Establishing the building blocks of high-quality, early childhood education
Decades of research, across numerous disciplines, support one fundamental premise: The first years of a child’s life represent a period of incredible growth and opportunity. For example, over 90 percent of brain development happens before the age of five. And, just over the first year of life, a child will form more than one million new neural connections every second.
Given that both single and married parents of young children are very often employed outside the home, a high-quality early childhood education represents the greatest opportunity we have to ensure all children realize their full potential.
Yet, just half of our nation’s families can access such an option for their children, struggling to meet childcare costs that have surged by 25 percent over the past decade. In fact, early-childhood programs cost up to as much as 36 percent of a working-class parent’s wages. And in two-thirds of states, infant care costs exceed the average, in-state college tuition at a four-year university. The increasingly prohibitive cost of childcare has left 12 million children under the age of five without the high-quality educational experiences that research highlights is essential for their success.
Too many parents must make do with less expensive, low-quality options. Fortunately, policymakers on both sides of the aisle are, at last, recognizing the severity of the problem.
The Trump administration has proposed a one-time, $1 billion investment that states can use to encourage employers to expand access to childcare. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has offered a comprehensive plan that would offer free child care to families making less than twice the poverty line — and cap the costs of licensed early childhood care at seven percent for every single family in the country. And legislation from Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) — Child Care for Working Families Act — would double the number of children eligible for public child-care subsidies programs.
While these are promising steps toward healthy, fruitful futures for our children, they are baby steps that fail to recognize the need to expand access to high-quality childcare options. Our children require more than just safe environments while their parents are at work; they need to have opportunities to build positive relationships with educators and their peers. And they must be able to engage in developmentally appropriate, play-based experiences that promote vital pre-academic and social emotional skills.
If our nation is to take larger steps to transform early-childhood education, we must expand the discussion to not only determine how to increase slots — but what it will take to assure high-quality, evidence-based interactions among child care providers, our youngest learners, and their families.
Teachers must be at the core of any effort to transform the early learning system. If educators are well-positioned to provide responsive and cognitively stimulating interactions to our youngest children, the children are much more likely to develop the skills they need to make a successful transition to kindergarten and beyond.
But the current early childhood workforce system is failing our youngest students by leaving teachers with too little pay — and limited access to the resources they need to shape enriching learning environments. And so, 15 percent of early educators across the country leave the field every year, leaving our youngest children without qualified teachers at a critical point in their lives.
To off-set this troubling rate of turnover, we must assure all teachers can access, and receive ongoing support to implement, enriching, engaging, and evidence-based curricula. We must press our university preparation programs and childcare centers to equip future educators with the research-based competencies they need to support the development of our youngest children.
Finally, we must pay our early childhood educators at a level that reflects the importance of their work. At a median annual income of $28,750, preschool teachers earn less than half of the average annual salary in the United States. In other terms, almost half of childcare workers qualify for public assistance programs like Medicaid and food stamps.
Even in the face of overwhelming evidence and political momentum, we hear that the cost of early education efforts represents an insurmountable stumbling block. And so, while these more ambitious tax proposals make their way through Congress, we can more immediately leverage our community-based assets, tapping into a collective of businesses and non-profit organizations that can both identify and invest in these evidence-based solutions.
Here in Virginia, for example, coalitions such as the Elevate Early Education (E3) initiative have established an entire demonstration school devoted to the most important elements of high-quality, early childhood education, including STREAMin3, an innovative, engaging, and interaction-based, birth through preschool curriculum. With state and private support, we have piloted this innovative curriculum model in 100 classrooms across the state.
We can also blend and braid existing funds that span kindergarten and third grade, breaking down traditional silos between child care centers and K-12 school districts — and thereby expanding the definition of early education. After all, students’ developmental needs are not categorically different when they leave childcare and enter kindergarten. States like Connecticut have illustrated the promise of this collaboration, creating a data-driven, landscape analysis tool that K-12 administrators can use to understand the needs of their youngest learners — and develop targeted interventions that increase achievement.
Our nation can take larger steps like these to realize the promise of early education. The first, however, is to commit to this fundamental premise: that every young learner should be able to access high-quality early care and education.
Amanda Williford is an associate professor at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education and Human Development and partners with leaders across Virginia to lead research and assessment efforts for Virginia’s Early Education Initiatives.
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