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The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam: A Review

Put quite simply, if the major effort in improving educational outcomes continues to be directed to schooling then a lot of money will be wasted. The focus needs to be on early childhood and kids in less advantaged home environments. Moreover, the solution is not found only in the home or in the school.

Why is this relevant to Australia? Because so much of what happens in Australia is lately derived almost copycat-like from the United States, witness in the domain of education standardised testing and independent schools to name but five. (And the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement negotiations, not to mention the recognition of the way in which American corporations arrange their internal accounting so as to pay taxes where the rates are lowest instead of where they gross most revenue, all part of accountability!). The struggle to emulate countries in Europe in paying attention to disadvantage, as recommended by the Gonski Report, continues as does the recognition of the importance of early childhood.

A child’s earliest years are critical: greatest brain development takes place then, notwithstanding that the brain is plastic and keeps developing to the end. The psychological and emotional environment profoundly influences learning through exploration of the environment and of relationships, relationships with the primary carer and the diversity of stimulation. In a positive environment, the child is exposed to cognitive challenge through experience, through exploration, through conversation. Creativity is encouraged!

Well known studies over a decade ago have shown that in the home of advantaged parents, especially those with advanced education, by age 4 the child has gained a substantial vocabulary, has learned self-control and, from encouragement, gained self-confidence, all of which are more reliable predictors of later success than the socioeconomic background of the family. These kids, as found by a host of studies including those by John Ogbu and Annette Lareau, expect to be involved in what they wear, eat, where they go. In a disadvantaged home on the other hand the child is not expected to express opinions, expects to be told what to do; available money limits experiences, the physical environment is confined and opportunities for play limited. More than likely either both parents are working, sometimes irregular hours; the child may be in a single parent family or worse, neither parent will be employed.

These differences flowing from the socioeconomic situation of the family are substantially overturned if disadvantaged kids are given the opportunity to participate in a wide range of challenging activities managed by skilled teachers in childcare programs:  they make a successful transition to school and gain from further education. They go on to be productive citizens. The return on investment is very substantial. They are less likely to end up unemployed, involved in crime and imprisoned. Properly funded out of home childcare for disadvantaged children brings substantial later returns on investment. (Investing in childcare for already advantaged kids does not and nor does just having relatives provide the care.)

Significantly, what the child brings to school has a huge bearing on later achievement: it contributes around 50 per cent of educational achievement as John Hattie showed years ago. In France and Nordic countries the importance of early childhood and parenting are clearly recognised. Attention to gender equity and employer agreement to hold jobs open, together with paid parental leave, leads to greater participation in the workforce by women and to higher fertility.

So we have Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Schuster) recently reviewed by The Economist. Putnam is a distinguished sociologist and senior Harvard academic, best known for his book Bowling Alone which drew attention to the importance of social capital and detailed the trend to individual activities amongst people. (Putnam showed that greater neighbourhood diversity diminished trust and political participation but that could be overcome by intelligence and creativity. He also showed that household theft was lower in communities where people knew their neighbours by their first name.)

In his latest book, Putnam promotes the view that the most important divide in America today is class, not race and the place where it matters most is in the home. Upper middle-class homes are not only richer and more stable, they are also more nurturing and that makes the difference in what the child brings to school on their first day, Putnam proclaims. He is correct.

The key issue is inequality. Putnam’s data compares children of parents with at least a bachelor’s degree with those in which parents have no more than a high school education. Over the period from 1980 especially there are significant divergences in child care involving both parents, the likelihood of parents and children eating dinner together, eighth grade test scores, in college graduation and related factors, now well known by anyone who cares to find out.

This is the “Great Divergence”, the ever widening gap in earnings and wealth between the super rich and the ordinary folk in the community, now front and centre of economic debate due principally, according to many, to specific actions by the super rich through their own actions and the influence they exert on the legislature in respect of wage levels, taxation arrangements and education funding. French economist Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century detailing this has become a best seller.

Putnam’s conclusions on education are nothing new: they in essence reflect the comments made frequently that “remedies” like “No Child Left Behind” will never fix poverty because tests, sacking inadequate teachers and more independent schools don’t address the causes of poverty. But the inadequacy of education experienced by kids of poor families makes it much harder to gain employment, with all the consequences of that.

Asserting that class not race is the key factor ignores the link between the two. That is the entire basis of the ongoing resegregation of schools in the US south despite the 1954 Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs the Board of Education and the continuing denial of democratic participation and of justice addressed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The criminalisation of African Americans through the war on drugs, the mandatory sentencing regimes, the undeniable discrimination by police forces, not just in places like Ferguson, and the grossly inadequate legal representation of those charged with crime continues slavery in another guise. Other advanced countries have similar though not as severe, experiences.

But then isn’t the commentary on early childhood just a reflection of the political reality? Whether class or race, attention to early childhood is seen by the influential in society simply in an economic frame: the childcare debate is only another branch of economics, like women’s “work”, unconnected with all of a life lived. In the US intervention in early childhood is overwhelmingly considered an invasion of privacy.

Meanwhile the fact that poor overall average educational achievement is due to poor resourcing of education in schools attended by children of disadvantaged families continues to be denied. The Economist observes that the high incidence of children born out of wedlock in poor families could be addressed by encouraging people to get married before having children: but it is admitted that changing behaviour is difficult!

All of this is relevant to Australia. Why did Prime Minister Tony Abbott every think that his over generous paid parental leave scheme would ever work? Did he consider the situation in countries other than the US? Did he consult people in the education department? Did he talk to experts? Did his colleagues look past the debate about wage rates for child care teachers? As in the US the education debate continues to focus on the school where the return on investment is substantially lower than from early childhood intervention.

Unless maximum attention is given to early childhood as an issue affecting the entire community achieving gains in education and lots else besides will be that much more costly and more difficult. It isn’t going to be solved just by advocating changes in behaviour. We also need “joined up” solutions.

It isn’t just an economic issue and childcare is not simply a strategy to get married women into the workforce. That’s why the National Early Childhood Development Strategy, Investing in the Early Years, was developed under the auspices of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and launched in 2009 is so important. If we want to advance educational attainment, that program should be fully supported and generously funded!