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Child-Care Study Finds MediocreLevel of Services

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Most child-care centers provide mediocre services at best, and many are so bad they threaten children's emotional and intellectual development, a study set for release this week says.

Infants and toddlers are in the most danger of receiving poor care, the study warns: Four out of 10 are in settings that fail to meet basic health and safety needs.

The study concludes that high-quality care can improve the skills and school readiness of all children. But the authors found that only a fraction of centers provides such care.

The average center, they said, is one in which adults provide little warmth and support, and children gain few learning experiences.

The 2-1/2-year, $1 million study by researchers at several universities is described as the first of its kind to examine the relationship between the costs of child care and the nature of children's experiences in different settings.

While some of the results confirm long-held suspicions of inadequacy, the research further shows that many child-care centers have little economic incentive to improve.

The report says that meeting the first national education goal--school readiness for all children--is highly unlikely given the low quality of care, and it urges states to hold centers to higher standards. It also suggests a campaign--"analogous to the one addressing the impact of smoking on health"--to alert parents to the dangers of poor-quality programs.

The results "shine a beacon to where our energies need to go in terms of the crisis in child care," said Sharon Lynn Kagan, a Yale University researcher who was one of the principal investigators.

Barbara Willer, a spokeswoman for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said the study "underscores the fact that we know how to provide quality programs, but have difficulty doing so because of conspiring market forces."

A Distressing Picture

Researchers at Yale, the University of Colorado at Denver, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill produced the report, "Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes in Child Care Centers."

During the spring of 1993, the researchers collected cost and quality data from 50 nonprofit and 50 for-profit centers selected randomly in each of four states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, and North Carolina. The following summer, they also tracked more than 800 of the children who had attended the centers to determine how they had developed in the different settings.

Unlike many previous studies that have focused attention on at-risk children in child care, the researchers did not limit themselves to that group. The authors controlled for factors that tend to dictate readiness for school, such as gender, race, and mother's education level, and concluded that all children improve their skills with higher-quality care.

Unfortunately, the researchers discovered, few children receive such care. Over all, only one in seven centers received a rating of "developmentally appropriate."

Moreover, one in eight centers neglected children's basic needs, and care for infants and toddlers was even worse.

States with more demanding licensing standards, however, have fewer poor-quality programs, the study found.

Of the four states in the study, North Carolina had the lowest standards--and the worst centers. It allows a lower staff-to-child ratio and requires less early-childhood education of its staff.

Such factors, in addition to teacher salaries and administrators' prior experience, are strong determinants of quality, according to the report.

The study dispelled the notion that quality varies greatly between for-profit and nonprofit centers. Within each sector, however, some types of programs rated higher than others. Among nonprofits, centers operated by public agencies such as schools tend to offer the highest quality, while church-affiliated centers are of relatively low caliber.

True Costs

Ms. Kagan said that "without question" the lower pay of child-care workers compared with that of many other occupations discourages people from entering the field, accounts for its high turnover, and weakens the quality of care provided to young children.

Several advisers to the research team hailed the report's thorough cost analysis, which included such factors as the amount of money teachers give up to stay in the poorly paid field.

The report "helps identify what the true costs of quality are, which is an area that has been less looked at in legislatures," said Shelly Smith, the director of the children and families program for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

A significant finding was that even modest investments in programs can improve quality.

Market Forces

But strong competition in the child-care market--combined with ill-informed consumers--is a big roadblock to improvement, the study suggests.

Both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors tend to minimize costs and charge similar fees. Moreover, parents will often pay as much for poor-quality programs as they will for high-quality care, the authors discovered.

"Until parents and other purchasers of care can easily distinguish good from mediocre and poor-quality centers, and demand higher quality, centers cannot increase their fees to cover the increased costs of providing better care," the study concludes.

Ms. Willer of the N.A.E.Y.C. said the report is particularly timely as Congress begins to look at the funding of child-care programs.

"Cutting child-care support when quality is already under pressure," she said, "is simply unconscionable."

Information about ordering copies of the report is available from the Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes Study, Economics Department, Campus Box 159, P.O. Box 173364, University of Colorado at Denver, Denver, Colo. 80217-3364; (303) 556-4934.

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