Early Scope

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For Early Childhood Programs, How Good is Good Enough?

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The quality of early childhood programs may be defined as the standards met along a small number of program dimensions involving early childhood teachers and what they do in their programs. These dimensions involve teacher preservice education and number of children per teacher, teacher inservice training in and use of a valid child development curriculum, teacher engagement of parents in contributing to their children’s development, and regular assessment of curriculum implementation and children’s development. High-quality early childhood programs meet these standards while low-quality programs do not.


The case for quality in early childhood programs is powerful. High-quality programs, such as the longitudinally studied HighScope Perry Preschool Program and Abecedarian Child Care Program, have been shown to have long-term effects and strong economic return on investment. Low-quality programs do not have these effects. Brain research makes it clear that children are developing critical skills in their early years from birth onward.


At the same time, the case against quality in early childhood programs is implicit and virtually universal. It has to do with simple economics, the allocation of scarce resources. Young children, and their advocates, have little economic or political power. The standard for child survival in early childhood programs is much lower than the standard for their thriving in early childhood programs, for these programs contributing positively to their development. Families are expected to provide for young children, and the role of government towards them is less well established. Long-term effects are harder to measure and link to early childhood programs than immediate effects. But, mainly, competing alternatives for spending money often take priority over spending money on young children. 


Early childhood program quality, which might be simply represented as the cost per child for programs, never takes complete precedence over competing priorities. Quality is always determined as some balancing point between maximum contribution to young children’s development and spending nothing at all or merely enough to keep a program open without regard to its quality or effectiveness. This balancing point is the result of the allocation of scarce resources among competing priorities. The obvious way to calculate the cost of a program is to multiply the cost per child for the program times the number of children in it. But other considerations determine the amount of money determined to be available for the program, an amount generally less than the other calculation, leaving only two alternatives – either spend less per child or serve fewer children.


The argument for maximizing economic return on investment is powerful and easily understood.

Early childhood programs can also have different purposes – nutrition, education, and child care, for example. Their worth can be considered in terms of these various purposes. Affixing economic value to these various effects helps weigh one against the other and early childhood programs against others expenditures. In cost-benefit analysis, the financial value of the program’s effects per child is compared to the cost per child of operating the program. If the value of these effects is greater than the cost of the program, the program is worth doing from an economic perspective. Paradoxically, it has greater worth than a program that costs less per child but does not have financially valuable effects. However, these principles of deciding whether a program is worthwhile can conflict with each other, leading ineffective programs to be preferred over effective programs because their operating cost is less.


Given that the extra cost of quality in cost-beneficial early childhood programs and the universal need to keep costs as low as possible, what is needed is a body of research studies regarding true efficiencies in cost-beneficial early childhood programs.  These studies would address the following questions and others like them. 

  • What preservice  education do teachers need to provide highly effective early childhood programs? Technical training in early childhood education does not seem to be enough, but is the broad education provided by bachelors’ degrees absolutely necessary? What if teachers received the professional courses of a bachelor’s degree without the courses in other areas? What about professional education for lead teachers and technical training for other teaching staff?
  • What is the maximum number of children of various ages per teacher for a highly effective early childhood program?
  • What research evidence is needed to consider an early childhood curriculum valid?  How much curriculum training do teachers need to implement such a curriculum effectively? Do other teaching staff need the same amount of curriculum training as lead teachers? How might curriculum training be better integrated into preservice education?
  • How do teachers best engage parents in contributing to the development of their children? How do teachers provide opportunities for meeting and other communication that fit into the lives of busy parents, particularly in extended-day child care programs?
  • How do we collect data on children’s development that is developmentally appropriate but also valid and reliable? Can teachers collect these data or are outside data collectors necessary? 
  • How do these components of quality relate to each other? Which are most important? Can we trade off more expensive components, such as fewer children per teacher, by providing less expensive components, such as better trained teachers?
The problem with conducting such research is that it requires a firm societal commitment to cost-beneficial early childhood programs as well as efficient ones. But false efficiency is often used as an argument against cost-beneficial programs.  So early childhood programs stumble along, underfunded, robbing our children and our society of the benefits of which they are capable.
Read 11158 times Last modified on Monday, 20 May 2013 08:49

Larry Schweinhart is an early childhood program researcher and speaker throughout the United States and in other countries.  He has conducted research at the HighScope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Michigan, since 1975 and served as its president since 2003.  He has directed the HighScope Perry Preschool Study through age 40, the Michigan School Readiness Program Evaluation, HighScope’s Head Start Quality Research Center, and the development and validation of the Child Observation Record.  Dr. Schweinhart received his Ph.D. in Education from Indiana University in 1975.  He and his wife have two children and five grandchildren.

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