The Second Pillar of Care: Quality

Photo: Long Story Short Media


High quality child care pays all kinds of dividends: personal, societal, and economic. For example, children who participate in high-quality early care and education have fewer behavioral problems, greater educational attainment, and higher earnings later in life. According to one study, for every dollar invested in early education, society receives $7 in returns through increased tax revenue and reduced public spending on criminal justice, remedial education, and other costs. Some studies set the number even higher. High-quality care and education can help close the achievement gap for low-income children, though higher-income children experience large benefits, too. Parents can go to work and know that their children are in good hands, so child care improves parents’ job prospects, especially for mothers, who are still most often expected to be the primary caregivers.

All child care programs that meet licensing requirements provide a basic level of safety, allowing parents to work and meet other obligations. But here’s the problem: Only high-quality programs have significant positive effects on children’s learning and development.

However, high-quality programs are often hard to find. Though we know quality varies widely across settings and locations, it is difficult to know by just how much: The way we measure the quality of early care and education in the United States is inconsistent and often flawed. State licensing requirements and quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS) vary so widely that comparing states is very difficult, and federal policies regulating quality only apply to programs that accept subsidies. Many children are also in unlicensed care of unknown quality, whether it is legally license-exempt informal care or a provider illegally operating without a license. Among children receiving subsidies, nearly one in five are in unlicensed care. In the Care Index, we measure quality using the percentage of programs accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) or the National Association for Family Child Care (NAFCC), independent organizations that accredit child care centers and family child care homes, respectively. This method is imprecise, but, with existing data, it’s one of the only ways to compare quality in different states. And the data we do have indicates a patchwork system that is mediocre at best. The Care Index found that, on average, only 11 percent of U.S. child care centers and family homes are accredited.  

Proportion of Child Care Centers Accredited

Though quality is difficult to measure, we used accreditation as a baseline measure of safety and teacher-child interactions.

Why Quality Matters

The 0-5 years are crucial for children’s learning and development. From birth, children are actively working to understand the world around them In the first few years of life, a child’s brain makes 700 to 1,000 critical new neural connections every second, producing twice as  many connections and at a faster rate than at any other time in life. This rapid growth forms the neural foundation upon which all later learning will be built. Early childhood education that encourages discovery through play, rich language, and engages children’s capacity for conceptual reasoning, abstract thinking, and creativity can better challenge them to develop, grow, and learn new things. Young children are still learning how to learn, and high-quality early education and care helps them develop basic learning competencies like focus, self-regulation, memory, flexibility, and motivation. Children also learn social and emotional skills, as well as motor skills, which are not only intrinsically important but also affect later academic success.

From birth, children are actively working to understand the world around them In the first few years of life, a child’s brain makes 700 to 1,000 critical new neural connections every second, producing twice as  many connections and at a faster rate than at any other time in life.

Children’s interactions and relationships with adults, including early childhood educators, are some of the most important factors in their development. Nurturing and secure relationships with teachers as well as parents support children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. Children experience stress when they don’t have reliably supportive relationships with caregivers, with long-term consequences for their wellbeing.

High-quality early care and education, then, requires a safe and healthy environment where development can flourish. That’s true whether a child is being cared for by family and friends, a nanny, in a family child care home, in a child care center, or at school. All children, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, language, socioeconomic status, family structure, or ability, deserve high-quality care and education that meets their specific needs.

Aspects of Quality

Though measuring quality can be a complex task, researchers generally divide early care and education quality into two types: structural quality and process quality.

Structural quality refers to static, material characteristics of programs and staff—sometimes considered as the input factors that are easily regulated. Commonly used indicators of structural quality include teacher-child ratios, group sizes, staff education and experience, and staff compensation. For pre-K, length of day and school year are also important factors. Structural factors are easiest to quantify, but don’t capture the child’s direct experience—namely, the quality of their interactions with care providers.

Process quality refers to children’s relationships and interactions with teachers. Some of the most important aspects of process quality are whether teachers are warm and emotionally supportive toward children, how they manage their classrooms, and how they encourage and support children’s learning. Process quality is related to, but separate from, structural quality. Structural factors like low child-teacher ratios and well-trained staff can help foster better interactions, but do not on their own guarantee process quality—which, research shows, is more strongly correlated with positive child outcomes like school readiness.

But because structural quality is much easier to measure and regulate than process quality, structural indicators are often used as proxies for overall quality. There are some exceptions—for example, Head Start rates programs on process quality—but most state licensing requirements and QRIS focus almost exclusively on structural factors. But structural quality is most important as a foundation for process quality. The two are not the same. Measuring process quality would provide a clearer picture of what’s going on in classrooms than structural measures alone, but it can be expensive.

