Improving Early Education
Although fifth grade proficiency depends heavily on the quality of public education, it also depends on the extent to which children who enter school are ready to learn. A substantial body of research indicates that quality early childhood education — either at home or in a child care center — significantly improves a child’s ability to succeed in school. In fact, there is considerable scientific evidence that more brain development occurs during the first years of life than any other time, and there is a very strong correlation between the size of a child’s vocabulary upon entering school and the child’s future academic achievements.
Over 170,000 children in our region will enter school over the next five years. Fewer than 27% of children not yet in kindergarten are at home with a parent prior to school entry. The remaining 73% are in some type of out-of-home setting with varying levels of standards, monitoring, and quality. Therefore, it is critical that attention be paid to improving the quality of the out-of-home experiences and opportunities provided before children enter school.
How do parents know that children are getting a quality early education? Licensure alone is not enough. Accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)is great, but it is a very high standard for programs to meet. There is a wide range of quality between the minimal standard of licensure and the gold standard of accreditation.
In order to better measure the relative quality of early education programs, and to help programs systematically improve their quality, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare created the Keystone STARS system to measure the quality of programs. Performance standards have been established for each of the five levels from “Start with STARS” and continuing through STAR 1 to STAR 4 designations.
There are many elements of quality, but a particularly important one is literacy. A program which meets Keystone STARS Level 2 or is accredited by NAEYC is known to be providing important literacy activities for the children it serves, such as scheduling literacy activities and making books available throughout the day.
A study done by the Pennsylvania Economy League of Southwestern Pennsylvania in 2004 found that although quality childcare programs exist in the Pittsburgh Region, there are significant gaps:
- As of 2004, only 77 of the 938 regulated child care programs in the region (8 percent) had met either STAR 2 (or higher) standards and/or accreditation through the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Programs meeting these standards are known to be providing literacy activities for the children they serve.
- Five of the 10 counties in southwestern Pennsylvania had no child care programs that had been certified as meeting the minimal expectation for providing literacy activities in their programs.
- Ninety-one of the 126 school districts in the region (72 percent) had no child care programs that had met the minimal expectation for providing literacy activities, and 9 districts had no regulated child care providers within their boundaries.
Parents should actively seek out and use quality child care programs, and encourage the programs they are using to obtain a quality certification if they have not already done so.
Child care programs that have strong literacy components but which have not been formally certified should apply for such certification through Pennsylvania’s Keystone STARS program.
The state needs to continue providing funding and technical assistance to childcare programs that want to improve their quality. Local school districts should also help childcare programs to improve quality.
The most effective solution is also the simplest — read to children! Parents should read with their children at home. Child care providers should ensure that staff read with every child at some point during the day.
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