As the 20th century nears its end, it is a fact of American family life that young children spend a substantial part of their days in the care of someone other than a parent. More than 13 million infants, toddlers, and preschoolers receive regular care from adults other than their parentsroughly six out of 10 children under age 6 who are not enrolled in kindergarten (U.S. Department of Education, OERI, 1996). According to the University of Michigans Institute for Social Research, the average number of hours spent per week by children ages 3 to 5 in school settings nearly doubled from 11.5 hours in 1981 to 20 hours in 1997 (Hofferth, 1998).
The National Center for the Early Childhood Work Force estimates that 3 million people provided child care in 1998. The U.S. Department of Labor has projected the need for nearly 300,000 new child care workers between 1996 and 2006, making the occupation among the 10 fastest-growing in the nation.
These statistics give us important information for winning the war against illiteracy. For some children, the support of parents and elementary school teachers is not enough. While most parents are eager to learn more about early childhood development and education, work and family pressures strain their time and resources. Elementary school teachers do not even meet children until well after key periods have passed for cognitive and language development.
Architects of Reading Success
If we are serious about starting early to create a nation of readers, then we must do more to enlist the burgeoning corps of adults who work in early care and educationin preschools, child care centers, nursery schools, and home-based care settings. We must also address the reality that many of these early care and education providers need assistance with basic skills and training to fulfill their potential. As a nation, we must acknowledge that these Americans are not just childrens caretakers. They are architects of foundations that are critical for reading and academic success.
Many studies have established that high-quality early care and education lay the foundation for school success by enhancing cognitive and language development, as well as social and emotional competence (National Institute for Child Health and Development, 1997). More specifically, the 1998 National Research Council report found that early childhood programs can contribute to the prevention of reading difficulties. These programs contribute by providing young children with enriched, research-based literacy environments, and by identifying and removing possible obstacles to reading success.
Unfortunately, fulfilling the promise of early education is easier to imagine than to realize. By the time they enter kindergarten, most children have experienced some kind of early education or child care. But access to this care, as well as the quality of care, varies greatly. Children from low-income families, who are most apt to benefit from early intervention, are the least likely to attend preschool. In fact, the preschool participation gap between rich and poor has actually widened over the past two decades (National Education Goals Panel, 1997).
When we fail to make the most of this important period in young childrens lives, we set the stage for later difficulties. Kindergarten teachers have estimated that 35 percent of Americas children start school unprepared to learn (Boyer, 1991). In 1998, teachers in another national survey reported that about half of all children have problems making the transition to kindergarten (National Center for Early Childhood Development and Learning, 1998). Many of these children will have difficulty learning to read.
More Children in Child Care
The opportunities for early care and education to helpor hinderAmericas victory in the war against illiteracy have multiplied with the expansion of child care services. Much of this demand has been fueled by the tremendous expansion of womens roles in the workforce. The percentage of mothers of infants and toddlers working outside the home has nearly tripled from 21 percent in 1965 to 59 percent in 1994 (Shore, 1997).
But even among households in which the mother is not employed, one-third use regular child care for their youngest children (U.S. Department of Education, OERI, 1996). Preschoolers spend an average of 35 hours a week in child care if their mothers work outside the home, and 20 hours per week if their mothers are not employed (Shore, 1997).
Child care starts early: 45 percent of infants under age 1 are regularly cared for by someone other than a parent, most by a relative in a private home. As babies grow, their chance of being cared for by non-parental adults also grows, from 50 percent of 1-year-olds to 84 percent of 5-year-olds. Similarly, the percentage cared for outside of private homes grows from 11 percent of 1-year-olds to 75 percent of 5-year-olds (U.S. Department of Education, OERI, 1996). Thus, an enormous potential exists for early childhood providers to influence later reading success.
Choices in Child Care
Individual and cultural preferences influence family choices about the use of early childhood programs. More than six out of 10 Black children (66 percent) and White children (62 percent) receive supplemental care and education, compared with 46 percent of Hispanic children. There are also wide income differences in families child care patterns: only half of all households with incomes of $30,000 or less use child care, compared with three-quarters of households with incomes of $50,000 or more (U.S. Department of Education, 1996).
Besides influencing whether families use child care at all, income also influences the type of care that families select. This has significance for the war against illiteracy: the care families choose makes a difference.
The Limitations of Income
In addition to having greater access to regulated care, higher-income families are much more likely to use center-based carenursery schools, child care centers, and preschoolsthan are lower-income families (National Education Goals Panel, 1995; West et al., 1995). In low-income neighborhoods, the supply of any kind of regulated child care, whether in centers or family child care homes, is usually inadequate (Siegel & Loman, 1991).
A Jump Start
Jumpstart recruits college students to help children who are struggling in preschool. The mentors are paired for almost two years with 3- and 4-year-olds in Head Start or other programs for children living in poverty. The Jumpstart mentors work one-on-one with children to teach and reinforce basic academic and social skills.
Jumpstart forms partnerships with early childhood caregivers and involves families in their preschoolers development. The summer program provides an intensive preschool experience for young children during the two months before kindergarten.
