In a recent podcast conversation, Bill Gates and Rashida Jones interviewed economist Raj Chetty on the main drivers of income inequality in the United States. Chetty identifies declining levels of income mobility in the U.S. over recent decades (a finding contested by others, who find more stagnation than decline).
Interestingly, at the beginning of their conversation, Gates, Jones, and Chetty thanked their parents for positively influencing their lives. Jones highlighted how her father, Quincy Jones, a black man born in the 1930s, pushed against the grain and overcame countless obstacles on his way to success. The same went for Chetty, who noted the impact of his Ph.D.-holding parents.
Yet, after their initial remarks, the role of parental engagement didn’t make the cut in terms of the most important issues to address when reducing inequality or increasing mobility. This despite Chetty’s research conclusively showing that neighborhoods with a higher percentage of two-parent households are the best predictor for higher levels of upward mobility across neighborhoods. Parenting matters immensely, yet its absence from such discussions is an issue in and of itself.
Why is it that two-parent households statistically predict future success? Other research suggests one compelling explanation is the importance of early childhood education, not to be confused with schooling, in explaining children’s future success.
Talking and reading to children is an essential foundation for the kinds of skills that better enable other forms of traditional and social learning. The soft skills that are first developed in a family setting are building blocks to further developing and honing those skills. There are many studies that highlight the impact of early childhood education programs . By age three, there is a 30 million-word gap that occurs because of differences in parental engagement.
Despite such findings, our current policy discussions around early childhood education almost exclusively revolve around universal pre-K — a program we now see in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better spending bill. In addition to missing the core of what makes early childhood education so effective, such one-size-fits-all solutions come with other drawbacks.
Increasing subsidies to service providers without first addressing regressive regulations that limit supply (and thus increase the price of services) will only drive these costs even higher for families that need them. Just consider how increased subsidies to higher education have affected those costs. Research has already shown that regulations affecting child-to-staff ratios and minimum education level requirements for childcare workers significantly increase the yearly costs for childcare. No amount of increased funding will be sufficient to solve those problems.
The work of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman is frequently cited in support of universal pre-K programs, even though Heckman has not advocated for such policies. His more general research, and the Heckman equation in particular, shows that investments made in early years do matter, but schooling is not equivalent to education. Parental engagement is key to skill development. Those benefits cannot simply be recreated with a universal pre-K program. In fact, recent research by Heckman and his Danish co-author Rasmus Landerso shows that, in the case of Denmark, the presence of universal pre-K, universal healthcare, and universal college still does not eliminate inequalities that come down to differences in family structure.
As Heckman told me recently in an interview:
Public policy must meet people where they are. Fortunately, there are many existing pathways and programs that can boost early childhood education. Policymakers should look more closely at targeted programs such as the “reach up and learn” curriculum in Jamaica, which has shown encouraging results as a “hands-on” but flexible way to increase parental engagement. It places parents in the driver’s seat. One can also look closer to home at the impact of the Perry Preschool Program. Through it all, the most important factor is parental engagement.
Let’s be clear: Bill Gates, Rashida Jones, and Raj Chetty have the best of intentions in applying their gifts to a worthwhile cause. But their own examples of parental engagement should be a more prominent part of the public conversation. Improvement is never easy, but solutions begin by acknowledging that parents and families matter more than any one policy.
Gonzalo Schwarz serves as the president and CEO of the Archbridge Institute in Washington, D.C.