Forum For Thought

Improving Quality Early Childhood Education and Care for Long-term Impacts

Susanna Malacky, AYPF Policy Research Intern

Early childhood education and care (ECEC) is vital to ensure that children build a strong academic, social, and emotional foundation for the rest of their education, and can have a lasting impact into adulthood. Research has shown that the years between birth and age five are most critical in shaping brain development. During these early years, the brain is building about 700 to 1,000 neural connections every second and environment and experience play huge roles in the strength of these connections. Trust building is also crucial during this time, and the more positive social interactions a child has during these early ages can lead to increased social and behavioral developments, as well as higher self-esteem.

In America, however, the quality and availability of ECEC can vary dramatically by zip code and costs are often too high for families to afford. Not only is ECEC expensive, but many workers in the ECEC field are not paid livable wages despite working this essential, high-demand job. This all begs the question, what should ECEC look like in America? What can be done to ensure high quality programs for students, improve access and affordability for parents, and increase worker wages for education and child care professionals?

Professional Development and Training

Providing professional development and training opportunities is essential in supporting the ECEC workforce. In order for ECEC programs to be of high-quality, providers need to have access to professional development to increase their qualifications. Currently, the hourly wages for ECEC workers are low (the median income for 2015 was $9.77 for child care workers and $13.74 for preschool teachers), making it hard to recruit and retain qualified professionals. Additionally, requirements for licensing vary greatly, with 31 states requiring lead teachers at child care centers to only possess a high school diploma. With an untrained workforce, children are less likely to receive proper developmental education and care. Investing in educators’ professional development and training can lead to improvements in program quality.

Standards and Accreditation

This leads to the second point for improving quality: ensuring ECEC programs are accredited. A report from New America found that only 11% of child care establishments are accredited by the National Association for the Education of the Young Child or the National Association for Family Child Care. Child care licensing requirements and quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS) vary by state. QRIS could provide benefits such as workforce development opportunities, financial incentives to participants, and other supports to improve quality, but there is lack of consistency among and across states. With vast inconsistencies, it becomes difficult to compare and understand the quality of child care programs. If national ECEC standards were in place, it might be easier to accurately assess and track ECEC programs, as well as promote quality of care. 

Growing Diversity

Acknowledging the growing diversity in the United State is another way to improve ECEC. A quarter of the 23 million children in the U.S. under the age of six are the children of immigrants or refugees or are immigrants or refugees themselves. Minorities and those in impoverished families are the least likely to have access to quality ECEC, but these typically underserved populations might benefit most from quality programs. Children in poverty often do not have the same educational exposure as their wealthier peers and, when they enter kindergarten, they may already be academically behind. Dual language learners especially benefit from quality ECEC and providers should be prepared to deliver care and education to children who may not speak English. ECEC should be accessible to all of these groups and providers should be representative of this growing diversity. Moreover, children from all backgrounds benefit when exposed to peers of diverse backgrounds, and this can help all children develop early social and emotional competencies.

High-quality ECEC prepares children for success as students, which can put students on a path to successful lives as adults. For every $1 invested in quality ECEC programs, there is a return of $3 for long-term outcomes from participants, the general public, and the government. Children who participate in quality programs perform better in school, are less likely to repeat a grade, and are more likely to graduate. As adults, they have higher salaries and are less likely to participate in criminal activity.

While the long-term positive effects of quality ECEC exist, there is no single entity or standard that applies to all ECEC, creating varying quality, accessibility, and affordability throughout the States. In order to improve ECEC and support ECEC professionals, we must invest in professional development and training, improve standards and accreditation, and consider our country’s growing diversity.

The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF’s events and policy reports are made possible by the support of a consortium of philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.

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