Why the U.S. Doesn’t Deliver on the Promise of High-Quality Early-Childhood Education

Far too often, parents find that the programs they can afford do not offer the quality they seek.

Nursery school pupils work with tablet computers on March 18, 2013 in Haguenau, northeastern France.
National Journal
Rhian Evans Allvin And Adele Robinson
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Rhian Evans Allvin and Adele Robinson
April 24, 2014, 6:28 a.m.

Each year, roughly 4 mil­lion chil­dren are born in the United States. Dur­ing their first five years, the ma­jor­ity of these chil­dren will spend a por­tion of their day in an out-of-home set­ting — in child care, preschool, or Head Start.

When fam­il­ies look for child care or preschool for their chil­dren, they have two ques­tions in mind: What pro­grams of­fer the high-qual­ity ap­proach best for my child, and what can we af­ford to pay? Far too of­ten, par­ents find that the pro­grams they can af­ford do not of­fer the qual­ity they seek.

The story of Kat­rina Gil­bert, the fo­cus of the new HBO doc­u­ment­ary Paycheck to Paycheck, of­fers a prime ex­ample of the fre­quent ten­sion between ac­cess and qual­ity. As a cer­ti­fied nurs­ing as­sist­ant at a nurs­ing home, Gil­bert earns a very low in­come. She and her chil­dren lead com­plic­ated lives. The one thing that is stable in the Gil­bert fam­ily is the Cham­b­liss Cen­ter, the early-child­hood pro­gram her chil­dren at­tend. It ac­com­mod­ates her ever-chan­ging work sched­ule, helps feed her chil­dren while she’s at work, and provides a safe and nur­tur­ing learn­ing en­vir­on­ment.

The Cham­b­liss Cen­ter in Chat­tanooga, Tenn., is ac­cred­ited by the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation for the Edu­ca­tion of Young Chil­dren. NAEYC-ac­cred­ited pro­grams meet 10 re­search-based stand­ards to demon­strate that they provide a safe, healthy en­vir­on­ment for chil­dren, have teach­ers who are well trained, build strong re­la­tion­ships with fam­il­ies, and use a cur­riculum that is ap­pro­pri­ately chal­len­ging and de­vel­op­ment­ally sound.

Un­for­tu­nately, ac­cess to af­ford­able early-child­hood pro­grams, par­tic­u­larly high-qual­ity ones, re­mains out of reach for thou­sands of fam­il­ies. Just 32 per­cent of the na­tion’s 3-to-5-year-olds liv­ing be­low the poverty line are en­rolled in form­al preschool pro­grams. Only one in six eli­gible chil­dren and their par­ents re­ceive fin­an­cial as­sist­ance to help cov­er the cost of child care, and many states have long wait­ing lists that in­clude tens of thou­sands of names. In ad­di­tion, Head Start — the fed­er­ally fin­anced early-child­hood edu­ca­tion pro­gram aimed at the most dis­ad­vant­aged kids — serves few­er than half of eli­gible preschool­ers. Even worse, Early Head Start, a sim­il­ar pro­gram aimed at in­fants and tod­dlers, has the ca­pa­city to serve only 4 per­cent of those eli­gible. Most state pre-kinder­garten pro­grams also serve a lim­ited num­ber of chil­dren.

While sig­ni­fic­ant pub­lic at­ten­tion has shined a light on the value of com­mit­ting pub­lic fin­an­cing to early learn­ing, the sys­tem is un­even, dis­con­nec­ted, and un­der-re­sourced. Qual­ity and ac­cess are in­ter­twined for chil­dren and fam­il­ies, but pub­lic policies and pro­grams are not.

Most fed­er­al, state, and loc­al fund­ing streams em­phas­ize either keep­ing chil­dren safe while their par­ents work or provid­ing a high-qual­ity early-learn­ing en­vir­on­ment, which many par­ents must sup­ple­ment with ad­di­tion­al child care. That di­vide lim­its the abil­ity of most early-child­hood pro­grams to de­liv­er on a key prom­ise: cre­at­ing a level play­ing field for all kinder­gart­ners. What chil­dren and fam­il­ies need are policies and fund­ing that ad­dress both care and edu­ca­tion.

Un­for­tu­nately, some state pre­kinder­garten pro­grams set high stand­ards in some areas and far lower stand­ards in oth­ers. Each state sets its own child care stand­ards, gen­er­ally set­ting the qual­ity bar lower than pre­kinder­garten re­quire­ments and es­tab­lish­ing child care reg­u­la­tions that treat these pro­grams as a ser­vice that en­ables par­ents to work.

At NAEYC, we are pleased that Con­gress is mak­ing ef­forts to ad­dress qual­ity as it con­siders reau­thor­iz­ing the Child Care and De­vel­op­ment Block Grant (The Sen­ate passed its bill in March. The House has held hear­ings.) Ad­di­tion­al fund­ing will be needed to make high-qual­ity pro­grams af­ford­able to a lar­ger share of fam­il­ies and to help more early-child­hood pro­grams provide su­per­i­or ex­per­i­ences.

