Early Learning: Quality Counts 2002

Data on state early-childhood policies and programs have large gaps.

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At first glance, the tables, charts, and statistics on early childhood in Quality Counts 2002: Building Blocks for Success suggest that a vast array of information is available about the care and education of preschool-age children in the United States. But appearances can be deceiving.

One of the most startling findings of this year's report is how little is actually known about the care of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers--children in a period that some have called the "black hole" before entry into the formal public education system.

The tables that follow feature the best information available from some of the most comprehensive sources of data on young children.

In addition to information about early-childhood programs from Education Week's annual, 50-state survey, the tables include data collected by: the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund, the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, the National Center for Early Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children, the Washington-based Children's Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. All those groups and institutions were generous in sharing their findings with Quality Counts.

The indicators on program access, funding, standards, teacher quality, and early-childhood assessment provide some details on the programs and policies states have in place for kindergartners and preschoolers, including how many children are served and how much money states are devoting to various early-childhood initiatives.

But the data only begin to shed light on what may be important discrepancies in quality across the various types of early-childhood programs. They also raise serious concerns about the access that families have to early-childhood services in the United States and the adequacy of those services.

Access and Funding: An Uneven Picture

The Education Week survey found that every state provides at least some funding for kindergarten, and 41 states require districts to offer kindergarten, as does the District of Columbia. But only eight states and the District of Columbia require that kindergarten be offered for the full school day. And only 13 states and the District require 5-year-olds to attend. Approximately 3.4 million youngsters attended kindergarten in the United States in 2000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

By updating existing data collected by the National Center on Early Development and Learning, the Children's Defense Fund, the National Center for Children in Poverty, and the Yale University Child Study Center, Education Week also pieced together a picture of preschool and prekindergarten efforts across the states. Today, 39 states and the District of Columbia use state money to support prekindergarten programs. But the characteristics of those programs vary widely.

A few states--Georgia, New York, and Oklahoma--are phasing in prekindergarten statewide for any 4-year-old whose parents want it, regardless of parental income. Other states--such as Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Texas--are paying for large-scale initiatives aimed at reaching as many 4-year-olds as possible, especially those from poor families.

Meanwhile, states such as Alabama, Colorado, and Iowa are piloting pre-K programs or are providing financial support to help local community groups collaborate in expanding early-childhood services.

Some states, including Ohio and Oregon, have focused their prekindergarten efforts on expanding Head Start or have modeled their own state programs after the federal initiative for disadvantaged preschoolers. Ohio alone spent about $100 million in state money to expand Head Start programs in 2001.

Still other states--Arizona, Florida, and Pennsylvania among them--are spending substantial state dollars on block grants that may be used for prekindergarten as well as other early-childhood priorities identified by local communities.

In all, states are spending more than $1.9 billion annually to help more than 765,000 children attend prekindergarten.

In addition to state-financed prekindergarten efforts, several states have launched programs to increase access to high-quality child care. North Carolina's Smart Start, for example, is spending $210 million during the current fiscal year to reimburse child-care providers; provide subsidies, health care, and family-support services to low-income families; and promote quality. South Carolina's $39 million First Steps initiative and Rhode Island's $67 million Starting RIght effort follow a similar model.

In 2000, states also received some $4.5 billion for Head Start from the federal government and served more than 760,000 poor children. That year, 21 states and the District of Columbia supplemented the federal support with $185 million in state funds, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.

On the child-care front, two new reports--"A Fragile Foundation," by the Children's Defense Fund, and "The Impact of Funding on State Child Care Subsidy Programs," by the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy--provide some of the most detailed data available on state child-care policies. The reports include information on how states are using money from the federal Child Care and Development Fund and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grants to increase families' access to child care.

In total, states received $4.4 billion in CCDF aid in fiscal 2001. They also transferred an average of 14 perceive is even more limited.

The information featured in our tables suggests that, at best, there is great unevenness in the quality of early-childhood settings--especially when the standards and expectations for prekindergarten and child-care providers are stacked up against those for kindergarten.

For example, all 50 states and the District of Columbia require kindergarten teachers to obtain a bachelor's degree to become licensed; and 16 states and the District require kindergarten teachers to take early-childhood courses or to obtain specific early-childhood certification to work with kindergartners.

By comparison, only 20 states and the District of Columbia require prekindergarten teachers to be graduates of four-year colleges. Just one state--Rhode Island--requires teachers in child-care centers to have a bachelor's degree. New Jersey mandates a bachelor's degree for supervisors in child-care centers. In 30 states, adults can begin caring for young children in child-care centers with no prior educational training beyond high school graduation.

In contrast, Head Start's program standards require that by 2003, at least 50 percent of teachers in Head Start centers must have at least an associate's degree. Those teachers who do not have an associate's degree must, at minimum, obtain a Child Development Associate, credential, or CDA, which is awarded by the Council for Early Childhood Professional Recognition.

If pay is any indication, child-care centers have a difficult challenge in attracting and keeping a well-qualified workforce. Low salaries have long been a subject of concern in K-12 education. But the salaries for kindergarten teachers, which averaged $36,770 in 1999, appear generous compared with those for prekindergarten and child-care educators.

Nationwide, child-care workers earned an average of $15,430 in 1999. Self-identified prekindergarten teachers, a category that includes some teachers in child-care centers, fared only slightly better, at $19,610 a year.

Expectations for young children are limited. 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.

But no state has included content requirements for child care as part of its licensing system for child-care providers.

Just seven states require that state-subsidized prekindergarten programs meet national accreditation standards to operate. Twenty states have no regulations for the maximum group size of child-care centers, and 18 do not regulate child-care providers who care for up to four children.

To improve quality, 26 states and the District of Columbia have established "tiered" reimbursement systems as part of their child-care subsidies. Under such programs, child-care providers who meet quality criteria specified by the state are eligible for higher subsidies for eligible children than the state normally provides. While some studies suggest such policies are encouraging providers to enhance their child-care offerings, it is unclear how big an impact the policies are having.

The Children's Defense Fund reports that the differential reimbursements range from a low of an additional $11 a month per child in West Virginia to an extra $127 a month per child in New York state.

One thing is clear: With more and more children being cared for outside the home before they reach school age, and mounting evidence about the importance of early-childhood education for later school success, much more needs to be known about this vital time in children's development.

If Americans are serious that quality counts in education, advocates for early-childhood care and learning stress, then quality should be just as important before a child's fifth birthday as after.

Vol. 21, Issue 17, Page 54-56

Published in Print: January 10, 2002, as Early Learning: Quality Counts 2002
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