Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: Immigrant Children Volume 21 Number 1 Spring 2011

Early Care and Education for Children in Immigrant Families
Lynn A. Karoly Gabriella C. Gonzalez

Immigrant Children and Participation in ECE Programs

Despite the recent interest in participation in ECE programs, relatively few studies have focused on participation patterns specifically for immigrant children. One of the first analyses based on a nationally representative sample of immigrant children used detailed data on child-care arrangements for children under age six collected in the 1996 panel of the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP).5 The estimates showed that immigrant children under age six were more likely than their native counterparts to be in parental care only (59 versus 44 percent) and less likely to be in center-based care (14 versus 25 percent). The two groups were more similar in their use of nonrelative care and kin care.

This general pattern has been confirmed in other studies using data from the 2000 Census and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K) with a focus exclusively on preschool-age children. For example, estimates from the 2000 Census, which asks about regular school attendance including "nursery school or preschool," indicate that immigrant children participate in early education programs at lower rates than their native counterparts at both age three (30 versus 38 percent) and age four (55 versus 63 percent).6 Estimates from the ECLS-K for the cohort that entered kindergarten in 1998–99 also show that children of mothers born outside the United States and children of Mexican immigrant families were less likely to be enrolled in center- or school-based preschool programs than other children in the year before they entered kindergarten, with a participation differential as large as 15 percentage points.7

Research also documents considerable variation by subgroup of immigrants and by geography in their use of nonparental care or specific types of care arrangements such as preschool programs. The evidence suggests, for example, that immigrant children from Mexico are even less likely to participate in preschool programs than immigrant children from Central America, the Dominican Republic, or Indochina.8 Preschool participation rates for three- and four-year-olds also vary substantially by state, with the largest participation gaps between immigrant and native children in the states with the largest immigrant populations.9

An Updated Perspective on ECE Use by Immigrant Children
While informative, these studies offer a limited understanding of the patterns of ECE use for immigrants and natives, especially ECE use for infants and toddlers compared with preschool-age children. Furthermore, earlier studies relied on data from the 1990s or the 2000 Census, which may offer a dated perspective on ECE use given the recent expansion of subsidized child-care programs, including state-funded preschools.10 Because of our interest in current ECE use among immigrant children—both first and second generation—from birth to kindergarten entry (typically at age five), we have generated estimates of ECE use from the Early Childhood Program Participation (ECPP) module of the National Household Education Survey (NHES), which was last administered to a nationally representative sample of families with children under age six in the first four months of 2005.11 The ECPP module collects detailed information about the use of various types of care arrangements at the time of the survey for children under age six who are not yet enrolled in kindergarten. Nativity information is also collected for the child and his or her parents.12

We also draw on data collected in the late winter and spring of 2007 on ECE use and quality for a representative sample of three- and four-year-olds in California as part of the RAND California Preschool Study.13 Examination of the data from California, home of 27 percent of the nation's immigrant children under age six, is instructive for several reasons. First, the data for 2007 are even more current than those from the NHES. Second, according to the RAND data, 50 percent of all California three- and four-year-olds are first- or second-generation immigrants, so one can see if the patterns of ECE use among immigrants shown in national data also hold for California. Finally, in addition to collecting information on care arrangements and nativity status comparable to that in the NHES, the California study obtained information through direct observation of program quality for children in center-based programs. Thus the California data provide an opportunity to examine the quality of ECE received by immigrant and nonimmigrant children in center-based settings.14

Table 1 reports estimates of the use of nonparental care for children stratified by age group and immigrant status from the 2005 NHES (top panel) and the 2007 California study (bottom panel). Age groups are defined by school-entry cohorts (rather than age at the time of the survey) based on the month and year of their birth in the NHES and the birth date in the California data.15 For example, at the time of either survey (the first part of the calendar year), children in the four-year-old age group would be age-eligible to enter kindergarten in the following fall, so they would typically be labeled four-year-old preschoolers. The three-year-olds, those children who are two years away from kindergarten entry, are likewise typically included in the preschool-age group. Those in the youngest age group (available only for the NHES), typically labeled infants and toddlers, are usually not yet eligible for preschool programs. Both sources of data ask about regular nonparental care arrangements and differentiate between center-based programs and care provided in a home by either a relative or nonrelative.16

As expected, both panels of table 1 show that use of nonparental care increases with the age of the child for both immigrant and nonimmigrant children. Of more interest is that at each age, the share of immigrant children in any nonparental care is smaller than the share of native children in nonparental care.17 In the NHES the differential is 17 percentage points for children under three, 10 percentage points for those age three, and 12 percentage points for those age four. While the levels differ, the California data show a similar gap in the use of any nonparental care for the two older cohorts (14 and 12 percentage points, respectively).

