High Quality Early Care and Education
UD’s Anamarie Whitaker analyzes how early care and education centers meet quality indicators across the nation
By the end of their first year, an infant’s brain will double in size, and by the age of five, their brain will reach about 90% of its full development. The first five years of a child’s life are a critical time for building the foundations for lifelong academic and social-emotional growth. That’s just one of the reasons why high-quality early care and education (ECE) is so important.
But what determines the quality of ECE and how do ECE centers across the nation meet these quality indicators?
In a study published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, University of Delaware College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) alumna Gerilyn Slicker, of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, CEHD Assistant Professor Anamarie Whitaker and alumna Jing Tang of Child Trends analyzed how over 5,000 ECE centers meet different quality indicators (such as teacher qualifications) put forth by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). They found that, on average, ECE centers met approximately six of nine possible quality benchmarks, given information available in the dataset and only 2.5% of centers met all nine benchmarks.
“While we were surprised at the small percentage of ECE centers meeting all benchmarks, it is important to recognize that each of these quality benchmarks requires financial and time investments by ECE providers,” Whitaker said. “Without adequate public support it may be difficult for programs to meet all benchmarks. Additionally, more research is needed to understand the causal link between each quality benchmark and children’s development. Understanding these relationships will help further tailor public policy to best support high-quality early care and education.”
High-quality early care and education
Much research in the ECE field has demonstrated that emotionally supportive, language-rich interactions with caregivers in a safe and stimulating environment promote literacy development, emotional regulation and social skills, among other benefits.
Dorit Radnai-Griffin, director of CEHD’s Lab School, describes the work of her staff as “foundational,” emphasizing that ECE is not a “siloed” experience, but part of “a continuum” of human development. And, families are increasingly seeking an ECE experience for their children that goes beyond simple caretaking.
Take, for example, parent BethAnn Aupperle, who enrolled all three of her children at the Lab School. “Having worked in early education for years prior to becoming a stay-at-home mom, it was very difficult for me to find a school for my children that I felt met my personal standard for quality education and care,” said Aupperle. “The educational credentials of the teaching team, positive interactions and behavioral support among teachers and children, the staff health and safety training, and the children’s access to quality educational tools and toys are just a few of the checkpoints that were important to me.”
Meeting high-quality benchmarks
Given the importance of ECE, NIEER researchers developed quality benchmarks for state pre-K programs. Using publicly available data from the National Survey of Early Care and Education, Whitaker and her co-authors matched quality indicators in the dataset with those from NIEER (to the best extent possible). They found that the most commonly met benchmarks among ECE centers were teacher-child ratio (with 90% meeting this benchmark), curriculum use (87.4%), developmental screenings for children and referrals to community providers (85.9%), and maximum class size (82.7%).
The least frequently met benchmarks included teacher degree (37.5%) and staff professional development (30.9%). Less than 6% of centers met a total of 0, 1, 2 or 3 benchmarks, but less than 3% of centers met all nine benchmarks examined.
Kelly Freel and Jessica Peace, co-directors of CEHD’s Early Learning Center (ELC), and Radnai-Griffin weren’t surprised to learn that staff professional development was among the least frequently met benchmarks.
As directors of CEHD’s ECE centers, they each prioritize hiring excellent staff and supporting their development. For Freel, “meeting any of these quality indicators is only possible with a great team. They are the very basis of what you build upon, the heart and soul of a center.”
But, Radnai-Griffin emphasizes that it’s difficult for many ECE centers to fund professional development for staff.
“Bringing in a speaker or sending your teachers to conferences is a very expensive endeavor,” Radnai-Griffin said. “School districts have dedicated funds to provide their teachers with various professional development opportunities, but ECE centers may not. At the Lab School and the ELC, we are lucky. We are within a university, we have university resources and other supports. But, for an average ECE program, it’s rough.”
ECE patterns across the nation
Whitaker and her co-authors also identified five groups of centers based on the quality indicators that they met: those with 1) most quality indicators met; 2) smaller classroom ratios, but fewer teacher education and workforce support indicators met; 3) less screening support, but more teacher education and workforce support indicators met; 4) fewest indicators met; and 5) larger teacher-to-student ratios.
Identifying these groups among ECE centers can help policymakers understand the patterns in how centers meet quality indicators, which can then help them develop policies that support centers in allocating their limited human and financial resources.
Whitaker and her co-authors also looked at program, community and policy factors that influenced how different ECE centers tended to meet quality indicators. For example, the location of the center influenced how ECE centers met quality indicators. Centers located in densely populated urban areas were 7.71 times more likely to be in the ECE group with larger class ratios.
“While more research is needed to understand the direct influence of location on quality indicators, we are seeing a tension between a strong demand for ECE and the space and workforce limitations that allow for additional ECE centers,” Whitaker said. “Adding a staff member to a center is a very expensive endeavor, so there are clear cost limitations here as well.”
How policymakers can help
The emergence of these patterns suggests that ECE programs may be making hard decisions about which quality indicators to prioritize, given limited resources and other factors in their communities. For example, an ECE center in a densely-populated, urban area may not prioritize lower teacher-child ratios when reducing those ratios is expensive and there is a great community need for early childhood care.
Given these results, Whitaker and her co-authors emphasize the importance of considering how federal- and state-level support could assist programs in weighing these difficult decisions and allocating resources.
In many ways, Delaware is at the forefront of these efforts. For example, the Delaware Department of Education’s Office of Early Learning now requires all ECE centers to conduct developmental and socioemotional screenings for all children, and the state facilitates the process so that ECE centers do not incur any additional costs. CEHD’s Delaware Institute for Excellence in Early Childhood (DIEEC), led by CEHD Professor Rena Hallam, facilitates training on this system and provides additional professional development for ECE staff across the state.
CEHD is a national leader in supporting the field of ECE. In February 2023, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded CEHD’s DIEEC and five other partners a cooperative agreement to establish and operate the first-of-its-kind National Early Care and Education Workforce Center. With a $30 million investment over five years, the center will provide technical assistance and research to advance the recruitment and retention of a diverse, qualified and effective workforce in early childhood care and education.
“There’s a foundation of advocates in Delaware that have been pushing ECE research for some time, and policymakers have been listening,” Freel said. “That’s a true credit to professionals out in the field and to researchers like Anamarie Whitaker that help tie all of the pieces together. People are finally able to connect the dots — that low child-teacher ratios, child screenings, quality curriculum, high-quality teachers and a program that can support all of those pieces are essential for early childhood outcomes.”
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Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and courtesy of Anamarie Whitaker.