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What Makes Us Who We Are? Mother and Daughter Sociologists Find Some Fascinating Answers

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In 1964, NICHD awarded Doris Entwisle, a sociologist, one of its very first grants. Nearly 20 years later, in 1981, NICHD awarded a grant to her daughter, Barbara, also a sociologist. Before Doris passed away in November of 2013, her research path and academic home were very different from her daughter’s—Doris was at Johns Hopkins University (JHU), in Baltimore, and Barbara is at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. Yet both relished the intellectual rewards that a scholarly life provided and were driven by a search for excellence in quantitative methods and research design. They asked: What’s the best way to frame a research question and design a study? How can one work most effectively with available data? What’s the best way to apply emerging research tools and techniques to gain new insight on a problem? With these questions to guide their work, Doris and Barbara explored the effects of demography, geography, and social context on child health and human development. In the process, they indeed learned much about what makes us who we are.

The NICHD First Grantees Series

Ensuring that all children have the chance to achieve their full potential for a healthy life free from disease or disability is at the heart of NICHD’s mission.

This profile of Dr. Doris Entwisle and Dr. Barbara Entwisle is part of a series of stories about the first investigators to receive research grants from NICHD. These stories demonstrate how investigators have helped NICHD achieve its mission through innovative research examining a wide range of topics from diverse disciplines.

Doris Entwisle: Why Does Early Schooling Matter?
What Did the BSS Discover?
The Bottom Line: What Does the BSS Really Mean for Children?
Barbara Entwisle: Why Does Where You Live Affect What You Do?
What Did Studies in Nang Rong, Thailand, Discover?
Two Lives of Research Recognized
Learn More About Doris Entwisle and Findings from the Beginning School Study
Learn More About Barbara Entwisle, the Carolina Population Center, and the Nang Rong Studies

Doris Entwisle: Why Does Early Schooling Matter?

Learning about the development of early language skills in that first NICHD grant triggered in Dr. Entwisle a broader set of questions. Do children’s homes and neighborhood contexts affect their ability to adjust to the first few years of school? Does their performance in those early years affect their later learning? If those early years do matter, what can families and schools do to make them a success? Today, these questions are easily answered with an emphatic “Yes!” and a list of options. At that time though—the 1960s and 1970s—no answers were available because the questions weren’t being asked and investigators didn’t have the necessary statistical and methodological tools.

In 1982, Dr. Entwisle and her Johns Hopkins colleague Dr. Karl Alexander, received a three-year grant to explore the effects of social context and social-psychological factors (parents’, teachers’, and peers’ expectations) on the cognitive, social, and emotional development of Baltimore children during their first two years of school, called the Beginning School Study (BSS). The effects of poverty and minority status on development were a primary focus. Over the next 16 years, Dr. Entwisle and her team developed a uniquely rich portrait of what it was like for these Baltimore children to go to school and what influenced their achievements or lack thereof as they grew up. BSS findings have been replicated many times in nationally representative samples, and concepts that are taken for granted today, such as summer enrichment programs and outreach efforts to engage parents in their children’s education, are built on the BSS foundation.

What Made the Beginning School Study (BSS) Special?

The Sample

  • The BSS included a racially and economically mixed representative sample of 790 children randomly selected from first-grade classrooms in 20 Baltimore public elementary schools.

The Methodology

  • Dr. Entwisle and her team gathered data on multiple developmental domains using school records, interviews with parents and children, teacher assessments, and standardized tests.
  • The team used emerging statistical tools, such as regression and structural equation modeling, to measure and more precisely distinguish the effects of variables.

The Timeframe

  • The two decades of the study gave the team an unprecedented opportunity to build on initial findings about the important effects of social context on early learning and to demonstrate the persistence of these effects and their impact on achievement in young adulthood.

What Did the BSS Discover?

The BSS team soon realized that entry into first grade is a critical time for children’s academic development. This transition coincides with rapid brain development and major adjustments to a new environment. First grade also is a time when children acquire basic skills with words and numbers. If children do not master them early, they are at a growing disadvantage all through school.

Another important event during these early years is that “achievement trajectories” are launched. Teachers begin to assess children behaviorally and academically and to sort them into groups. Parents, teachers, and children develop expectations about current and future academic success. Once established, academic trajectories are remarkably stable. Regardless of income level, race, or family structure, the team found that high parental and teacher expectations, early preschool programs, and noncognitive skills like strong work habits and interest in school, are key. They help children make the transition to school and do well in early grades, setting a foundation for success in future grades.

As the BSS progressed, Dr. Entwisle and her colleagues made a second major discovery. They found that advantaged and disadvantaged children learned about the same amounts during the school year in the early grades, but that an achievement gap developed and widened over time. What accounted for this disparity? Differences in out-of-school learning opportunities, especially during the summer. Advantaged children were more likely to go to the library, go on trips, and pursue activities that maintained their academic skills. About two-thirds of the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged youth in ninth grade can be attributed to differences in summer experiences during the elementary years.

The Bottom Line: What Does the BSS Really Mean for Children?

By 2005, the BSS students were young adults and Dr. Entwisle and her team were able to draw some conclusions from the study: First, social context matters. Children's social and personal resources at an early age profoundly influence their school experience and cognitive development. Second, the early experiences of elementary and middle school establish the conditions for future achievement. Third, parental support and a child's own temperament and disposition are critical in maintaining an academic trajectory. Fourth, family socioeconomic status forecasts achievements in young adulthood through its influence on out-of-school learning experiences.

