Show of Hands: Enrollment in Early Education in the United States versus Denmark

Research has shown that high-quality ECEC lessens the inequality gap between children of disadvantaged and advantaged backgrounds, increasing the income potential and opportunities for upward social mobility for low-income children later in life. Thus, the US should follow in the footsteps of Nordic countries by improving its ECEC system.

By Charlotte Armstrong
Contributing Writer

Denmark has some of the lowest levels of inequality in the world, while the United States has some of the highest levels of income inequality among industrialized nations. This leads to a variety of detrimental effects on residents of the U.S., including their individual opportunities for upward social mobility. This cycle of inequality begins with children, and the quality of education they are given at an early age. 

Denmark introduced a government initiative in 1999 which guaranteed every child in Denmark a place in their local childcare system. Costs are kept low, as Danish law compels municipalities to not charge parents more than 25 percent of the average gross operation cost of their early childhood education and care programsDenmark’s publicly-run day-care institutions are high-quality— their teachers are required to meet certain qualifications and their student-staff ratios are small (1:3 for children under three years of age and 1:7 for pre-school-aged children). These measures have boosted the standardized test results of Danish children. In contrast, children in the U.S. have no lawful right to early education and care. The early childhood education and care (ECEC) system in the U.S. is predominantly privately run, which means that typically, parents must cover all costs of their child’s expensive early education. In the U.S., the average household spends 33 percent of its net household income on childcare.[1] As a result, only 53 percent of American children aged 3-4 are enrolled in early education. This only reinforces the strong levels of social and income inequality in the US, as high-quality, affordable, and accessible early childhood education and care (ECEC) can reduce the gap between children born affluent and those born disadvantaged by improving their cognitive skills and readiness for elementary school. This reduces the gap between economically advantaged and disadvantaged children, giving lower-income children a chance at upward social mobility.

OECD data shows that a Danish household typically spends two percent of its net household income on childcare, compared to the US’s 33 percent, demonstrating just how much more affordable childcare is in Denmark. Furthermore, the costs of childcare in Denmark are waived for children of low-income or single parent families. If a family’s annual income is less than $20,000, their child’s ECEC is entirely subsidized. Because Denmark’s ECEC system is affordable, it is highly accessible to families of all incomes and therefore sees some of the highest levels of enrollment in the world.Denmark’s parental leave policies come to an end about one year into a child’s life, at which point they are very likely to enter public child education and care. In fact, 89 percent of children in Denmark aged 1-2 are enrolled in early care (vuggestuer). They then enter boernehave, the equivalent of pre-school, in which about 98 percent of Danish children aged three to five are enrolled. In other words, only two percent of Danish children are not enrolled in early childcare/education. To implement quality care, Danish law has set standards for the qualifications of licensed child care staff— they are required to have at least two years of university-level pedagogical training. Staff-to-child ratios are also very small, ensuring that children are given face-to-face time with teachers. For children under three years of age, the staff-to-child ratio is 1:3, and for pre-school-aged children, the ratio is 1:7. All of Denmark’s investment in universal, affordable, and high-quality early childhood care and education reduces inequalities between low-income and affluent children. Danish ECEC is accessible for children trying to break out of disadvantaged circumstances and has been found to equalize ECEC access at a high level for children regardless of their mother’s education levels. This equal accessibility to ECEC in Denmark is backed up by positive academic results: Research shows that the high quality of ECEC in Denmark resulted in children enrolled scoring 15 percent of a standard deviation more in reading skills than those who were not. Participating in high-quality Danish ECEC at three years old has also been found to lead to higher cognitive scores at the age of 11, with the greatest improvements displayed in children at the low end of the test score distribution.Denmark’s ECEC, therefore, demonstrates that high-quality ECEC can lessen the school readiness gaps between children born into affluent families and those born into low-income families.

