Conceptualizing and Measuring Access to Early Care and Education

Research BriefEarly ChildhoodNov 5 2020

Research indicates that participation in stable, high-quality early care and education (ECE) supports a wide range of children’s developmental outcomes, including their readiness for school. In addition to these benefits to children, ECE is critically important for facilitating parents’ and caregivers’ participation in the workforce, job stability, and long-term economic security. Recent federal, state, and local policies and initiatives have thus focused on increasing access to high-quality ECE for all families. These efforts rely on access metrics to demonstrate need and to track progress over time. Because of the prevalence and potential importance of these initiatives for families and children, it is useful for the field to assess how access to ECE is conceptualized and measured and to understand the extent to which context, purposes, and available indicators shape the assessment of access. Improving the clarity and consistency in defining and operationalizing access is a key challenge for the field: practically, in terms of developing policies and initiatives to improve ECE access and methodologically, in terms of evaluating their effectiveness.

A recent report, Defining and Measuring Access to High-Quality Early Care and Education (ECE): A Guidebook for Policymakers and Researchers (Access Guidebook), supports movement toward more consistent definitions, analysis, and reporting on access. The report offers a family-centered definition of access that emphasizes the importance of considering multiple dimensions of access, including the degree to which families are able to secure ECE with reasonable effort, the affordability of ECE, if ECE meets the parents’ needs, and if ECE supports the child’s development. This current report builds on this work by providing findings from a review of literature that investigates and catalogues recent efforts to define and operationalize access with a focus on the extent to which current work at the state and federal levels aligns with the multidimensional definition of access proposed in the Access Guidebook. For example, this literature review documents the extent to which current research and policy efforts have expanded beyond indicators of the availability of ECE slots and affordability to include indicators, such as the availability of ECE information, the quality of ECE programs, the provision of services that support the child’s development and the family’s needs, and the removal of structural barriers to ECE for socially or economically disadvantaged or at-risk populations. A multidimensional definition of access can be further nuanced by determining if indicators of access are rooted in a system-level perspective (with a focus on the supply side, such as availability and cost) or in a family-level perspective (with a focus on demand issues, such as geographic proximity of ECE to the home and workplace). This current review documents and discusses the balance of system- and family-level perspectives in the field’s efforts to define and measure access in the context of the multidimensional framework provided by the Access Guidebook.

This brief is part of the Child Care and Early Education Policy and Research Analysis (CCEEPRA) project. CCEEPRA supports policy and program planning and decision-making with rigorous, research-based information.