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April 1, 2003
Vol. 60
No. 7

Integrating Early Care and Education

We can realize our hopes for young children by developing a comprehensive infrastructure and system to support their early care and education.

Integrating Early Care and Education - thumbnail
Basics have arrived full force in early child care and education. As policymakers expand their investments in education for young children, they expect youngsters to meet standards, master preliteracy and prenumeracy skills, and be ready for school.
So prevalent are these sentiments that White House conferences, the media, and fresh legislation are promoting standards, outcomes, skills, and assessment for young children. Awash with good intentions, this orientation has also, however unintentionally, obfuscated another set of basics that is crucial to the successful functioning of early care and education programs.
These hidden basics are the infra-structure and the system necessary for effective early care and education. Infrastructurerefers to the supports that are essential to child care and preschool programs and other direct services to children and families, such as health and parenting education. These supports include finance, governance, accountability, professional development and training, appropriate regulations, quality-assurance mechanisms, and dissemination of information.
System is a broader term that encompasses both the infrastructure of supports and the direct early care and education services that children and families receive. Systems make the parts function by eliminating redundancies and maximizing efficiencies. Without a uniform definition of a system and infrastructure for early care and education, achieving the desired outcomes for children will not be possible.

What's the Problem?

In recent years, investments in early care and education for children under 5 years old have dramatically increased at both the federal and state levels. Using the 2002 value of the dollar as a constant, federal expenditures on direct services for early care and education increased from about $8.8 billion to $16.3 billion between 1992 and 2001 (Barnett & Masse, 2003). At the state level, total spending for child development and family support efforts has increased by almost 90 percent since 1998. In 2000, state investments alone totaled more than $3.7 billion, a dramatic increase over a mere two-year period (Cauthen, Knitzer, & Ripple, 2000).
Despite this rapid and significant infusion of funds, many educators are concerned about the quality of services and their ability to yield and sustain the outcomes desired by policymakers (Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes [CQO] Study Team, 1995; Galinsky, Howes, Kontos, & Shinn, 1994; Kagan & Cohen, 1997). These concerns raise crucial questions: How can quality be low when policymakers are increasing investments, funding many quality initiatives, and accrediting many centers and programs—and when parents are paying such high costs for early childhood programs? There are two answers to these challenging questions.

Insufficient Funds

First, and most important, the financial resources spent on child care are still insufficient to cover the actual cost of establishing quality programs (CQO Study Team, 1995). Unlike other nations with which the United States is routinely compared, U.S. public investment in early care and education remains distressingly low (Meyers & Gornick, 2000; Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD], 2001). In other developed countries, parents' fees typically cover 25 to 30 percent of the costs of child care, with the government picking up the rest of the tab (OECD, 2001). By contrast, parents in the United States carry the burden of roughly 60 percent of the costs of early care and education; the U.S. government pays a much smaller share of the costs than do other countries. The first crucial issue, then, is how little the U.S. government spends on young children.

