Study Finds Large Quality Differences in Early Education Settings

Blog Post
June 6, 2016

Among children between the ages of three and five, just under 80 percent receive care and education from someone other than a parent. The settings in which children receive these services vary greatly. There are formal, classroom-based settings such as state-funded pre-K, Head Start, and private child care centers. But children also receive care and education in informal settings such as home-based family child care and home-based care provided by nonparental caretakers like nannies or babysitters.

According to a new study published in the journal Child Development, there are significant differences in the quality of care received by children enrolled in formal, classroom-based settings compared to their peers in informal settings. The study finds that children enrolled in formal settings, such as state-funded pre-K and child care centers, receive higher quality care and enter kindergarten with better math and reading skills compared to children receiving care from a family child care home or nonparental caretaker.

In order to gain a better understanding of quality differences between early education settings a team of researchers from the University of Virginia, Stanford University, Cornell University, and the Urban Institute analyzed data using the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study’s Birth Cohort (ECLS-B), a nationally representative study that tracked 14,000 children from infancy in 2001 to kindergarten entry. Though these data are now about 10 years old, it represents the most current, nationally representative data available on early childhood education (ECE) quality. It includes interviews with parents and child care providers about the specific characteristics of their ECE setting. The researchers supplemented these data with direct observational measures of a subsample of classrooms.

The researchers divided measures of ECE quality into five categories: ratios, safety, caregiver characteristics (such as credentials), activities and curriculum, and observational measures of quality. For the observational measures of quality, the researchers utilized tools for measuring the quality of learning environments, such as the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS), and caregiver traits using the Arnett Caregiver Observation Scale.

What the study found was striking variation in quality between formal, classroom-based ECE, and informal settings, such as family child care homes. According to Erica Greenberg, a researcher at the Urban Institute and one of the study’s authors, “the variations in quality were consistent on almost every measure we looked at.” Perhaps most importantly, these quality differences held up even when researchers controlled for family and child characteristics.

One of the most striking variations was in the category of caregiver characteristics. While 56 percent of teachers in formal settings possessed a college degree in early childhood education, this was true for only 9 percent of teachers in informal settings. This is not surprising since most states now require a bachelor’s degree for pre-K teachers and 66 percent of Head Start teachers now have a BA, while only a handful of states require family providers to have even a high school diploma or GED. The study also found that teachers in formal settings are much more likely to participate in ongoing training than their counterparts in informal settings (80 percent vs. 16 percent).

The study also highlighted vast differences in how children in different ECE settings spend their time. Teachers in formal settings reported higher rates of engaging in math and literacy activities on a daily basis. Perhaps most striking was the difference found in television viewing time between settings. While teachers in formal settings reported spending almost no time watching television each day (an average of about six minutes per day), teachers in informal settings reported nearly two hours of daily television exposure.

These differences in quality between settings are important because they translate to differences in child outcomes at kindergarten entry. After assessing children on early math and reading skills at age five, the researchers found that children who attended formal ECE settings had substantially stronger reading and math skills compared to peers who attended informal settings. And Greenberg points out that these academic gaps are fully explained by quality differences, meaning that they hold even when family and child characteristics, such as income and parental education are controlled for.

What can the policy community learn from this research? The study points out that many families prefer informal child care settings because they’re generally more affordable and offer more flexible hours than formal settings. It can be really appealing to families to have a provider down the street, but we want to make sure they’re getting enriching learning experiences as well,” says Greenberg.

I’ve written in the past about ways in which family child care networks, such as All Our Kin in Connecticut, have been shown to improve quality among these providers. (I also interviewed All Our Kin’s Executive Director to learn more about how the program operates.) Increasing investments into similar models that provide professional development, coursework, and one-on-one expert consultations to family child care providers could go a long way towards ensuring that the children in these settings are receiving high-quality learning opportunities.

There is also a need to help parents become better-equipped at comparing levels of quality between different ECE settings and providers. Currently, almost 75 percent of parents rate their child’s ECE provider as either “perfect” or “excellent” despite wide variations in actual quality. Continuing to research and invest in state Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) that have the goal of providing easy-to-understand ratings of providers is one way to empower parents to choose a high-quality provider, whether that provider operates in a formal or informal setting.

Soon, Sarah Jackson will have more on this study and what it means for strategies to help improve the quality of informal care providers. Stay tuned.