Resolving the "Immigrant Paradox": Earlier Access to Early Education
Like so many others in the education, medical and non-profit communities, I read with great interest the recently released results of a study conducted by researchers at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Human Development, UCLA’s School of Medicine and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, published in the October edition of the Maternal and Child Health Journal. After examining data gathered from tracking more than 8,000 infants born in 2001 to Latina mothers in the poorest group studied, those of Mexican heritage who speak Spanish rather than English at home, researchers came to some unsurprising conclusions about early childhood development in poor Latino homes.
Those results confirm what many advocates of early childhood education, and especially those focused on closing the achievement gap for Latino children, have long espoused: Latino children are born with the same innate potential as their white peers, but circumstances of poverty, a lack of literacy in the home environment and an inability to access education early on, stymies that potential by about 24 months of age. Indeed, the study showed that poor Latina mothers give birth to healthy babies whose weight equaled that of the average newborn of middle-class, non-Latino white mothers. The study also showed that poor, non-English speaking Latina mothers are no more likely than white mothers to give birth prematurely and in fact, more often provide a higher level of prenatal care than their white counterparts, at least as measured by certain factors like alcohol and tobacco consumption.The study further showed that basic cognition proficiencies for infants at 9 to 15 months of age were found to be statistically equal between Latino and white children, but by 24-to 36-months of age, Mexican-American toddlers lag their white counterparts by up to six months in terms of word comprehension, speaking with varying complexity and working with their mothers on simple tasks as assessed in either Spanish or English.
The study points to problems and challenges including:· Low levels of maternal education; just one-fifth of Mexican-American and one-third of all Latina mothers had completed college courses, compared with nearly two-thirds of white mothers.· A lack of effective and effectively demonstrated learning practices in the home contributing to a greater sense of literacy and cognitive development.· Maternal depression.· Poverty: almost three-fifths of Mexican-American toddlers were growing up in families earning less than $25,000.00 per year.The study also showed that children whose Mexican-American or Latina mothers were employed fared much better than those raised by stay-at-home mothers, even after taking into account maternal education and family income. The results of this study should bolster the cry of so many urging our local and federal governments to provide greater access to early childhood education for toddlers and greater access to classes and education for immigrant parents. At Para Los Niños we have seen first-hand the benefit to both children who receive formal education at an early age and their parents who engage in classes related to parenting, financial education, and literacy. This study confirms our earlier assertions that parents who are themselves illiterate can still have a positive impact on their child’s cognition by the simplest act of modeling literacy through storytelling, through “reading” picture books, and by articulating their actions in the home in a compelling way. This is a problem that we, as educators, can continue to solve.
This study offers more proof that literacy and education have a compelling role to play in making a material difference in diminishing the achievement gap for Latinos in the US, and driving down poverty rates in our nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Considering that by 2025, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, three in 10 children in the US will be of Latino descent; this is an issue that simply cannot be ignored.
Gisselle Acevedo is the President & CEO of Para Los Niños, a non-profit family service organization designed to bring children from some of Los Angeles’ most challenging communities out of poverty and onto brighter, more successful futures.