EarlyStories examined some suggested new rules for Head Start recently, and now a leading expert on early childhood is lauding the Obama administration in a Washington Post op-ed for proposing a new system he says could force much-needed improvements to the $8 billion program for 3- and 4-year-olds. The op-ed makes it clear that what happens before children set foot in a public-school classroom is an integral part of the national debate on education.
“A substantial number of Head Start programs are so ineffective that they do little or nothing to boost child development and learning,” said W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families, co-authored the op-ed with Barnett.
Center leaders have not entirely welcomed the proposals. Some are worried that competition would be costly, and could create more uncertainty and possibly chaos. Large centers have expressed concerns that they’ll be singled out simply because their size could lead to more problems.
The Post piece comes as a new, must-read collection of papers assessing federal policies for early childhood education and child care was released by NIEER, entitled “Investing in Young Children: New Directions in Federal Preschool and Early Childhood Policy.”
The recession is taking its toll and jeopardizing expansion of early childhood in some states, so it was interesting to read this week about effort to ramp up the quality of current programs.
The issue of quality is a huge one for child care and early education programs. Professor Sharon Lynn Kagan of Teachers College consults with early childhood programs around the world, and when she speaks about the U.S. she often points out how few programs are of high quality — meaning well-funded, with trained staffs and teachers, a well thought out curriculum and clear standards.
In California, there are some new efforts to create a child-care rating system based on the education of staff, the way adults interact with children and parental involvement in a program, according to a recent story.
And Massachusetts this week moved a step closer to creating a system to evaluate the quality of programs and provide incentives for them to approve, according to a story in the “eye on early education,” blog, which notes that 21 states are piloting a program that defines standards for four levels of quality. Creating such a system is important for Massachusetts, where 92 percent of all children under the age of 7 are regularly cared for by someone who is not a family member, according a recent brief.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently released the Child Care Quality Rating System (QRS) Assessment: Compendium of Quality Rating Systems and Evaluations, a helpful document for journalists or anyone who is looking at the critical issue of child care services and programs.
One of the most frustrating and difficult aspects of early childhood education — and child care — in the U.S. is the lack of quality. Advocates and academics alike have called for all kinds of ways to improve pre-school programs with higher standards . They’ve called for better teacher training and higher standards for day care and other programs. Last week, a federally funded study shed light on why the issue is so important: The study found that low-quality care in the first few years of a child’s life can impact learning and behavior all the way through adolescence.
The study tracked more than a thousand children from birth through age 15, and suggested that more time in child care outside the home meant more risky behavior by the age of 15, among other things. The children in higher-quality care scored higher on tests of cognitive and academic achievement than peers in lower-quality care.
It’s not always easy for journalists — or the public — to understand how high quality child care centers and givers differ. so here’s a helpful quote from Margaret Burchinal, a senior scientist involved in the study who did a Q and A with The Washington Post to discuss the findings.
“High quality child care included caregivers who were responsive and sensitive with the target child,” Burchinal said. “They talked frequently with that child, and provided learning experiences that were fun and appropriate for children that age.”
Low quality care “involved a setting in which the caregiver did not interact often with the children and, when he/she did, tended to be harsh and critical.”
What should happen after a child is dropped off at a child care center? It’s a question that can be answered in thousands of different ways because the quality of care is so uneven in the U.S.
This week, Oregon became one of six states chosen by the National Governors Association to serve as model for high quality care through a new set of standards that will at first be voluntary, according to a story in The Oregonian.
So what will good standards look like? One example is a program that measures how 3- and 4-year-olds pay attention during story time. Can they retell a story they have read? Can they answer questions about characters and plot development?
If the child cannot, the day care providers should be working on those skills. Pre-reading, math, social development and the arts will also be part of the state’s new day care standards.
Setting of standards is a sign of real progress, but it’s just the beginning of the story. Can child care providers follow them? And are children progressing as a result? Can they be enforced?
With so little reporting of early childhood issues and education in the mainstream media, it was refreshing to see a Pulitzer Prize go to a reporter for her coverage of fraud and abuse within a taxpaper financed child-care system.
The award went to Raquel Rutledge of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a story that started, like so many stories do, with an e-mail tip after the death of 4-month-old who died in an unattended van in front of a day care center.
The series, “Cashing in on Kids,” exposed poor oversight of the state’s subsidized child-care system and ultimately prompted criminal charges and new laws after prosecutors filed criminal charges against day care providers.
Parents and child-care providers. Rutledge found, manage to con the $340 million Wisconsin Shares child-care subsidy program; rules and regulations that were rarely enforced made it possible for the system to be abused in ways that appeared to be legal.
According to the Journal Sentinel, in the aftermath of the story, “county and city law enforcement agencies have formed task forces to look for fraud. Government workers lost their jobs, and state regulators cut public funding to about 130 providers suspected of abusing the program.”