Differentiated by care type, the use of center-based programs also increases with age, reaching 66 and 75 percent nationally (and 62 and 72 percent in California) for four-year-old immigrant and nonimmigrant children, respectively. Again, however, compared with their native counterparts, immigrant children at each age are less likely to be in center-based care or either type of nonparental home-based care (with the exception of nonrelative care among four-year-olds in the NHES). Interestingly, the immigrant-native gap in the use of center-based care is smaller for three-year-olds than it is for four-year-olds, especially in California. Nevertheless, the differential use of center-based care, especially in the two preschool-age groups, suggests that immigrant children may have less exposure to formal early-learning programs that can support their preparation for school entry. At the same time, the differential in center-based care for four-year-olds as of 2005 in the NHES is less than the differential measured in the ECLS-K cohort whose children would have attended preschool seven years earlier.18 This finding suggests that the preschool participation gap may be narrowing over time, perhaps as a result of the expansion of state-funded programs.

The immigrant-native differences in the use of any nonparental care raise the question of whether the use of different care settings, for children in any nonparental care, varies by immigrant status. Table 2 highlights these patterns for both data sources using two approaches to account for multiple care arrangements. First, the table classifies children by the care setting where they spend the most time based on weekly hours (labeled the "main arrangement"). As shown in the top panel of the table, among children in nonparental care, immigrant children in the two preschool-aged groups, both nationally and in California, are more likely than native children to spend the most hours in center-based care. The difference can be quite sharp, as evidenced by care in California, where 70 percent of three-year-old immigrant children and 58 percent of native children in care spend the most hours in center-based care. The reverse pattern holds for infants and toddlers, with immigrant children less likely than their native counterparts to spend the most hours in a center setting.

The second approach assigned children in any center-based program to that category regardless of hours spent there. Thus calculated, as shown in the bottom panel of table 2, rates of participation in any center-based care are very similar for immigrant and nonimmigrant children in nonparental care, especially for three- and four-year-olds. Three-year-olds in California are the exception, with natives having a smaller share than immigrants in any center setting. Among four-year-olds, upward of 10 to 12 percent of immigrant and native children nationally are in center-based care, although they spend more time in some other non-center-based arrangement. Because many preschool programs last for only part of a day, children may spend more time in other care arrangements, especially when their parents need full-time care. Ultimately, these patterns indicate that, among all children in nonparental care, immigrant children in the preschool age groups—especially four-year-olds—are equally if not more likely than their native counterparts to be in a center-based setting.

Composition Differences and the Immigrant-Native Gap
Immigrant children would be expected to have lower rates of participation in nonparental care than native children, because they are more likely to have the characteristics associated generally with lower participation in care arrangements. For example, immigrant children are disproportionately from families with low income, with low parental education, with two parents, and of Hispanic ethnicity, all factors associated in earlier studies with lower use of nonparental care.19 To what extent can these and other demographic or socioeconomic characteristics explain the immigrant-native gap? Table 3 explores this question by reporting immigrant-native differences in the use of any nonparental care and the use of any center care for four-year-olds in the NHES within subgroups defined by poverty status, parental education, the number of parents in the family, and ethnicity. 20 As expected, whether one looks at immigrants or natives, the use of any care and any center-based care is higher for children in families with income above poverty, with parents who have a high school degree or higher, within one-parent families, and who are not Latino. In other words, for example, immigrant children above the poverty line are more likely than immigrant children below the poverty line to use some form of nonparental care. Yet within all but one of these subgroups, immigrant children are less likely than their native counterparts to use any care, including center-based care. For example, the immigrant-native gap in the use of center-based care is 14 percentage points for children in poor families and 6 percentage points for those in nonpoor families. The one exception is for Latino children, where immigrants and native children (that is, third generation) are equally likely to use any nonparental care and Latino immigrants are slightly more likely than Latino natives to use center-based care.