Insufficient Attention to Quality

Second, we do not allocate our resources wisely. Historically, policymakers have targeted our public investments in early care and education toward offering direct services (Head Start, for example) to children and families and providing subsidies to reduce the fees paid by parents who use child care. We have paid less attention to nurturing quality.
Investments in quality—such as better wages, regulations, quality control, and accountability—remain modest despite unequivocal data that confirm the importance of these quality elements and despite the requirements of Head Start and the Child Care and Development Fund that money be set aside for ensuring quality.
For example, even though many studies have found that states with more stringent regulations have higher-quality child care in centers (CQO Study Team, 1995; Howes, Smith, & Galinsky, 1995) and in family child care homes (Galinsky, Howes, Kontos, & Shinn, 1994), only a few states have invested in strengthening their regulations. And even though we have learned that wage enhancements relate directly to better program quality (Bell, Burton, Shukla, & Whitebook, 1997), wages have increased only for those working on special (albeit worthwhile) projects—such as the Child Care WAGE$ project in three states—rather than for all those involved in early child care and education.
Similarly, even though research has found that programs accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) pay higher staff wages, report lower teacher turnover, and have retained twice as many staff members over the past decade as nonaccredited programs (Whitebook, Howes, & Phillips, 1998), and even though 31 states pay a higher per-child reimbursement rate to accredited programs, only four states actually require the accreditation of state prekindergarten programs (NAEYC, 2002). Finally, even though we know that quality curriculum and pedagogy are essential for successful child outcomes, only recently have educators begun advocating for credentialed personnel (Bowman, Donovan, & Burns, 2001; Kagan & Cohen, 1997).
Rather than focusing all new dollars on direct services and demand-driven subsidies, policymakers would stand a far better chance of enhancing quality if they devoted a portion—around 10 percent—of these investments to supporting the infrastructure and building a durable, coordinated system of early care and education (Gallagher & Clifford, 2000; Kagan & Cohen, 1997; OECD, 2001). Earmarking 10 percent of early care and education funds directly for developing infrastructure (Kagan & Cohen, 1997) would still allow states plenty of flexibility to determine how to allocate the money to meet local needs. Even with such earmarking, however, the states' inconsistent definitions of the system and infrastructure of early childhood care and education would continue to pose a challenge to developing quality.

Why Develop a System?

We often think of schools as part of a system—a school system—but we seldom think of early care and education functioning in the context of a system, even in an era when policymakers draw so many parallels between compulsory K–12 education and early childhood education.
Although the notion of a system of early care and education is not common, scholars and practitioners during the past decade have begun to conceptualize and call for increased attention to infrastructure and systems (Essential Functions and Change Strategies Task Force, 1993; Gallagher & Clifford, 2000; Kagan & Cohen, 1997; OECD, 2001; Sugarman, 1991).
In practice, however, most emerging systems of early care and education have little in common. Each state, each leader, and each policymaker seems to be etching a different definition. The advantage of such differences in interpretation is that states have flexibility as they craft their policies, can glean workable strategies and ideas from others, and make comparisons of the different efforts.
The disadvantages of this lack of a common definition of systems of early care and education, however, are more numerous. Without clear direction, policy initiatives often focus on one element (such as wage increases) of the system one year and on another element (such as accreditation) the next year. Lacking a widely accepted definition of a system, policymakers have no organized way to ascertain whether a system addresses all of the elements necessary for success. And as initiatives develop episodically in different states, inequities in system building emerge. Some states are quite advanced, whereas others have not begun to turn their attention to system building. Indeed, the same kind of unsystematic, chaotic development that has characterized the development of early childhood programs now characterizes emerging early childhood systems.

Promising Developments

State efforts to build early childhood systems are increasing but remain uneven across the United States. Thirty states report some efforts to build early childhood systems, which represents a substantial increase over the 16 states that reported such systems-level initiatives in 1998 (Cauthen et al., 2000). But how coordinated and comprehensive are these efforts, really?
  • Rhode Island's RIteCare Health Insurance provides health insurance for the staff of child care centers with programs serving children whose care is subsidized by the state.
  • Hawaii has established its Good Beginnings Alliance, a statewide public-private partnership that works to plan and coordinate services for young children.
  • South Carolina's First Steps to School Readiness program has established public-private partnership boards in every county to assess local needs and develop strategic planning.
  • In Kentucky, the Governor's Early Childhood Initiative has created an early childhood development authority to oversee and administer funding, community councils to assess local needs, and a business council to promote private sector involvement in early childhood issues.
These and other similar efforts show that states are increasingly supporting parts of the infrastructure. Because of the U.S. penchant to legislate incrementally and to invest in direct services, this progress has not been easy and warrants praise. Nonetheless, only a few of these efforts address the entire system. Although addressing one, two, or even three components of the infra-structure is better than addressing none, partial efforts will not render the kind of quality improvement needed in the long term.
More robust gains are possible with a coordinated combination of improvements. North Carolina's multifaceted approach provides an excellent example. Through a variety of regulatory changes and special projects, North Carolina has reaped significant improvements in child outcomes (Smart Start Evaluation Team, 2000). Its Smart Start project promotes comprehensive county partnerships between public and private organizations that plan and make decisions regarding early childhood education in their counties. And its Teacher Education and Compensation Helps (TEACH) project, now being replicated in other states, promotes professional development and compensation of early childhood staff (www.childcareservices.org). Finally, regulatory improvements have strengthened the quality of early care and education settings. Together, these and other efforts in North Carolina have produced positive results. Lessons from North Carolina and theoretical work on systems development show the importance of addressing the entire system instead of just parts of child care and education.
  • Delaware, in its Early Success effort, developed a long-range blueprint that is helping the state move incrementally toward the enactment of a comprehensive system of services (Early Success Steering Committee, 2000).
  • Massachusetts has developed a similar, comprehensive plan (Massachusetts Department of Education, 2001), as have North Carolina and California (Mitchell, Stoney, & Dichter, 2001).
  • New York State's education legislation has identified six crucial elements of universal prekindergarten: universal access, diversity, collaboration, developmentally appropriate practice, teacher preparation, and financing (Lekies & Cochran, 2001).
These states have a mandate to move beyond programs to systemic, long-term planning that defines and envisions an entire system of early care and education.

