At the Childcare Network of Evanston's recent open house, Dr. Teresa Eckrich Sommer describes the importance of encouraging parents to further their education.

Over the past decade early childhood educators have said one way to level the playing field for kindergartners is by trying to ensure that all children have access to high-quality early childhood education.

Recent research and pilot programs are pointing to two additional initiatives that help build a strong foundation for child development, said Dr. Teresa Eckrich Sommer, a research scientist at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research.

She was the guest speaker at an open house at Childcare Network of Evanston’s new home, 1335 Dodge Ave., on March 24. She spoke on early education in school-age years and beyond and highlighted two new changes in thinking about early childhood education.

One is a change in “segment,” Dr. Sommer said – that is, expanding the idea of “early childhood” to encompass children three years old through third grade. The second is to help facilitate high school and post-high school education for parents of young children. “Education squared,” Dr. Sommer calls it, because, she says, it focuses on educating the parent as well as the child.

The reason for the three-years-to-third-grade focus is to encourage the ideas of “public responsibility for early childhood education,” said Dr. Sommer,

Children’s ‘Word Gap’ Reflects Parents’ ‘Education Gap’

Dr. Sommer referred to a study conducted by Betty Hart and Todd Risley in the 1990s, which documented the effects of poverty and parental education on children’s development. “By age 3, kids of low-income parents with a high school education or less had about 300 words,” she said. Children of working-class parents, she said, had about twice that amount – 600 words; and children of college-educated parents had about 1,200 words.

Often referred to as the “30 million-word-gap study,” the research by Ms. Hart and Mr. Risley found that children in professional families heard about 2,153 words per hour; children in poverty-level (welfare) families heard about 616 words per hour. The result is about a 30 million-word gap between these two groups of children by age 3.

Follow-up research has demonstrated a high correlation between the size of a 3-year-old’s vocabulary and his or her scores at age 9 and 10 in vocabulary, syntax and reading comprehension.

Post-secondary education has not been available for many low-income parents, Dr. Sommer said. “In the past 20 years, college enrollment has doubled, but completion [graduation] rates don’t match this.

Expectations are high, but the ability to complete is low,” because of systemic problems such as lack of childcare, scarce finances and other “logistical” issues.

Getting Parents Back to School

Early childhood centers can help parents obtain higher education by helping them to see parenthood as a strength as well as a challenge. “Children can be a motivator to parents [to further their education],” Dr. Sommer said. She quoted one mother who was going back to school to get a degree: “When you have a child, you just need to go beyond.”


The Hart-Risley study found that children in professional families heard about 2,153 words per hour; children in poverty-level (welfare) families heard about 616 words per hour. The result is about a 30 million-word gap between these groups of children by age 3.

Operating a center that offers high-quality early childhood education and support – financial and social – for parents to pursue a GED or a post-secondary degree costs money that most centers in Evanston or even in the Chicago area do not have.

Locally, the Family Center at School District 65 encourages parents to further their learning, said Martha Arntson, executive director of Childcare Network of Evanston.

Sara Nuñez of the District 65 Family Center said about 15 families have been enrolled this year in ESL classes (fall and spring) and another 15 in GED classes. There is no cost for these classes, she said.

Money spent on early childhood education pays the community back with interest. Ms. Arntson has quoted studies by Dr. James Heckman of the University of Chicago, whose research shows that for every $1 invested in early childhood education, the community “saves” between $9 and $14 in social costs incurred by crime, dropping out of school, recidivism and drug use.

Effects of State Budget On Early Childhood Education

Two effects of the state budget will likely decrease the availability of quality, affordable childcare for some families, said Martha Arntson, executive director of the Childcare Network of Evanston. First is a decrease in income eligibility for families needing subsidized childcare, from 200 to 185 percent of the federal poverty level. In other words families earning more money than an amount that is 185 percent of the poverty level will not be able to receive childcare subsidies. “”It’s making some people refuse a [pay] raise,”” Ms. Arntson said.

Second, said Ms. Arntson, the co-payment for subsidized childcare has increased. These changes, which went into effect April 1, affected about 8 percent of the families served by CNE, she said.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...