Considering each of these characteristics alone, as in table 3, cannot eliminate the immigrant-native gap. But if composition differences across all four characteristics are simultaneously accounted for in a regression model, much of the immigrant-native gap for the two older age groups can be explained. The results of the regression are illustrated in figure 1, which shows the absolute size of the immigrant-native gap in the use of any care and use of center-based care. For each age group, the first bar shows the unadjusted percentage-point gap (the same as those reported in table 1), while the second bar shows the gap that remains after accounting for poverty status, parental education, number of parents, and Hispanic ethnicity. With the exception of the use of any care among infants and toddlers, the adjusted gap is reduced to 3 percentage points or less after controlling for the four characteristics. In other words, much of the lower use of nonparental care and center-based care on the part of immigrant children, at least for three- and four-year-olds, can be explained by four factors: higher poverty rates, low parental education, and a higher propensity to be in two-parent families and of Hispanic ethnic origin. One implication is that efforts to address low rates of ECE use for low-income families or families with low parental education would also potentially encompass immigrant children who share these characteristics. It also means that there is a residual gap in ECE use for immigrants, albeit a relatively small one for preschoolers, that must be explained by other factors that may be more germane to the immigrant population. We turn to such potential barriers in a later section.

Quality Differences in Center-Based ECE Programs for Immigrant Children
Researchers have made few efforts to link data on care use with measures of quality for the ECE settings children use for representative samples of children. The RAND California Preschool Study provides such an opportunity for preschool-age children because it collected observational measures of program quality in center-based settings for a subset of the sample children in center care. These data show that measures of global quality, namely, the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale-Revised (ECERS-R) and the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), as well as other measures of structural quality such as group sizes and ratios, vary only modestly across groups of children defined by family income, parent education, mother's nativity, linguistic isolation, and other characteristics.21 Differences by race and ethnicity were somewhat more pronounced and showed that Latino children experienced somewhat higher quality on some dimensions. However, all groups of children, both less and more advantaged, experience shortfalls with respect to benchmarks that are associated with high-quality care environments, often by large margins. (Examples of benchmarks are achieving an ECERS-R score of 5 or better on a scale of 1 to 7 or having a lead classroom teacher with a bachelor's degree.)

The lack of large differences in quality for children in more disadvantaged groups relative to their more advantaged peers suggests that differences in quality for immigrant versus native children would not be large, a contrast that was not made in previous research using these data. Indeed, as demonstrated in table 4, the two global quality measures, both set on a 7-point scale, show only modest differences between immigrant and nonimmigrant children in center-based programs. On average, the two subscales of the ECERS-R collected show quality for all children falls between the minimally acceptable level (a score of 3) and the good level (a score of 5). The variation by immigrant status is small, about 0.2 of a standard deviation, although the scores are always somewhat lower for immigrant children than for their native peers.

A similar pattern emerges for the CLASS, which is viewed as capturing process aspects of care quality. As seen in table 4, the scales for emotional support and classroom organization are in the middle-score range, but the score for instructional support is on the low end of the scale, a common result in other studies that have used the CLASS in preschool-age settings.22 Together these scores indicate that teachers in center-based settings are relatively successful in creating emotionally supportive and well-managed classrooms, but they fall short in promoting higher-order thinking skills, providing high-quality feedback, and developing students' language skills. Like the ECERS-R, however, differences in the CLASS components by immigrant status are modest, although again the scores are consistently lower for immigrant children.

