Afterword: Child Care and Preschool Education
Catherine E. Snow
Currently, research and policy related to young children can be segmented into two major strands, each driven by a particular set of questions relevant to policy, learning, and economics. One strand is directed to issues of availability of and access to care and generates such questions as: What child care facilities must be provided to enable mothers to work? How can child care be financed so it is available to low-income families? How can child care be organized to meet the needs of parents working two jobs or swing shifts? What should the licensing requirements for child care centers be? In what sized groups should preschool-aged children spend their days?
The second strand is focused on issues of education—and, emblematically, the term preschool is then often substituted for child care, though the same settings are being discussed. Questions related to this strand include: What kinds of qualifications should the adults in preschool settings have? What kindergarten-readiness skills should preschools be responsible for producing? What curricula should preschools adopt? How much should those curricula be adult designed or child selected? How much should those curricula focus on content and how much on process?
Unfortunately, discussions related to the first strand, including consideration of financing, minimal licensing standards, and the schedules for care, tend to surround the child care settings serving the poorest families—families leaving welfare, families in which parents are working at low-income jobs, and families that have few resources of time, money, or knowledge to use in preparing their children for school. Discussions related to the second strand including attention to educational goals and standards, tend to be considered for the settings in which
children from middle-income families spend their preschool years. These middle-income parents are generally less limited by cost and can select preschools on the basis of pedagogical approach, teacher qualifications, and curricular richness, rather than needing to focus on price and convenience.
This split between care and education, between logistical and educational issues, between policies for child safety and those for child development is one we can only deplore. Experience in child care, preschool, or prekindergarten has been shown, in an analysis of the data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Kindergarten Study, to relate to later child outcomes in both literacy and math (Magnuson, Meyers, Ruhm, and Waldvogel, 2004). That same study showed that children from low-income families were less likely than others to have education experiences during their preschool years—though children whose parents had the lowest educational levels showed the greatest gains as a result of such experiences.
Previous reports of the National Research Council (NRC) have emphasized the importance of excellent preschool environments in promoting children’s opportunities to benefit from kindergarten and subsequent progress in school. Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (1998) emphasized the opportunities for language and early literacy development available in good preschool settings. Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers (2001b) proposed eliminating the rhetorical distinction between care and education and noted the availability (but limited distribution) of excellent preschool curricular materials and designs. From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development (2000) emphasized the wide array of factors that influence development and argued convincingly that a scientific basis does exist for making decisions about caring for and educating young children.
Most of the research-based work on optimal design of preschool experiences has focused on language and literacy as the outcomes of interest. Indeed, there is evidence that literacy skills are more subject to environmental influences than are math skills (Jordan, Huttenlocher, and Levine, 1992). But social class differences in mathematics and science achievement are not negligible. Moreover, young children in particular acquire knowledge about literacy, mathematics, and science in much the same way—through conversations with adults and by being read to from information-rich books. In other words, rich language interactions are a key source of all these forms of learning. The agenda to guide future research on early learning within mathematics and science, following on the path of literacy and, perhaps, in concert with literacy, needs to be thoughtfully built through the kinds of conversations that occurred during this one-day NRC event.
The presentations at the workshop, summarized in this volume, reflect how much we can learn from developmental researchers who focus on children’s accomplishments in the preschool years. But children can only accomplish so