STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
So many studies have found that early childhood education makes a big difference in the lives of youngsters, we collectively consider it so important. Given that, you might expect that child care providers would be actively looking for teachers who are highly qualified. But new research shows something different. And Shankar Vedantam, NPR's social science correspondent, is here to tell us about it.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: What do you mean child care providers don't want the best teachers?
VEDANTAM: Well, this comes from a very interesting study conducted by Chris Herbst at Arizona State University, Steve. Along with Casey Boyd-Swan, Herbst conducted what's called a resume audit study. The researchers responded to ads for child care teachers in 14 cities - cities like Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle - big cities around the country.
They sent resumes to centers looking for child care and daycare teachers. Now, these were fictional resumes. Herbst said he wanted to see which applications got a callback asking for an interview and which did not.
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CHRIS HERBST: We found pretty consistent evidence that child care center directors were middling it with regard to teacher credentials. They tended to stay away from the least-qualified resumes in our pool. They also tended to stay away from the most-qualified resumes in our pool and, instead, went for the sort of middle-of-the-road qualifications.
INSKEEP: Middling it, I've never heard that phrase before.
INSKEEP: Why were they going for mediocrity?
VEDANTAM: I don't think we know why they were going for the middle-qualified applications, Steve. Herbst says one important factor might be money. Since child care centers often pay teachers with a bachelor's degree about 50 percent more than teachers with an associate's degree, picking applicants with an associate's degree rather than a bachelor's degree might have been a way to contain costs.
INSKEEP: And that may say something more broadly about society because parents can only pay so much for child care - it's very expensive - or maybe are willing only to pay so much for child care. And so there's only so much money available to the child care center.
VEDANTAM: That's perfectly plausible, Steve. Herbst also found that teachers who had a few months of experience were preferred over teachers who had no experience. But teachers with a few months of experience were also preferred over those with two years of experience. Again, this middling approach.
INSKEEP: Is it possible that in situations like this, in fact, all throughout life, sometimes we're intimidated by the most-qualified people...
INSKEEP: ...Or more comfortable with mediocrity ourselves?
VEDANTAM: Well, I'm not sure if Herbst actually has a way to check the psychological veracity of that theory, Steve.
INSKEEP: OK, fine, fine.
VEDANTAM: But to the extent that child care centers are merely responding to market forces, it could be that they are providing the level and quality of care that parents are willing to pay for. But Herbst also found evidence of the kind of biases that might require intervention from regulators. He found evidence, for example, of racial disparities.
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HERBST: The applicants with African-American-sounding names received 32 percent fewer interview requests than otherwise identical applicants with white-sounding names. The interview rate difference between African-American and white child care job seekers was actually 30 percent larger than the difference in the interview rate between applicants with a high school diploma and a bachelor's degree.
INSKEEP: You've identified this sort of bias in other situations for us before.
VEDANTAM: That's right. This has been a bias that's been documented in many settings. Herbst thinks this is a real problem when it comes to child care. As new generations of Americans become increasingly diverse, selectively screening out African-American teachers could have really bad consequences for kids.
INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam. No mediocrity, as you will find, when you listen to his podcast, Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.