Journal Issue: School Readiness: Closing Racial and Ethnic Gaps Volume 15 Number 1 Spring 2005
Main Types of Early Childhood Care and Education
Early childhood care and education programs come in many forms. We categorize these into three broad types: parental care, informal care (by a relative, nanny, or babysitter in the child's own home or in a babysitter's or family day care provider's home), and center care or preschool (day care center, nursery school, preschool, Head Start program, or prekindergarten).
We focus most on the third category because a host of studies has found that children who attend center care or preschool programs enter school more ready to learn. As noted, this category includes many different types of programs, and it is important to distinguish between them.
Most children in preschool or center care attend private programs, for which their parents pay fees. Low-income working parents may receive child care subsidies that offset some of the costs, and other families with working parents may also receive financial assistance through tax provisions, including the child and dependent care tax credit and the dependent care assistance plan.6 Some center care and preschool programs operate full-day and year-round; others, only part-time or during the school year.
Preschool attendance becomes more common as children approach school age. Approximately 60 percent of four-year-old children are in care during the year before they enter kindergarten, up from about 17 percent in care before their second birthday.7
The federal government does not regulate preschool programs, and state regulations vary widely in both stringency and enforcement. 8 One way to assess the quality of center care is through “structural” indicators, such as more highly educated teachers, smaller classes, and lower children-to-staff ratios.9 Some studies suggest that caregiver education may be particularly important.10 Quality varies widely from one program to the next, but, on average, the quality of center care programs, as measured by structural indicators, is probably just “mediocre.”11
A second, arguably better, way to measure child care quality is for trained observers to rate the quality of the “process”—the warmth, responsiveness, and sensitivity of caregivers, as well as the physical environment and children's activities.12 Thus measured, few center-based programs are high in quality; a substantial proportion rank low in quality.13 The Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes Study, conducted in 1993, found good or developmentally appropriate care in only 24 percent of centers serving preschool-age children. Quality was poor in 10 percent. Child-caregiver interactions were positive in less than half.14 The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care found similarly low rates of positive child-caregiver interactions in center care.15
A small but growing share of children attend publicly funded preschools, most commonly Head Start and prekindergarten (other public programs exist, but they serve few children). Head Start, the largest publicly funded early education program, began in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. It serves children from families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold, as well as children with disabilities.16 Under Head Start, federal grants are provided to local community organizations that offer early education and comprehensive health, nutrition, and family services to three- and four-year- old children.17 In 2002 the federal government distributed $6.3 billion to local Head Start grantees, who served an estimated 65 percent of eligible three- and four-year-olds, some 10 percent of all children in that age group.18
To receive funding, Head Start programs must meet twenty-four federal performance guidelines. Centers undergo an on-site review at least once every three years. In 2000 about 85 percent of reviewed centers met the standards of adequate care. According to a recent study of Head Start, programs met or exceeded recommendations of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC, a leading group of experts in the field) for class size and adult-to-child ratios. Judged by process quality, on average Head Start centers are on par with other types of center care.19 Nevertheless, only one-third of Head Start teachers hold four-year college degrees, and experts worry that low pay and low levels of provider education constrain program quality.20
Prekindergarten programs, often funded through local school districts, are a more recent type of early education.21 As the name suggests, they provide a year (or two) of education before children enter kindergarten. Publicly funded programs rely mainly on state dollars, although local school districts may also use federal Title 1, disability, or other types of funds. Prekindergarten programs may operate in public schools, but some states also directly fund, and school districts may subcontract with, other programs to provide early education services. Typically, prekindergartens offer some services beyond education, including meals and transportation, but few provide a full array of services such as health screenings.22
Since 1990, state funding for prekindergarten has increased 250 percent, to approximately $1.9 million in 2002, but state spending varies widely.23 In 2000, thirty-nine states had prekindergarten initiatives, but only seven (Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Oklahoma) made substantial per capita investments in them.24 Most state programs target disadvantaged three- and four-year-old children and serve a small but growing share of children, with an estimated 14 percent of four-year-olds enrolled in public school–based prekindergarten programs in 2002.25 Only two states, Georgia and Oklahoma, and the District of Columbia offer such programs to all children; they serve slightly more than half of their four-year-olds.
Structural quality indicators suggest that prekindergarten programs provide relatively high-quality care.26 Most states set guidelines for class size and child-to-caregiver ratios that meet or exceed NAEYC recommendations. The average size of general education prekindergarten classes in public schools is well within NAEYC guidelines.27 Of school-based prekindergarten teachers, 86 percent have four-year college degrees, more than twice the rate among center care and Head Start teachers. Teachers' pay is also more likely to be commensurate with that of elementary school teachers (82 percent receive public school teacher salaries) and considerably higher than that of other child care workers.28 State-funded prekindergarten programs in private preschools, however, appear to have lower structural quality than programs in public schools.29
Data on process quality in prekindergarten programs are in short supply. Because structural indicators are linked to process quality and are higher for prekindergarten than for other types of center care, prekindergarten classrooms could be expected to have higher process quality, too. Indeed, an evaluation of Georgia's universal prekindergarten found the classrooms to be of higher process quality than private preschool classrooms in that state and less likely than Head Start classrooms to be of poor quality.30 But an evaluation of New Jersey's Abbott preschool program argues for caution, because it found classroom quality was lower than that in Georgia and lower than national estimates of center care quality.31 The lack of information on prekindergarten classroom quality makes any general conclusions about process quality unwarranted.