Research has shown for years that placing 3- and 4-year olds from low-income families in high-quality early education settings can curb the relationship between growing up in a low-income family and underperforming in school. Now a new study in the September/October 2009 issue of Child Development goes a few steps further, linking quality child care settings at even younger ages to school achievement up to fifth grade.
The study, led by Eric Dearing, an associate professor at the Lynch School of Education of Boston College, uses longitudinal data from a national study that tracks children from birth up to fifth grade. It includes children from high-, middle-, and low-income families in a variety of childcare environments that ranged from maternal care to structured preschool facilities. The dataset also included information on children's cognitive and academic performance, along with the quality of various childcare settings they attended, as measured by observation-based records of the care-giving environments.
Dearing analyzed the data to see if being in above-average child care settings could help boost their later performance. He found that higher-quality child care can "protect" children from low-income families by boosting their math and reading scores through elementary school. Further, the more time these children spent in above-average child care providers, the further the association between familial income and school performance weakened.
"Higher-quality child care promoted low-income children's school readiness skills and, in turn, these skills promoted achievement through middle childhood," wrote Dearing and his co-authors- Kathleen McCartney from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Beck A. Taylor from Samford University.
"Higher-quality" in this study equates with "above average" -- meaning that it includes all the child care settings in the dataset with higher scores than what researchers calculated as the dataset's average score. Professional observers come up with the scores based on numerical ratings of how well the child-care settings were organized, how teachers interacted with children, class sizes, and other indicators of quality care.
Debates about investing in child care and preschool programs often center on the large gains found in studies like that of the Perry Preschool Project, in which the childcare and education settings were of such high quality -- and so expensive -- that they are referred to as "Cadillac" programs. Critics have also pointed out that these programs do not occur "naturally," meaning that there are few examples of large-scale programs available to families around the country.
But this report suggests that among the childcare programs already available, there are quality distinctions that can make a significant difference, and that the higher-quality programs do provide benefits that could make a noticeable impact on America's achievement gap.
"There are a range of programs where parents can find above-average child care," Dearing said. "And, you begin to see benefits of higher-quality care with relatively minimal exposure, but the greatest benefits were evident for children with the greatest exposure to higher-quality care."
Exactly how much do today's average programs need to crank up their quality to get better results for children? And how much does the quality of a child's elementary school change the picture?
Those questions aren't directly addressed by the research, but they are on the minds of many early learning experts who are trying to find the right mix of quality standards in child care and education settings. This study injects a significant piece of information into that discussion. It suggests that Cadillac preschool programs are not the only way to drive children toward academic success, but that delivering better quality does matter -- and the more frequently children experience it, the better.