Measuring process quality would provide a clearer picture of what’s going on in classrooms than structural measures alone, but it can be expensive.

Most of the research cited in this brief focuses on child care centers because they have been studied more extensively than family child care homes, nanny care, or other types of care. Research also shows that quality is often lower in informal settings such as family child care homes than in child care centers, likely because informal settings are not as tightly regulated. This does not mean, however, that there are not good-quality family child care home options. All settings require the same basic quality elements: nurturing, supportive caregivers, and teachers who can provide a language-rich environment and age-appropriate learning opportunities. And developing strong, consistent measures of both structural and process quality is crucial for ensuring quality care across settings.

Structural Quality

Teacher Education

Research findings are mixed about the effects of teacher education on quality. Though some studies have found that teachers with higher degree levels or more years of education are more effective, other studies find little to no effect. The same is true for research looking at whether it’s better to have specific training in early childhood education—some studies find an effect, while others do not.

One likely reason for these findings is that many teacher-training programs simply aren’t very good. For example, many bachelor’s degree programs for pre-K teachers don’t require high-quality student-teaching opportunities, courses on child development, or training on how to build children’s language skills. Despite these issues, though, most experts believe that a well-educated teaching workforce is an important foundation for quality early care and education, especially if the quality of teacher training improves.

Teacher Pay

Inadequate compensation makes it difficult to attract and retain the best teachers for early education and care. Although pre-K teachers need a level of skill and training comparable to early elementary school teachers, their salaries are, on average, only about half what kindergarten teachers earn. Teacher aides and caregivers who work with infants and toddlers fare even worse. Low pay can lead to financial stress (hardly ideal for one dealing with very small children) and high staff turnover—the average departure rate across all centers is 13 percent, and 25 percent for centers that experience any turnover. This is not only costly for programs but can also have negative effects on children. Higher teacher pay is a crucial element of quality.

Ratios and Group Sizes

Research on child-teacher ratios (the number of children for each adult) and group sizes (the number of children in a classroom, which may have multiple adults) generally finds a connection between lower ratios and group sizes and higher process quality. Though studies are unable to determine exactly why this is true, it seems that, all else being equal, children get more individualized attention when ratios are lower and group sizes are small. Teachers are better able to manage classrooms and educate effectively.

Length of Day & School Year

The amount of time preschool-age children spend in early education settings significantly affects how much children benefit from them. Attending a full-day program instead of a part-day program, getting two years of pre-K instead of one, and continuing education during the summer or for a longer school year all have clear benefits for children, as long as the program is high-quality in other areas.

Process Quality

Structural factors are a crucial foundation for process quality: The learning environment and the interactions between teachers and children. In a high-quality learning environment, children build trusting relationships with warm, friendly caregivers who are sensitive to their needs and responsive to their words and signals. Children can interact frequently both with caregivers and with each other. Infants and toddlers learn through play and social interaction, and preschoolers spend time in small groups and pairs as well as with the whole group. Caregivers use lots of complex language and “serve and return” back-and-forth, open-ended exchanges, and they read books interactively with children. Learning is driven by children’s curiosity and interests, with caregivers providing encouragement and challenge.

In a high-quality learning environment, children build trusting relationships with warm, friendly caregivers who are sensitive to their needs and responsive to their words and signals.

Because process quality is more subjective than structural quality, researchers have developed many different systems to measure it. Two of the most commonly used measures are the Environment Rating Scales (ERS) and the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), which both have a variety of scales tailored to different age levels and settings. Raters trained to use the scales observe classrooms for a period of time and rate them on a set of quality indicators, then produce an overall quality rating.

Studies have shown that higher ratings on the CLASS and the ERS are associated with better child outcomes, such as school readiness, and can do a better job of predicting child outcomes than many structural indicators. This is especially true of the CLASS, which has come to be regarded as a more rigorous and targeted measure of process quality compared to the ERS.

Process quality measures like the CLASS are not being administered consistently in most early care and education settings: Using these tools requires investments of time and money. But they can provide valuable insights about the quality of early learning.


Promoting quality early care and education will require strong public investment in families’ access to high-quality, affordable options. Improving teacher training, compensation, and ongoing support does not come cheap.

Efforts to improve quality also need to be coupled with better methods of measuring it. Though good tools exist to measure quality, such as the CLASS, they are not used consistently enough to be able to compare quality in different locations and settings. Better data collection on the quality of early education and care could help illuminate both the bright spots and weak points of the system, and how to strengthen it.