Child Care Quality

Substantial gaps between the environments of advantaged children and those of disadvantaged children raise serious concerns about social mobility and the life prospects of the latter. For at least half a century, early childhood interventions have been launched to address this gap. Outcomes have been studied, sometimes extensively.

A CEHD research project organized and synthesized research on a variety of early childhood education and child care programs, including means-tested programs designed for low-income families and universal programs open to all, regardless of income.

This work sought to answer a key question: Are early childhood interventions effective? The answer to this question depends on the quality of the program offered, alternatives available, and their cost.

The evidence shows agreement across studies: there is a strong case for high- quality early childhood education for disadvantaged children. It improves their early-life environments, which boosts early life skills. Because those skills are the foundation for later skills, these interventions are associated with lasting benefits later in life. Such programs have substantial economic and social rates of return

Our analysis shows that disadvantaged children benefit most. In contrast, affluent families do not benefit from public programs aimed at the disadvantaged or median populations, because they generally have access to better quality child care and early education alternatives.

The Importance of Quality

Failure to account for the quality of child care alternatives and the quality of home environments leads to misleading conclusions about program effectiveness. For example, analyses of Head Start that do not consider child care alternatives available to participants in the control group understate the program effects. When these alternatives are factored in, Head Start is shown to have moderate to strong effects on measures of cognitive and noncognitive skills, compared to home care—but not necessarily when compared with other quality center-based child care.

How do we define quality care? Low staff- child ratios, small classroom size, and higher levels of teacher education contribute are common indicators of quality. These factors contribute to the effectiveness of center-based care.

When analyzing the impact of an early childhood program, it’s important to consider not only alternative programs but time spent in the care of the mother or family as possible alternatives. García, Hojman, and Shea (2014) find that on average, time spent with the mother and center-based child care have positive effects that are very similar in magnitude. Policies that provide access to center-based care tend to crowd out maternal time. However, the quality of home interactions can vary markedly for more and less disadvantaged children, so maternal time has strikingly different consequences for more or less disadvantaged children. “Better home environments promote child development, while adverse home environments retard it,” the authors note.

Related Papers

Elango, S., , J. L. Garcia, J. J. Heckman, and A. Hojman (2016). “Early childhood education.” In R. A. Moffitt (Ed.), Economics of Means-Tested Transfer Programs in the United States, Volume 2, Chapter 4, pp. 235-297. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.