First Do No Harm: It’s Time to Address Our Quality Problem

In the next several years, those of us who believe government policies can and should help children and families are going to be in a tough fight.  We need to be clear that this is not so much a fight for money as it is a fight for learning and development — a fight to ensure that every child has a chance to get in the game and compete on a level playing field in economic, social, and political life. The problem is, we can’t fully meet this challenge as long as we abide, and even seem to endorse, early childhood programs that don’t support learning and development.

In the last several years, a number of studies have found that child care subsidies negatively impact child development.  This finding is particularly disturbing because we know that good early care and education enhances child development.  So why all the bad news?  A quick look at the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Birth Cohort study, commonly called ECLS-B, provides some insights.  At age 2, 12 percent of children in poverty were in center-based care.   More than twice as many, 27 percent, were in home-based (nonparental) care.  Unfortunately, two-thirds of that home-based care was poor quality and virtually none of it was good.  Center-based care was much better, relatively speaking.  Only 15 percent was poor quality and 20 percent good or better.  With those numbers it should come as no surprise that children from low-income families are not benefiting from, and may even be harmed by, home-based care as it is currently provided.

Child care subsidy policy in the United States is designed to get the unemployed, mostly women, into the labor force as cheaply as possible and encourages the use of low-cost home-based care over centers.  In other words, federal and state child care policies increase the numbers of children from low-income families in poor quality early learning environments.  At the same time, they have little effect on labor force participation.  This is the policy equivalent of shooting ourselves in the head, given the importance of early learning and development for later school success and achievement.  It also reinforces inequality and the cycle of poverty.  We need to turn these policies around now.

The State Early Learning Advisory Councils that have recently been formed provide an opportunity to do just that beginning with three actions.

  • First, the Councils can collect data on the quality of early learning for infants and toddlers that will reveal just how bad the problem is state by state.  This information can help bring the problem to the attention of the general public and elected officials.
  • Second, the Councils can recommend policy changes that will increase quality and tie public subsidies to quality.  Ideally, public subsidies should only go to care providers of good or better quality.  This will take some time, but every state should be able to eliminate subsidies for poor quality care entirely within five years.  No government should encourage the use of poor quality care.
  • Third, the Councils should produce estimates of the costs of ensuring that (a) no subsidized care is of poor quality and (b) all subsidized care is good or better.

Given the tough budget decisions facing states and the federal government, the question is, are these recommendations realistic?  I believe they are. Frankly, if we accept the view that we can only afford poor quality care, we might as well give up subsidies altogether.  We should face the fact that we may do more harm than good by subsidizing poor quality care, and we should stop it.  Moreover, we are in a weak position to oppose cutbacks when quality is not “job one.”  Some members of Congress already have proposed rolling back spending for child care subsidies and Early Head Start to 2008 levels.  Without a floor on care quality, it is much easier to hide the consequences of funding cuts because the amount per child can be cut without reducing the number of children served.  In anticipation, each State Advisory Council should have in hand figures for the number of subsidized children who can be supported in adequate care with the current funding and the number who can be supported in adequate care if funding is rolled back to 2008 levels.

If we are willing to condone spending public dollars on poor quality care, we can’t convincingly make our case for additional funding.  It is just about the money at that point, and even if we win, our children lose.   Let’s take the option of poor quality care off the child care subsidy table.

Steve Barnett,

Co-director, NIEER


  1. Steve,

    Thank you for calling attention to the need to fight for quality, not simply more money to underwrite the cost of “just any” quality child care. The line of demarcation amongst the advocates for early childhood care and education has always been the need for the most child care spaces vs. the need for high-quality care. I agree that it makes no sense to continue paying for subsidies that simply encourage the same providers to continue providing care that is less than optimal. I also agree that a state by state approach to assessing the cost of quality, because we all know that geography plays a big part in the cost of care. But, overall, wouldn’t it be lovely to see some national child care standards?

    Thanks again, Steve! Well done, as always.

    Fran Simon, M.Ed.

    • Steve and Fran, thank you so much for finally bringing attention to the QUALITY of the childcare. It’s about time someone speaks about it. The quality of care is so important to map the rest of a child’s life for good and for bad, that it can’t be ignored. I am tired of the childcare centers operating as they are babysitting service on a shoestring budget. The staff isn’t educated enough or just careless. They are not mapping the child’s future in a good way, but in a not so good one. The quality childcare has to be the nurturing experience to help children grow and blossom. The childcare center which want to withstand the quality has to be concern about their staff professionalism and intelligence, their desire to teach and love children. I am tired of people, who work in the centers and do not love children they teach. If they don’t love, they don’t care enough. would you agree?
      In conclusion I would like to say: Away with the mediocre care, rethink the regulations from the stand point of a human life, think globally and act locally. It may sound like a clishe, but it work in my house. What I am trying to say, that Early Childhood Education HAS to be viewed and considered as an foundation for the rest of a human life. We talk a lot about respect, but little what schools and day cares exersizing respect for a child or even a baby. Away with the teachers, who are there only to collect the paycheck.

