The Uncertain Future of Early Childhood Education: Part Two

Posted on: January 18th, 2023 by Kristen Miller

Including Steps to Effect Real Change

Written By: Christy S. Renjilian

When we think about “best practices” in early childhood education, let’s think in terms of policy and program structure, as well as curriculum.

Research tells us that the best early childhood education curriculums are child-directed and play-based.  

Play is the work of childhood and lays the strongest foundation and best tools for development— mentally, socially, and physically.  

A local early childhood education expert puts it this way, “Reggio Emilia, Italy, and Finland focus on children and PLAY—both exploration and discovery—with fewer ADULTS standing around to tell children what to think and how to think. Follow the children and they will lead. Give them a voice and allow them to freely explore their interests and watch what happens to our future generations.”

Play-based curriculums focus on the child and incorporate their imagination, interests, and creativity into learning. Young children don’t learn best through worksheets, drills, or computer games, they learn by exploring and doing. Incorporating these elements into every program will ensure a high-quality program.

In fact, the 2021 UNICEF Report: “Where Do Rich Countries Stand on Childcare?” assessed the following indicators: 

  • Paid parental leave
  • Access to child care
  • Quality of child care
  • Affordability of childcare

Of the 41 countries included in the study, the United States ranked 40th, only ahead of Slovakia. Dismal results, right?

And with each individual indicator, the US ranked 15th in quality, 41st in leave (yes, the very end of the list), 38th in affordability, and 35th in access. 

The report found that the US is the only wealthy country without nationwide, statutory, paid parental leave

As a country, we must do better.  

The countries in the top five overall rankings are Luxembourg, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, and Germany.  And the top five in quality are Iceland, Latvia, New Zealand, Finland, and Denmark. 

And an important point, the countries with the highest quality childcare combine a low teacher-child ratio with high qualifications. 

Why Quality Early Child Care Matters

It’s obvious why quality early child care is important as it shapes the next generation. But let’s take a dive into the latest research to really understand the value.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, in their recent report, “From Best Practices to Breakthrough Impacts: A science-based approach to building a more promising future for young children” proposed the formation of the following….

“A research and development platform that will catalyze a new era in early childhood policy and practice, driven by a new way of thinking fueled by advances in science and a new way of working that embraces the culture of innovation.”

Decades of research in behavioral and social sciences and recent discoveries combine to help explain how healthy development happens, what can derail it, and what we can do to restore it. 

Important findings include:

  • Relationships with caring, responsive adults and early positive experiences build strong brain architecture. 
  • Significant stress from ongoing hardship or threat disrupts the foundations of learning, behavior, and health with life-long negative consequences.
  • Providing the right ingredients for healthy development—including protective factors that can counterbalance the effects of adversity—from the start produces a better outcome than trying to fix problems later on in life. 

It’s clear that early experiences affect a child over the course of their life—in learning, yes, but also in physical and mental health. 

Let’s explore a successful program here in the states to see what we should be working towards.

A Look at a Cutting-Edge Public & Private Partnership in the US 

Because child care is considered essential to “military readiness,” the Defense Department spends over $1 billion a year funding everything from the upkeep of centers to subsidizing parent fees to the employment of 23,000 childcare workers—many of whom are specifically trained by the military for early education and are paid more than their civilian counterparts.

The military requires its providers to meet state health and safety licensure as well as national accreditation. Nearly all (95 percent) of military child development centers have a Department of Defence certification and receive accreditation by a national accrediting body such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Compared to about 10 percent of civilian centers. 

Providers are subject to four unannounced inspections per year, and ongoing noncompliance can result in the closure and dismissal of staff. 

The education and training of child care instructors are key indicators of quality. As such, the MCCS mandates a training program (including on-the-job training) and credentials as a condition for employment. This training is provided at no cost to the employee, and it is linked to a career ladder that leads to increased compensation for each promotion. 

Additionally, the military system offers higher wages and benefits than those received by civilian counterparts, which has dramatically reduced staff turnover.

We know high-quality early care and education is expensive, and most military families are unable to afford these costs in full. All active-duty military families have access to the system and receive a financial subsidy to offset the cost. 

Fees for on-base programs are on a sliding scale, determined by family income. On average, these subsidies cover 64 percent of the cost. Families using programs in civilian communities receive a stipend to cover a portion of their costs as well.

