Early Childhood Education in Oklahoma: Cui Bono?

September 6, 2004

Bryce Christensen

With Oklahoma ranking first in the nation in the percentage of four-year-olds enrolled in preschool (60 percent), Oklahoma officials like to boast that the state has established itself as a national leader in "enabling children to enter school prepared to learn and succeed." State Superintendent Sandy Garrett declares emphatically, "Children benefit greatly from school readiness efforts."

However, Garrett almost gives the game away when she underscores her appeal for yet more funding by acknowledging beneficiaries other than children. "Early childhood education is good for Oklahoma: children, parents, educators, and childcare providers are all winners in this equation," she says.

But are all these groups really winners in Oklahoma's early-childhood equation? Let's look a little closer. Well-informed Oklahoma taxpayers may wonder why Garrett and other advocates of the state's early-childhood education programs say comparatively little about the critical role of the most important pre-school educators - parents - and are completely mute about the real risks in replacing these parents with paid surrogates. Indeed, the longer Oklahomans scrutinize the appeals for more spending on pre-school education, the more they may suspect that these appeals actually cloak unacknowledged political and economic self-interest.

Advocates of early-childhood education programs would have Oklahomans believe that the state is moving closer to an ideal situation by moving ever more children into such programs. But what really is the very best circumstance for preparing children for school? In a recent commentary on increased state funding for early childhood education, the executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, Keith Ballard, allowed himself an extremely rare moment of candor about what that ideal circumstance might be - and it's not a state-funded program. "It would be nice," Ballard conceded, "if one parent could stay home with every child."

Though refreshing, such candor is a rarity in current discussions about child welfare - and it did not last long even with Ballard, who hastened to resume his praise for the state's early-childhood education programs as he dismissed the at-home parent as a largely irrelevant social arrangement that is "not economically possible for many."

But if an at-home parent actually provides the very best possibilities for children, those who care most for children may hesitate before pressing for yet more state money to put children in the hands of surrogates. Those who care deeply about children may especially hesitate as they realize that providing for state surrogates helps drive up taxes and thus intensifies the economic pressures that make it difficult for a family to keep one parent home by living on one income. Those who care deeply about children may hesitate to support a state program that may further erode the cultural and political support for at-home parents.

The Best Early Educator: Mom

Without doubt, teachers who work for Oklahoma's early-education programs can do much to help young children to prepare for school by helping them learn colors, numbers, letters, shapes, and simple logic. But their best efforts typically fall short of those of a loving at-home parent, usually the mother. Why? In the first place, in even the best-run state program, children experience some staff turnover, inevitably disorienting and disruptive to learning, as children try to familiarize themselves with the personality of the new teacher who has replaced the now-absent familiar one. An at-home mother is a reassuringly permanent teacher, the most familiar and constant presence in the child's life.

Second, though good early-education teachers try to make some adjustments to accommodate children's personalities and temperaments, their curriculum is more or less set for them and the groups of children are too large to fully individualize instruction. In contrast, an at-home mother usually knows her child's needs and characteristics better than any other adult and enjoys unmatched educational freedom, allowing her to customize each lesson in a seamless stream of completely individualized instruction, work, diversion, and rest.

What is more, while early-education teachers typically spend only six or seven hours per day (often less) with the child, an at-home mother is with her child around the clock. So while early-education teachers often must deliver their lessons to children who are tired, upset, bored, or distracted, the at-home mother can watch for the ideal teaching moments - which may come, unexpectedly, at the breakfast table or during a bedtime story. A full-time mother may even find her teaching moments on a family vacation or during a family outing to a play, concert, or museum. Further, while early-education teachers teach their lessons with a relatively narrow focus on the academic demands of school, the at-home mother can help her child understand how her lessons fit into the lives of real relatives, real neighbors, and real families with whom they worship at church or synagogue.

But the ultimate advantage that an at-home mother enjoys over state-employed specialists is emotional. Mothers (and fathers) simply love their children in a way no other adults - no matter how well credentialed or highly motivated - ever will. And that love makes an incalculable difference in a child's life experience - and learning. In recent studies at the University of Minnesota, researchers found sharply elevated levels of cortisol, a biochemical indicator of emotional stress, in the bloodstreams of young children in non-parental care, even when that care is of high quality. Such stress cannot foster healthy learning.

Because the at-home mother - and not a state surrogate - is truly the child's ideal early educator, it should come as no surprise that researchers at Columbia University and Bowling Green State University have concluded that "early maternal employment has a significant negative effect on white children's cognitive outcomes at age 3 or 4 and that these effects persist to age 7 or 8 in some instances." Because at-home mothers are such effective teachers, it is also unsurprising that researchers at the University of California-Irvine have established that later maternal employment, when children are in grade school, continues to have negative effects on children's intellectual development. Looking at middle-class grade-schoolers and their mothers, the researchers have concluded that "the more hours that mothers worked, the lower the children's grades and the poorer their work habits and efforts."