Taken together, the portrait that emerges from this review and updated analysis of ECE use and center-based ECE quality for immigrant children versus their native counterparts suggests several results worth highlighting. First, for infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children, immigrants have lower rates of participation in any nonparental care and center-based care. Evidence suggests that the participation gap may be narrowing over time, but double-digit differences in participation remain even so. Second, among those in care, preschool-age immigrant children are as likely as native children, if not more likely, to be in center-based ECE programs, especially if one looks at the arrangement where children spend the most time. Thus, for immigrant-native participation differences, whether or not care is used at all is more relevant than the type of care arrangement used. Third, much of the participation gap can be explained by just a few economic and sociodemographic factors, such as low parental education or low family income. Thus, lower use of care may result not from being an immigrant child per se but from factors associated with disadvantaged groups. Finally, the data for California indicate that center-based care environments are falling short of benchmarks associated with high-quality care for both immigrant and native preschool-age children alike. These results may not extend to other states, but they imply that, at least in the state with the largest share of immigrant children, ECE quality needs to be raised, especially in areas like instructional support, which has been shown to have a positive relationship with gains on cognitive assessments during the preschool year and on subsequent school achievement success.23

The Potential Benefits for Immigrant Children from ECE Programs
The interest in participation in high-quality ECE programs stems from an extensive body of research demonstrating the potential for benefits to children in school readiness and later school success. The strength of this research base is rooted in the use of rigorous approaches to evaluation, including experimental studies, often viewed as the gold standard, together with quasi-experimental methods that closely approximate the experimental approach. Much of the existing literature focuses on programs serving disadvantaged children, and these findings are equally relevant for immigrant children, who, as already noted, disproportionately experience poverty, low parental education, and other stressors in early childhood. But some direct evidence also indicates that immigrant children and English learners benefit from high-quality programs. A relatively understudied issue is the potential benefits to parents from programs that serve their children.

Benefits from Targeted ECE Programs
Arguably the most active area of research in recent years has centered on the potential short- and longer-term benefits from high-quality early-learning programs serving children one or two years before they enter kindergarten.24 The body of research includes experimental evaluations of small-scale demonstration programs such as the High-Scope/Perry Preschool Project, as well as of larger-scale publicly funded programs like Head Start. More recently, as states have expanded their preschool programs, a series of studies has used quasi-experimental methods to examine the effects of these larger-scale public programs in a handful of states on prereading and premath skills, as indicators of school readiness. Studies have also used observational data from the ECLS-K and other sources to further quantify the effects of preschool on readiness and later school performance. The Perry Preschool evaluation along with the evaluation of the Chicago Child-Parent Centers (CPC) program, both with longer-term follow-up, provide evidence of longer-term benefits from preschool participation. As noted, most of the preschool programs evaluated to date serve targeted groups of disadvantaged children based on family income or other risk factors. One exception is Oklahoma's state-funded universal preschool program, whose effects on school readiness for the diverse population of students who participate in the program have been studied extensively.

The preponderance of the evidence from this body of research indicates that high-quality preschool programs can produce cognitive benefits at the time of school entry, with magnitudes that can be large relative to other education interventions such as smaller class sizes in the early elementary grades, especially for the highest-quality programs. Children's levels of socioemotional development can also be higher, although the gains tend to be smaller than those for cognitive domains. Some studies even suggest that preschool programs may negatively affect child behavior, but these findings tend to be associated with observational studies that cannot account for program quality. Evidence, albeit limited, from the Perry Preschool and Chicago CPC evaluations shows the potential for high- quality preschool programs to generate educational benefits that extend into the elementary grades, such as less use of special education and reduced rates of grade repetition. The evaluations of these two programs further show meaningful lasting benefits such as higher rates of high school graduation and improved economic and social outcomes in adulthood such as higher earnings, reduced welfare use, and lower rates of crime. At the same time, the national Head Start experimental evaluation shows little lasting advantage of participation as of the last follow-up when treatment and control group members had reached the end of first grade. Lasting Head Start benefits may be lacking because the quality of the average Head Start program falls below that of Perry Preschool or Chicago CPC and because many children in the control group participated in other Head Start or early education programs.

