Christel Kesler: Public Preschool Alone Isn’t Enough
Q&A: Associate Professor of Sociology Christel Kesler and researcher Avery Munns ’21
Associate Professor of Sociology Christel Kesler (CK) and research assistant, Avery Munns ’21 (AM), have been working together for about two and a half years. Recently, a study that they collaborated on was published by the journal Social Science Research. Colby Magazine staff writer Kardelen Koldas ’15 (KK) sat down with them to talk about this study, “Maternal employment when children are in preschool: Variations by race, ethnicity, and nativity,” as well as their relationship as faculty member and student researcher.
KK: So let’s dive right in and talk about this latest publication.
CK: The study looks at how the preschool enrollment of children is associated with the employment patterns of their mothers. I feel that it’s always worth noting that the reason it focuses on mothers is because they still have primary caregiving responsibilities just about I everywhere, and you’d see pretty much no patters for fathers. So implicitly, this is a study of gender equality. The particular focus of the paper is not just whether there’s an association between the preschool arrangements of children and the work patterns of mothers, but how that association varies across different groups by various socioeconomic and cultural factors. My whole recent research agenda focuses on what social scientists sometimes call heterogeneous effects of social policies.
KK: Which means?
CK: That policies work differently for different groups of people.
KK: How did you decide to investigate that?
CK: The U.S. has typically been really a laggard with social policy in this area. We don’t have particularly strong work-family policies of any kind, whether that’s parental leave or childcare. The OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development]—the club of wealthy democracies—publishes data on these things, and they have figures of how much countries spend on early childhood care. And one of the things that I noticed is that in recent years, there has been a convergence between the U.S. and other democracies for the three- to five-year-old age category. I found that really interesting—that the U.S., at least for that age group, has started to look a little bit more like other countries, that there’s been more investment in expanding out those public preschool programs, and that they have become more widely available. I thought it would be interesting to look at what the implications are for the work life and family life, and life, generally, of parents.
KK: What did you find? What’s new that this research is bringing to the literature?
CK: I would say the key finding is that preschool policies, first of all, don’t affect mothers’ employment very much—just a little bit. There’s still lots of limitations to preschool as a work-family policy. But the second part is that that association is stronger for some groups of mothers than for others. There’s a particularly low association for immigrant mothers, that is to say, immigrant mothers don’t seem to be able to use preschool to facilitate their employment nearly as much as native U.S.-born women.
KK: What are the implications of that?
CK: I think the big one for me is that even though we have started to invest more in public pre-K than we did a few decades ago, there are still major limitations to the way that’s organized. And so without bundling investment in preschool care with care for younger children, with after-school care, with summer care, it still is very difficult—if you have a child enrolled in school—to work if you’re also a primary caregiver of a child. And counterintuitively, it appears to be in some cases easier for already privileged groups of families to take advantage of preschool policies as they’re rolled out.
KK: Why is that?
CK: Because if you are in a more advantaged position, you are able to arrange that after-school care, to arrange that summer care, and to adjust your own work hours to match the hours of school. The irony is that in some ways we might expect to help the least advantaged more, but actually the opposite is true.
KK: In your previous research you looked at this topic in the Western European context. How do your recent findings compare to that?
CK: Countries that invest a lot in early childhood education and care—and I’m thinking here particularly of the Scandinavian countries in Western Europe—do it in such a way that doesn’t have all these same limitations as the preschool example as it does in the U.S. context. And so there, the finding, in some ways, was the opposite. In the Western European context, greater spending on early childhood education and care seems to most benefit the least advantaged.
KK: In the making of this recent paper, you also had help from your research assistant (RA) Avery, who you’ve been working with since starting this paper. And Avery, as a sociology and educational studies double major, you’re at the intersection of this research. How has it been for you to be a research assistant?
AM: I started my Colby experience about the same time as I was starting research. So not only was I being introduced to Colby but being introduced into this position as well. That was really helpful for my academic transition of going from high school and feeling nervous about how I would do in college, coming from a public school in Kansas. I always thought, coming to Colby, that I would be really far behind. But I think doing work on this project so early, reading challenging academic articles—those are skills that have been invaluable.
KK: Why did you want to dive into research as soon as you came to Colby?
AM: I remember it was in my intro sociology class with [Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology] Neil Gross, and he pretty early on in the semester made a comment that they were looking for researchers. Coming here, my parents told me, “Avery, you’re going to fight for your spots. You have to get your name in there.” I wasn’t hopeful that I would get it or anything, but I just threw my name in the hat.
KK: How about you, Christel? How was it for you?
CK: One of the things that’s most challenging as a faculty member, actually, is that it’s very hard to make progress on the writing sometimes during the semester. There just simply aren’t long enough blocks of time to really push forward with the steps of the research. It’s really helpful to me to have a standing weekly meeting on a specific project [with Avery] because it keeps my head in it during the semester, and even if I don’t have really long blocks to push forward with the writing, it puts me in a position to really take advantage of the time that I do have once it comes around.
KK: How does it do that?
CK: In these weekly meetings, I’m thinking about what is the next step? What remains to get done? … So it’s just been incredibly helpful to have this structure but I develop my ideas in talking it through [as well]. We had lots of twists and turns, like all these projects, you don’t make the same kind of progress if you’re just sitting in your office by yourself. Sometimes I work with coauthors, although in the case of these papers, these are not coauthored pieces. So if I weren’t having these weekly engagements with a student research assistant, I might be sitting in my office alone thinking about this and it just wouldn’t be as productive.
KK: And Avery, in this you were able to see this work progress from idea stage, to research question, to a final paper. How was it for you to see its evolution?
AM: Each week it’s, “Oh, let’s try going down this angle.” And so I see my role as investigating the weird angles oftentimes and just reporting back. And usually I feel it helps spark something for Christel. Even something that we don’t end up using, she takes something out of it and is able to find a new path from there.
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