Jumpstart serves children in Boston; New Haven, Connecticut; New York City; Washington D.C.; Los Angeles; and San Francisco. The program aims to engage 1,000 college students as mentors by the year 2000 and to reach more than 12,000 children. Mentors may receive stipends or wages through AmeriCorps or the Federal Work-Study program.
This lack of options increases the number of poor children in unlicensed family child care or relative care (Fuller & Liang, 1995; Love & Kisker, 1996). Research shows that, in general, unlicensed care arrangements are of lower quality than licensed centers or homes (Cost, Quality and Child Outcomes Study Team, 1995; Kontos et al., 1994). Among those who offer services in a private home, 50 percent of non-regulated providers have been found to offer inadequate care, compared with about 13 percent of regulated providers (Families and Work Institute, 1994).
Advantages of Center-based Care
Although many families prefer family child care arrangements for their home-like atmosphere and small numbers of children, center-based care is the preference of most families for their older, preschool children (Leibowitz et al., 1988). Because centers are designed to serve larger groups of children, they often offer greater resources for preschoolers literacy development, such as books, tapes, and computers.
Additionally, a recent multi-site study found that center care is associated with better cognitive and language outcomes and a higher level of school readiness, compared with outcomes in other settings of comparable quality (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 1997b). But not all center-based care is equal. Children who attended centers that met professional guidelines for child-staff ratios, group sizes, and teacher education had better language comprehension and school readiness than did children enrolled in centers without these standards.
But the doors to high-quality early care and education are often closed to low-income families, either because of cost or location. These barriers result in many poor children entering school without the early educational choices available to their affluent classmates, placing them at greater risk of reading difficulties.
Low Funding, Low Quality
Child care providers have struggled to satisfy the demand for services. Unfortunately, this struggle has resulted in the chronic, twin calamities of low wages and high employee turnover. The under-funding of early care and educationincluding fees, subsidies, and donationsis acknowledged to be the chief cause of low quality (Gomby et al., 1996; National Education Association, 1998).
Both parents and child care teachers bear the burden of the current inadequate funding system. Clearly, parent fees put high-quality early care and education out of reach for many working families. Yet, this system also perpetuates low salaries, which fail to attract and retain highly skilled teachers. The impact is negative for all involvedchild care providers, families, and childrenand ultimately, for our nation as well. Low-quality early care and education put childrens development at risk, including the development of abilities associated with reading success.
In 1989, a national study reported that the quality in most child care centers was barely adequate (National Center for the Early Childhood Workforce, 1989). In 1999, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) found that fewer than 10 percent of American youngsters ages 3 and under are likely to receive excellent care (Booth, 1999). About 20 percent of child care centers are estimated to provide unsafe and unhealthy care (Shore, 1997). The 1995 Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes Study found that child care at most centers is poor to mediocre, and almost half of infant and toddler care may be detrimental. The recent NICHD study found that 61 percent of child care arrangementsincluding centers, family child care homes, in-home sitters, and relative careto be poor to fair quality (Booth, 1999).
Six for Success!
Both child development theory and research on successful practices point to six key features of high-quality early care and education programs:
Source: National Education Association, 1998
The States Take Action
Many states are taking action aimed at improving child care quality, in part because a growing amount of public money is being spent on child care. Although states traditionally spend the lions share of funds for children on elementary and secondary education, states increased expenditures on child care by 55 percent between 1996 and 1998 (National Governors Association, 1998).
This investment is important not only to meet the demands of the marketplace but also, if the quality of care is high, to put more children on the path to school success. Thus, quality improvement efforts must attend to childrens developmentcognitive, language, social, and emotionalas well as reduce risks of physical harm.
Forty-four states reported to the National Governors Association that they were working on child care quality issues in 1998. One positive trend finds 16 states paying higher reimbursements to child care providers who meet higher quality standards. Fortunately, reforms to boost health and safety often parallel reforms that can improve opportunities for cognitive and language development.
For example, improving child-staff ratios and requiring smaller class sizes enables teachers to have individual conversations, read with small groups, and implement classroom practices that research shows are necessary to promote literacy and later school success (Cost, Quality and Child Outcomes Study Team, 1995). Research also has found that favorable adult-child ratios increase childrens imitation of adults and increase childrens verbal interactions (National Education Association, 1998). Despite this evidence, only 18 states maintain requirements for a 10-to-1 ratio throughout the preschool years, and some states allow ratios twice as high (General Accounting Office, 1998).
Quality of Early Childhood Teachers
Whether they work in child care, preschool, or public school, research consistently shows that the quality of teachers is the key to quality education. This is especially true in the early years.
A national study found that when child care providers had more years of education and more college-level early education training, they provided more sensitive, developmentally appropriate care to children (Cost, Quality and Child Outcomes Study Team, 1995). Higher education and specialized training also allow early childhood teachers to do a better job of advancing childrens language skills, a key predictor of later reading success (Whitebook et al., 1990).