The U.S. introduced its first federally subsidized early childhood education program Head Start, in 1965, as part of the Johnson administration’s “War on Poverty.” The program provided free ECEC to about 50 percent of the nation’s low-income children aged three or four. It was originally meant to be a summer-only program, but expanded into a nine-month program the year after its initiation, offering three-year grant cycles to local non-profits and school systems. The federal government provided most funding, with grantees supplying 20 percent of the funds. Schools must comply with Head Start Act standards, including providing nutritious meals for children as well as a small child to teacher ratio (17:1), and the large majority of children must be from low-income families. Head Start currently boasts more than 19,200 centers, aiding more than 900,000 children. Since its creation, Head Start has aided over 31 million disadvantaged children, and has lessened the gap between children born into privilege and those who were not, increasing lower-income children’s adult wages by ten percent, as well as their access to higher education. It’s worth noting that when children participated in the Head Start program and their K-12 system increased spending by ten percent, their adult wages were increased by an even more significant 17 percent. It seems that Head Start lays the groundwork for a successful future for low-income children, but their education should continue to be supported as they prepare to enter the workforce.

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In the United States, inequality begins at birth. Children born into low-income families feel the effects of poverty and of reduced educational opportunity early on in life. The graph to the right shows that when they enter grade school, disadvantaged children are already behind their affluent peers and face the difficulty of trying to make up ground. Income inequality follows children into adulthood: adults who lived in poverty as children are more likely to have completed less school and to work in lower-paying jobs more than those who did not. In turn, their children are born into poverty, and the cycle continues. 

Quality ECEC could be the answer to breaking this cycle of poverty and income equality, but the United States does not currently consider it a priority. This is evident in the inaccessibility and expense of ECEC. The US does not guarantee every child a spot in ECEC, and the ECEC it does provide varies widely based on what each family can afford. The ECEC system in the US is, for the most part, privately run, and costs are covered privately by families rather than the government. The average family spends about 33 percent of their net household income on childcare,[2] and the nationwide average cost is $788 per month for zero to three year-olds and about $635 per month for four year-olds. Teachers are not paid fairly, with the American Public Health Association reporting in 2017 that the median salary of preschool teachers in the US is $23,320, half the median salary of kindergarten teachers. As a result, teachers leave the field, and staff to child ratios increase.

As a result, the U.S. falls behind global trends of enrollment in ECEC education: an OECD report from 2015 states that worldwide pre-school enrollment is rising, with 88 percent of four year-old children in OECD countries enrolled in 2013. In contrast, in the U.S., only 66 percent of four year-olds were enrolled in 2013. Those who are enrolled come from comparatively more privileged backgrounds. In the U.S., 70 percent of children born to college-educated mothers attend pre-school, compared to 38 percent of children whose mothers did not. Furthermore, for those children who are enrolled in ECEC, which type of care they receive largely depends on their parents’ income. As a result, many low-income children are not given the opportunity to attend even one year of ECEC, and only half of children of lower socioeconomic status attend ECEC at age four.

The inaccessibility of ECEC for low-income children in the US is particularly unfortunate, as research shows that attending ECEC before entering kindergarten boosts long-term benefits. An analysis of research studying the effects of Head Start found that, for poor children, a combination of a child’s participation in Head Start and an increase in K-12 district spending can lead to 0.59 additional years of education, 17 percent higher income, and 12 percent less chance of living poverty as an adult.

ECEC in the US must not only be accessible to children of all financial backgrounds, but also be of high quality in order to be effective. This concept was demonstrated by the poor county of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which launched a complete reform of their ECEC system, creating a program to measure quality of ECEC facilities. Their new standards emphasized a need for small classroom sizes, a staff to child ratio of 1:10, teacher qualifications which require at least an Associate’s Degree, and standardized curriculum. The program was found to improve the cognitive abilities and kindergarten readiness of participants, particularly for children who were originally academically behind their peers

Present-day efforts to change this issue have fallen short. The proposals President Trump made for making ECEC more affordable during his 2016 presidential campaign— a new tax deduction, a refundable tax credit— will not benefit the low-income or working-class families that do not have tax liability and who truly need accessibility to ECEC. In response, former Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren rolled out a plan for universal child care during her candidacy. She planned to make ECEC accessible to any child in need of it and to provide high-quality facilities and teachers inspired by those of the Head Start program. Warren’s plan represents a positive shift towards making ECEC more accessible and affordable for all American families— not only for those with steady incomes or who meet certain qualifications. Such a plan has not yet come to fruition, but the research presented here reinforces that it should. Current research displays how Denmark’s ECEC system evens out the early academic skills of children of all backgrounds so that they may begin kindergarten with relatively equal levels of cognitive ability. For the US, a country which struggles with rampant inequality from a young age, it is a wise investment, one which should not be overlooked yet another time.

