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What Children Need: An interview with Jane Waldfogel

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MMO: You conclude that the public school system could be expanded to better meet the needs of children -- particularly by adding universal pre-kindergarten programs but also by extending the school day or school year, and by making more age-appropriate after school programs available through partnerships with other organizations. Can you describe how the research supports expanding and extending public education, and other policy priorities related to the needs of school-age children?

Jane Waldfogel: Although after-school programs have expanded in recent years, a surprisingly large number of school-age children and youth do not participate in them. For some children the issue is quality -- the programs are too babyish or boring, or do not feel safe. For others, the issue is cost or location -- programs often rely entirely or mostly on parent fees, and parent transportation. Some children who do not participate in after-school programs do just fine -- they are home with their parents or other caregivers, or are involved in activities in the community. But many children are on their own after school, coming home alone or hanging out with peers. Although being home alone is often not problematic, some children who are home alone report being lonely or bored, while hanging out with peers has been found to be associated with worse school and behavior outcomes for children and youth. At the same time, the growing evidence base on after-school programs indicates that while such programs currently are a mixed bag, the best of the programs can have many positive impacts in terms of children's health and development. So, it certainly would be prudent to expand the availability of high-quality programs for school-age children and youth.

One way to do so is to expand the number of high-quality and affordable after-school programs located at or near schools. Recent experimental evaluations indicate that high-quality out-of-school programs can improve outcomes for school age children and adolescents. Successful programs have ranged from one-on-one mentoring, to programs that focus on keeping youth on track academically, to service-oriented programs that aim to improve social as well as educational outcomes. One likely mechanism through which these programs operate is by helping young people develop positive relationships with trusted adults (as well as peers). Young people who have a good relationship with an adult (a mentor, coach, teacher, activity group leader) are less likely to develop problem behaviors. And having a good relationship with a mentor can help young people develop a better relationship with their parents as well.

The other way to expand high-quality provisions for school-age children and youth would be to experiment with extending the school day and year. American school children typically attend school for about 6 hours a day, 180 days per year, a schedule that has not changed since public schools were founded nearly 200 years ago. But the world has changed hugely in that time. We no longer live in a primarily agricultural society, and children no longer need to be home after school and in summers to help their families with the harvest. Nor does our country consist mainly of families with stay-at home parents who can look after children after school and during school vacations. At the same time, the academic material that children need to master to be full participants in today and tomorrow's world has grown exponentially.

Other nations tend to keep their schools open longer than we do -- 37 hours per week in Luxembourg, 44 in Belgium, 53 in Denmark, and 60 in Sweden. And many countries have a longer school year. Children in Canada, the UK, Finland, and Norway go to school 10 more days per year -- an additional two weeks. Children in Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands are in school 20 more days than the US -- an additional month. Children in Luxembourg have the longest school year -- 32 days (more than six weeks) longer than in the U.S. These countries tend to have shorter school vacations, and in particular, shorter summer holidays. We know from research that children lose ground over the long American summer holiday, and that children from the lowest-income families lose the most ground.

And, American youth could certainly use more time in school. Young Americans lag behind their counterparts in other countries in math and science. In tests administered in 39 countries in 2003, American 8th graders were out-scored in math literacy by students in 20 of the other 28 advanced industrialized countries from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and 3 of 10 non-OECD countries, and were out-scored in science literacy by students in 15 OECD countries and 3 non-OECD countries. American 8th graders scored even more poorly -- out-scored by students in 22 OECD countries and 3 non-OECD countries -- in problem-solving, an area that requires students to apply skills in reading, math, and science to solve real-world problems. In today's increasingly technological and global economy, such low levels of math and science attainment will place American youth at a disadvantage.

So, there are good reasons to consider extending the school day and year. And, many cities and towns are experimenting with just such efforts. The city of San Diego has a "6 to 6" Program, available to every elementary and middle-school age child in the City, which includes activities such as tutoring, mentoring, and homework assistance, arts and crafts, performing arts, music and drama, sports, recreation, and snacks. Several school districts in Massachusetts are now offering an extended school day, using the time to offer additional instruction in reading, math, and science, as well as enrichment activities. And some school districts have also begun experimenting with longer school years. About a dozen states have passed legislation extending their school year, and others are developing year-round schooling models. These are promising experiments and worth watching closely.

MMO: Even though there is substantial popular support for policies such as paid parental and medical leave and single-payer health care, grass roots advocates are constantly reminded that pushing for more and better support for U.S. working families and children is a political non-starter. What more can parents do to move these issues forward?

Jane Waldfogel: The first step is for parents to recognize how much consensus there is about these issues. For all the talk about "mommy wars," there is actually a lot of agreement among American parents about what children need and how best to meet those needs. Although most Americans think it would be best if they could care for their children themselves, particularly when they are young, most also recognize that many parents must work, and are supportive of efforts to improve the quality of child care and its affordability. Nearly 70 percent agree that it is unrealistic for most families to have a parent stay at home, and over 80 percent agree that there is a serious shortage of affordable and good quality child care. Parents are particularly concerned about the safety of child care settings and the risk of abuse or neglect. A majority support quality improvement initiatives such as tightening standards and expanding Head Start. So, although Americans do value the primary role to be played by a child's own parents, they also are increasingly in agreement that parents can't do it all. A resounding majority -- nearly 80 percent -- agree that it is much harder to be a parent today, and nearly as many say that "raising children is the responsibility of parents with the support of others in their communities."

What specific steps can parents take? First, parents need to be alert and informed consumers. The sad truth is that many child care and out-of-school care programs are not as good as they should be. If parents speak up and demand better-quality programs, this can change.

Second, parents need to speak up in the workplace. For too long, working parents have been told that the key to success in the workplace is to not mention family responsibilities. Better to say you had to take the car to the garage, the conventional wisdom goes, than to say you had to take the child to the dentist. But, if parents don't speak up and say that they need time off, or don't take advantage of time off when it is offered, then the workplace culture will never change. Parents who feel that they would like to spend more time with their families are not alone. Today's parents really do view the world differently than their parents' generation did. They are more likely to prioritize family over work and to want to spend more time at home. Yet, like their parents' generation, they fear that expressing those views at the workplace will hurt their careers. Here, the old adage "safety in numbers" really does hold true -- if all parents speak up, it is harder for an employer to single anyone out, and it is more likely that the workplace culture will change.

Third, parents need to speak up in their communities and in their polling places. Family issues have sometimes become hot political issues and can do so again -- but only if parents speak up. In Florida, parent pressure moved a reluctant legislature to enact a universal prekindergaten law, while in California a well-orchestrated grassroots campaign persuaded the governor to sign the nation's first paid family and medical leave law.

Fourth, as I mentioned earlier, parents need to look for allies and build alliances. Support for better quality programs for children can be found in many places -- businesses, city and town halls, state governments, foundations, and local non-profit and community organizations. Today's children are the key to our future, and we all have a vested interest in them.

There is now a greater awareness and understanding than any time in the past of how important investments in children are, and this new recognition has greatly increased the public's support for investments in children -- whether in the form of paid leave for new parents or universal preschool or more widely available after-school programs. There is also a much stronger evidence base. We now know better than ever before what programs will help. So there is no excuse for waiting. The time to act is now.

mmo : september 2006

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