Achieving the Vision

We are a long way from implementing all components of an early care and education system. But if we look back just a few years, the ideas of system and infrastructure were not even in the lexicon. Today, armed with better research and greater public support than ever before, we sit on the cusp of making decisions that will affect the future of early care and education and the life chances of millions of youngsters in the United States for years to come. The sidebar on page 62 identifies eight desirable components of a system for early care and education.
  • Create a vision and state plan. This requisite first step requires an honest assessment of existing programs and projects to identify where work is necessary. The group undertaking this task should have a broad base, with K–12 school administrators heavily involved in the decision-making process.
  • Develop a strategy and time line for implementation. Align the implementation strategy with legislative initiatives over a period of years. Establish legislative priorities and time lines, with benchmarks for accomplishment to track progress.
  • Build on current strengths to build public and political will. At the state and local levels, school administrators can provide valuable leadership for garnering the strong public and political will necessary to expand public investment in a coherent system for prekindergarten.
  • Foster partnerships with K–12 education. Some state prekindergarten programs, such as those in Georgia and New York, have fostered partnerships with K–12 schools. School administrators can promote joint teacher training, align curriculum standards, implement transition plans across early childhood and elementary education, and publicly support initiatives for strengthening early childhood regulations and professional development.
  • Engage legislators, business leaders, and the media in the process. Once decision makers have a clear understanding of needs and the reasons for them, obtaining funds for an early childhood system may be less difficult. The media can help explain to both the public and the decision makers how an infrastructure provides crucial support for a system of quality services (Gallagher & Clifford, 2000).
We need to settle for nothing less than a comprehensive plan that will create a system of early care and education founded on a clear and coherent vision for children and families. We will never achieve the basics that policymakers are calling for until we establish a basic infrastructure and system for early care and education.

Eight Components of a System for Early Care and Education

  • Support and foster the effective use of materials, curriculum, and pedagogy, including multi-age and flexible grouping of children, effective staff deployment, attentiveness to cultural and linguistic variation, and appropriate balance between academic and play activities.

  • Foster concerted attention to children's physical and mental health by providing appropriate screenings, immunizations, and services.

  • Provide incentives to encourage early care and education services to participate in accreditation and in other quality-enhancement efforts.

  • Foster ongoing relationships with schools, resource and referral agencies, and other community services.

  • Support family child care and family child care networks.

  • Define appropriate results across all domains of development, with appropriate benchmarks. Include parents and professionals in defining such results.

  • Establish data-collection mechanisms that consider the ages and abilities of young children.

  • Establish appropriate safeguards so that data collected will not be used to label, track, or stigmatize young children.

  • Support parents as consumers, ensuring that parents have options in early care.

  • Provide incentives for U.S. businesses to be family-friendly in their policies and practices and provide community support for early care and education.

  • Increase community awareness of early care and education.

  • Credential all who work with young children. Licensing of facilities should be separate from the credentialing of individuals.

  • Create the credentialing system and compensate teachers accordingly.

