Opportunity Begins with Quality

By Leila Rock

Much of my early childhood – spent in England – was caught in the middle of a bitter divorce, negotiating family conflict, instability, and stress. As the new head of a single parent household, my mother worked long and irregular hours, earning just enough to keep us afloat and provide a place for us to live. My situation was by no means dire, or even particularly uncommon, but it did offer its fair share of challenges.

Like many of my classmates, I was the lucky beneficiary of policies that help provide working parents with access to high-quality, affordable early childhood programs. The English system is not perfect, but for my mother – and many parents like her – the local child care program offered a safe, well-structured learning environment that meant she could balance her work and caregiving responsibilities without risking her job or my well-being. For all children, but particularly for those whose circumstances put them at risk of school difficulty, high-quality early learning and care programs are an educational necessity.

Research shows that participation in high-quality programs can boost children’s cognitive and social-emotional skills, predict improvement in math and language acquisition later on, and has been linked to lower levels of grade repetition. High-quality care, including small class sizes, qualified and well-paid teachers, and warm and stimulating adult-child interactions afford children the opportunity to enter school confident, socialized, literate, and curious about everything. And most of all, excited about learning.

Yet too often across the United States, at-risk children and their families have uneven or no access to high-quality care. Each week, more than 12 million children under age 5 attend a regular child care arrangement. With the average cost of center-based care reaching more than 40 percent of state median income for single mothers, affording high-quality child care can pose a significant challenge for families struggling to make ends meet. In addition, parents and caregivers do not have sufficient information about quality, leaving them in the dark about what quality is and why it matters for their children. Equal access to consistent information would help make programs more accountable, empower parents to demand greater quality from their providers, and ultimately help children to reach their full potential.

California – the land of opportunity and the state that I now call home – is making great strides in lifting the quality of care for its youngest learners. Since 2011 a federal investment of $75 million has helped the state develop a Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) at the local level for children birth through five. QRIS is a system that supports quality improvement in key areas like teaching, children’s school readiness, and classroom environment, and includes incentives for providers striving to improve the quality of their programs. State and county level administrators, who have worked both to define quality in California and to enroll greater numbers of children in high-quality programs, should be commended for their efforts. Yet our new report, California’s Local Approach to Raising Quality in Early Childhood Programs shows that there’s more work to do to give all families equal access to high-quality programs and to provide all children equal opportunity to quality care experiences, regardless of which county they live in or which program they attend.

The ability of preschool programs to improve children’s outcomes has been recently called into question. A study from Vanderbilt University on the impact of Tennessee’s state-subsidized preschool program suggested that the academic and social benefits gained by children enrolled in the study programs largely disappeared by the end of kindergarten. But with the majority of evidence pointing to long-lasting benefits of high-quality preschool on children’s outcomes, the results of the study say less about the efficacy of quality programs, and more about the need for consistency in the definition and implementation of quality. 

High-quality early care experiences may not be the single magic bullet to a lifetime of happiness and success, but they can help lay the foundations on which opportunity is built. I’m grateful for the free, local program in my neighborhood that let my mother continue working while helping to provide me the cognitive, linguistic, and social stimulation that made the transition to school – and all subsequent learning – much easier. Though the challenges I now face are different, the impact of those early experiences has remained; I’m still confident, still curious about everything, and still excited about learning. Opportunity may be hard won, but a fighting chance at it begins with high-quality care.