Special Report

Starting Early

By Lynn Olson — January 10, 2002 34 min read
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The day is just beginning in the Dinosaur Room at the Park Street Children’s Center in Rockville, Md. Arriving parents sign their children in on a sheet posted inside the classroom door and scan the wall for news of upcoming events: David and Sara had birthdays this week. A field trip to a local fire station is planned. On the wall, in clear print, teacher Alexa Leffler has recorded individual children’s ideas about firefighters on a piece of newsprint: “They live at the fire station, but they don’t have beds, and they eat Popsicles.” “They play all day.” “They squirt water.”

After hanging up their coats in child-size cubbies, the 3- and 4-year-olds begin to fan out around the room, where an array of choices awaits them. Three children are off to one side, working on a large floor puzzle of a fire truck with Leffler. Nearby, a collection of rain boots, hats, hoses, and other fire and rescue equipment spills out of a plastic crate onto the floor. Some boys are taking turns racing miniature toy cars through a long cardboard tube, watching how fast the vehicles go as they tilt the tube upward.

At the art table, children attack pieces of paper with tape and blunt-edged scissors, with the help of an assistant teacher. Several children are preparing to put on a puppet show in a large castle tucked into a corner beside the housekeeping area. Talya, a slim blonde wearing protective goggles and carting around a piece of rubber hosing, circles the room’s perimeter dousing imaginary flames.

During a typical week, 11.9 million preschoolers, or about six in 10 children younger than 5 in the United States, spend part of their waking hours in the care of someone other than their parents. Some spend their time with relatives or in a caregiver’s own home. Others attend for-profit or nonprofit child-care centers, Head Start programs, or state-financed prekindergartens. Many will be in several such places over the course of a day. On average, young children spend 30 hours a week in such care.

What happens to youngsters during those hours, and the quality of the care and education they receive, help shape the future course of their lives. “The reality is that learning does not begin when kids are age 5. Learning begins well before they enter the schoolhouse,” says Sharon Lynn Kagan, a professor of early-childhood and family policy at Teachers College, Columbia University. “And what happens to children in their early years has profound impacts on the kind of entering students they will be.”

Research suggests, for example, that the precursors to literacy start at a much earlier age than once assumed. During a White House summit on early learning last summer, G. Reid Lyon, the chief of the child-development and -behavior branch at the National Institutes of Health, argued: “There is a remarkably strong and stable link between what preschool kids know about words, sounds, letters, and print, and later academic performance.”

Studies confirm that high-quality early-childhood education makes a difference. Evaluations of such programs as the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, the North Carolina Abecedarian Project, and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers have found that youngsters who had participated in those programs were less likely to drop out of school, repeat grades, need special education, or get into trouble with the law than similar children who had not taken part.

The “Cost, Quality, and Outcomes” study, a longitudinal study conducted by researchers in four states, has examined the development of children in center-based programs through grade 2. It has found that young children cared for in high-quality settings displayed better language and mathematics skills, better cognitive and social skills, and better relationships with classmates than children who were in low-quality programs.

A study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development from spring 2001 also reported that high-quality preschools can have positive effects on the language and math skills of young children, although long hours in care may make some children more aggressive. Evaluations of state-financed preschools have found similar benefits in readying young children for school and, in some cases, preventing retention in the early grades.

“The research is clear,” says Gov. Jean Shaheen of New Hampshire, who last year headed an Education Commission of the States initiative to promote early care and education. “Children who have quality early-learning experiences will do better in school and later in life. Yet these early years receive the least amount of public attention and support,” the Democrat says.

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 learning of young children in such settings. The report also examines states’ commitment to kindergarten, the transition point for many 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. Wherever children are--with relatives or in family group homes, child-care centers, Head Start programs, state-subsidized preschools, or some combination--they all should have access to a caring and safe environment that promotes their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive growth. The challenge lies in how to ensure quality across this diverse array of settings and providers.

A Nonsystem of Care and Education

It’s 9:30 a.m. at the Rosemount Center in the District of Columbia. The center is part of the federally subsidized Head Start program for 3- to 5-year-olds from low-income families.