Economic Self-Interest

Despite all of the strengths of at-home mothers as educators, and despite the risks of replacing those mothers with paid surrogates, Oklahomans will wait a long time before they hear advocates of early-childhood education programs acknowledge those strengths or risks. Why this strange reluctance to address issues truly central to early childhood education? It is hard not to suspect the distorting influence of self-interest. After all, mothers who stay at home with their children do not create new opportunities for educators or bureaucrats or lobbyists.

Those opportunities open up only by persuading parents to turn their children over to surrogates while opening up their tax checkbooks to pay other people's salaries. It is thus entirely predictable that the advocates of early-childhood education programs would neglect to mention research underscoring the educational advantages enjoyed by children with at-home mothers. Taxpayers might balk if they saw these programs as merely damage control for the harmful educational effects of moving these mothers out of the home and into employment.

But even as damage control, early-childhood education programs look dubious. For in preparing their young children for school, at-home mothers impart much more than intellectual skills. Through their own selflessness and love, these at-home mothers endow their children with a social orientation, a sense of moral values, and a regard for the well-being of others. Early-childhood education programs may give young children sharper academic skills, but in a very large study sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, researchers concluded that even when high-quality non-maternal child care did improve their school readiness, such care fostered "problem behavior, as well as assertiveness, disobedience, and aggression." And the undesirable jump in aggression was as large as the favorable gain in academic skills.

Defenders of Oklahoma's early-childhood education programs think they are giving reassurance when they strongly stress that such programs are "structured in nature" and so are much more than "just babysitting." But a University of North Carolina study has shown that "just babysitting" is actually less likely to foster aggression - swearing, hitting, kicking, teasing, and threatening - among young children in non-parental care than are academically oriented programs. Perhaps when they are given intellectual skills in the absence of parental love and guidance, young children regard these skills simply as part of their social weaponry for prevailing in the struggle for dominance, the ceaseless combat of each against all.

Nor is aggression the only negative consequence of non-maternal educational programs. Some psychologists are deeply concerned about the "hurried child" syndrome they see in insecure and anxious young children asked to "grow up too fast," pushed to develop intellectual skills before they have developed the emotional strength requisite to handle such skills. Other specialists worry about the regimentation that occurs when young children are removed from the home and placed in institutional programs. One expert on child care in Denmark (a country with a much-lauded early-education program) has warned that "powerful forces" are trying to "appropriate or monopolize the children's spare time" in such a way that "childhood is about to become a phase of life thoroughly programmed from morning till night." For modern children, he lamented, chances for "learning from experience and acting on an impulse are being swallowed up."

Because Oklahoma's advocates of early-childhood education programs are professionals conversant with the research literature, it is hard to believe they do not know about the risks of relying on such programs as a replacement for at-home parents. But it is quite easy to see how these professionals advance their self-interest by simply ignoring such risks. They win - professionally, economically, politically - when early-childhood education programs expand at the expense of at-home parents. It is, however, impossible to see how these professionals' emphasis on early-childhood education will ever make true winners out of parents and children.

Perhaps before they endorse a program that clearly makes winners of the state's educators and day care providers, Oklahoma's parents should ask how much they and their children can afford to lose.

Bryce Christensen (Ph.D., Marquette University) is assistant professor of English at Southern Utah University and contributing editor to The Family in America. He is author of Utopia Against the Family (Ignatius) and editor of volumes including The Retreat from Marriage, The Family Wage, and Day Care: Child Psychology and Adult Economics.

What Oklahoma Moms Want

A Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates poll conducted in May confirmed what OCPA has been saying for years: An overwhelming majority of Oklahoma parents rejects both the ideology and the reality of commercial, institutionalized day care for children. The problem is that this silent majority has virtually no representation in the academic, political, or media elite, which leaves the advocates of commercial day care largely unopposed in the public debate - and with an influence out of proportion to their actual numbers. But as you can see, among Oklahoma mothers who have children under 18, the sentiment is unambiguous:

Now thinking about a child's first years, which do you think it is more important for public policy to encourage? (Rotate)
Making quality childcare more affordable for working families 26%
Making it easier for one parent to stay at home 70%
Undecided (vol.) 4%

Which of the following do you believe is the best childcare situation during a child's earliest years?
One parent at home 87%
Both parents working different shifts 4%
Being cared for by close relatives 2%
Being in a quality daycare center 4%
Staying with another mother in the neighborhood 0%
Having a babysitter in the child's home 2%
Undecided / Depends (vol.) 0%

Assuming there is a limited amount of money, which is more important? (Rotate)
Having the government give tax breaks to working families when they use professional childcare so it becomes more affordable. 17%
Having the government give tax breaks to working families when one parent stays home with children when they are young 76%
Undecided (vol.) 7%

Source: Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates, telephone interviews of 400 registered voters in the state of Oklahoma, May 10-12, 2004. The confidence interval associated with a sample of this type is such that 95 percent of the time results will be within +/- 4.9 percent of the true values, i.e., the results obtained if it were possible to interview all the qualified respondents.