A related research literature considers the effects of targeted early intervention programs serving children from birth to age three, as well as the relationship of the quality of child-care programs more generally to child developmental outcomes.25 Like the preschool literature, smaller- and larger-scale experimental studies have evaluated targeted center-based developmental programs for infants and toddlers (sometimes with extended services into the preschool years) such as Abecedarian, the Infant Health and Development Program, and Early Head Start. Observational studies have likewise estimated the effects of participation in nonparental care on children's developmental trajectories in cognitive and noncognitive domains.26

This body of research demonstrates that well-designed targeted programs serving infants and toddlers can produce short-term developmental benefits and even longer-term gains for school performance and adult outcomes. However, the stronger benefits are associated with smaller-scale programs whose benefits may not be as large when taken to scale. Indeed, the recent evaluation of the federally funded Early Head Start programs documents initial gains that were considerably more modest than those found for model programs and that were not sustained several years after the program ended.27 Moreover, the evidence on the relationship between child care and children's development points to the importance of quality in determining whether children benefit from nonparental care.

Benefits Specifically for Immigrant Children and English Learners
For the most part, recent studies of the benefits of participation in ECE programs have not considered whether immigrants or English learners gain more or less than native children. The handful of studies that do look at this question indicate that immigrant children or English learners stand to benefit as much as, if not more than, children from other groups. Like the larger research literature, much of this research has considered the effects on school readiness measured in terms of academic skills in reading and mathematics. But there may be other benefits unique to immigrants. For example, center-based ECE can assist immigrant children in their adaptation to a sociocultural environment that might be different from the one at home, helping them to learn rules and norms of school settings, play cooperatively with diverse peers, and understand how to relate to teachers or other authority figures outside their families.28 These potential socialization benefits may enable the gains in cognitive domains that have been the focus of the research available to date.

In terms of more academic outcomes, the quasi-experimental evaluation of Oklahoma's universal preschool program, for example, has documented that the gains in school readiness extend to children from diverse backgrounds, with estimated gains on measures of prereading and premath skills that are at least as large for Latino children as they are for white and African American children.29 A more in-depth examination of the effects of Oklahoma's program on Latino children found the largest benefits for those whose parents spoke Spanish at home or were born in Mexico.30 Because some children were tested in both English and Spanish, the study was also able to demonstrate that the language gains were generally larger in the former than in the latter.

Further evidence of the benefits of preschool participation for children from immigrant backgrounds comes from two observational studies based on the ECLS-K. One study estimated that children whose mothers were born outside the United States and who attended center-based preschool programs in the year before they started kindergarten had higher reading and math scores at kindergarten entry than did their counterparts who did not attend preschool, although the improvements were modest (about 0.2 for both achievement measures), and the gains from preschool were the same for children of immigrant mothers as for children of native-born mothers.31 Head Start participation was also found to raise English-language proficiency at the time of kindergarten entry, especially for children of foreign-born mothers with less than a high school education. Compared with those not attending preschool, the empirical estimates also offered some suggestive evidence of larger improvements in English proficiency and academic achievement for immigrant children who attended preschool and whose mothers only speak a language other than English. This finding is similar to the results in the Oklahoma evaluation. On the other hand, a second study using a similar methodology and the ECLS-K found more muted gains from preschool participation on math achievement at kindergarten entry for the sample of Mexican-origin immigrant children (the first or second generation), in contrast to the findings from the research on Latinos in Oklahoma's program.32

One limitation of the ECLS-K for examining the effects of preschool on children's school readiness is that the assessment of reading skills was given only to children who demonstrated proficiency in English, a screen that was passed by only 74 percent of children of immigrant mothers. Children who were not English proficient but spoke Spanish could take a Spanish-language version of the math assessment, so the children evaluated on math skills make up a somewhat less selected sample. Another concern is that, in the absence of random assignment to preschool participation or no participation (or alternatively the use of quasi-experimental methods that approximate the experimental approach), estimates based on the ECLS-K may be biased if there are unmeasured factors that make children more likely to attend preschool and that also increase school readiness. For example, parents who provide more support at home for their children's early development may be more likely to send their children to preschool. Consequently, some or all of the measured preschool benefit may instead be the result of parental support or other unmeasured factors correlated with preschool participation. A final issue with the ECLS-K is that no information is available on the quality of the preschool programs that children attended, so the measured gains are those associated with the average or typical program rather than those that might be possible with higher-quality programs like Oklahoma's.