In Carmen Benitez’s room, children are gathered on the floor, getting ready to review the day’s calendar. “OK,” says Benitez, “who is our calendar person? Claudio.” She holds up a small, laminated card with the word “Monday” written on it in block letters. “Yesterday was Monday,” the teacher says, and then repeats the sentence in Spanish for the many Spanish-speaking children in the room. “Today is ... " She pauses. “Tuesday,” Claudio replies. “Good job, " says Benitez, as she hands the doe-eyed boy the card for Tuesday. “Can you say, ‘Today is Tuesday’?” she asks the children. They repeat the sentence in English and then in Spanish.

Next, the group sings a song about the days of the week, while Claudio proudly attaches the cards for “Tuesday” in both languages to the top of the monthly calendar with Velcro. Then he counts the days of the month, to date, in English, while pointing to each number on the calendar. When he reaches the current date, Sept. 25, he adds that number to the calendar. Afterward, he repeats his counting in Spanish.

“Vente-cinqo,” says Benitez. “That’s a big number. Wow.” Together, the children sing the lyrics, “Today is 25 all day long,” while Claudio dances, a huge grin on his face. “OK,” says Benitez, “so today is Tuesday, September 25.”

Educators often complain about the Byzantine structure of public schooling in the United States, which snakes throughout some 15,000 local districts. But the nation’s system of elementary and secondary schools looks remarkably straightforward compared with the programs and funding sources for early-childhood education.

In fact, it would be more accurate to refer to the marketplace for early-childhood education and care in this country as a “nonsystem,” in which most of the onus falls on families to find, pay for, and monitor the quality of the early learning their children receive.

Today, families pay about 60 percent of the costs of child care, government pays 39 percent, and the private sector contributes less than 1 percent. Despite a large jump in state efforts, federal spending still outpaces state spending on early care and education by about a 3- 1 ratio. Coordinating those multiple federal, state, and private funding streams to provide high-quality services to children is a major challenge.

“Basically, this is a private-market system,” explains Gina Adams, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank. “The government does two things. In some settings, they try to create a floor below which programs cannot fall,” in the form of state licensing regulations for child care, she says.

“The other thing that government does is invest money to help families access the market. In a few cases,” Adams says, “they actually put money out there to create new programs, like Head Start.”

Traditionally, Washington has been the biggest government player in early-childhood education. Through such programs as Head Start, Early Head Start, Title I, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal government has provided money to help poor children and those with disabilities gain access to early-learning experiences.

In addition, the federal government helps states subsidize low-income families’ ability to purchase child care in a wide range of settings through the Child Care and Development Fund and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a block grant that states can use to finance varied welfare-reduction efforts. In 2000, states used almost $5 billion in TANF money for child care. Federal allocations to states for the CCDF block grant amounted to $4.4 billion in 2001.

“The federal welfare dollars have made an enormous difference in the ability of states to expand their childcare-subsidy systems over the last five years,” says Mark H. Greenberg, a senior staff lawyer with the Center for Law and Social Policy, based in Washington. “They’ve been the biggest source of growth for state programs.”

Both the TANF and CCDF block grants, however, are primarily designed to provide parents with child care so they can work or pursue training. The quality of care and education that children get through such subsidies has received less emphasis.

The tax codes of the federal government, 26 states, and the District of Columbia also provide some help to families in meeting their child-care needs through credits or deductions that parents can claim on their income- tax returns. But according to the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center, only 10 states made the tax credits refundable for tax year 2001, so that the lowest-income families could benefit even when they owed no taxes.

It’s on this chaotic playing field that states have leveraged their efforts, prompted by the growing number of working mothers, welfare reforms that require poor parents to seek employment, and concerns that children begin school ready to learn.

Today, every state pays for kindergarten in at least some districts or for a portion of the school day; 25 subsidize kindergarten for the full school day, at least in districts that opt to offer such services. So does the District of Columbia. But only eight states and the District require districts to offer full-day kindergarten.

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia offer state-financed prekindergarten for at least some of their 3- to 5-year-olds, up from about 10 in 1980. State spending for such programs now exceeds $1.9 billion annually. In addition, 21 states and the District of Columbia supplement federal Head Start dollars to serve that age group.

