Some highly educated working mothers do have ’em

IN A finding that will reignite the debate about working mothers, Australian researchers have discovered that some children’s education suffers as a result of their mothers’ careers. But the disadvantage applies only to one group: children whose mothers have a university education.

Among such women, the children of those who work average four months less education than the children of housewives. Another way to understand it, the researchers say, is that “one out of three of the children of (educated) working mothers will complete a year less education than they would have done had their mother not worked”. This is enough to reduce the children’s chances of completing secondary school.

The researchers say that, statistically, the loss is not huge and could easily be compensated by other positive influences, such as sending the children to a private school, “but it is not negligible either. It implies an educational risk or challenge equivalent to the difference between a two-child family and a five-child family”.

The findings are reported by Dr Mariah Evans and Dr Jonathan Kelley in the latest issue of Australian Social Monitor, a publication of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research. Their research is based on pooled data from 24,350 respondents to national surveys by International Social Science Surveys Australia between 1984 and 1995. Respondents were asked about their mothers’ working patterns during their childhood and about their own educational attainments.

Only a minor negative effect was shown for the children of working mothers who had completed secondary school and no negative effect was found for the children of the least-educated mothers.

Evans says long working hours could not be blamed for the problem because few of the tertiary-educated mothers in the survey had had continuous full-time jobs. Most had “mommy-tracked”, working part-time or converting to full-time only when their children were older.

The researchers believe the disadvantage is due to the fact that highly educated mothers talk to, read to and stimulate their children much more than other mothers, behaviors that are linked to higher academic development in children. But when cared for outside the family, these children receive less input from the less-educated adults around them.

“If you come from a modest home where people don’t use the language very much and don’t read very much, then going to a day-care centre will be no great loss to your ability to gain language skills,” Kelley says. “It may even mean a gain. But if you come from a home where both parents are PhDs, where what you get is incessant chatter between parents and children on quite complex topics, and go to a centre where you spend your time with other three and four-year-olds and adults who are
not as articulate, that’s a great loss.”

Evans says the level of training for people who work in preschool child care is low.

“They’re not university graduates. If you’re looking at the relative benefits of children spending time with these women versus their university-educated mothers – who’s going to have the vocabulary? Who’s going to have the cognitive resources to give children the best start?”

These were not findings Evans expected or is pleased by, but she is convinced they are accurate, in part because they confirm a similar discovery she and Kelley made with a different set of Australian data several years ago.

She warns: “The finding is not a policy prescription. There are many possibilities regarding how you might deal with it as an issue.”

She says one answer would be for tertiary-educated women to spend more time at home, but an alternative would be to invest more in child care so that better-qualified staff looked after children.

The evidence relates to the childhoods of people who are now adults but Evans believes child-care standards have not improved since. “There’s probably been a small decline. More capable women now go off to law school or medical school instead of doing education in early childhood work, so you find entry scores declining in many child-related fields.”

But there was no evidence in the results that working mothers damage children’s emotional development. “Because the finding is just for educated women and not for other mothers, it is not evidence that everybody needs their mother at home, or that this is about an emotional bonding sort of issue.”

Consequently, the report suggests it would be possible to reduce public support for single mothers and encourage them to work a limited amount without noticeable harm to their children.

“One strategy that would meet this goal would be to: (1) provide enough income to allow for full-time homemaking while the children are preschoolers and during the transition to school; then (2) from the time when the youngest child is in year one, to make part-time maternal employment a condition of continued income support,” the report says.

But it warns that the costs and benefits to children in terms of delinquency and teenage pregnancy should first be carefully assessed.

First published in The Age.

Kindergarten teachers shape lives

IN Ben Elton’s book Stark, a character describes British Army pre-mission briefings in which officers first state the bleeding obvious – just in case people hold different assumptions about what the bleeding obvious is.

A similar restatement of basic facts is required in the row over the pay and functions of kindergarten teachers, who recently went on strike to win a better deal on the basis that their degrees are the equivalent of primary teachers. A Melbourne radio broadcaster responded: “Really, how educated do you have to be to mind four-year-olds?”

Minding is what the teenage babysitter does sprawling on your couch while your children are tucked up in bed. It is unskilled and passive. If your kids are alive and well when you get home from the movies, child-minding has been successful.

It’s not what kinder teachers spend four years at university learning, although many spend a fair proportion of their social lives trying to convince ill-informed acquaintances otherwise. The notion that they’re just kind girls who like playing with children, and that this is an innately brainless activity, is apparently widespread.

This is partly because their largely female profession suffers from a perceived link with “motherhood” and its associated baggage, including the belief by some that caring for and educating the very young is a bovine task (children being the equivalent of backward adults, and mothers having had the tattered remnants of their intelligence expelled with the afterbirth).

There is also a view that, because women are innately nurturant and like educating children, society is not obliged to reward them materially for their skills (a principle that does not extend, strangely enough, to mechanics who love fiddling under car hoods or surgeons who never feel more alive than when they are cutting and stitching body parts).

So here comes a statement of what should be the bleeding obvious: preschool education is a complex process crucial to many children’s futures, and teachers who undertake it deserve a decent wage comparable with their primary school colleagues.

Australian research has time and again confirmed that kinder children reach that potentially defining year of prep physically, intellectually and socially prepared in a way that far outstrips non-kinder children.

American research reported by Laura Berk in her text Child Development is alarming: it suggests that preschool interventions are more important to a deprived child’s later success in life than what happens in the years when formal literacy and numeracy are taught.

Since 1965, the US Head Start program has provided thousands of economically disadvantaged children with a year or two of preschool education. In the first few years of school, children who have been in Head Start score higher in IQ and achievement than children in control groups, although these differences later decline (possibly because their high-quality preschool experience is often followed by education in deprived public-funded schools).

But Head Start kids maintain their lead on many other measures: they are less likely to be placed in special education classes or held back a year, and more complete school. Some benefits, such as lower rates of delinquency and teenage pregnancy and a greater likelihood of employment, last into young adulthood.

A separate experiment called the Carolina Abecedarian Project took 100 babies at risk of school failure (risk factors included low parental education and income, a history of poor school achievement among older siblings, and other family problems). Half were assigned to a “control” group that received only nutrition and health services. The “treatment” children were enrolled in full-time daycare where they received stimulation aimed at promoting motor, cognitive, language and motor skills, including – after the age of three – the kinds of pre-reading and math concepts emphasised in kindergarten activities. Both groups then went on to normal schooling.

Even at age 12, treatment children had a higher IQ than control children and were achieving considerably better, especially in reading, writing and general knowledge. School-based intervention had little impact on changes in IQ; the effects of early intervention were far more powerful.

Other research suggests environmental stimulation actually helps shape the structure of the developing human brain. Children learn more in the first five years of life than at any time thereafter. They learn how to manage their bodies and emotions and how to manipulate the physical world. The cardboard-box kinder creations a parent regards with such amused indulgence might have taught the child mathematical concepts (volume, length, weight, strength), artistic basics (which colors must be mixed to make purple) and social skills (how to ask nicely for the scissors).

Kinder teachers should be paid wages attractive enough to maintain their numbers, especially in rural areas and poorer suburbs where the need for family support and activities outside the home is great.

A nation with 700,000 children below the poverty line is already taking enough risks with its future.

First published in The Age.