Unfortunately, despite the nearly $1 billion federal investment in early childhood education programs for military families, there are not nearly enough slots for all the children. Waiting lists are long, priority is not clear (it’s not just in date order), and many children end up in poor-quality programs.

This model is one that researchers, advocates, and lawmakers urge the rest of the country to emulate.

Next Steps We Can Take to Affect Change in Early Childhood Education

In South Central Pennsylvania, we can, as a community, continue to build on our strong foundation and commitment to the quality of our early childhood educators, business and community leaders, and local funders.  

The York Early Learning Investment Commission (ELIC) was recognized by the State, for its innovative project to raise funds to provide awards to early childhood educators. Over $468,000 was awarded to 311 teachers serving over 4,000 children. And discussions are currently underway to expand this initiative to other counties across Pennsylvania.  

Local business and community leaders continue to be engaged and committed to increasing the capacity and quality of programs.  These conversations are focused on how we can best leverage both private and public funding to encourage innovation.  

Innovative thinking includes utilizing existing empty spaces in schools, places of worship, nonprofits, offices, and businesses to open early childhood education programs. 

Innovations such as businesses reserving quality child care spots for their employees and providing additional funding to early childhood education programs to increase wages.  Or providing benefits to their employees to help with tuition. 

We know our local economy rests on the childcare industry. And that industry is in great peril. 

It’s imperative for us to work together to come up with long-term, creative solutions to increase revenue, capacity, and quality.

A Long-Term Plan of Action to Effect Change

Long-term steps include rethinking the very way the industry is structured. 

The low teacher-to-child ratios of providing education and care to infants, toddlers, and preschoolers equate to an unsustainable system. 

Parents cannot pay the full cost of care and as a result, the staff is under-compensated, and turnover is high—negatively impacting the quality of programming. 

For the past several years, the staffing crisis has only gotten worse, and most programs are serving only 84% of their typical enrollment.  

Public and private leaders are responsible for making bold, innovative changes to ensure that children get the education they need to be successful in school and life.

And doing so gives parents and guardians of young children the opportunity to work, support their families, and make an impact in their local economy.

We can not fundraise our way out of this problem. And our local leaders and foundations, as generous and committed as they are, cannot raise, year in and year out, the approximate $45 million in additional funding we need in York County, Pennsylvania alone, to fill the gap. 

Public funding to assist all families—not just those who qualify for Child Care Works, Pre-K Counts, and/or Head Start—must be considered. A variety of delivery models, incorporating our current home-based, group, and center providers, must be maintained to give parents options. 

We must invest in all children in the same way that we do low-income children, just like we fund public education for every student from Kindergarten through higher education regardless of income level. 

Some communities have raised funds with additional taxes on things like soda. Others use their lottery winnings to support young children (as well as seniors).  

Nationally, we need to develop a plan for universal care for preschoolers and a plan for care for infants and toddlers. 

Universal Pre-K doesn’t mean that every child has to attend. It means that every family who wants their child to attend has access to a quality program that meets their personal needs. Just like in Pennsylvania mandatory schooling doesn’t start until a child is eight—but most families choose to start their children at age five or six.

We can no longer be at the bottom of the world ranking in our support for young children and their families.  

It’s unfathomable that study after study proves that for every dollar we invest in early childhood education we can save at least $13 in public spending in future years, and yet we are doing nothing about it. 

It’s like if I said in Part One of this series, you’re presented the opportunity to pay a dollar for a gallon of gas today or $13 a gallon tomorrow. 

And you pick to get your gas tomorrow. And you make that choice every day for years. 

It’s a failed economic choice, and that choice is failing our children, our workers, and our businesses.  

We can and must do better.  

Additional Reading:

The Uncertain Future of Early Childhood Education: Part One

The 2021 UNICEF Report: Where do rich countries stand on childcare?

About Child Care Consultants, Inc.

Child Care Consultants, Inc. (CCC) is a nonprofit centered in the heart of Pennsylvania. They serve childcare providers and low-income families ‒ the ones that have been impacted the most by the pandemic. 

For you and your business, CCC helps keep childcare options open for your employees ‒ saving missed work hours and lowering on-the-job stress levels. They work with early childhood education programs and home-based providers to improve the quality of care, ensuring that all children enter school ready to be successful.

Christy Renjilian serves as its Executive Director. 

To learn more, visit