Thirty-one states pay for one or more programs for infants and toddlers, up from 24 in 1998. State spending on child-care subsidies also swelled significantly in the late 1990s, as the economy boomed and more parents entered the workforce. One study of 17 states by ABT Associates found a median increase of 78 percent in state spending on child care from fiscal 1997 to 1999.

“There’s been a massive explosion of state involvement from the mid-1980s until now,” says Walter S. Gilliam, an associate research scientist at the Yale University Child Study Center.

Problems With Access

Despite government efforts, access to high-quality early-childhood education remains out of the reach of many families.

The reality is that learning does not begin when kids are age 5. Learning begins well before they enter the schoolhouse.”

None of the federal programs extends to more than a portion of the infants to 5-year-olds who could benefit from such services. Head Start serves about three in five eligible youngsters. Estimates are that only 12 percent of the almost 15 million children eligible for child-care subsidies under the CCDF actually received them in 1999; some of those children may be at least partially served through other programs, such as Head Start, Title I, Even Start, or state-financed prekindergarten programs.

States’ financial commitment to early-childhood education also varies widely, as do eligibility requirements and the number of children who actually receive services.

State funding for prekindergarten in fiscal 2002 ranged from $1.5 million in Nebraska to $295 million in California. The proportion of 4-year-olds served ranged from under 2 percent in a pilot program in Alabama to more than half of all 4-year-olds in Georgia, and about 70 percent when Head Start participation was included.

Of the 39 states, plus the District of Columbia, with state-financed prekindergarten, most focus their efforts on the neediest youngsters. Twenty-six states 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 family requests it, regardless of income. Three other states subsidize programs without special targeting provisions.

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

The overlapping and often confusing mix of funding sources forces programs to respond to multiple, sometimes conflicting requirements. No state has a comprehensive system of early care and education that makes high-quality services available to all families of young children who want help.

As a result, families with low incomes, particularly the near-poor, have the least access to high-quality early-childhood services. Low-income families appear to be much more dependent on home care and on publicly financed settings, such as Head Start or state-subsidized preschools. But families just above the poverty line are often ineligible for such services.

Higher-income families are more likely to use private child-care centers, which, on average, cost about $5,000 a year in 1999, according to the National Household Education Survey, putting them out of the reach of working-poor families.

Low-wage families who purchase care also spend a greater proportion of their earnings on child care, according to a study released last year by the Urban Institute. Nationally, it found, families in which the youngest child was younger than 5 spent about 10 percent of their earnings on child care, or an average of $325 a month. Low-wage families spent an average of 16 percent of their earnings on child care, or $1 of every $6 earned.

The “Cost, Quality, and Outcomes” study found that seven in 10 child-care centers provided mediocre care; and one in eight provided care so inadequate that it threatened the health and safety of children.

Although youngsters whose mothers had only a high school education were more negatively affected by poor care--and more likely to benefit from high-quality care--such youngsters also tended to be in lower-quality classrooms.

Some of the worst shortages are in infant and toddler care. Today, 61 percent of mothers with children younger than 3, and more than half of mothers with infants younger than 1, are in the workforce.

Yet a report published last year by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation concluded, “Of all child-care services, care for infants and toddlers is the most scarce, expensive, and disappointing from a quality perspective.” Strongly conflicting public attitudes about the role of government in helping to nurture young children contribute to the uneven picture.

“There’s no doubt that if the public were given its first wish, it would be that parents themselves would raise and educate their young children, especially for children 0 to 3,” says Phil Sparks, the coordinator of the Washington-based Early Care and Education Collaborative, a coalition working to expand public support for programs for young children.

At the same time, he notes, polls show that the vast majority of the public realizes staying home with young children is not always an option, particularly for single mothers and low-income parents.

“The polling we’ve seen shows that about 48 percent to 52 percent of the public support major government initiatives to assist in early care and education,” Sparks says, “and somewhere between 38 percent and 42 percent oppose it, strictly based on the value judgment that a parent ought to stay home and tend to their children.”

In North Dakota, for example, state Sen. Dwight C. Cook, a Republican who serves as the vice chairman of the Senate education committee, says: “There is a large element among North Dakota residents that is always very concerned about parental control, and people are very leery of efforts to legislate anything in early childhood. They don’t want to expand early-childhood [laws] to the point where parents’ controls are reduced.”

