School & District Management

Study: High-Quality Child Care Pays Off

By Linda Jacobson — April 28, 1999 4 min read
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Many studies have concluded that high-quality child care contributes to children’s development. The question has been how much.

The latest findings from a long-term study of more than 1,300 children at 10 sites show that child-care quality has a significant effect on school readiness and language skills.

The results, presented here at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, were drawn from a National Institute for Child Health and Development study.

The children in the sample, who are now 3, will be followed through 3rd grade.

Led by Kathleen McCartney, a professor of psychology and family studies at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, the researchers found that 57 percent of the children in high-quality care had above-average scores on school readiness, while only 43 percent of those in low-quality care had above-average scores. The children in high-quality care also scored higher in their ability to express and understand language.

The Study of Early Child Care defines high-quality settings as those in which teachers--or parents--had more positive physical contact with children, shared positive emotions with children, and were responsive to the children when they spoke. The study offers little evidence, however, that child-care quality has any effect on children’s behavior and interactions with peers.

And while it’s true that high-quality care can have a positive effect on children, both policymakers and researchers need to pay attention to how parents go about selecting care, Bruce Fuller, the director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a research center at the University of California, Berkeley, said at a session here during the April 15-18 conference.

Under the current overhaul of the welfare system, there has been an increase in “demand side” policies, such as vouchers given to low-income parents to buy child care.

But early findings from a longitudinal study of 948 single mothers with young children show that a number of factors, such as a mother’s race or ethnicity, the age of her child, and whether other adults live in the home, influence whether the mother will use a child-care subsidy and choose a formal child-care setting instead of depending on unlicensed friends or relatives to provide care.

African-American mothers were more likely than white mothers to choose formal care, such as centers or family child-care homes, according to the study, which is part of the “Growing Up in Poverty” project that is being conducted at both UC-Berkeley and Yale University. Asian-American mothers were less likely than whites to choose such arrangements. And among mothers of all races, those with toddlers and preschoolers were more likely than those with infants to choose formal programs.

The researchers also found that having access to information increases the chances that a mother will use a subsidy.

Recent studies have shown that in California, for example, parents were paying out of pocket for child care even when they were entitled to receive subsidies.

“Yet [the] government now spends billions of dollars annually under the assumption that subsidies are leading to wiser child-care ‘choice,’ ” the report says.

An anti-poverty program that offers low-cost health insurance, wage supplements, job opportunities, and child-care assistance to working poor families in Milwaukee has improved the lives of both adults and children, an evaluation of the project shows.

The study of New Hope, conducted by the New York City-based research company Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., found that children--particularly boys--whose parents participated in the program were better behaved in class and had higher grades than those assigned to a control group. Boys whose parents were in the New Hope program also had higher educational and career aspirations than those in the control group.

In addition, the program increased children’s participation in formal child-care programs, after-school care, and other activities, such as sports. The project also showed improved relationships between parents and children in the program, allowing parents to more closely monitor their children’s activities.

Operated by New Hope Project Inc., a community-based nonprofit organization, the program ran from 1994 to 1998 and cost about $7,200 per person for the first two years. Participants could stay in the program for only three years.

The report, presented at the SRCD meeting, is titled “New Hope for People With Low Incomes: Two-Year Results of a Program To Reduce Poverty and Reform Welfare.”

While it is unclear which aspects of New Hope actually improved the boys’ behavior and academic performance, the authors recommend that policymakers who are interested in improving the well-being of low-income children focus on providing formal child care and out-of-school activities.

Asking young children their opinions about school can help predict how those students will perform later, a survey released here shows.

“Historically, we haven’t used children’s subjective impressions to tell us anything,” said Sharon Ramey, a psychiatry professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

As part of a survey of former Head Start pupils from 31 sites across the country, Ms. Ramey asked the children a series of simple questions about whether they liked school, how they thought they were doing, and how they got along with their teacher and their classmates.

Researchers typically rely on interviews with parents and teachers, and on student test scores, to determine who might be headed for special education or who might drop out. But parents and teachers often look at a child’s first year or two of school with “rose-colored glasses” and don’t recognize trouble until 2nd or 3rd grade, Ms. Ramey said.

“Children are more likely to identify early problems,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 1999 edition of Education Week as Study: High-Quality Child Care Pays Off

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