Barbara Entwisle: Why Does Where You Live Affect What You Do?

Like her mother, Barbara Entwisle has had a distinguished scientific and academic career. Currently vice chancellor for research at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, Barbara Entwisle has been a fellow with the Carolina Population Center and a UNC sociology professor since 1985. She directs the North Carolina components of the NICHD-funded National Children's Study, a large longitudinal study examining the effects of environmental factors and genetics on the growth, development, and health of children from birth to age 21. She also is investigating demographic responses to rapid social change in Nang Rong, a region of northeast Thailand.

What Did Studies in Nang Rong, Thailand, Discover?

In 1984, the Institute for Population and Social Research in Thailand undertook an evaluation of a community-based integrated rural development program in northeast Thailand that included a major focus on family planning and reproductive health. This became the basis for a major longitudinal study of demographic and health behavior in a changing environment, in collaboration with the Carolina Population Center. The Nang Rong research teams have collected data from more than 50,000 residents of the district at multiple time points and have learned about them also from administrative records, satellite images, and many other sources. These data have yielded many insights into the dynamics of a changing population. For example, a 1996 study used both quantitative census data and qualitative focus-group data to examine contraceptive choices across villages. Dr. Entwisle and her team’s quantitative data confirmed earlier studies, which had stressed the importance of access to and location of family planning centers. Through qualitative focus-group data, however, the team found that during the course of everyday activities, village women talked about family planning. As one couple adopted a method, other couples learned about it through these conversations and adopted it too and this generated a pattern of use in which each village tended to have a most popular method, but that method varied from village to village.

Spatially Explicit Data: Benefits and Concerns

The Nang Rong team has taken advantage of recent developments in geographic information systems (GIS), satellite imagery, and other tools to address important questions about individuals, households, and communities in specific geographical spaces. (A GIS is an automated system for capturing, storing, retrieving, analyzing, and displaying spatial data.) These tools also allow investigators from diverse disciplines to collaborate in new and fruitful ways. However, spatially explicit data increase the possibility that the location and identity of study participants can be identified, raising important concerns about privacy and confidentiality. In a 2005 paper, Dr. Entwisle laid out these concerns and called for research and debate to solve this problem.

These early studies fueled an interest in social networks, and Barbara's research has evolved to focus more and more on how social networks influence individual and community behaviors and how networks change over time. A study published in 2007 showed unanticipated and yet pronounced differences between villages in the structure of social ties that bind villagers together. A study published in 2012 used an innovative analytic approach involving five sets of linking variables to examine how family social networks influenced the exchanges of money and in-kind goods between people who had migrated out of the district in the 1980s and early 1990s and their stay-at-home families and kin. The team found that many factors influenced these exchanges, including marital status, the presence of children, whether the migrants had parents in their original households, and whether any brothers or sisters had also migrated.

The work in Nang Rong continues, with Dr. Entwisle and her team asking new questions and applying new tools, including agent-based microsimulation modeling, to the rich data they have accumulated over time. Their findings are not only shedding light on events of the recent past but also are helping to inform decisions about land use, population, and the environment for future generations in the Nang Rong district.

Two Lives of Research Recognized

The many contributions of Doris and Barbara Entwisle to their chosen areas of sociology have been recognized many times and in many ways. Doris's research was supported by NICHD as well as a variety of other federal agencies and prominent foundations, as Barbara's continues to be. Doris authored dozens of scientific articles and served on the editorial board of leading journals. In addition, Doris was a member of the Sociological Research Association and other prestigious scientific associations and received many honors and awards, including for excellence in teaching and academic mentoring. Her daughter continues these proud traditions, as a member of numerous scientific associations and a winner of many honors and awards.

Learn More About Doris Entwisle and Findings from the Beginning School Study

Learn More About Barbara Entwisle, the Carolina Population Center, and the Nang Rong Studies

  • Barbara Entwisle. Kenan Distinguished Professor of Sociology, University of North Carolina. Retrieved June 28, 2012, from Web Site Policy
  • Carolina Population Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved June 28, 2012, from Web Site Policy
  • Nang Rong. Carolina Population Center. Retrieved June 28, 2012, from Web Site Policy
  • Entwisle, Barbara, Ronald R. Rindfuss, David K. Guilkey, Aphichat Chamratrithriong, Sara R. Curran, and Yothin Sawangdee. (1996). “Community and Contraceptive Choice in Rural Thailand: A Case Study of Nang Rong.” Demography, 33, 1-11.
  • Entwisle, Barbara, Katherine Faust, Ronald R. Rindfuss, and Toshiko Kaneda. (2007). "Networks and Contexts: Variation in the Structure of Social Ties." American Journal of Sociology, 112(5), 1495-1533.
  • Entwisle, Barbara, George Malanson, Ronald R. Rindfuss, and Stephen J. Walsh. (2008). “An Agent-Based Model of Household Dynamics and Land Use Change.” Journal of Land Use Science 3(1), 73-93. 
  • Rindfuss, Ronald R., Martin Piotrowski, Barbara Entwisle, Jeffery Edmeades, Katherine Faust. Forthcoming. “Migrant Remittances and the Web of Family Obligations: Ongoing Support among Spatially-Extended Kin.” Population Studies. PMCID: PMC Journal - In Process
Last Reviewed: 03/21/2014
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