It’s rare to see such programs probed and exposed. Too often, what happens in the critical years before a child enters school gets ignored by the press. Rutledge showed what a mistake that can be.
More than half a million children school-aged and younger are suddenly stranded at home due to swine flu concerns, leaving parents who in many cases are already experiencing financial hardship scrambling. On very quick notice, they must find alternative child care settings or leave children home alone because they can’t miss work. As the New York Daily News pointed out, parents who work in hourly-wage jobs or who are off the books are hurt the most because they can’t easily take time off.
The sudden and mysterious spread of the virus is exposing the lack of back-up care and safety nets for families throughout the U.S. With schools closed amid fear of spreading disease, alternative child care settings aren’t easily arranged. In Texas, children were fighting cabin fever earlier this month while their schools were being disinfected.
Some 14,000 New York City children are home this week and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked companies to show some flexibility and allow parents to take time off if they can; he’s said that decisions to close schools must be weighed with inconvenience to families.
Texas families have been scrambling as well, with many schools closed for two weeks. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has urged teachers and parents to continue learning at home, via a series of government websites described here.
The National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies compiled resources for families, but the emergency situation many find themselves in now won’t be solved by a web site. It’s not entirely clear that closing schools will stop the spread of flu, but one thing is clear: once schools are shut down, working parents have to find instant child care solutions for as long as the doors remain shut.
In the past, working parents had to rely heavily on word-of-mouth to learn the reputation of child-care homes and centers. In many instances they still do, but some states are now providing an online record system that in the best cases provide details on problems that can range from discipline to cleanliness and safety measures, according to an article in the Washington Post that looks at what both Maryland and Virginia are doing.
Twenty-two states now post online inspections and complaint records, and Early Stories would love to see newspapers delve into these databases and publish the results, which could go a long way toward helping working parents make the best decisions — and could push providers to clean up their acts.
EarlyStories has been keeping a close eye on how small children are faring in the worsening economy, and applauding the efforts of journalists who report on the connection. A story in the Detroit News took note of how auto industry woes and rising unemployment are hurting child care providers in a state where the jobless rate has reached 9.6 percent. — the highest monthly rate since 1992.
Child care centers in Michigan are cutting staff and reducing payroll hours and more children are remaining at home or in scattered child care arrangements that threaten their sense of security and could lead to emotional problems down the road, the story notes.
Other journalists, including Donna St. George of the Washington Post, have discovered troubling trends such as the large numbers of children who have been pulled out of child care arrangements and left to fend for themselves at home. It’s an example of a sad and frightening education trend that has society-wide implications.
The tough times provide an opportunity for education journalists to connect the work they do with the broader economic troubles their communities are facing, including the youngest and most vulnerable.
Could cookies, milk and sandbox play give way to a regime of veggie sticks and jumping jacks?
Paige Parker of the Oregonian notes that food and exercise regimes may be the last thing on the minds of parents looking for day care. But perhaps they shouldn’t be. One third of 2- to 5-year-olds enrolled in a state nutrition program in Oregon are overweight or obese in a state where about 53 percent of children younger than 5 are in child care settings, Parker reports.
Oregon officials have come to believe they can reduce obesity rates by targeting the way children eat and exercise outside of their own homes. A statewide obesity prevention task force is recommending the upcoming Legislature require state agencies to develop standards for healthy eating, along with the amount of time spent engaged in physical activity or in front of a screen while in child care settings.
Part of their thinking may have been influenced by a study of South Carolina children that found kids in child care settings were sedentary, on average, for 42 minutes of every hour.
They engaged in a little less than eight minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each hour — the equivalent of one hour of heart thumping activity for an eight-hour day, says Stewart Trost, one of the study’s authors and now an Oregon State University professor.
Nationally, 26 percent of children that age are overweight or at risk of being overweight, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2006. So it is worthwhile finding out if any other states will follow Oregon’s example. Journalists have been on top of the trend of public schools providing healthier lunches for students in elementary schools and beyond, but are any other states trying to put their youngest charges on a diet?
The story Donna St. George of the Washington Post wrote just before Christmas serves as a powerful reminder about ways parents are sacrificing their children’s education and safety in this troubled economy.
St. George found more children are being left home alone because their parents can no longer afford child care, and documented a spike in complaints about unregulated and informal day-care providers that operate illegally.
The trend St. George reported in the Washington D.C. region and surrounding suburbs is one every journalist who covers early childhood issues can examine in the communities they cover. Good sources include social service commissioners and child care operators who might report a new rise in vacancies among parents who can no longer afford to pay. St. George found more examples of children left alone from housing code enforcers who in one case found a kindergarten student hiding in a closet.
Families of all income levels are experiencing difficulty,as Albert Wat points out in “The Pre-K Pinch,” an excellent resource for journalists.
St. George followed up with yet another powerful story a few days later: child welfare workers are also seeing a marked increase in child abuse and neglect cases in the worsening economy.