But not all child care teachers get the professional preparation they need. In a study for the U.S. Department of Education, 93 percent of child care teachers reported having some child-related training, but only 36 percent had formal, college-level teacher preparation, and only 24 percent held a credential from a professional organization. Among home-based providers, only 64 percent reported any child-related training and just 6 percent were accredited by a professional organization (Kisker et al., 1991).
Early childhood teachers find little incentive under current state requirements to prepare themselves better to support literacy development. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recommends that all early care and education teachers have formal training at the bachelors level, but most states require that child care workers hold only a high school diploma. Only nine states require any college credit in early childhood for child care center teachers. Only twoHawaii and Rhode Islandrequire a bachelors degree in any field with specialized training in early care and education (Azer & Eldred, 1998).
Just as improvements in child-staff ratios and class size benefit all areas of childrens development, more professional training opportunities and higher standards for early childhood teachers would enhance childrens growth, including their preparation to be successful readers.
Efforts to Improve
Small but promising steps have been taken to enhance the professional preparation of early childhood teachers. One study showed that even a modest increase in high-quality training can benefit children.
A Family Place
The Family Place Library recruits child care providers to bring children to the library for learning fun. This library also provides Storytime Kits for child care providers to use in their homes. The kits include books, videos, puzzles, puppets, and activities. Educational toys, including adaptive toys for children with disabilities, can also be borrowed.
This program offers learning opportunities based on family strengths, cultures, and interests.
The Family Place Library, a joint venture between New Yorks Middle Country Public Library and Libraries for the Future, is funded by the Hasbro Childrens Foundation. Family Place Library is a national project operating programs in six communities.
These researchers found that even 18 to 36 hours of training for family child care providers resulted in improved caregiving environments and stronger relationships between adults and children. A taste of professional development also whetted the participants appetitesafter completing the training, 95 percent of the providers said they wanted more instruction (Galinsky et al., 1995).
However promising, this level of preparation does not approach what is needed to provide our youngest child-ren with the foundations for healthy development. More comprehensive approaches to training can strengthen the early childhood work force. The Council for Early Childhood Professional Recognition offers a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential, which is used as one of the standards in the licensing of child care teachers and center directors in 46 states and the District of Columbia. The credential calls for a high school diploma, 120 hours of training in specified categories, and 480 hours of experience, along with a formal assessment procedure.
With leadership from Wheelock Colleges Center for Career Development in Early Care and Education, many states are developing more coherent early childhood training systems, with increased collaboration between higher education institutions and community partners.
Other state efforts include the T.E.A.C.H. project (Teacher Education and Compensation Helps). In North Carolina and a small number of other states, this innovative project provides college scholarships for early childhood teachers, administrators, and family child care providers. Completion of the program leads to higher compensation.
These promising trends are consistent with recommendations by experts in the field. The Not By Chance report (Kagan & Cohen, 1997) summarizes four years of discussions by early childhood and policy experts. They recommend that every person employed in early care and education programs hold an individual license to practice, based on demanding standards of education and training.
Hairdressers in more than 40 states are required to have between 1,000 and 2,100 hours of training at an accredited school to get a license (BeautyTech, 1999). Yet 39 states and the District of Columbia do not require child care providers to have any early childhood training prior to taking children into their homes (Azer & Caprano, 1997).
In the literacy area alone, the 1998 National Research Councils report sets forth a long list of in-depth knowledge and skills that all early childhood educators must have if children are to enter school ready to become successful readers.
The Orton Dyslexia Society calls for all preschool and kindergarten teachers to be able to, at minimum: stimulate oral expressive language, language comprehension, and print awareness; foster phonological awareness and recognition of the links between sounds and letters; and identify language problems of children at risk for reading difficulty. One-shot workshops and minimal training requirements will not be enough to produce the skilled professionals needed to support childrens language and literacy development.
The Need for Coordination
An equally challenging obstacle to the consistent preparation of high-quality early childhood teachers is the isolation and lack of coordination in the early care and education field. Providers range from Head Start teachers to private nursery schools teachers to a neighbor caring for a handful of toddlers. Settings range from family homes and churches to private centers and public preschools. Funding ranges from private to local to state to federal.
This fragmented array of early childhood services has resulted in an inequality of resources and lack of communication about good teaching practices, undermining our commitment to provide high-quality education to all children. Greater coordination is needed at the local level to link this mosaic, share resources, increase access, improve overall care, and foster childrens language and literacy development.
It is not unusual for children entering a single kindergarten class to display a five-year range of literacy skills. Some children may have the reading ability of an 8-year-old, while others may have the language skills of a 3-year-old (Riley, 1996). Although children will always arrive at school with different learning needs, better early education will increase the number of kindergarteners who are ready to become successful readers.
Only by rejecting business as usual and facing up to these many challenges can we take advantage of the tremendous opportunities to improve child literacy through early care and education. Policymakers and early childhood administrators can work actively to support child care teachers and to bolster their contributions to reading success.
Resources for early care and education providers may be found in Reading Resources, Appendix I of this book.
Raising Readers Read to Succeed