Demand Threatens Child-Care Quality, Report Says

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WASHINGTON--The first national statistical portrait of child-care settings since the mid-1970's illustrates the complex "tradeoffs that are being made as localities, providers, and parents weigh their child-care options," the new report concludes.

While documenting increases in the availability of child care and in teachers' educational levels--and static fees for parents--the profile also highlights rising child-staff ratios and group sizes in child-care centers, stagnating teacher salaries, and high staff-turnover rates.

The survey, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research for the U.S. Education Department, is considered by exports to be the most comprehensive effort of its kind. It offers the first national profile of child-care providers since the National Day Care Study in 1976.

In response to the dramatic rise in the number of mothers of children in the labor force and policy mandates recognizing the importance of early intervention, the number of licensed child-care centers has tripled in the past 15 years, the study states.

To meet demand without raising parent fees or teacher wages, however, the study found that centers are serving more children with fewer workers--a trend some suggest may be jeopardizing the quality of care.

At the same time, the report concludes, in spite of a decline in the real earnings of child-care teachers in the past 15 years, their educational level has increased--a trend that bodes well for day-care quality, but has also contributed to staff turnover that disrupts the continuity of care.

"The tradeoffs arise from conflicting priorities, including protecting children's well-being, expanding the supply of affordable care, and minimizing the cost of care," the report states.

"The study does indicate that, to some extent, the growing demand may be pushing down on quality," said Ellen Eliason Kisker, a senior researcher for Mathematica and the study's lead author.

Program quality is of particular concern "if the nation is to meet its first national education goal," she noted, which states that, by the year 2000, all children will enter school ready to learn.

Close to Capacity

The study involved a nationally representative sample of licensed or registered child-care centers, early-education programs, and "family day care" providers that care for children in homes. It also included some programs based in religious institutions, part-day preschool programs, and other settings exempt from regulation in some states. The total sample included 2,089 centers and 583 home-based providers.

Between 1976 and 1990, the survey found, the number of full-time, center-based child-care programs rose from 18,307 to 55,960, while the number of children enrolled rose from 897,700 to 3.8 million.

The number of regulated family day-care providers, which rose less dramatically, was 117,996 in 1990, with 701,000 children enrolled.

Over all, centers were filled to 90 percent of their capacity--with spaces for infants and toddlers especially limited--while home-based providers were 82 percent full.

Reflecting the increased labor-force participation of mothers of very young children, the share of children under age 3 in full-time child-care centers has doubled since 1976.

About 17 percent of the children enrolled in center-based programs and 5 percent of those in regulated home-based programs come from families receiving public assistance.

There were 5,469 public-school programs with 354,966 child-care slots in 1990, evidence that "public schools are becoming involved in a pretty big way," noted Elizabeth Farquhar, an Education Department program analyst and a coauthor of the study.

Fewer Workers per Child

Although the study did not directly evaluate program effectiveness, it examined indicators--such as child-staff ratios and teacher training-that experts agree have implications for child-care quality.

Average enrollments in center-based programs rose from 49 to 68 children between 1976 and 1990, while enrollments of nonresident children in home-based programs rose from 4 to 6 children.

In child-care centers, increased enrollments translated into larger group sizes and higher child-staff ratios. Group sizes rose from an average of 13.5 children in 1976 to 15.7 children in 1990, and the average child-staff ratio rose from 6.8 children per staff member to 8.5.

On average, center group sizes and staff-child ratios fell within the boundaries of both state regulations and standards recommended by early-childhood professionals, the study showed. But they were most likely to either just meet minimal standards or fall below acceptable levels for children under age 3.

That finding is disturbing, said Barbara Wilier, director of information services for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, because low adult-child ratios are "most critical for that age group in terms of developmental outcomes."

"The fact that infants and toddlers in the average center are being cared for in relatively large groups with child-staff ratios that exceed professional recommendations, along with evidence that infant and toddler care may be in short supply, suggests that programs and parents may be accepting lower-quality care in order to make infant and toddler care financially viable," the report states.

Child-staff ratios in home-based programs did not change significantly, suggesting, Ms. Kisker noted, that they "are more likely to have helpers" pitching in.

Better-Educated Workers

Educational levels of teachers in child-care centers have risen sharply, the study found. In 1990, 42 percent of the teachers had 16 or more years of schooling--up from 29 percent in 1976--while the proportion of teachers who had 12 or fewer years of schooling dropped from 45 percent to 17 percent.

The average educational levels of family day-care providers rose less dramatically, but the proportion who received child-related training increased substantially.

The data "suggest a decline in the real wages of care-giving staff over the last 15 years, despite their increased levels of education and training," the report said, noting that the average hourly wage was $7.49 for a preschool teacher and $4.04 for a regulated home-based provider.

The overall annual teacher turnover rate in centers was 25 percent.

The data highlight "a real need to begin to address inadequate compensation of [child-care] staff," said Ms. Willer, who cited evidence from previous studies linking high turnover rates with "lower scores in language development and social development for children."

One reason wages have stayed low, the study suggests, is because center fees have not gone up. In real terms, centers are charging about the same today as they were 15 years ago: about $1.50 an hour in center-based programs and $52 a week for home-based settings.

"It's a very competitive market," said Sandra L. Hofferth, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute and one of the study's authors. "Providers know that, if they raise fees, they are going to lose people."

The market thus far, Ms. Willer said, has relied on a "tremendously dedicated work force" that is "basically subsidizing" day-care costs.

"This is not a wise way to build a child care system," she said, adding that the study highlights the need for more direct forms of public and private aid--such as loan-forgiveness programs and tax breaks--for programs and providers.

A parallel study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the N.A.E.Y.C., which may be released later this month, will profile parents' choices and use of child-care arrangements.

Copies of "A Profile of Child Care Settings: Early Education and Care in 1990," are available from the U.S. Department of Education, 400 Maryland Ave., S.W., Room 4049, Washington, D.C. 20202-4110.

Vol. 11, Issue 06, Pages 27, 30

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