In contrast, in most other industrialized nations, ensuring the safety and care of young children is viewed as a shared responsibility between parents and the public. A recent study of 12 countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that almost all of them provide more extended family leave for the parents of young children, more generous child-care allowances, and greater support for high-quality early-childhood programs than does the United States.

“The dilemma here is that there’s no plan,” says Teachers College’s Kagan. “Our nonsystem is helter-skelter. It’s just a hodgepodge.” As a result, she and others suggest, while the nation’s spending on early-childhood education has gone up, the quality may actually be going down.

Licensing: Basic Protections, But No More

As the 4- and 5-year-olds wake up from their naps in the Rainbow Room at the Park Street Children’s Center, they notice that teacher Janice Burch has placed some flashlights and plastic, colored lenses on a table. A few children try putting one of the lenses on top of a flashlight bulb, as they shine it toward the ceiling. “What if you put purple and then orange?” asks Emily, a dark-haired 5-year-old, placing one lens on top of the other. “Oh my gosh! Look! It turned pink!”

Burch reaches into the supply cabinet as more children awake. “Oh, " she says. “I found three flashlights and one more. How many does that make?” Kai, a high-spirited little boy in a striped T-shirt, points his flashlight toward the ceiling and announces, “I’m pretending it’s a spooky house, and it’s spooky in here.” Unprompted, he begins to tell a story about a spooky house.

“Hey,” says Burch, “can I write your story down? Let’s get a piece of paper. Tell me your story.” As Kai narrates, and Burch begins to write, other children gather around the writing table to watch and listen. When Kai is finished, Burch asks if she can put the story in his “special book,” a three-ring binder she keeps for every child to collect samples of his or her work.

“First, can you read it to us?” Emily asks. The teacher reads the story back, as Kai chimes in with more details.

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.

What we set out to design was a curriculum that, without question, was language-development-oriented.”

“Licensure, by definition in this country, is designed to provide very basic, minimal levels of quality,” says Richard M. Clifford, a co-director of the National Center for Early Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “If you go into a restaurant and it’s licensed, that doesn’t mean the food is good, it means it’s not going to make you sick. That’s how I see licensing in child care--it provides a floor of very basic protections for children.”

Such licensing standards rarely, if ever, address the learning components of early-care and -education settings. “State licensing standards, for the most part, are deficient in ensuring children get a strong early-learning experience,” says Helen Blank, the director of child care for the Children’s Defense Fund, a national advocacy group based in Washington.

Even those minimal protections often fail to safeguard children adequately. Only seven states--Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, and Vermont--and the District of Columbia, for example, adhere to the recommendations set by the National Association for the Education of Young Children for teacher-to-child ratios and group sizes for both 4-year-olds and 18-month-olds.

In many states, certain settings are exempt from licensure entirely: family child-care homes that serve a small number of children, preschools that operate only a few hours a day, or sites run by religious organizations. Nationwide, roughly 40 percent of all early-care and early-education programs are exempt from state regulations, according to the Education Commission of the States. Moreover, many states fail to enforce their licensing requirements adequately.

Early-Learning Standards

It’s time for literacy circle in Cathy Presson’s room at the Double Oaks Pre-Kindergarten and Family Resource Center in Charlotte, N.C., one of three fully dedicated prekindergarten centers the school system runs.

“We’re going to learn a new rhyme today,” Presson tells the 4-year-olds gathered on the floor around her. “Look at this picture, " she says, pointing to a large drawing of “Little Miss Muffet” on an easel nearby. “Tell me what you see.” After the children discuss the picture, Presson reads the rhyme aloud, pointing to each word as she recites.

“Have you ever eaten curds and whey?” she asks the children. “I wonder what that is?” Reaching behind her, she pulls out a bowl of cottage cheese and tells the children they can taste some after circle time. Next, she reads the rhyme again as the class recites along with her. “Let’s see if there are any rhyming words,” she says. “Oh, listen, ‘Muffet, tuffet.’ Do they sound the same at the end?” The children recite the poem once more, clapping when they encounter words that rhyme.

“So these are our rhyming words,” says Presson. “They sound the same at the end.”

Now in its fifth year, the Bright Beginnings Pre-Kindergarten Program in the 105,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school district serves some 3,000 educationally needy children in public schools, child-care centers, and Head Start programs throughout the area. Its goal is to provide children with a language- and literacy-rich curriculum so they will start kindergarten ready to be successful.

