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The Access vs. Quality Debate in Early Childhood Education

17 Mar 2015 by Rebecca Berlin

One of the most frequent questions that I am asked regarding early childhood education is, “What is more important in scaling a system—increasing access or increasing quality?

The quantity versus quality debate puts these priorities in competition with each other; as policymakers must decide if they wish to fund more slots or better slots. This debate comes down to the fundamental question, “Is more always better?

A Shift in Focus

In the eighties, nineties, and oughts, the answer from a federal, state, and local level focused on increasing access to slots for infants, toddlers, and pre-kindergarteners as the most important policy lever to push. Over these 30 years, the number of mothers returning to the workforce dramatically increased, causing policymakers to focus efforts on ensuring access to childcare and early childhood education for as many children as possible. The question focused more on how to increase the system’s capacity rather than how to improve the system’s quality. Access versus quality was an “either/or” debate instead of a “both/and” debate. Budget decisions highlighted how many additional slots could be opened with a child care budget line item or federal block grant instead of what types of additional slots could be opened.

The tide began to change about ten years ago when increasing numbers of peer-reviewed research articles and national studies found that high-quality early care and education programs could make substantial differences in the trajectory of young children’s learning, particularly the learning of our nation’s most at-risk children. Specifically, children who attend high quality early learning programs demonstrate higher levels of school achievement and better social adjustment. Study upon study found that children attending high quality programs are less likely to repeat a grade or be placed in special education classes and more likely to graduate from high school. These high-quality programs are required for preschool attendance to produce positive effects. Unfortunately, during this time period the quality of many programs was too low or “mediocre at best” to generate lasting academic and social success. This realization by national, state, and local leaders began the movement from an “either/or” system-building effort to a “both/and” effort. We began to hear policy makers pair access and quality together, rather than treat them as politically opposing factors.

In the past five years, it has been almost impossible to hear about increasing access without also hearing about increasing quality. The common phrase is now “increasing access to high quality early learning programs”. This effort has been both bipartisan and multi-generational. Advocates, associations, and organizations as diverse as the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the Federal Reserve Bank, the Business Roundtable, the US Conference of Mayors, the retired admirals and generals of Mission: Readiness, and the nation’s Police Chiefs have produced calls to action, official statements, and research–based reports.

Access AND Quality

In his past three State of the Union addresses, President Obama called upon Congress to expand access to high-quality early learning for every child in America, proposing investments that would support a continuum of early learning opportunity from birth through kindergarten entry. Again, access and high quality were described as a “both/and” rather than an “either/or”. In his Valentine’s Day speech in Decatur, Georgia, President Obama outlined his call for high-quality preschool programs for all children in America.

At every point in the speech where access was mentioned, it was always paired with high quality. In my mind, this is one of the most memorable speeches ever given on the access vs. quality issue.

The capstone to this access versus quality debate occurred during the December 14, 2014 White House Summit on Early Education in which state and local policymakers, mayors, school superintendents, corporate and community leaders, and advocates came together to discuss effective strategies and programs to bring high-quality early childhood education to scale. The White House’s Fact Sheet on The Early Education Summit that was produced as a result of the summit included 16 references to high-quality early learning and always paired increasing access with high quality programs.

The evidence is too significant, the situation is too dire, and the result is too important to ignore—access and quality must both be present in any early childhood system to ensure we change the trajectory for all children.


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