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Kathleen McCartney, Harvard dean of education, on campus to deliver William C. Friday Distinguished Lecture, converse, consult

Photo of Lynne Vernon-Feagans, Bill McDiarmid and Kathleen McCartney

(l to r) Friday Distinguished Professor Lynne Vernon-Feagans and School of Education Dean Bill McDiarmid welcome Harvard Dean Kathleen McCartney to campus.

Kathleen McCartney, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University and Gerald S. Lesser Professor in Early Childhood Development, delivered the fifth annual William C. Friday Distinguished Lecture on the UNC campus Feb. 19, 2009.

McCartney is a developmental psychologist whose research informs theoretical questions on early experience as well as policy questions on child care, early childhood education and poverty.

“Kathleen McCartney is one of the most thoughtful and influential child development scholars in this country today,” said Lynne Vernon-Feagans, the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Early Childhood, Intervention and Literacy in the School of Education. “Only a scholar of her stature would have been able to synthesize the literature from behavior genetics, adoption studies and early intervention to answer the question about who benefits more from environmental intervention.

“Together with her own work, she demonstrated persuasively that poor children benefit more from high quality environments. Thus, she argued that promoting programs for our most vulnerable children who live in poverty are not only mandated by our ethical responsibility to these children but also supported by this diverse body of scientific evidence in early childhood.”   

In the lecture─titled “The Effects of Environment on Children from Low-Income Families”─McCartney explored the thesis that environment matters more for poor children and children reared in difficult circumstances than for everyone else, because environments below some threshold present insufficient opportunities for adequate development to occur. 

She discussed how income affects many factors in a child’s environment, including resources in the home, parental mental health, and physical surroundings in the home and neighborhood such as toxins, crowding and crime. She pointed out that all those factors affect child outcomes.

McCartney posed the question of whether child care quality and early intervention efforts have a bigger effect on child outcomes for low-income children than for middle-class children. She presented compelling results from adoption studies, intervention studies and income-change studies, providing support for the conclusion that putting a low-income child into a high quality child care center “levels the playing field.”

In concluding the lecture, McCartney said, “The take-home message is this. Does the environment matter more for children in impoverished environments? The answer is ‘yes.’” She noted that this message raises policy questions, such as the issue of whether it is more beneficial to have universal prekindergarten or targeted prekindergarten programs such as Head Start.

During her two-day campus visit, McCartney also joined School of Education faculty and graduate students for an informal presentation and conversation hour focusing on the future of education in early childhood research and policy. In addition, she met with various School of Education faculty members and researchers at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute to discuss ongoing research initiatives.  

The William C. Friday Distinguished Scholar Lecture Series enables the School of Education to bring an internationally renowned scholar to campus each year to address issues related to early childhood. Named for William C. Friday, president emeritus of the UNC system, the lecture series enhances the William C. Friday Distinguished Professorship at the School of Education and recognizes Friday’s commitment to the children and families of North Carolina.