It Is Not As Easy As ABC

Cynthia Peters


recently released study finds that children from poor families are better off if

they spend more time in day care starting at an earlier age. The Abecedarian

Project (named for the first four letters of the alphabet), conducted at the

University of North Carolina, followed "treated" underprivileged Black

children and a control group from the same population for twenty years starting

from infancy. According to the Boston Globe, the study found that after

enrollment in a high quality, full-day, year-round day care, "young black

adults from poor families were twice as likely to still be in school as children

in conventional care programs or who stayed at home with a parent. They also

scored significantly higher on reading and math achievement tests, were more

likely to have a job and had their first children later in life."


may very well be true that day care has positive effects – academic and

otherwise – on children, and therefore is worthy of support. But when studies

like this get published and the press releases make the rounds in the media, I

think it’s important to examine some of the underlying assumptions about what we

think is positive for children, what it means when poor Black children are

"treated" and evaluated for 20 years, and how progressives can lobby

for short-term goals while keeping a long-range vision in mind.


have no competing studies or scientific data to compare to the work produced by

the Abecedarian folks, but here are my questions and critical comments.


to an article in The American Scientist, the Abecedarian Project participants

scored about 5 points higher than control group children in IQ tests, and they

maintained the advantage. The IQ scores of both groups seem to hover in the 95

to 100 range. Since IQ test have been widely criticized as employing language

and concepts that favor white, middle-class children, and since IQ tests do not

test for all kinds of "intelligence," and since it ‘s questionable

anyway if there is much of a scientific definition of intelligence, how

meaningful is it that one group scored on average 5 points more than the other?

Even if you believe IQ tests have some value, is a 5-point difference

significant? My guess is that, at least in part, children in full-time,

year-round day care would score better on IQ tests because they would be better

test-takers, better at knowing what authorities expected of them, and more

schooled in white middle-class language and communication norms.


of what we consider academic achievement is a measure of how well students give

back to the teacher what she or he wants to hear and how well they adapt to the

rote work that dominates most school rooms. The Abecedarian study implies that

being touched by "high quality" day care during the early years

somehow improves childrens’ brain function. It may be that instead what is

happening is that many years of full-time preschool helps prepare children to

better fit into a school environment and score higher on achievement tests.


it inherently positive for children to do better in school? That depends on a

number of questions. Is the school any good? Is it teaching things that you hope

children will be good at? Is there a cost to helping children do better in

school? For example, in the case of the Abecedarian participants, what did they

miss by being spending so much time in day care? While they were learning to

function well in a full-time school environment, they missed time being part of

their families and communities, and learning and affirming the values, cultural

norms, and attachments that spring from that environment. Whether or not that is

a loss or a gain, and how one would attempt to measure it, are big questions.

But the Abecedarian study seems to skirt such issues altogether.


we read about studies like this one, which remove poor Black children from their

families and communities for most of their waking hours, we should remember how

white middle class norms and culture tend to be elevated while all

"others" are pathologized and "corrected" by well-meaning

social workers, educators, and other professionals.


participants were more likely to have a job (though what kinds of jobs they had,

the study does not mention), and were more likely to have their children later

in life – on average at age 19 rather than age 17. Is it inherently better to

have a job than not? Not necessarily. Many who work are still poor, have no

benefits, few opportunities for advancement, and few opportunities to be

creative or control the design and outcome of their labors. If the mostly Black

Abecedarian participants are getting pre-schooled and schooled to join the ranks

of underpaid, underutilized, rote workers, is that a significant achievement?


the age of becoming parents. Is it significantly different to have children at

age 19 rather than age 17? In both cases, it seems to me, you are an extremely

young adult. In neither case have you had time to finish college, launch a

career, satisfy adult goals or projects that would be facilitated by being



many families – underprivileged and otherwise – access to a full-time,

year-round, high-quality day care would be a boon. Let’s fight to make sure

those who want it have access to it, and that communities have a say over what

day cares offer to children. Let’s also fight to ensure that families and

communities do not have to have their children whisked away to a "highly

stimulating" environment to get their needs met. Decent health care,

rewarding work, fair pay across race, gender and class, and well-nurtured

communities would go a long way toward supporting families to give their

children what they determine they need.



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