All participating families receive a home visit before the school year begins. In addition, a social worker, a child-development specialist, a parent advocate, and a family educator are assigned to each site to work with teachers, children, and families.

The program’s 750-page curriculum is organized around children’s books. Youngsters divide their time among four literacy circles and longer blocks of center time, during which they can work individually or in small groups on activities that interest them. Through a mixture of direct instruction and child-centered play, the program stresses the development of such pre-reading skills as oral language, positive attitudes toward print, letter identification, and the relationship between letters and their sounds.

“We were very clear,” says Superintendent Eric J. Smith. “What we set out to design was a curriculum that, without question, was language-development-oriented, and we wanted to do that in a way that was developmentally appropriate. Everything else was secondary. “

Evaluations show that educationally needy 4-year-olds who participate in the program enter kindergarten on a par with their less academically needy peers, and that they continue to outperform similar children who did not participate in the program through the end of 2nd grade--the most recent data available.

Few districts or states have launched early-childhood initiatives as ambitious as Bright Beginnings. But research about the importance of early learning for children’s cognitive and social growth has led some states to describe the quality of instruction that should occur in preschool settings, at least for programs the state subsidizes.

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. Georgia, for instance, devised a set of educational standards that prekindergarten classrooms must meet, including a list of approved curricula.

In addition, seven states require their state-subsidized prekindergarten programs follow federal Head Start standards. Head Start requires local grantees to meet an extensive set of performance requirements aimed at fostering children’s overall development and school readiness.

Educators are quick to warn, however, that appropriate instruction for infants to 5-year-olds does not resemble that for older children.

“Acknowledging the value of preacademic content in preschools does not mean that 4-year-olds should be taught using the same methods and materials as employed for 7-year-olds,” cautions Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement in the U.S. Department of Education. “A pushdown to pre-K of the pedagogy and materials used in elementary school will likely fail and could actually harm young children.”

While no single curriculum or pedagogical approach can be identified as best for young children, concluded the National Research Council in its 443-page book Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers, children tend to learn more and be better prepared for formal schooling when they attend well-planned, high-quality preschools in which curricular aims are specified and delivered.

The report recommended that all states draft content standards for the early years that address areas often omitted from early-childhood programs, including phonological awareness (understanding the sounds that make up words), number concepts, methods of scientific investigation, and cultural knowledge and language.

States also are mounting efforts to improve the quality of early-childhood programs, often using a combination of federal and state money. At least 4 percent of a state’s allocation under the CCDF block grant and 25 percent of all new Head Start dollars must be spent on initiatives to enhance quality.

Seven states require their state-financed prekindergarten programs to earn accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. To earn the voluntary national stamp of approval, programs must meet criteria in such areas as staff qualifications, curriculum, and teacher-child ratios.

I think the biggest quality issue facing child care is the lack of ability to recruit and retain qualified staff.”

In addition, 26 states and the District of Columbia offer “tiered” or “differential” reimbursement rates for child-care subsidies. Under such policies, providers that earn national accreditation or meet criteria specified by the state can receive more money than normal for the children whose enrollment is subsidized.

Experts point out that such initiatives typically are limited and fall short of broader-scale efforts to move the whole system to higher quality.

If a child-care center serves 100 children and only 15 receive subsidies, says Adams of the Urban Institute, even if those subsidies are raised 10 percent, “that’s not going to allow you to pay your teachers a higher salary on an ongoing basis. It’s not going to allow you to make the ongoing, long-term investments that you need to make to sustain high-quality care.”

Others worry that, in a market-based system, increasing regulations could raise the price of care for needy families and make it more likely that they would turn to totally unregulated settings. That’s one reason many early-childhood advocates stress that states should close the existing exemptions in their licensing systems as they put in place efforts to address quality.

Teaching: The Crucial Relationship

Harvey Bagshaw, a prekindergarten teacher at Merry Oaks Elementary School in Charlotte, NC., is reading to his class from the rhythmic, rhyming children’s book Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, in which all 26 letters ofthe alphabet race one another up a coconut tree, only to end up in a heap at the bottom when the tree bends from the excess weight. The children, who have heard the book before, recite the refrain along with Bagshaw to much giggling.

