may differ significantly across groups, but a range of approaches may work equally well in helping children develop.
“We need more uniformity than we currently have in assessments of quality,” noted Barnett. There are possibilities, but he believes the cost of conducting nationally representative observational studies is currently prohibitive. Other participants were more optimistic about the possibilities, but agreed that more development is needed to make measures of this critical element a reality for a national indicator system. Part of the difficulty is that while there is a fairly strong consensus about what children need—which includes secure attachments with adults; supportive and nurturing relationships with caregivers; a stimulating, language-rich environment; and systems to support those experiencing adversity—these elements are much more difficult to measure than, say, mathematical or language learning. At the same time, the children who are not getting all of those elements in a preschool program are all too often those whose families have the greatest risk factors. One participant noted that the greatest risk is in that disconnect between families and available resources.
The question of which indicators would be most likely to lead to productive change is not a simple one. Research seems to support the idea that the presence of a curriculum is a particularly important indicator of the quality of a program, for example, but the disparate nature of preschool and child care systems and their governance by states means that more work is needed to determine the best approach to measuring quality, participants suggested.
Capturing Environment and Context
The disconnect between families at risk and the supports communities have available points to a broader issue that may or not belong among the education indicators, participants suggested. The health of communities, specifically the health of infants and mothers, economic well-being, and the extent of risks such as substance use, crime and violence, and the like, have a profound influence on young children but are also important for other reasons. It may be that the health of communities along such dimensions would best be captured elsewhere in the indicator system, it was noted. So long as the elements that are critical to the development of young children are captured somewhere, they need not be included among the education indicators.
The discussion closed with a reminder that the years from birth to age 5 are at least as important as 5 to 17—and that even a simple indicator of what society is spending on the first 5 years, compared with spending on other phases of life, would be a useful way of pushing policy makers and other to reflect on its goals for supporting the nation’s youngest children.