Migration Policy Institute Study Maps Major Barriers in Crucial Early Childhood Education Arena Facing Immigrant Parents in Massachusetts & United States

Report Calls for Concerted Action at Federal, State Levels

June 2, 2014 WASHINGTON — Immigrant parents in Massachusetts and elsewhere confront significant barriers as they try to engage with their children’s educational programs during the developmentally critical early years, with many facing greatly restricted access due to the lack of robust translation and interpretation services and their own limited functional literacy, a new report from the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy finds. The difficulties that many early childhood education and care programs experience engaging with these immigrant parents have been further exacerbated as funding for adult basic education and English instruction is greatly outpaced by the need.

Twenty-eight percent of the nearly 670,000 children in Massachusetts ages 8 and under have a parent who is foreign born (slightly higher than the 25 percent national rate). The report’s findings underscore the urgent need to address barriers immigrant parents in Massachusetts face: 38 percent are limited English proficient (LEP), and foreign-born parents comprise 45 percent of all parents of young children in Massachusetts who lack a high school diploma or equivalent.

The report, Immigrant Parents and Early Childhood Programs: Addressing Barriers of Literacy, Culture, and Systems Knowledge, draws upon field research and focus groups in Massachusetts and five other states, as well as socio-demographic analysis to explore the unique needs that newcomer parents have as they seek to engage with early childhood education and care programs and prepare their children for the transition to kindergarten and beyond. The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition assisted MPI in organizing focus groups with local immigrant and refugee parents and in identifying state- and city-level administrators and program officials to interview as part of the study’s field research.

“Our state can be rightly proud of the many steps it is taking to improve early childhood services, however, in order for these investments to achieve their desired impact, immigrant and refugee parents must have meaningful access to all aspects of early childhood programming,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the MIRA Coalition. “Unfortunately, too many Massachusetts parents lack that access. We urge coordinated action and investments at the state and federal levels to ensure that immigrant parents have the support they need to partner with early childhood programs and ensure their children’s kindergarten readiness and future academic success.”

The report finds that early childhood programs lack partners that address parents’ need for language, literacy, culture and systems knowledge, given the “severely limited” capacity of the U.S. adult education system to reach low-literate and LEP parents and the lack of support within early childhood education and care (ECEC) programs to meet these needs. This is occurring against the backdrop of significant increases in the share of young children with foreign-born parents across the United States. More than 25 percent of all children ages 8 and under in the United States have a parent who is an immigrant—more than double the share in 1980. Forty-five percent of these parents are low-income and 47 percent are LEP; and they are more than twice as likely as native-born parents to lack a high school diploma or equivalent, the MPI report finds.

“Historic demographic changes are coinciding with equally historic efforts across the country to expand early childhood services and improve their quality. Parents are a central focus of these efforts given their critical role in their children’s early cognitive and socio-emotional development and their role as gatekeepers to early childhood services,” said report co-author Margie McHugh, director of the National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy. “However, despite their many strengths, immigrant parents often are not on an equal footing with native-born parents given gaps in their literacy, English language and U.S. culture and systems knowledge; addressing these gaps is an urgent challenge for policymakers and front-line programs in the early childhood arena.”

“Low parental education levels represent a significant risk factor for young children of immigrants given that maternal educational attainment is closely linked with education outcomes for children,” said MPI Policy Analyst Maki Park, who co-authored the report. “Limited adult education opportunities for these parents hinder their ability to engage in their children’s early learning experiences, and also restrict their participation in dual-generation strategies that seek to improve family economic stability and parent and child outcomes through skill- and wealth-building strategies.”

The authors offer a range of recommendations, including:

  • Expanding targeted parent education, literacy and English language programs, including by creating a large-scale pilot program through the federal departments of Health and Human Services and Education focused on low-literate and LEP parents of young children. At a time when the adult education system’s capacity is both greatly reduced and increasingly focuses on students who seek to gain career advancement or transition to post-secondary education, innovative state and local efforts should be supported and tested in order to provide direction for future expanded federal investments.
  • Leveraging state efforts to expand their early childhood education and care infrastructure and policymaking, by ensuring that parent skill, education and engagement support is included as a critical priority in the expansion of state pre-K programs and implementation of Quality Rating Improvement Systems, particularly in underserved communities.
  • Improving data collection prior to kindergarten entry regarding the needs of newcomers, particularly by mapping parents’ levels of education and language proficiency, as well as their children’s Dual Language Learner (DLL) status. Absent such information, key needs of the growing immigrant population remain largely invisible to policymakers.

“The early childhood field alone cannot meet the integration needs of foreign-born parents,” Ms. Millona noted. “A range of cross-agency efforts are needed to help many of these parents fill gaps in their cultural and systems knowledge and build language and literacy skills, and thereby place them on an even footing with others in supporting their children’s kindergarten readiness and future school success.”

The report is funded through a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read it at: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/immigrant-parents-early-childhood-programs-barriers

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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. MPI’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy is a crossroads for elected officials, researchers, state and local agency managers, grassroots leaders and activists, local service providers and others who seek to understand and respond to the challenges and opportunities today’s high rates of immigration create in local communities. For more on the center’s work, visit www.migrationpolicy.org/integration.