  2. Totally agree! This sounds a bit like some of same concerns and solutions as those brought forward in “waiting for superman”. Maybe we are on to something and maybe we as early educators will have the opportunity to be pioneers and pave the way. Allowing only quality centers and individuals to have the important role and responsibility of caring for our children.

  3. Charla Harrison on

    I am so glad you wrote this article. There are many in-home child care providers in the small towns and cities in my region here in the deep South. These women will attend free child care classes offered by a DHS sponsored agency. During these classes we often have frank class discussions. I am shocked about what some of these in-home child care providers will say about how they “discipline” their children. They’ll put these kids in an emptied closet as a “time out” roon. They’ll hit the kids with fly swatters and small brooms (these objects won’t leave a mark on the child) and they’ll “thwack” the kid behind the ear with their index finger and thumb. These women seem to be modeling their “teaching styles” from their own strict, and controlling mothers. I’m not saying that all in-home child care providers behave like this, but it is troubling how many child care workers routinely use corporal punishment in the effort to control the children left in their care. All you have to do is sign up for some CDA or Child Development classes at a community college and you will meet plenty of women who want to be licensed to care for children in their homes. Unfortunately, you’ll meet more than a few who have already decised that they’re going to aggressively use power-assertive discipline methods to keep these children under control.

  4. Charla Harrison on

    PS I reget that I posted my remarks with checking for typographical errors. I’m usually alot more caregul. It’s just that this subject is close to my heart as I work for an agency that deals with disadvantaged children living in poverty. Sometimes I visit homes where the mother cares for children from other families. The Mom will have four high chairs all lined up with the toddlers and infants securely strapped into their seats. They’ll all be lined up in front of a TV with a Soap Opera playing or some adult cable TV program. The Mom will explain that “this is my favorite show and we’re all watching it!” How sad….

    • What????? Charla, are you serious, they let kids watch ADULT programs and soaps????? Unheardof!!! You kknow, I thought that I am at that age, when I couldn’t be suprised by anything anymore, but never the less I am and horrified at the same time. Those people have to be uncertified and go look for another job or something. Awfull, just awfull. The same nightmare is going on in the childcare centers in Ohio. Teachers in here are being paid sooo little, that directors are havingq hard time recruting emploees, so they are hiring whoever is willing to work for a small pay checks. Most of the time those peopls are totally incompitent, not intelligent at all and simply don’t care.
      i remeber working with one young gayle, who left the baby on a changing table unsuppervised, withough the strapes attached on a very high changing table ad walked away. She did it 3 times, 3…. Administration didnt do a thing about it, but they didn’t want me to play the piano to the children, in case I will “brake” the poor thing! cheese!!! I am sik and tired of the childcare centers enrolling too many children and then treating them as the conveier lines, without any human touch or compassion and tramatizing the poor kids in a process. It brings pain to my heart to watch this. That’s the reason , I stopped working in the childcare centers and openned my own small childcare at home, where kids will be respected, loved, educated and continuasly praised. I wan to look on those people who said that we shouldn’t be praising kids but just observe what theyt are doing. Who STUPIT that is. Praise is the engine that helpes the child grow and blossom, it’s like the water for flowers. There is a book about it and the 2 women, who wrote the bok own a childcare center and the school. Oh, i don’t know any more, something needs to be done about it and soon!!! Oh and the internet, oh that culprit is the worst, I was looking for some childcare websites the other day to improve my ow site and find something that i don’t wnat ot talk about. Of course i reported it right away, but gally, doesanybody monitoring thosse things or it’s too big to be monitored. i don’t know. anyway, we have to speak up and soon and loud. i will participate all I can.
      Please let me know.
      Let’s look on the children as HUMAN BEINGS, but smaller then ourselves.

  5. Muhammad Israr on

    Dear all
    Plz start the Preschooling process in your schools to enhance their abiities as:
    Gross Motor development
    Fine motor development
    Concentration etc
    than move towards the general pathways

  6. I am in total agreement! The government is essentially paying for and encouraging poor quality care. I live in Southeastern PA and there are literally as many as 10-15 centers on the same business corridor. These provides have learned that the state will pay as long as they have a license, which in PA only requires minimum standard. Why are taxpayers forced to pay for substandard care? In addition, the goal of subsidy to enhance parental employment is a farce as these poor quality subsidized centers pay the least thus lacking skilled, educated and qualifed teachers. It is time to put children first and an end to government sponsored negative child development.

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