For the last 16 years, Professor Rebekah Levine Coley has explored how poverty affects the development of children and adolescents from multiple perspectives: welfare and work, family structure and parenting, involvement of fathers, risk behaviors among youth, and access to low-income housing, child care, and early childhood education.
Coley is now pursuing a slate of projects at the intersection of family, community, and social policy while on sabbatical leave for the 2013–14 academic year. One examines the role of housing in the development of children in low-income families. Another compares early childhood education and looks at school readiness gaps in Australia and the United States. A third project focuses on the effects of genetic and environmental factors on adolescent health-risk behaviors, such as alcohol and drug use and sexual activity.
“I’m interested in work that has clear possibilities for informing policy and practice or responding to policy and practice issues,” explains Coley, a professor in the Applied Developmental and Educational Psychology master’s program at the Lynch School.
For the housing study, which is funded by the MacArthur Foundation and the William T. Grant Foundation, Coley will serve as principal investigator alongside researchers from Tufts and Duke universities. The team will explore how families with extremely limited incomes find quality housing they can afford—and how their housing choices influence their ability to pay for food, medical care, and clothing, says Coley. They will also examine how the quality, cost, and stability of housing affects low-income children’s health and development.
The housing study will incorporate findings from the landmark Three-City Study, a longitudinal, multi-method survey that assessed the well-being of 2,400 low-income children and families in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio between 1999 and 2006. Coley was part of the team that gathered data for the Three-City Study.
The comparative education study also has roots in previous work. In 2007, Coley traveled to Australia as Senior Visiting Fellow and Senior Fulbright Scholar at the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. She is now comparing Australian and American children’s early education experiences, and how public policy might help close the widening achievement gap between kindergarteners from high-income and low-income families. The U.S. part of this study is funded through a Spencer Foundation grant and is being conducted with a collaborator from the University of Pennsylvania.
The research is particularly urgent, Coley says.
“Twenty years ago [in the U.S.], the big concern was achievement gaps related to race and ethnicity,” she says. “Today, gaps between poor and non-poor children have become twice as large as race and ethnic gaps.”
For her project on adolescent health risks, Coley is exploring an area that is new to her, genetic polymorphisms. Polymorphisms are genetic variations that some researchers have linked to impulsive and risky behaviors. Coley will use existing research data to look at whether environmental factors can moderate associations between adolescent behaviors and genetic and gender risk factors. The study’s foremost goal is to try to understand gender differences related to those behaviors, specifically “when gender differences emerge and how they evolve over time,” Coley says. This project is also funded by the William T. Grant Foundation and is being carried out in collaboration with researchers from the Boston College Lynch School and the University of Pennsylvania.
Coley also strives to incorporate innovative, policy-driven elements into her research. For instance, as part of her new housing study, she has created an expert policy and practice board made up of community housing leaders and local and state policymakers.
Out in the field, Coley says she sees “a perennial need” for housing and food support that has been exacerbated by the economic downturn and cuts to public assistance programs. At the same time, however, she reports that the country seems to be moving in a promising direction when it comes to early childhood education. Among the biggest factors driving the shift: more support at the federal level and some surprising changes at the state level.
“A number of states—and they tend to be lower-income southern states, which are not generally known for putting a lot of economic resources into education and low-income families—have taken the lead in this arena,” Coley says. “There is a positive push toward not only increasing access to early education but also improving its quality.”
Coley has distributed briefs to government policymakers and conducted presentations for federal and state policy groups and government agencies. She has spoken to the Massachusetts legislature and the Boston Fathers and Families Network, among others, about her widely cited research on the role of low-income African-American fathers who do not live with their children.
These close-to-the-ground exchanges, Coley says, increase the relevance of her research at a time when statistics show child poverty on the rise.
“It ensures that we’re asking the most important and informative questions,” she says. “And then it works in the other direction: We can take the answers from our research and return them to the field, with the hope that they can influence how programs are run and funded.”