Suddenly, Matthew, a wiry little boy who can barely contain his excitement, shouts out, “This don’t match with this.” When Bagshaw asks what he means, Matthew comes up and points to two of the letters. “This is a little letter n,” explains Bagshaw, “but this is a capital N They’re both N’s.” Matthew studies the illustration for a moment, then points to the two Z’s in the picture. “It’s a baby,” he says of the lowercase letter.

As Bagshaw finishes reading the book, a chime rings. “Oh,” he says. “It’s the mystery box.”

Reaching behind him, he pulls out a square gift box and shakes it. “Something is inside,” he says, a look of surprise on his face. “Yeah!” the kids shout, as they proceed to guess what’s inside the package by the sound. After a few minutes, Bagshaw reaches in and pulls out a small crate containing plastic, magnetic letters. “Letters!” the children shout.

Maybe the really best thing we can do is to have children in better shape before they start kindergarten.”

Bagshaw then reaches behind him and pulls out a magnetic board with the image of a coconut tree on it. “Look,” he says, “you can do the letters up the coconut tree today during center time. “

Unlike many early-childhood educators, Bagshaw has a bachelor’s degree in early-childhood education and a state teaching license in birth-K education, both of which are required for all Bright Beginnings teachers. He’s also paid on a par with K-12 educators. Before becoming a prekindergarten teacher, he spent six years teaching kindergarten, and one year teaching 1st grade.

“The biggest difference I find is you have to be more developmental” with younger children, he says. “There’s so much play involved. It’s got to be exciting for them. It’s got to hold their interest.”

Research has found that one of the strongest predictors of high-quality early-learning programs is the preparation and compensation of early-childhood educators and their responsiveness and sensitivity to the children in their care. The National Research Council has recommended that all young children in center-based programs be taught by a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and specialized training in early childhood.

Yet nowhere is the gap between early-childhood research and reality greater than in the preparation and pay of those who work with young children.

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. The average annual salary of child-care workers in 2000 was $15,430. Preschool teachers, who typically work with 3- to 5-year-oIds, don’t fare much better, with annual salaries of $19,610--less than half what the average elementary school teacher earns.

Not surprisingly, given those numbers, turnover among early-childhood workers is high, and education requirements are minimal.

Janice Burch, an early-childhood educator at the Park Street Children’s Center, was thrilled when her daughter decided to follow in her footsteps.

But despite having completed a double major in English and education in college, her daughter earned only $6.50 an hour as the director of a child-care center in Pittsburgh. After returning to classroom teaching in a child-care center following a maternity leave, her pay dropped to $5.50 an hour. Today, Burch’s daughter is home, caring for her own children.

“I think the biggest quality issue facing child care is the lack of ability to recruit and retain qualified staff, primarily because the whole child-care system is so resource- poor,” says Joan Lombardi, the director of the Alexandria, Va.-based Children’s Project, which promotes greater spending on children’s services. “It’s an enormous problem that I don’t think we’ve even begun to address.”

In many states, individuals who work with young children are not required to hold any certificate or degree, and ongoing training 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 or preschool programs to meet similar requirements.

With the exception of Rhode Island, no state requires teachers in child-care centers to hold at least a bachelor’s degree and have training in early learning. In fact, 30 states don’t insist that teachers in child-care centers have any training before they begin work, according to the Institute for Leadership and Career Initiatives at Wheelock College in Boston.

Recently, though, states and the federal government have begun to get more serious about the preparation of those who work with young children. In 1998, for example, Congress significantly strengthened the education requirements for Head Start teachers. By 2003, 50 percent of Head Start teachers in each center must have an associate’s degree in early childhood.

A growing number of states also have initiatives either to help providers acquire more education or to supplement their wages. The best-known program, which began in North Carolina in 1990, is the TEACH Early Childhood Project.

Under TEACH, which stands for Teacher Education And Compensation Helps, child-care providers receive scholarships to attend school and bonuses or raises from their employers when they complete their programs of study. The recipients, in turn, commit to working in their sponsoring child-care centers for at least another year.

