The blog of the Urban Institute
May 31, 2016

To improve school readiness, address the quality gap between preschool and informal child care

June 1, 2016

Not all early experiences are created equal. Though 76 percent of US children between the ages of 3 and 5 receive some kind of nonparental care, their arrangements vary widely, from formal classroom settings to nannies or babysitters. And with variations in arrangement come variations in quality that can affect a child’s readiness for school.  

Roughly half of 3- to 5-year-olds in nonparental care participate in informal care, such as that offered in licensed family child care homes or by nannies and babysitters. This care is often more accessible, flexible, and affordable than formal care. Yet, research shows that children who attend formal, classroom-based preschool tend to start kindergarten well ahead of peers who receive informal care. Understanding why can help policymakers make the best investments in early care and education—and families make the best choices for their young children.

Together with Daphna Bassok, Susanna Loeb, and Maria Fitzpatrick, I set out to document quality differences across preschool and informal programs and explore links between quality differences and children’s reading and math skills at school entry. Our results, out today in Child Development, provide important insights, particularly for members of the Congressional Pre-K Caucus, which recently launched an effort to understand early learning programs. We highlight three key findings here.

The quality difference between preschool and informal care is striking.

Fifty-six percent of caregivers in preschool programs have a college degree in early childhood education compared with 9 percent of caregivers in informal settings. Caregivers in preschools are also far more likely to participate in ongoing training. Beyond their credentials, preschool teachers provide a more developmentally stimulating environment. While preschool teachers read to children every day, caregivers in informal settings do so irregularly, and the same is true for engaging in math activities. In preschool programs, caregivers report that children rarely watch any television (on average, less than seven minutes per day). In contrast, informal caregivers report roughly two hours of television watching per day.

We also found variation in quality within preschool settings—specifically, higher-quality programs and teachers in Head Start and state prekindergarten compared with those in other child care centers—and between programs serving preschoolers and those serving infants and toddlers, many of whom receive informal care. Nevertheless, this variation is dwarfed by large and consistent differences between preschool and informal child care.

Quality gaps between preschool and informal programs translate to gaps in children’s school readiness.

At age 5, children who attended classroom-based preschool have substantially stronger reading and math skills than otherwise similar peers who attended informal programs. Notably, these reading and math gaps are fully explained by differences in quality between the sectors.

Policy can address quality gaps between sectors.

Government intervention in the form of stricter regulations may be one high-impact strategy. Such intervention should target multiple dimensions of informal program and caregiver quality, and should be coupled with investments to maintain the supply of informal care for those who need it. Because many families select informal settings because of the lack of available, flexible, or affordable preschool programs, policies that expand access to preschool or coordination between sectors may also yield important benefits. Finally, our results highlight a potential role for informational interventions. Research shows that although most parents wish to enroll their children in safe, warm, and engaging settings, their understandings of quality may be limited or trumped by practical factors like location, hours of operation, and cost. Providing parents with simple information about the quality of accessible programs may lead to changes in decisionmaking and improvements in child outcomes.

From strengthening regulations to improving program design and equipping parents with more and better information, our paper offers policy recommendations for local, state, and federal leaders, including the Congressional Pre-K Caucus, who seek to make high-quality early care and education available to all children nationwide.


Daycare provider Mary Browne watches over Aiden Pledger, 1, and Sarah McMurray, 5, at her home Saturday, May 30, 2009, in Salem, Ore. The state is pulling in nearly $4 billion less than what lawmakers say it needs to keep social services at current levels. It's a delicate dance of dollars changing hands, one that more than 3,000 families across Oregon have taken up. And one that's about to end with a proposal to cut $47 million from the state's Employment Related Daycare Program. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)


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