We talk often about how early childhood education (ECE) from birth to age eight is critical for setting a strong foundation for children’s educational outcomes. If we get ECE right — ensuring equity in access and quality — we can stop academic achievement gaps before they start for our country’s next generation.
And the faces of that next generation — our country’s youngest learners and future leaders — look increasingly different from past generations. Indeed, the demographics of our country are fundamentally shifting: a tide of younger, browner Americans are replacing older, whiter ones. In particular, about one in four of all U.S. children are now Latino, many of whom grow up speaking Spanish at home. And that figure is expected to rise to nearly one in three by 2050, on par with the projected number of white children. This reality should fundamentally change the way we imagine policies to expand ECE supports.
When it comes to ECE, the good news is that public funding for childcare subsidies, Head Start, and Pre-K has significantly expanded in recent years, increasing enrollment among low-income, children of color. However, research shows ECE participation rates among low-income, Hispanic families — while on the rise — continues to lag behind other subgroups. This is particularly concerning given the research that shows dual language learners (DLLs), children of immigrants and low-income Latinos benefit uniquely from pre-K, populations that overlap significantly (though not entirely). And yet, the challenge of expanding ECE access is more complex than meets the eye. ECE use varies substantially between program type with, for example, strong Latino participation in Head Start (38 percent of all participants) but underuse of childcare subsidies.
To expand Latino access to high-quality early education programs, we must have a clear, nuanced understanding of when Latinos use ECE, when they do not, and — in both cases — why. To do that, we need to take stock of the data we currently have and, just as importantly, pinpoint gaps in our knowledge base.
To this end, a recent series of four briefs from the National Research Center on Hispanic Children and Families identified and assessed 12 large-scale, publicly-available data sets with significant samples of low-income, Hispanic families to “provide researchers with a roadmap for how best to leverage existing data.” Primary researchers have already collected lots of information on these families — in the form of pages and pages of number-filled tables and spreadsheets. But more analysis is needed to digest data and communicate its implications across different contexts in ways that are meaningful and actionable.
To build “a more nuanced understanding” of low-income Latino families and ECE, the briefs’ authors review the data in three categories: 1) search and decision-making, 2) utilization, and 3) quality of experience. The briefs importantly highlight the strengths and challenges of existing data in these areas. New interactive data tools also accompany the briefs, allowing users to dig into the datasets themselves more quickly and efficiently.
When it comes to search and decision-making for ECE, researchers found that many data sets included insight into Latino families’ preferences, awareness of available options, and more. However, few studies asked families directly about what sources they used to learn about ECE options and what barriers they perceived to ECE use. Moreover, few studies reported on why parents sought ECE in the first place, whether for children’s educations, to support parental employment, or both. By contrast, one study, the National Survey of Early Care and Education (NSECE), gathered extensive information on families’ search strategies, including the source of information they sought and chief reasons for selecting a provider, including cost, schedule, location, quality and more.
In terms of ECE utilization, all studies reported the number of hours a child spent per week in their programs, and the majority provided general information on the type of care, either home-based relative, home-based non-relative, or center-based. Four studies allowed for finer distinction of ECE type, differentiating between Head Start, school-based pre-kindergarten, daycare centers, and more. But little information existed on attendance levels and historical data on a child’s ECE use in the past. These gaps make it difficult to track ECE’s impact over time.
For evaluating ECE experience, most studies included at least one indicator of ECE quality, but mostly in terms of structural “input” features, such as adult-to-child ratios and teacher qualifications. Further studies are needed to more comprehensively understand quality, such as: examining instructional practices, teacher-child interactions, and other classroom features. For Latino DLLs, in particular, critical gaps of information exist on what languages are spoken by ECE staff, language of instruction, and availability of materials in Spanish. Moreover, only the NSECE provided insight into whether parents had trouble communicating with ECE providers due to language barriers, a key piece of information for illuminating effective parent engagement.
Throughout the four briefs, authors rightly underscored the heterogeneity of the U.S. Latino population. This is a critical, often-overlooked point. To provide more strategic ECE supports to Latinos, we need to balance finding big, broad patterns among low-income Latinos as one category (i.e. helpful, if potentially overgeneralizing) while attending to the inevitable diversity that varies by country of origin, nativity, and generational status, and more (i.e. helpful, if potentially too fragmented for clear policy applications). We need data to inform us in ways that are both overarching and specific.
In recognition of this diversity, the briefs and online tool organize data sets by ten priority data elements determined by the federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in 2014. Those considerations include child and parent country of birth, time in U.S., home language use, parent English proficiency and more. One positive trend was that all twelve studies provided data on time in the U.S for foreign-born parent and children as well as home language use. Eight provided more specific information about Latino ancestry, at least distinguishing between Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and an ambiguous category capturing “other” Hispanic origins. It would be valuable to disaggregate the “other” Latino subgroup even further to more clearly identify families with Central and South American roots, a growing population in U.S. schools. Moreover, only three studies examined parents’ reading and writing skills in their native language, important knowledge for education leaders to consider. For example, a family engagement strategy that relies on translated, written Spanish materials will have little utility for Latino parents with low literacy skills.
So: the briefs serve as a reminder that there is more nuance to the narrative of low Latino participation in ECE. And in addition to accounting for diversity among Latinos, it is important to consider local community context, which is possible for researchers to do as nearly all the data sets are linked to geographic indicators, such as zip code or state of residence (See Table 1). Barriers present themselves differently in different communities. As such, more qualitative case study research and needs assessment of specific localities plays a vital role in addressing Latino participation gaps in ECE. A recent study of barriers to preschool participation for low-income, children of immigrants in Silicon Valley is a strong, thorough example of such an approach.
Ultimately, the new brief series provides a strong, strategic scan of our current knowledge base on Latinos and ECE. Specifically, it identifies areas of research and policy strength — and ongoing challenges. Policy leaders and practitioners would be wise to grapple with and respond to the country’s changing demographics now — on the front end of these children’s education. The briefs and data tools can help researchers help policymakers do exactly that.
This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group.Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “Education Policy.”