Our notion that children need one-on-one care is relatively new, and I don’t think there’s much basis in fact for that, but it pervades our culture.” Earlier results of the NICHD study, in fact, showed that child care had no major effects on mother-child attachment.

Child care is the reality for 13 million preschoolers and their parents, and McCartney would like to see the data from the NICHD study help gather the political support and funding to make America’s pre-school care stronger and more affordable. “If we care about young children, if we care about their cognitive and social development, if we care about supporting working families, we need to make child care a public responsibility,” she says.