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How We Can Get Our Children Back on Track

Nearly a year of K-12 school closures have caused serious disruptions to an important developmental period for our country’s children. Researchers predict that these disruptions will have serious consequences for America’s economic future. But getting our children back on track will take more than addressing the learning deficits incurred during the pandemic. America must also confront a deeper, more entrenched education problem—one that has put our country’s students behind those from other countries for decades—which, to solve, will require supporting children through another critical developmental period: a child’s years from birth through five.

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Learning Disruptions During COVID-19

Researchers, parents, and policymakers increasingly express concern that the pandemic is leaving children devoid of the academic and social experiences they need during a critical developmental period. Since schools in the United States have remained online for far longer than expected, there is worry that, even with transitions to remote school formats, learning deficits formed over the past year may produce lasting behavioral and cognitive setbacks. Setbacks which could lead to an unprepared workforce and threaten America’s competitive standing. Statistical models estimating the effects of learning losses associated with the shift to online school formats indicate that students who did not return to in-person school until January 2021 could lose $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings and that the U.S. could lose 0.8% to 1.3% in gross domestic product per year by 2040, when many of today’s K-12 students will have entered the workforce.

For Decades, America’s Students Have Been Falling Behind

While this is a serious concern for America’s future, our country faces an even more disturbing educational reality: prior to the pandemic, the United States’ educational standing had already fallen significantly behind other developed countries. The most recent Program for International Student Assessment data released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, shows U.S. students ranking far below other developed countries in educational preparedness. Only 68% of U.S. students met the OECD’s basic proficiency standards in reading, math, and science, whereas 76% of students in Canada and 94% of students in China did so. Unfortunately, these shortcomings are not new. As BPC discussed in 36 Years Later: A Nation Still at Risk, researchers identified these deficiencies more than four decades ago. Since then, policymakers have implemented numerous education reforms at the local, state, and federal levels. Yet, the issue remains intractable.

Wealthier students in the United States tend to perform at levels comparable to those in other high-performing countries, but students from low-income families do not. Despite significant strategic and financial investment in education from 2003 to 2017, a recent analysis of scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress —a well-recognized measure of U.S. student achievement—reveals that achievement gaps between eighth graders from lower and higher income brackets have “remained substantial” through this time period. As BPC has said before, the problem is not that America’s schools are failing all students. Rather, the problem is that the nation is not providing an equal educational opportunity for all students. Such achievement gaps threaten not only the country’s economic growth—estimates suggest that they deprive the United States of productivity each year in the magnitude of 3% to 5% of GDP—but also the American promise of equal opportunity and the idea of a “shared education” that the founders believed to be a fundamental component of a successful U.S. democracy.

A Forgotten Development Period: Birth Through Five

The country has been quick to identify the threat the pandemic poses to K-12 students. And effective remedies for these setbacks are needed. But to address the deeper educational deficiencies in the U.S., we must focus on another critical developmental period. One during which children also cannot healthfully develop without appropriate attention, healthy social interaction, and an engaging environment—a period that has been neglected not just for several months, but several decades: a child’s years from birth to five.

An overwhelming body of neuroscience research indicates that a child’s earliest years are critical for healthy brain development and school preparedness. In particular, the years from birth to five are considered a critical period when the brain is particularly responsive to environmental influences and, if not exposed to the appropriate stimuli, will develop irreversible negative changes. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a child’s daily experiences during these years shape the “structural and functional development” of her brain as well her “intelligence and personality.” When a young child receives “consistent, developmentally appropriate,” and “emotionally supportive” care provided in a “safe environment,” her development is positively affected. But if not, the AAP warns that children are “more likely to have unmet socioemotional needs and be less prepared for school demands.”

Educational disparities can begin before children enter the classroom; they can begin at birth. Recent child and family stress research suggests that high levels of cortisol—the hormone commonly associated with stress—at very young ages, can hinder a child’s social, emotional, and cognitive trajectory. With children five and younger facing the highest poverty rates of all children (15.5% in 2019), many of the country’s youngest citizens face harmfully high stress and adverse experiences that set them behind their peers in their very first years and leave them unprepared for kindergarten.

To gain the financial stability necessary to escape poverty and provide their children with a healthy, nurturing environment, low-income parents are expected to work. But for the growing number of families that work low-wage jobs and need both parents to work in order to make ends meet—64% of married-couple families with children had both parents employed in 2019—working more to provide a nourishing early childhood environment presents a paradox. The child care costs associated with working often outweigh the very wages parents earn through work. The more hours parents work, the more hours they need someone to provide care for their child. But in 2019, more than half (54%) of parents with a child under five said that finding child care within their budget was somewhat or very difficult. And the annual cost of infant care in a child care center in 2019 was, on average, 107.9% of the cost of tuition at a 4-year college. For many low- and even medium-income families, high-quality child care is financially out of reach.

Parents are faced with an impossible decision, either work less and earn less—in 2019, 41% of families with an income below $50,000 said they reduced their work hours to lower their child care expenses—or, find a cheaper child care option. The first option allows parents to provide care but limits their opportunities for workforce advancement. The second option often means stringing together a series of ad hoc child care arrangements that can expose children to abuse, fail to provide the nurturing care children need to be prepared for school, and ultimately defeat the very purpose of working more to shape a healthy early childhood environment in the first place.

One Solution: Help Parents Access Quality Child Care

It is clear then that to take on the country’s obstinate educational declines, America must take bold action to support families during the period when their children’s learning really starts. One key way to do so is to ensure parents can afford quality child care that both provides a nurturing environment for their children and enables them to work.

Although the country has taken positive steps toward this goal in recent years, America’s investment in children’s earliest years has been dismal when compared to other developed nations. On average OECD countries spend 0.7% of GDP on child care and early education, but the United States spends just 0.3% of GDP on these programs and ranks among the bottom three OECD countries on these expenditures. The Child Care and Development Fund—the largest source of federal funding for child care—enables states to subsidize child care costs for low-income, working families and only provides partial relief to a small portion of the families who need it. At current funding levels, less than one-fifth of the families eligible for these subsidies according to federal rules were able to receive them in 2017. And if families do receive a subsidy, the amount is not adequate to access high-quality providers: all states but one in 2016 set rates below the 75th percentile of market rates, the federally recommended threshold that would allow families to access at least three out of every four providers.

Yet, providers are often unable to provide lower rates. Child care is labor intensive and driven by the need for low staff-to-child ratios—labor accounts for 60% to 80% of operating costs in most programs. Since many parents cannot afford rates that would adequately cover the costs of providing high-quality care, providers often charge suppressed rates, threatening their ability to offer high-quality care and retain and recruit staff. Average hourly wages for child care workers were $11.65 in 2019, most receive no benefits, and many are enrolled in at least one public assistance program. The inability to offer stable, attractive wages prevents providers from attracting a highly skilled workforce and leads to constant turnover, both of which detract from the quality of relationships research indicates have the most influence on a child’s healthy development. The child care crisis in this country emanates from both the demand and supply side of the child care system; any serious solution will need to address the problem from both angles.

As the country looks to help K-12 students make up for the educational deficits incurred during the pandemic, it is imperative that we not forget about the gaps that already exist. Children need a nurturing, developmentally appropriate environment during their first five years just as much as they do during their K-12 years. Education in this country has long been viewed as a public good, it is time child care is too.