Since North Carolina launched the program, turnover in the state has dropped from 42 percent annually in 1994 to 31 percent in 1999. An additional 17 states have since replicated the effort. Other models to improve wages and retain people in the field have also emerged throughout the country. Under North Carolina’s WAGE$ program, child-care teachers and directors can earn stipends as their levels of training increase and they stay on the job. The state also helps pay for health insurance for child-care workers. Nine states have established such compensation packages.

But while such programs offer a good start, says Gilliam of Yale University, they still don’t ensure that early-childhood educators are paid commensurately with their education and credentials. “I think it’s an economics issue,” Gilliam says. “If you’re going to require people to be credentialed, you’re going to have to pay them salaries to go along with that.”

Assessing Results

States’ growing investments in the early years, and their growing concerns about school readiness, also are leading 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 monitor statewide trends in how prepared children are for formal schooling. 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 the Head Start program, including its impact on children’s math and literacy skills.

While some believe that greater accountability in early-childhood education is inevitable, many worry about the pushing downward of a K-12 curriculum and the inappropriate use of such measures--which may include portfolios of children’s work, observational checklists, individually administered performance tasks, and parent and teacher surveys.

In 1998, the National Education Goals Panel cautioned that while assessments are needed to monitor trends in early-childhood education and evaluate programs, such measures should never be used to make high-stakes decisions about individual youngsters, whose development is both rapid and sporadic.

The goals panel also warned that readiness for school requires far more than a set of preacademic skills. It also encompasses children’s cognitive, physical, motor, social, emotional, and language development, as well as their general approach toward learning.

A Blueprint for Change

In the long run, experts say, early care and education will improve only if states build the infrastructure to support high-quality programs. That means rigorous standards and regulations for early-childhood providers of all types; an adequate system for training, credentialing, and paying early-childhood teachers; better methods for tracking progress and measuring results; and a streamlined governance structure.

Achieving those objectives requires a stable and significant source of money, advocates for early-childhood programs say.

“Any really high-quality program, regardless of where it’s provided, is going to be expensive,” argues Clifford of the University of North Carolina. “We need to accept the fact that it’s expensive to provide these services, and not think that we can provide services for 4-year-olds for less money than we do for 5-year-olds, because we can’t. It’s actually going to cost a little more for 4-year-olds.”

Several efforts are under way to rethink how the United States pays for early care and education, and many states are seeking new sources of money to support their efforts.

In 1998, California voters approved a 50-cent tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products to help support early-childhood initiatives. Arkansas recently enacted a new surcharge on beer that is earmarked for child care. And Georgia’s prekindergarten program is financed through state lottery proceeds.

In New Jersey and North Carolina, state courts have ordered more spending on early-childhood services for disadvantaged youngsters as part of settlements in school finance cases.

“I think that every state in this country should develop a vision for what it wants for an early-care and -education system--a blueprint. And there should be incremental funding going into the system’s different parts every year,” Kagan of Teachers College says. “If you took roads as an example, there was a plan for how we would build an interstate highway system in this nation, and little by little, we built toward that plan.”

As a first step, suggests Lombardi of the Children’s Project, every state should do an early-childhood review. “They should stop and figure out what they have going on already, and where the gaps are, and how the pieces fit together,” she advises, “because right now we have growth, but not planfulness.”

Some fear, however, that the budget crunch in many states could pit services for the youngest children against funding for K-12 education. In Michigan, which faces a possible shortfall of up to $350 million in the state school aid budget for fiscal year 2002, Lindy Buch, the supervisor of early childhood and parenting for the state education department, says it’s unclear whether some of the districts that are expanding their preschool programs will continue to do so.

“Some of these districts are squeezed, and they’ve had to make some choices between whether you provide Advanced Placement classes for a small number of high school students or you reduce class sizes in elementary school,” she says. “Whether they’ll continue with new preschool programs, I don’t know.”

Some polls from other states show that voters do not support financial increases for early-childhood care and education if they perceive that it will shift money away from the public schools.

Despite the worsening economic picture late last year, many believe that the continued press for better academic achievement in the elementary years provides an unprecedented opportunity for early care and education. “We’ve been so concerned about ensuring that our K-12 system gets better,” Gilliam of Yale University says. “Maybe the really best thing we can do is to have children in better shape before they start kindergarten.”

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.

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


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