Photo courtesy of Governor Jay & First Lady Trudi Inslee

[1] This data applies to families with a single adult and two children, with the adult making 67% of the average wage nationwide.

[2] This data applies to families with a single adult and two children, with the adult making 67% of the average wage nationwide.

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Under the International Radar: Refugees and Restrooms

While going to the restroom is a fleeting thought in the daily lives of citizens in urban spaces, as mundane as breathing or walking — for refugees, deciding to use a restroom can be a costly consideration and mean putting their safety at risk.

By Jasmine Moheb

Staff Writer

For many of us living in the richest countries in the world, we do not experience the challenges of only having access to restrooms that are over capacity, lack proper safeguards such as doors and locks, and are exposed to outside dangers. However, this is a reality that is faced daily by communities that have been displaced from their homes and are facing uncertain living conditions. Refugees compose a substantial number of the 4.2 billion people in the world that do not have proper access to toilets, according to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Just one example from the Democratic Republic of the Congo shows that about 55 percent of the 7,217 refugees who arrived in Mulongwe since 2017 have constructed their own latrines due to insufficient facilities. Something that should be a basic necessity is severely limited among those who do not have permanent homes.

Continue reading “Under the International Radar: Refugees and Restrooms”

Public Access Evolution: Global Action Needed to Maintain the Stability of The Human Genome

Photo Credit: NHGRI

By Bennett Batten
Contributing Writer

In November 2018 the scientific community was stunned when the guest speaker to the second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, He Jiankui, decided to share a fun surprise. He had successfully edited the embryonic DNA of twin girls! He deactivated a gene called CCR5 with the goal of  decreasing the risk of acquiring HIV. In reaction to this event an international body of scientists called for a temporary global moratorium on heritable genome editing, and the World Health Organization (WHO) formed an advisory committee on “Developing Global Standards for Governance and Oversight of Human Genome Editing”. While both of those developments are positive, they do not fix the problem that was highlighted.  

Advancements in genetic engineering have far surpassed our global institutions’ ability to regulate them. With the development of genetic engineering tools such as CRISPR and gene drives, paired with the growing popularity of DIY labs, access to bioweapon creation or human enhancement has become open to the public.

Back in 2014 a scientist at Vanderbilt University stated that experiments that previously required 18 months and $20,000 now only take 3 weeks and $3,000. It’s been 6 years since that statement, so it’s safe to assume that prices have fallen farther. Entrepreneurs have met these falling prices with DIY biohacker labs. The first of their kind opened in 2010. By 2017 there were more than 50 in the USA alone. Lack of regulation and security at these private biolabs have concerned the FDA and FBI, but no cohesive protocol has been put in place by the federal government to address safety and ethical concerns. 

A vulnerability from open access genetic engineering is an inability to contain negative side effects. Most genes affect and are affected by others. When Jiankui “deleted” the gene CCR5 in the twin girls, he knowingly increased their likelihood of health complications from viral infections and improved their cognitive abilities. The study of how genes interact with one another is complex and incomplete. How these side effects will manifest in the twins is unknown. If a germline genetic alteration is made unbeknownst to governments or academia, a containment crisis to the alteration could occur.  

Unlike the threat of nuclearization, creating a bioweapon doesn’t have its own version of a radiation footprint. Even with detectable signs of nuclearization, misguided wars of suspicion have destabilized parts of the globe. “Gene editing could allow scientists to develop biological weapons capable of discriminating among target populations based on ethnic, racial, or other genetically defined characteristics.” Having the capacity to carry out genocide by use of bioweapns is a threat of equal concern to having nuclear capabilities. Since the creation process of bioweapons has no obvious tells built in, paranoia on the weapons capacity of enemy groups could rise.