  • Create credentials for administrators, directors, master teachers, and leaders.

  • Ensure that all certification and teacher preparation programs are up-to-date and focused on developmentally appropriate outcomes.

  • Ensure that the professional development content and incentives for administrators, directors, and master teachers are appropriate for their diverse roles and responsibilities.

  • Foster the development of leadership in all sectors of the early care and education system.

  • Eliminate exemptions. Ensure that all programs serving young children are subject to state regulation.

  • Streamline, coordinate, and adequately fund facility licensing.

  • Create or support the development of national licensing standards that states can use as guidelines.

  • Identify the costs of a quality system. Include the cost of funding the infrastructure and the full cost of care.

  • Ensure that staff compensation in early care and education is commensurate with that of public schools, given equal education and experience of staff.

  • Identify both short- and long-term revenue sources.

  • Develop a long-term financing plan. Create a time line for its implementation.

  • Establish state governance mechanisms. Create boards, cabinets, or other structures that take responsibility for oversight of early care and education through planning, assessment, distribution of resources, and agenda setting.

  • Create local mechanisms to coordinate the delivery of services; ensure the effective use of funds and provision for the infrastructure; and coordinate these efforts.

Adapted from Not by Chance: Creating an Early Care and Education System for America's Children. © 1997 Sharon L. Kagan. Published by Yale University Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy. Printed with permission.


Barnett, W. S., & Masse, L. (2003). Funding issues for early care and education in the United States. In D. Cryer & R. Clifford (Eds.), Early childhood education and care in the USA (pp. 137–166). Baltimore: Brookes.

Bell, D., Burton, A., Shukla, R., & Whitebook, M. (1997). Making work pay in the child care industry: Promising practices for improving compensation. Washington, DC: National Center for the Early Childhood Work Force.

Bowman, B., Donovan, M. S., & Burns, M. S. (2001). Eager to learn: Educating our preschoolers. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council.

Cauthen, N., Knitzer, J., & Ripple, C. (2000). Map and track: State initiatives for young children and families. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty.

Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes Study Team. (1995). Cost, quality, and child outcomes in child care centers: Technical report. Denver, CO: Center for Research in Economic and Social Policy, University of Denver.

Early Success Steering Committee. (2000, January). Early success: Creating an early care and education system for Delaware's children. Wilmington, DE: Author.

Essential Functions and Change Strategies Task Force. (1993). Quality 2000: The essential functions of the early care and education system: Rationale and definition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy.

Galinsky, E., Howes, C., Kontos, S., & Shinn, M. (1994). The study of children in family child care and relative care. New York: Families and Work Institute.

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Howes, C., Smith, E., & Galinsky, E. (1995). The Florida child care quality improvement study. New York: Families and Work Institute.

Kagan, S. L., & Cohen, N. (1997). Not by chance: Creating an early care and education system for America's children. New Haven, CT: Yale University Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy.

Lekies, K., & Cochran, M. (2001). Collaborating for kids: New York state universal prekindergarten, 1999–2000. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

Massachusetts Department of Education. (2001). Securing our future: Planning what we want for our youngest children. Malden, MA: Author.

Meyers, M., & Gornick, J. (2000). Cross-national variation in service organization and financing. In S. B. Kamerman (Ed.), Early childhood education and care: International perspectives (pp. 141–176). New York: Columbia Institute for Child and Family Policy.

Mitchell, A., Stoney, L., & Dichter, H. (2001). Financing child care in the United States. Kansas City, MO: Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2002). State policies on accreditation and tiered reimbursement[Online]. Available:www.naeyc.org/childrens_champions/statepolicies.asp

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD]. (2001). Starting strong: Early childhood education and care. Paris: Author.

Smart Start Evaluation Team. (2000). Smart Start services and successes. Annual report 1999–2000. Chapel Hill, NC: Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill.

Sugarman, J. (1991). Building early childhood systems. Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America.

Whitebook, M., Howes, C., & Phillips, D. (1998). Worthy work, unlivable wages: The National Child Care Staffing Study, 1988–1997. Washington, DC: Center for the Child Care Workforce.

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