We conclude this report by returning to primary questions raised in the report: Does child care quality matter? Does child care quality need to be improved, and can it be improved? Is there an economic justification for public intervention to improve the quality of child care, especially for children from lower-income families? Our answer to each of these questions is “yes.”
Does Child Care Quality Matter?
Our review of the research literature indicates that child care quality “matters” at several levels. In terms of children’s everyday experiences, children appear happier and more cognitively engaged in settings in which caregivers are interacting with them positively and in settings in which child:adult ratios are lower. There also is evidence of concurrent relations between child care quality and children’s performance in other settings. Children who attend higher-quality child care settings (measured by caregiver behaviors, by physical facilities, by age-appropriate activities, and by structural and caregiver characteristics) display better cognitive, language, and social competencies on standardized tests and according to parents, teachers, and observers. Finally, there is evidence that child care quality is related to children’s subsequent competencies. The relationship is more evident when cumulative measures of child care quality are analyzed, rather than one-time assessments, and when quality and child outcome measures have strong psychometric properties.
Two general approaches to measuring child care quality were described in this report. Process quality refers to children’s experiences in child care settings. Some process measures focus specifically on caregivers’ behaviors with children. Others include global ratings that incorporate physical facilities and age-appropriate child activities as well as caregiver behavior into their evaluation. Multisite studies suggest considerable need for improvement of process quality in the United States. Although less than 10 percent of process quality has been categorized as “inadequate” or “poor,” most settings have been characterized as only “fair” or “minimal.” These observations indicate the need for systematic efforts to improve a substantial portion of child care in the United States.
A second way of measuring child care quality is in terms of structural and caregiver characteristics, such as child:adult ratio, group sizes, teacher formal education, and teacher specialized training. There is an extensive research literature linking structural and caregiver characteristics to process quality. A review of regulatory standards in the 50 states shows that few states have adopted standards that are consistent with the recommendations of professional organizations. Furthermore significant hyperlink, reports from nationally representative surveys indicate that average group sizes and ratios exceed recommended standards. Recent evidence suggests a decline in the educational background of staff during the 1990s, perhaps as a result of low wages. Thus, it appears that child care structural and caregiver characteristics are in need of improvement. They can be improved if additional resources are allocated. This could occur through a combination of increased subsidies for care, especially to low-income families; federal standards and/or increased state standards for both physical settings and caregiver training and child:staff ratios, improved information to parents on the quality of providers, and/or direct provision or expansion of child care in schools.
Is There an Economic Justification for Public Intervention to Improve the Quality of Child Care, Especially for Children from Lower-Income Families?
Market failure, the presence of externalities, and an argument for equality of opportunity all call for public sector intervention in the child care market. The primary form of market failure is the lack of information for parents regarding quality of care which is tied to the difficulty in measuring quality, the lack of availability of high quality care, and the need for child care for irregular hours such as weekend and late shifts.