Across these studies, one issue that remains unexplored is the existence of longer-term benefits of preschool participation for immigrant children. On the one hand, immigrant children, because they are relatively more disadvantaged than their native counterparts, might be expected to experience extended benefits from participation in high-quality ECE programs, consistent with the research evidence of sustained improvements from participation in targeted programs. However, as discussed in more detail in the Crosnoe and Turley article in this volume, the immigrant-native gap evident at the time of school entry tends to narrow over time as immigrants with low initial readiness, such as those from Latin America, experience faster growth in their reading and math scores than their native counterparts.33 Again, given the diversity within the population of immigrant children, it may be those who are most vulnerable who experience both larger initial gains from ECE participation as well as longer-term positive benefits.

Another issue that merits more attention is the role of program quality in influencing the magnitude of the educational gains realized by immigrant children from participation in early-learning programs. One critical program feature for immigrant children is the approach to working with English learners. As more and more English learners participate in formal early-learning programs, researchers have turned their attention to more rigorous evaluations of approaches to serving them. Just as with K–12 education, alternatives include English immersion, bilingual instruction designed to transition students to English-only instruction, and two-way bilingual immersion (also known as dual language) designed to promote acquisition of both the home language and English.

A recent and rare experimental evaluation by W. Steven Barnett and colleagues compared the English immersion and two-way bilingual immersion approaches for a sample of three- and four-year-olds in a high-quality preschool program.34 Both approaches generated gains for participants in language, emergent literacy, and mathematics consistent with those found for other high-quality programs. Although the two program models showed no significant differences on assessments conducted in English, the dual immersion program produced stronger gains in Spanish vocabulary for native-Spanish speakers. Thus, the research to date does not suggest that one particular approach to early education for English learners is better than another. At the same time, there may be other reasons to support dual immersion programs, given the longer-term cognitive advantages of bilingualism as well as the growing importance of fluency in other languages in an increasingly interconnected global economy.35

Benefits for Participating Parents
Much of the research evaluating ECE programs has focused on effects on child development, but parents, especially immigrant parents, may benefit as well from having their children participate in formal programs before they enter school. For example, a child-care center, preschool, or prekindergarten program is an institution with its own set of rules, norms, practices and procedures, and schedule. By virtue of these norms and procedures, such as determined drop-off and pick-up times, parent-teacher meetings, or classroom holiday celebrations, parents engage with each other and with the center's staff. This engagement provides opportunities for parents to widen their circle of acquaintances and potentially improve their social resources. The resources that inhere in social relationships, or social capital, in turn, can work to improve the quality of life for the family.36

In a study of child-care centers in New York City, Mario Small found that parents were comfortable interacting and making connections with strangers they met at their children's day cares.37 The centers gave parents with enrolled children a sense of trust and legitimacy, making the development of social ties and relationships fairly easy. The centers also provided opportunities for parents to meet and interact with each other in a safe environment. This analysis did not specifically focus on immigrant parents, but immigrant parents may likewise experience gains in their social capital depending on the center's institutional norms and practices.

Specialized services provided through ECE programs, often directed toward more disadvantaged families or those needing special assistance, may provide supports that are particularly relevant for immigrant parents with young children. These services may include English-language classes for parents or assistance in finding a job, both of which, in turn, enable the immigrant parent to become better integrated economically and socially into the broader U.S. society. For example, AVANCE, a program established in 1973 and based in California, New Mexico, and Texas, has a "whole-family" philosophy. AVANCE centers target families with children from birth to age four, providing early childhood education as well as parenting, adult literacy, English-language, and healthy-marriage training to parents. AVANCE's family support programs address low self-esteem and dependency, improving parents' connectivity to the community.38

Finally, participation in ECE programs may also support immigrant parents in realizing their educational goals for their children. Parents of immigrant children tend to have high aspirations for their educational attainment. 39 ECE programs that engage parents in their children's development are able to leverage those ambitions to teach parents how to participate in their children's learning and how to navigate the U.S. educational system. A study of Mexican immigrant mothers of young children enrolled in the Dallas AVANCE program found that, by showing the mothers how to participate in their children's learning through concrete activities (such as regular mother-child conversation, daily reading, and playtime activities that teach developmental skills), the mothers were able to overcome their own lack of schooling and motivate their children to pursue academic success.40