Who’s Teaching our Toddlers: Investing in Early Care and Education Providers


A recent New York Times article highlighted research by the prominent economist James Heckman and others about the need to invest in children’s education before they arrive at school. Heckman cited studies that found ratings of children’s academic skills to be consistent from age 3 to 18 years. Julia Isaacs, a researcher at the Urban Institute, reported that less than half of children living in poverty enter kindergarten with the skills needed to succeed in school. Child Trends’ researchers have documented disparities in children’s development starting in infancy. As early as nine months of age, infants from low-income families were rated lower on their overall health, cognitive and social development, and positive behaviors than infants in higher-income families. Between infancy and toddlerhood, these disparities just about doubled.

If we are going to invest more into early education for children, where to do we start? One place to start is with our early childhood workforce. Little is known about the individuals who care for our infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.

Only 32 states maintain a child care registry, where child care providers can upload their credentials, according to the National Registry Alliance.

What we do know about child care providers serving young children is that they are an instable workforce that is not paid well and have (on average) less education than primary or secondary teachers. Child care workers make, on average, less than half that of elementary teachers.

Additionally, there is little regulation of early care and education providers serving outside of pre-kindergarten and Head Start. Only 10 states require the comprehensive background check of child care providers recommended by the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies [NACCRRA], which includes federal and state criminal background checks and checks of the sex offender and child sexual abuse registries. Additionally, state education and training requirements for early care and education providers vary by program and state, with the majority of states (62 percent) requiring a high school degree or less  of lead teachers in child care centers, according to NACCRRA.

Research has shown repeatedly that the physical, social, emotional and educational development that occurs in a child’s first five years of life is a strong predictor of success in school, work and later in life. One way to support our young children is to ensure they are spending time with well-trained, and appropriately compensated, professionals to provide the highest quality of care and education.

Nicole Forry, Senior Research Scientist


Thank you for your comments. We sincerely appreciate each of your perspectives. The tension between cost and quality is a real challenge for both program directors and state administrators setting child care policies. Child Trends staff have several projects related to low-income parents’ child care decisions and empirically-based strategies for improving early care and education services. We hope that, through these projects, we will be able to provide useful information that can help inform effective investments in the early care and education of young and school-age children.

I agree that high-quality childcare is very important; however, it also must be affordable as well. Center-based daycare is already prohibitively expensive…how are families (particularly low-income families) supposed to afford Master’s-level early childhood teachers when they can (or often can’t) even afford daycare provided by lower-educated teachers? There has to be a balance between quality and cost.

I too agree and the lack of training and education makes it that much more difficult for Child Care Directors because we, who have earned an early childhood education, must spend an enormous of time and energy training staff to be proficient, let alone exemplary in the field of education. Our work continues.

I am so glad to read this article! I am a recent graduate with a MA in Early Childhood Education. I can’t believe it when I look at the requirements are for lead teachers in day care centers or preschools. “Must be 18 yrs. or older. High school Graduate or GED. Seriously??? People are leaving their infants, toddlers, young children who are making significant milestones in their growth and development with people who have little or no training. This is a travesty!

Visit Forourbabies.org to learn about the work of Dr. J. Ronald Lally of WestEd. His most recent book is: For Our Babies: Ending the Invisible Neglect of America’s Infants.

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