Panel Paper: The Extent of Within- and Between-Sector Quality Differences in Early Childhood Education and Care

Friday, November 8, 2013 : 1:55 PM
Georgetown I (Washington Marriott)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Daphna Bassok1, Erica Greenberg2, Maria Fitzpatrick3 and Susanna Loeb2, (1)University of Virginia, (2)Stanford University, (3)Cornell University
High quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) is central to children’s readiness for school and later life outcomes. Existing research suggests that children in the formal sector, which includes childcare centers, Head Start, and pre-kindergarten, do better on a variety of outcome measures compared with those in informal settings. While there is evidence on the effects of a variety of formal care programs, there is less evidence on the characteristics of care and how those characteristics differ across sectors and settings. An understanding of these differences can shed light on the mechanisms of effects on children and on productive avenues for reform in ECEC. 

We explore ECEC characteristics using the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort (ECLS-B), a nationally representative dataset of 14,000 children born in 2001. We look between sectors first, examining aspects of program and teacher quality in settings serving 2- and 4-year-old children. We also look within the formal sector, probing the extent to which childcare centers, Head Start, and pre-kindergarten vary on observable measures of quality. If formal settings are consistently of higher quality than informal settings, and if some formal settings are consistently of higher quality than others, then differences in child outcomes may be attributable to sector-related differences in measurable and addressable quality. We then look between sectors by child and family characteristics in order to document differences in quality across sectors for observably similar students. Here, we assess whether differences between sectors are accounted for simply by differences in children served.

This study expands a relatively limited literature on within- and between-sector differences in ECEC quality, and complements related evidence on between-sector differences in child outcomes. We find that ECEC sectors differ significantly with respect to teacher characteristics, classroom activities, and other structural measures of quality. Formal settings are of higher observed quality than informal settings, on average, across both infant/toddler and preschool programs. In addition, the formal settings used by four year olds are of substantially higher quality than those used by toddlers. Within the formal sector, Head Start and pre-kindergarten are of higher quality, on average, than childcare centers. Finally, child and family characteristics like race and urbanicity are related to sector choice, we find that accounting for differences in the characteristics of children does little to explain the cross sector variation. Finally, we explore the state and federal regulations that govern ECEC programs. We find that settings with lower observed quality have the least stringent quality-related regulations, suggesting that regulations and other ECEC policies play an important role in determining the quality of ECEC programs and, ultimately, child outcomes.