Special Report

In Early-Childhood Education and Care: Quality Counts

By The Editors — January 10, 2002 8 min read
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Most Americans think education begins at age 5--with kindergarten.

But children are learning from the moment they’re born. And for millions of youngsters, the reality is that their early learning is a joint enterprise between parents and early-childhood educators.

Today, 11.9 million children younger than 5 in the United States--or about six in 10--spend part of their waking hours in the care of people other than their parents: relatives, caregivers operating out of their homes, workers in child-care centers, Head Start staff members, and teachers in state-financed prekindergartens among them. The quality of the early care and education that young children receive in such settings sets the tenor of their days and lays the building blocks for future academic success.

Studies conclude that early-childhood education makes a difference. Young children exposed to high-quality settings exhibit better language and mathematics skills, better cognitive and social skills, and better relationships with classmates than do children in lower-quality care. Evaluations of well-run early-learning programs also have found that children in those environments were less likely to drop out of school, repeat grades, need special education, or get into future trouble with the law than similar children who did not have such exposure.

Quality Counts 2002: Building Blocks for Success examines what states are doing to provide early-learning experiences for young children; to ensure that those experiences are of high quality; to prepare and pay early-childhood educators adequately; and to measure the results of early-childhood programs. The report also examines states’ commitment to kindergarten, the transition point into the formal public education system. The report is based on the premise that when it comes to early learning, quality counts, just as it does in K-12 education.

Increasingly, states are getting that message. Today, every state subsidizes kindergarten in at least some districts or for a portion of the school day, according to a survey conducted by Education Week for Quality Counts. Twenty-five states pay for kindergarten for the full school day, at least in districts that opt to offer such services. So does the District of Columbia.

But nine states--Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania--still do not require districts to offer kindergarten.

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia provide state-financed prekindergarten for at least some of their 3- to 5-year-olds, up from about 10 in 1980. Annual state spending for such programs now exceeds $1.9 billion.

In 2000, 21 states and the District of Columbia supplemented federal aid to serve additional children through Head Start, one of the nation’s largest preschool programs for disadvantaged 3- to 5-year-olds. Thirty-one states underwrite one or more programs for infants and toddlers, up from 24 in 1998.

In addition, every state helps at least some low-income families buy child care through a combination of state and federal money under the Child Care and Development Fund block grant and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Twenty-six states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government also help families pay for child care through tax credits or deductions. But only 10 states made the credits refundable in the 2001 tax year so that the lowest-income families could benefit.

Despite federal and state efforts, access to high-quality early-childhood education remains out of the reach of many families. None of the federal programs reaches more than a fraction of the newborns to 5-year-olds who could benefit from such services. And states’ financial commitment to early-childhood education varies widely, as do eligibility requirements and the number of children who actually receive services.

Most states focus their prekindergarten efforts on the neediest youngsters. Twenty-six target children from low-income families; 15 of those also look at other risk factors, such as having a teenage parent. And nine states leave it up to local districts to determine which risk factors they will consider.

Only three states--Georgia, New York, and Oklahoma--and the District of Columbia are phasing in prekindergarten for any 4-year-old whose parent wants it, regardless of income.

Similarly, although all states provide child-care subsidies for at least some poor families, wide variations exist in the income limits that families must meet to qualify, the actual dollar amount of the subsidies, and the percentage of eligible children served.

Families with low incomes, particularly the working poor, have the least access to high-quality early-childhood services.

Traditionally, “quality” in early-childhood education has meant ensuring that children are cared for in a safe and nurturing environment. State licensing standards commonly address group size, the number of children per caregiver, and such physical features as the height of playground equipment. Licensing standards rarely, if ever, address the learning aspects of early care and education.

Even those minimal protections often fail to safeguard children adequately. In many states, certain settings are exempt from licensure entirely: family childcare homes that serve a small number of children, preschools that operate only a few hours a day, or sites run by religious organizations.

New research about the importance of early learning, however, has led some states to describe the quality of instruction that should occur in preschool settings, at least for programs that receive state money. While almost all states have standards for students in elementary school, only 19 states and the District of Columbia layout specific expectations for kindergartners. Fifteen states and the District have specific standards for prekindergarten. Five more states are working on such standards. Only six states--California, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, and Washington--require preschool programs to adhere to the standards. In addition, seven states require their state-financed prekindergartens to satisfy federal Head Start standards.

States also are mounting efforts to improve the quality of early-childhood programs. Seven require their prekindergarten programs to earn accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia offer tiered reimbursement rates that provide higher child-care subsidies to providers that earn national accreditation or meet other quality criteria.

But states still have a long way to go to ensure that those who work with young children are well-educated and well-compensated.

As a nation, the United States pays about as much to parking-lot attendants and dry-cleaning workers as it does to early-childhood educators, according to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average annual salary of child-care workers in 1999 was $15,430. Preschool teachers, who typically work with 3- to 5-year-olds, had annual salaries of$19,610, less than half what the average elementary school teacher earned.

Not surprisingly, given those numbers, turnover among early-childhood workers is high, and education requirements are minimal. Every state, for example, requires kindergarten teachers to have at least a bachelor’s degree and a certificate in elementary or early-childhood education. But only 20 states and the District of Columbia require teachers in state-financed prekindergartens to meet similar requirements. In 30 states, teachers in child-care centers can begin work without having any preservice training.

Recently, states and the federal government have begun to get more serious about the preparation of early-childhood educators.

Congress has ordered that by 2003, 50 percent of a Head Start program’s teachers must have an associate’s degree in early-childhood education. A growing number of states also have initiatives either to help providers acquire more education or to supplement their wages. The TEACH Early Childhood Project, which began in North Carolina in 1990, provides scholarships to childcare workers to attend school and bonuses or raises from their employers when they complete their programs of study. Seventeen additional states have since adopted the program. Nine states have programs to improve the compensation of early-childhood educators.

States’ growing investments in the early years, and their concerns about school readiness, also have led them to revisit the question of how to measure the success or failure of their early-childhood initiatives. Today, 17 states mandate readiness testing of kindergartners as a first step in identifying children with special needs or to help plan instruction. Six states use kindergarten testing to gauge school readiness statewide. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia require diagnostic or developmental testing of prekindergartners. At the federal level, new performance measures are being used to evaluate Head Start programs, including their impact on children’s math and literacy skills.

Efforts also are under way to rethink how states pay for early care and education. Many states, for instance, are seeking new sources of money to support their efforts, such as beer and cigarette taxes or state lottery proceeds.

Despite the economic downturn, many believe that the continued push for better academic performance in the elementary years could well compel states to pay more attention to early learning for years to come.

This year’s edition of Quality Counts also charts the progress in other facets of educational improvement in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. In addition to presenting the latest data on student achievement, it grades the states in three areas: standards and accountability, efforts to improve teacher quality, and resources. This year, states averaged a C across those categories. Quality Counts also includes indicators on school climate, but does not grade states in that category this year because the indicators are being revised. Additional ungraded indicators are on the Web at www.edweek.org/qc.

Quality Counts 2002 is divided into three sections. “The Essential Elements” examines what it would take for states to build a system of early-childhood education, the theme of this year’s report. “Early-Childhood Policies” tracks state policies and indicators related to the theme. “The State of the States” includes more than 80 indicators of the health of each state’s public education system. State-by-state updates summarize state policy changes in education over the past year.

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2002 edition of Education Week

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