Early education excellence Featured

10:33am EDT October 31, 2002
Sixty-two percent of American children under the age of 6 are in the care of other people while their parents work. In 2000, in the 11 counties of Southwestern Pennsylvania, 32,040 children were enrolled in childcare centers, which raises the question, "How good are our early education programs?"

To evaluate early education programs, parents should consider whether programs are licensed and accredited. Licensing indicates that state standards to ensure health, safety and basic program requirements have been met.

Accreditation takes into account additional educational programming and staff requirements. However, excellent programs demonstrate other components, which should be expected by parents and insisted upon and facilitated by communities and corporations.

Comparable measures of excellence are recognized in business. These components include a sound philosophy, visionary leadership, professional staff and a nurturing, stimulating environment.

The philosophy driving the program design and activities of high-quality programs responds to the needs, nature and developmental stages of children and families. Directors are comfortable with responsibility, appreciate challenge and change, and understand human nature. They possess a sophisticated theoretical knowledge base and significant levels of experience with which to model the mission.

They take the lead in areas of policy, advocacy, training and mentoring. The early education staff demonstrates professionalism, preparation, maturity, integrity and the ability to connect with and respect children. They display a comprehensive knowledge base that consists of child development, curriculum planning and teaching, balancing children's emotional, social, physical and intellectual needs.

The space children occupy not only ensures that they are safe and healthy, but ensures that they can be active in the ways that are natural to them, be in comfortable surroundings, be able to develop a sense of competence as they use the space and be in control of their activity whenever it is appropriate.

The benefactors of excellence include not only children and families, but also communities, businesses and government. Children who participate in quality programs have been shown to demonstrate better language and mathematics skills, better cognitive and social skills and better relationships with classmates than children in low-quality programs.

They are less likely than similar children who did not have such exposure to drop out of school, repeat grades, need special education or become delinquent.

Establishing and maintaining the components of excellence costs money. Pennsylvania is one of only nine states that does not support or require kindergarten. Parent fees and state subsidies leave an average of 20 percent uncovered in quality program budgets.

Reduced staff salaries and benefits typically subsidize this shortfall. Stakeholders must begin to assess their role in the support of high quality early education programs. Investment in and advocacy for early education yields tangible, predictable results by enabling parents in the work force to access quality programs for their children while positively shaping the work force of the future.

This is an abridged version of one of a series of To The Point articles, written by Sherry Cleary, MS, assistant professor, School of Education, University of Pittsburgh and Director, University Child Development Center, and Karen Altares, MSW, project coordinator, Education Policy & Issues Center. For the full-text version of the original article and suggestions for how business can support education, visit www.epi-center.org.