Like­wise, Head Start and Early Head Start have un­der­gone sig­ni­fic­ant im­prove­ments since their 2007 reau­thor­iz­a­tion. Head Start, for ex­ample, now sets a high­er bar for teach­er cre­den­tials and know­ledge. Pro­grams also face a more rig­or­ous eval­u­ation sys­tem.

But more work re­mains. The Strong Start for Amer­ica’s Chil­dren Act, pending in the House and Sen­ate, would cre­ate state-fed­er­al part­ner­ships to boost the num­ber of chil­dren in high-qual­ity preschool pro­grams around the coun­try. The re­cently ap­pro­pri­ated fund­ing for Early Head Start/child care part­ner­ships will ex­pand the num­ber of child care slots that meet Early Head Start qual­ity stand­ards in the crit­ic­al in­fant and tod­dler years. States are also work­ing to bet­ter co­ordin­ate pro­grams and fund­ing streams to cre­ate more con­sist­ent qual­ity across all the early-child­hood care and edu­ca­tion sec­tors on which hun­dreds of thou­sands of fam­il­ies de­pend.

Is this in­vest­ment really worth­while?

Neur­os­cient­ists have firmly es­tab­lished that the first five years of life are some of the most crit­ic­al, and that pos­it­ive or neg­at­ive ex­per­i­ences im­pact lifelong health, learn­ing, and so­cial and emo­tion­al skills. Mul­tiple stud­ies of high-qual­ity pro­grams show a re­turn on the in­vest­ment by sav­ing more ex­pens­ive costs of spe­cial edu­ca­tion, ju­ven­ile in­car­cer­a­tion, and drop­ping out of school.

Eco­nom­ists, busi­ness, and mil­it­ary lead­ers say that this in­vest­ment it is an im­per­at­ive for our na­tion. At a re­cent Sen­ate com­mit­tee hear­ing, John Pep­per, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble, said that our fail­ure to in­vest in high-qual­ity early-child­hood edu­ca­tion is like a grow­ing “can­cer” in our na­tion. He warned the com­mit­tee that our lim­ited in­vest­ments in early-child­hood edu­ca­tion make us less com­pet­it­ive with coun­tries that are boost­ing pub­lic in­vest­ments in such edu­ca­tion.

Based on more than 87 years of ex­per­i­ence in set­ting stand­ards of qual­ity for early-child­hood pro­grams and pro­fes­sion­al pre­par­a­tion of early-child­hood edu­cat­ors, NAEYC asks poli­cy­makers at every level to con­sider the fol­low­ing prin­ciples:

“¢ Give all fam­il­ies mean­ing­ful choices in their chil­dren’s early-child­hood edu­ca­tion. To do so, qual­ity and ac­cess must be ad­dressed to­geth­er, across all set­tings and sec­tors (child care, Head Start, pre­kinder­garten, and schools). This will re­quire more-ro­bust pub­lic in­vest­ments to help pro­viders meet and sus­tain high-qual­ity stand­ards and to give fam­il­ies as­sist­ance to af­ford them.

“¢ Sup­port chil­dren’s early learn­ing from birth with pub­licly sub­sid­ized or fin­anced pro­grams that provide qual­ity care and edu­ca­tion that meets fam­il­ies’ work needs, pro­motes chil­dren’s de­vel­op­ment­al needs, and sup­ports par­ents in their chil­dren’s learn­ing.

“¢ Help every pro­vider meet re­search-groun­ded stand­ards of qual­ity (such as the NAEYC early-child­hood pro­gram ac­cred­it­a­tion stand­ards). That means that states set re­search-based stand­ards and provide the fin­an­cial and oth­er as­sist­ance needed so that pro­grams can meet and sus­tain them.

“¢ Cre­ate con­sist­ent ex­pect­a­tions and sup­port for pro­fes­sion­al pre­par­a­tion, pro­fes­sion­al de­vel­op­ment, and com­pens­a­tion across set­tings and sec­tors. The NAEYC Early Child­hood Pro­fes­sion­al Pre­par­a­tion Stand­ards provide a uni­fy­ing frame­work for what all those work­ing with young chil­dren — birth through age 8 — should know and be able to do.

At NAEYC, we be­lieve that this align­ment of qual­ity and ac­cess should be the norm for fam­il­ies of all in­comes. The eco­nom­ic, edu­ca­tion­al, and so­cial be­ne­fits for chil­dren, com­munit­ies, and our na­tion are clear. We should not delay or short­change the prom­ise of high-qual­ity early-child­hood edu­ca­tion. All young chil­dren — re­gard­less of cir­cum­stance — should be able to enter kinder­garten pre­pared to en­joy and ex­cel in school and to reap the be­ne­fits.

Rhi­an Evans Allv­in is the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation for the Edu­ca­tion of Young Chil­drenAd­ele Robin­son is NAEYC’s deputy ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or for policy and pub­lic af­fairs.

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