Major study finds effects of child care quality linger into the second grade

June 08, 1999

(Embargoed) CHAPEL HILL - A major national study that examined whether quality in child care makes a difference in children's intellectual and social readiness for school showed that indeed it does.

The study revealed that the effects of higher-quality care -- when children from four states were in classes for 3-year-olds -- could still be measured at the end of the second grade. Those effects were strongest among children who were at greater risk of doing poorly in school.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, UCLA, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and Yale University conducted the research and released their findings at a Washington, D.C. news conference Tuesday, June 8. Because of the importance of the results and their policy implications, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley was scheduled to attend and speak at the media briefing.

"In families where both parents work full-time to make ends meet, the children can spend as many waking hours in child care as they do with their parents," Riley said in a prepared statement. "This study underscores the importance of high-quality child care in laying the developmental foundation for every child to enter school ready to learn. I urge policymakers at all levels of government to redouble their efforts to make quality child care opportunities available to hard-working American families."

Dr. Richard Clifford, co-director of the National Center for Early Development and Learning at UNC-CH's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center, and Dr. Ellen Peisner-Feinberg, a researcher at the Graham Center, were principal investigators for the study. UNC-CH served as the coordinating center for this phase of the study.

Beginning in 1993, investigators identified children in 3-year-old classes in typical child-care centers in North Carolina, California, Colorado and Connecticut and then followed their educational progress through the end of the second grade. A total of 418 children from 160 child care classrooms were followed through 2nd grade.

During the first year of the study, researchers rated classroom quality using on-site evaluations of resources, programs, staff, teacher-student interactions and other factors. They then compared each child's academic and social progress over the years with how the child-care classrooms rated in quality. About a quarter of the facilities met investigators' definition of high quality while the rest ranged from average to poor.

"One major finding that is that the quality of care is more important for children whose mothers have low levels of education," Clifford said. "If children both had mothers with less education and were in low-quality child care, then they tended to do much worse in school. Reforms that encourage families to come off welfare can be a particular problem for such children since they encourage families -- often with limited education levels -- to use informal care that frequently is very poor."

Peisner-Feinberg said child care quality continued to affect children's later skills at least through kindergarten and in many cases through second grade.

"Different aspects of care affect children in different ways," she said. "For example, classroom practices relate strongly to language and math skills, while closeness of the relationship with the teacher or care-giver relates more to social skills, both of which are very important for children's readiness for success in school."

After controlling for other factors, specific findings were that among children with good math skills in the second grade, 45 percent attended low-quality centers versus 56 percent who had good care. Among those with fewer behavior problems in the second grade, 42 percent had the lower quality care while 58 percent had the higher. Among children with good language skills, 53 percent attended better centers, while 47 percent attended lower-quality facilities.

A major recommendation from the investigators is that the quality of early childhood care and education programs should be boosted significantly through government and private sector support, tax incentives and improved teacher training.

The research, which cost about $1.3 million, was funded by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the William T. Grant Foundation, the JFM Foundation, the A.L. Mailman Family Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the USWEST Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

The same investigators reported on the initial stage of the study in 1995. That work, which cost $1 million, indicated that one in eight U.S. day care centers puts children's health and safety at risk and more than seven in 10 fail to maximize youngsters' learning potential..

Others involved in the research include Drs. Margaret Burchinal and Noreen Yazejian also of UNC-CH, Mary Culkin of the University of Colorado, Carollee Howes of UCLA and Sharon Lynn Kagan of Yale.
Note: Clifford and Peisner-Feinberg can be reached at 919-962-7321, except on June 8 when they will attend the news conference on the study in Washington, D.C.

Graham Center Contact: Loyd Little, 919-966-0867.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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