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If closing the achievement gap hinges on the first few years of life, you wouldn't know it from looking at the profession.

There is an emerging scientific and policy consensus that closing the school achievement gap between rich and poor will require educators and policy makers to focus on the first five years of life. Neuroscience is increasingly demonstrating this has an outsized impact on a child’s prospects as an adult.

This is a sizeable challenge. The 2011 U.S. Census Bureau survey reports that over 23 percent of children under five are cared for by organized day care facilities, as opposed to in home care by friends or relatives. And child development experts are increasingly concerned about the quality of care this rising generation receives.

"We know that the greatest period of brain development is in the first three years of life," said Lea Austin, a coauthor of the study, in an interview. "And if we consider the reality that the majority of kids across the country are in child care settings during those years, what happens there is incredibly important."

In pay, training and quality, the study argues, America's child care and early education teachers lag well behind nearly all other professions, argues a new Early Childhood Workforce Index, compiled by the U.C. Berkeley Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

Austin points to a 2015 report by the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences, which she says argues that "working with young children from birth through five years of age is just as important and complex as working with older children, but it requires different, specialized knowledge.”

The Berkeley study thus provides more fodder for advocates who argue that training and wages for the early child care and preschool professions should be adjusted upward, given the new consensus on the importance of this phase.

Zero to three

By targeting “birth through five," however, the Berkeley study plays into a frustration expressed by many advocates of improved early child care, namely that conflating “zero to five” in a single group overlooks the emerging urgency of zero to three.

The most critical phase is the first three years, not years four and five, says Katherine Stevens, a research fellow in education policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Grouping the first five years into a single category leads to sloppy thinking and policies, she argues.

"We start by saying that the first three years are critical," Stevens said, "and the next thing you know they are explaining why that means we have to send all 4-year-olds to school."

Stevens points to a recent poll that shows the American public agreeing that birth to five are critical years, and the headline on the poll was that "the American public supports preschool.”

"Four is really too late," agrees Katie Hamm, senior director of Child Care Policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress, "but that doesn't mean that four isn't important."

Scale problems

The Early Childhood Workforce Index notes that Kindergarten teachers, who are already at the low end of education pay, average nearly $25 an hour, compared to under $14 an hour for preschool teachers and under $10 an hour for child care workers.

As Katherine Stevens notes, there are "millions of children spending 30 to 50 hours a week in out-of-home care, and we are shooting ourselves in the foot if we leave them in an inadequate environment during their most crucial development phase."

"We are talking about a group of people who are paid less than a parking attendant, and we are asking them to do a pretty big job," said Katie Hamm.

It’s not just a big job. It’s a massive job, in scale as well as importance. Scaling child care for those millions is an enormous problem, given that early childhood work requires very high teacher to student ratios.

At the earliest ages, child care is five to 10 times more labor intensive that most K-12 teaching. Hamm pegs the appropriate ratio for children under 1 year old at one teacher to three babies.

"And I think anyone who has cared for a baby understands that even that is a lot for one person to handle," she adds.

“For most of human history early child development has been accomplished by full-time maternal care,” Stevens noted. “And very small infants can only see about seven inches, which happens to be exactly the distance from the face of a mother while nursing.”

Human reproduction patterns, she notes, typically have meant that one mother would be caring for no more than three small children at a time, and early childcare done properly is very labor intensive.

To pay those workers properly, Hamm acknowledges, is a daunting proposition. One teacher for three babies at $15,000 a year per family works out to $45,000 a year to pay all overhead plus the teacher's salary. "That doesn't leave a lot for the provider's wage," Hamm notes.

“You cannot scale early child development,” Stevens said.

The problem of scale and cost, Hamm argues, means that the only answer is to treat early childcare as a public good, as we do K-12. “We don’t expect parents to pay for their fourth grader’s schooling out of pocket,” she argues.

"There is a consensus that education is a public responsibility," Hamm said, "but we're still working on helping people understand that education begins before kindergarten. I don't think we've broken through that barrier."

The home option?

Some argue it would be cheaper for poor mothers with low economic skills to step out of the workforce and care for their children, to have the government subsidize mothers to stay home. This dilemma would be especially difficult if child care wages were significantly increased, as many mothers would be earning less than those who care for their children.

The Center for American Progress, Hamm said, answers that question with a wage calculator that unveils the "hidden cost of leaving the workforce." In short, CAP argues, when a woman leaves the workforce for several years, the cost is much higher than just the direct lost wages.

"When you look at it over the course of the worker's lifetime, you see lost earnings potential and social security," Hamm said.

More to the point, Hamm and other child care advocates emphasize that children of poorly educated parents will often benefit from a high-quality early learning environment that will often outstrip what they may have gotten at home, even with a parent at home.

Would some at-risk children actually be often be better off in a child care program than in the home? Both Hamm and Stevens agree that this is the case. There are two sides to the problem, Stevens said.

First, many at-risk kids would not get the stimulation they needed if they were to be cared for at home. "It's a knowledge and a capacity issue," Stevens said.

A high-quality child care setting, Hamm says, will include nutrition, books, art supplies and other forms of engagement that are often not found in a low-income home.

Email: eschulzke@deseretnews.com