So, what tools do we have to prevent illegal bioengineering? The Bioweapons Convention (BWC) of 1975 resulted in the multilateral disarmament of treaty member states. Members agreed to ban the development, production, and stockpiling of these weapons. Currently the BWC holds a review conference every five years, and one annual week-long meeting of government experts. The annual meeting is intended to track progress and raise issues. Attendee, Malcolm Dando, and Professor of international security at the University  of Bradford, UK raised concerns that the goal of these meetings are not being accomplished. “In 2013, for example the experts’ meeting scheduled a mere six hours of discussions on science and technology — less than a day. That is not enough time for complex science to be presented, digested and discussed, and not enough to consider its implications and suggest revisions to the BWC.”  

The World Health Organization committee on Developing Global Standards for Governance and Oversight of Human Genome Editing has been actively responding to the problem. In March, 2019 they called for a temporary ban on clinical application of human germline genome editing (heritable changes to genes), while developing a mandatory registry for all planned and ongoing research relevant to gene editing. 

The main objectives of any new policy need to ensure global security by preventing unregistered experiments from contaminating the public gene pool, or privately used for human enhancement. Another objective is the protection of human rights. No unborn person should be subjected to genetic experimentation without the endorsement of the scientific community, its guardians, and society. This will ensure the safety of the child, and that social morality associated with editing human DNA is not violated.  

A focal concern about He Jiankui’s experiment on the twins is how easy it was for him to keep it under wraps. An international registry for all genome editing studies will serve as a deterrent to ambitious scientists, if unregistered studies are prohibited from accessing funding, and barred from publication. This does not deter private moneyed interests that have no desire in publication. Jiaunkui kept his experiment under wraps by lying to, and concealing information from staff, as well as exploiting “… loosely worded and irregularly enforced regulations…” in China. This is exemplary of how one person under current protocol has the ability to shirk regulations and laws by mislabeling actions, and misinforming staff. 

To prevent unsanctioned bioengineering, awareness of humanity’s growing ability to control the future of our species’ evolution needs to be raised. From as early as elementary school, we should instill in the coming generations a humble and almost sacred approach to gene editing. Requiring all DIY labs to host a security guard and in-house lab technician to monitor what is being conducted is low hanging fruit, but still impactful. 

All the necessary materials to perform genetic experiments is basic lab equipment, and since the Cas9 enzyme (the key tool used in CRISPR) is a protein, controlling distribution is not logical. Currently there is no way to detect at home laboratories.  Modifying a centrifuges energy footprint, or frequency discharge into a pattern that identifies itself could provide a way to locate unregistered experiments. 

The BWC has been successful so far in its mission of keeping bioweapons from being developed and utilized in warfare. For it to be successful in preventing the weaponization of gene editing, it should quadruple the time it’s experts and delegates meet yearly in order to dedicate adequate time to policy development. How the BWC evolves is up to debate. Two main paths are available: – one that prioritizes state sovereignty and holds that each state is responsible for all bioterrorism threats within its borders, and another that prioritizes the global genetic stability of the species over state sovereignty. However, many states do not have the capacity to fund programs of surveillance and security to prohibit extremist groups from using their territory

Article 39 in The Charter of the United Nations gives The Security Council (UNSC)  authority to label threats to international peace, and the duty of deciding what actions to take to restore/protect peace. Any action taken requires approval of all five permanent member states (US, GB, FR, CHN, RU). To facilitate productive policy development that would address ranking the priorities of sovereignty and genetic stability, the BWC should request annual discussions with the five permanent member states of the UNSC. 

It is the duty of our global institutions to be predictive of future threats to international peace. To minimize the occurrence of genetic crisis events, effective deterrents must be developed. It is time now to raise cultural awareness of this issue and to pressure our global institutions to take action.