High-quality Early Childcare = Later Academic Success?By Daniel Berry 11/24/2009 3:54 PM EST | 6 Comments
The achievement gap between poor and more affluent children starts early. In fact, it’s well in place by children’s first day of school. On average, more affluent kindergarteners have academic achievement scores that are upwards of 60 percent higher than kindergarteners who are poor.1 Because skills beget skills, starting with these lower levels of achievement makes it difficult for children in poverty to catch up, and these early achievement gaps tend to persist over time.
It’s increasingly clear that early interventions for children in poverty help to build the early academic skills needed for long-term school success. Research by Dean Kathleen McCartney and colleagues Eric Dearing (Boston University) and Beck Taylor (Samford University) shows that high-quality child care may provide poor kids with an early academic boost that influences their learning through fifth grade.
It’s probably no surprise that children growing up in poverty tend to show lower levels of school success, since, often, they face wide-ranging environmental struggles, including fewer financial resources for learning materials and books, and stress at home brought on by financial strain. The idea, then, is to find a way to provide impoverished young children with the types of early experiences needed to support learning. High-quality early childcare — comprising sensitive and nurturing caregivers, a supportive emotional and academic climate, and a developmentally appropriate curricula — has repeatedly been shown to serve this critical function. Multiple studies have illustrated that “model” interventions consisting of high-quality childcare (often in conjunction with other family supports) can have dramatic long-term effects on children’s academic and social development.2
The evidence for the positive effects of high-quality childcare on development is hard to dispute, particularly for the truly experimental studies, which substantiate the truly causal impacts of changing the learning environments of poor children. But as one moves from research to policy, at least two important questions emerge. First, can the positive effects seen in these “model” interventions be generalized to the types of high-quality childcare available in the “real world?” Second, if so, are the positive effects of high-quality childcare larger for poor children? This latter question is important because it begins to address the degree to which links between income and achievement can be mitigated by high-quality early childcare. At a practical level, it provides an indication of where policies involving high-quality childcare might get the most “bang for the buck” — the poor.
McCartney — a principal investigator on the most comprehensive national longitudinal study of early childcare, the National Institute of Child Heath and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development — addressed these important questions, with her coauthors Dearing and Taylor, in an article published in the September/October 2009 issue of Child Development.
The NICHD childcare study, as a whole, followed a sample of 1,364 children and their families from birth until they were about 15-years-old. Across this period, the investigators compiled detailed observations of the quality of children’s environments at home, in childcare, and at school, as well as measured a wide-array of other family, child, and demographic characteristics.
In the recent paper, McCartney and her coauthors were interested in whether the beneficial effects of high-quality childcare on academic achievement would last with children through fifth grade, and whether these positive effects might be stronger for poorer children. Further, they were interested in the developmental mechanism — whether the long-term effects of high-quality care on fifth-grade achievement are explained by the early achievement skills that high-quality childcare affords. Simply, do early skills beget later skills?
As the authors predicted, children who had greater numbers of experiences in high-quality childcare from 6- to 54-months tended to show higher levels of reading and math achievement (averaged) across the elementary-school years. However, this association was stronger for poorer children. For a clearer idea of what this means, take a look at Figure 1 (below).
Here, as expected, we see that those with lower incomes tend to have lower math scores. This is displayed by the positive trend lines in the figure. Note, however, that the dashed trend line representing children who never received high-quality childcare is much steeper than the solid trend line. This represents children who received two instances of high-quality care. In simple terms, this means that having more experiences of high-quality childcare weakens the effect of income on children’s achievement.
Another way to look at it is to consider the gap between the two lines at any given income level. On the left side of the income axis children are very poor. Here, we see a big gap between the lines, meaning that those with more instances of high-quality care show substantially higher math scores. In contrast, on the right side of the income-axis where families are quite affluent, there is no gap between the lines, meaning that high-quality childcare has no effect for these children. These child are effects were very similar for children’s reading skills.
But does high-quality care matter only for the poor? Not exactly. The blue region in the figure indicates that the positive effects of high-quality child care on math achievement extend to income levels considered to be middle class. Thus, while there don’t seem to be beneficial child care effects for the rich, the effects also don’t seem to be restricted to the very poor.
So, do early skills beget later skills? In another set of analyses, the authors considered whether the long-term effects of high-quality childcare on fifth-grade achievement were explained by the fact that these experiences provide children with early academic skills that children carry with them once they enter school. Indeed, their findings suggested that this may be the case. Links between early high-quality childcare and fifth-grade achievement appeared to manifest indirectly via the influence of childcare quality on children’s earlyschool readiness skills. Simply, high-quality childcare appeared to give these young children — particularly poorer children — an academic leg-up that helped them be more effective learners once they entered school.
Taken together, these findings show that high-quality childcare experiences can begin to mitigate the negative effects of poverty on children’s academic achievement — the poorer the family and/or the greater number of experiences in high-quality care, the bigger the benefit. Developmentally, this effect seems to emerge because high-quality child care provides these children with the early skills required for later school success. Unlike “model” interventions, which tend to be more intensive and smaller in size, McCartney’s work with Dearing and Taylor shows that positive effects seen for model programs extend the type of child care that’s available in the real world.
Such findings have incredible practical value for policy questions regarding when and how to intervene in children’s lives, and to whom these interventions may be most beneficial. These recent data suggest that high-quality childcare can provide the types of early learning experiences that have long-term effects on achievement, and that starting in early childhood may be of particular importance because it provides young children with the set of tools they’ll need to hit the ground running on the first days of school. Finally, the finding that these early learning environments seem to matter more for children with less suggests that policies targeting poorer children may get more “academic achievement bang” for the “policy buck.”
Figure 1. Figure shows how lower levels of family-income are linked to lower levels of math achievement across the elementary-school years, but that having experiences in high-quality childcare can mitigate the negative effects of growing up poor. The blue area indicates the region-of-significance — or, the income-span in which the childcare effect seems to be limited.
1 Lee, V. E. & Burkam, D. T. (2002). Inequality at the starting gate: Social background differences in achievement as children begin school. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.
2 Barnett, W. S. (1995). Long-term effects of early childhood programs on cognitive and school outcomes. The Future of Children, 5, 25-50.
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