Ethnicity and Kids’ Cognitive Development

Micere Keels
Image by Edith OSB via Flickr

Micere Keels of the University of Chicago presented early results of her research on the ethnicity-related gap in children’s cognitive development. Her study was sparked by two facts: when tested up to about 8 months of age, kids of all major ethnic groups have similar levels of cognitive development. When those kids enter kindergarten, a gap has opened up. When, she asked, did the groups diverge – and why?

Her data included measures at 8, 24, 36, and 48 months. Children were classified according to the ethnicity of their mother; the analysis further compared children of native-born (USA) mothers with immigrant parents. (All children were born in the US.) African-American children with a foreign-born mother showed higher levels of cognitive development than African-American kids with a native born mother; the reverse pattern was true for Hispanic families.

Her research showed that some of the gaps in kids’ cognitive development between ethnic groups is explained by differences in relative resources and mother’s education; a bit more is explained by “supportive parenting” – except in Asian families.

The study was interesting, but I found myself asking two questions: Where are the fathers? What about the impact of family structure – a one parent vs a two parent home. Keels indicated that there really was no impact of family structure that wasn’t captured by mother’s educational level. I find that a doubly troubling answer.

First, it’s troubling in a geeky statistical way: if family structure and mother’s education are tightly correlated, the decision to use one and not the other is tricky – and sometimes relates to one’s preferred theories as much as the numbers. I’ll wait for the published article before I decide.

Second, it’s troubling as an example of the ease at which fathers disappear in family studies. In view Sarah McClanahan’s many studies showing better outcomes for children with both biological parents in the home – even when education, income, and ethnic effects have been controlled – I would expect variables about the father, and the mother-father structure to be considered. The ethnic groups where kids had higher levels of cognitive development were those with a higher percentage of married parents.

This research is part of an on-going series of analyses; this one focused primarily on differences due to immigrant vs native born mothers. The question is of tremendous importance: as a nation, we will fail in efforts to address the achievement gap until we understand it more fully. As Micere Keels and others go forward, I hope they find a way to bring the fathers back in.

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