Early childhood education is hot right now. In a recent US poll, 84 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans agreed that we should do more to improve early childhood education, and Obama, in his State of the Union Address, called for Congress to support high-quality pre-school, noting that 30 states have already started. In New York City, my home, it was the big topic of the mayoral election and has continued to dominate the press since.
It’s about time! The United States lags behind the world in this area in relative investment and outcomes. The current policy framework seems mired in a “stay-at-home mom” worldview, yet today 70 percent of American children grow up in families without a full-time stay-at-home caregiver. In this recent damning article, journalist Johnathan Cohn shone a spotlight on the shocking results of this lack of focus, including poor educational outcomes, inequality, and, in some tragic cases, loss of life.
Investing in high-quality early care and education is something international economists consider a “no-brainer.” Nobel Laureate James Heckman notes: “Investment in early education for disadvantaged children from birth to age five helps reduce the achievement gap, reduce the need for special education, increase the likelihood of healthier lifestyles, lower the crime rate, and reduce overall social costs. In fact, every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education produces a 7 to 10 percent per annum return on investment.” What’s not to like?
So how can local and national US policymakers seize the moment and get it right? While funding will be important, our work with early childhood systems and social innovators around the world suggests a few surprising things that could make all the difference:
1. Make it work for the most vulnerable.
Imagine a single parent, Sonia, has poor English and literacy skills. She has been on welfare for seven years and is excited to now be moving into employment. She has three kids under the age of five, one with delayed speech and potential autism—so she needs childcare.
As she is moving off welfare, Sonia will get some help navigating the process, but it will still be confusing and tedious (involving multiple, overlapping forms to complete, documents she may not have, and long waits for verification, delaying her employment). Without clear information about quality differences, Sonia may well choose care with a friend or neighbor, who may be loving but have little training in how to boost her kids’ literacy, numeracy, and chances of success, and the kids may end up watching lots of TV. This care could be provided in a small room, with no outdoor space, and with other family members or friends coming and going, some of who may have a criminal background. Her autistic child will likely miss out on crucial early assessment and support. When her children enter kindergarten, there will no systems to encourage communication between her neighbor and their school about the needs of the children.
We should design systems for Sonia, not the broader middle of the target population. We should aim for a system in which even those with poor language skills can easily navigate and access quality care. This means either raising quality to uniformly high standards, or providing simple tools to enable parents to compare and understand differences in quality (for example, the star rating systems now used in more than 20 states, including New Mexico, Ohio, South Carolina, Colorado, Tennessee, and New York). Governments should also provide specialist assessment, good nutrition, parent support, and dual-language accommodations. It also means thinking about funding structures such as sliding fee structures that cross-subsidize the most vulnerable (a feature of many systems including those in Australia, Canada, and the UK).
With such a system everyone wins. Society at large benefits, since the greatest economic returns (including higher graduation rates and lower crime) come from investing in care for the most vulnerable children in our society. Other parents using the system also benefit, since they get a simpler, more effective system.
I’ve seen this approach pioneered in areas beyond early childhood by social innovators like Community Solutions. By focusing hundreds of organizations around the country on the needs of the most vulnerable, they are on track to house 100,000 chronically homeless Americans, creating more than a billion dollars in economic benefits, freeing up hospital beds, and creating systems that are more coordinated and better for everyone to navigate. This kind of thinking is needed in early childhood policy.
2. Put one cross-agency team seriously on the hook.
Much of today’s mess—overlapping funding sources, conflicting legal requirements, systems that don’t communicate—stems from distributed accountability and no clear strategy. Those achieving good early childhood outcomes recognize four things. First, early care and education is a cross-agency issue, touching on health, mental health, education, and children’s and human services. Second, childcare and education go hand in hand; they are not separate functions. Third, the first three years of life are critical determinants of long-term success—this is not just about four year olds. And last, but not least: Someone needs to be on the hook for delivery.
Two approaches can address these considerations. Establish a department of early childhood (a common approach in states around Australia, France, and the UK) that takes responsibility for the coordination of care from six weeks and five years. Or less disruptively, establish a cross-functional, cross-age working group with the same responsibility that reports to the top (President, Governor, or Mayor). Maryland, for example, credits its early childhood working group and long-term strategic plan as the dominant factor in its impressive turnaround. Today 82 percent of children arrive kindergarten-ready, up from 49 percent in 2002. Similar approaches have worked well in Ohio, Colorado, Texas, and other states.
3. Get quality right before boosting capacity.
Quality is absolutely critical. While high-quality early care has great payoffs, low-quality care can be detrimental to children. Quality is more than providing a healthy, safe environment; it involves setting standards for care and education around curriculum, equipment, food, qualifications, and training.
Many consider the US military childcare system a model for the nation. With a 96 percent compliance rate with national quality standards (compared with 9 percent of civilian centers), it provides high-quality care to more than 200,000 children every day. Things were not always so rosy—in 1990, military officials described the system as a “disaster,” plagued by huge waitlists, poor outcomes, and health and safety issues, with real impact on the productivity and retention of servicemen and servicewomen. The system credits its turnaround on quality to: 1) setting clear standards to which everyone is accountable, 2) having a clear system of accreditation (the military uses the National Association for the Education of Young Children standards), and 3) addressing compensation and training issues, in particular resetting compensation and linking it more closely to quality. For example, in 1988 wages for military childcare workers were almost half those of commissary shelf stockers and lower than those at Burger King; this lead to annual staff turnover in some centers of up to 300 percent. To address these disparities, the system aligned childcare wages with those of public teachers with the same qualifications; it also introduced a tiered system so that salaries increase as training hurdles are met. France, Sweden, Germany, and an increasing number of US states are applying similar approaches to good effect.
While we have seen similar efforts to boost quality all over the country (New York City’s EarlyLearn initiative is one example), they are unevenly applied (even within NYC) and in almost every state in the country there are numerous organizations exempt from these standards.
By designing a system that works for the most vulnerable, making one group clearly accountable, and making sure that all subsidized care and education is high-quality, states and cities around the United States will start to see major benefits—in improved equity, better educational outcomes, and lower crime. The payoff is proven, now it’s time to make it happen.