“Let’s make it a national priority to give every child in America access to a high-quality early education.”
-President Barack Obama, Feb. 14, 2013 speech in Decatur, Ga.
If there is one thing that should unite us, it is the social and emotional development of our preschool-age children. Still, in our politically polarized society it comes as no surprise that President Obama’s State of the Union call for universally available early childhood education stirred up a hornet’s nest of debate. Partisan genuflection was visible on both sides of the aisle. Those on the right cited studies documenting no lasting benefit from Head Start (sort of) and those on the left praised the president for doubling down on his commitment to helping not only the poor but that elusively defined and electorally essential “middle class.”
The newest focus is a bit of a paradigm shift, and I will admit it concerns me. By re-invigorating this long-standing policy plank in his 2013 State of the Union address and subsequent speeches, Mr. Obama seems to be defining early childhood education as the new first rung in the nation’s formal education ladder.
If a society’s norms define its values, then we have a very real conundrum here. Over the past generation and a half America has created an economically driven paradigm that most often requires both parents in a traditional family setting to work in order to make ends meet. If you have two children and use a childcare provider for two and a half of their first five years, chances are you will spend north of $50,000 paying for such services, even more for infants. So much for starting that college fund.
More striking is the variation in quality of childcare provided. States are charged with establishing minimum standards of care, but those are insufficient indicators of quality to comfort any parent that his or her child is being well and effectively cared for. Locally, organizations like Aspen’s Kid’s First and Glenwood’s Early Childhood Network — where I volunteer as a board member — help to address the quality gap with provider education and other services.
The vicious cycle created by this conundrum affects millions of families. Both parents must work — separating themselves from their children for large chunks of time during their most formative years, in order to meet the economic obligations we have societally foisted upon ourselves. And what of single parent households? The demands are crushing.
Still, even if every child care provider met the highest standards of excellence, and we were willing as a society to pay these providers — who are professional teachers by the way — more than a Starbucks barista, I am stuck wondering. Are we solving a societal problem or merely treating a symptom?
Starting in the early 1990s the Department of Health and Human Services, through the National Institute of Childhood Health and Human Development (there’s a mouthful) commissioned the “NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD): Findings for Children up to Age 4 1/2 Years.” The study was published in 2006. In the words of NICHD Director Dr. Alan Guttmacher, it “examines how differences among families, children and child care features are linked to the intellectual, social and emotional development and health of children.”
The study spent over 10 years evaluating the impacts of various early childhood education and childcare environments on preschool-age children, concluding quite predictably that higher quality childcare environments resulted in better developmental outcomes for children, and helping to springboard a movement toward viewing childcare outside of the home as an imperative.
What the study failed to do was compare its outcomes with a baseline or control group, such as a similar cross section of children who receive their work-day equivalent childcare at home from a parent or relative. While a scientific comparison to outcomes of children raised exclusively at home is lacking, the study toward the end offers the following finding:
“Features of the family and of children’s experiences in their families proved, in general, to be stronger and more consistent predictors of child development than did any aspect of child care.”
In other words, a stable, loving, nurturing home life will have more benefit to any child than the highest quality childcare that could ever be offered by an outside provider. And of course, the opposite is also true — the deleterious impacts of an unstable, unpredictable, un-nurturing home life cannot be counterbalanced by childcare outside of the home, no matter the quality.
So I ask you, if we are willing as a society to spend billions in tax dollars on improving the quality of childcare available outside of the home — which the government concludes is the second-best option — how much money and effort should we devote to pursuing societal changes allowing more preschool-age children to benefit from the best solution, the option available to so few? What would it take to create a society and an economy that encourages parents to care for their children at home? That would really be putting kids first.