There’s a spectrum of shoddy care – from mediocre to poor to awful. The hard part is figuring out exactly how many kids fall into each category. And despite considerable research and consultation with experts, I came up with only two reliable sources. One was a study of day care in four states, by researchers in Colorado. The other was a more comprehensive national survey, by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development. The results were similar: In the Colorado study, only 8 percent of day care centers were “good” or “excellent” while 40 percent were “poor.” The NIHCD study found that three out of four infant caregivers give only minimal intellectual and cognitive stimulation.
To be sure, measuring the quality of day care is difficult. It’s hard to find good ways to measure quality, let alone collect the information. In that sense, it’s the same problem that plagues efforts to measure quality of elementary and secondary education.
But the contrast between the available studies on the two age groups is revealing. Our data on the quality of grade school may not be the most reliable or insightful, but at least we have a lot of it – and are hard at work at improving both the quality and quantity. When it comes to care for children younger than 5 and, in particular, younger than 3, we have very little information and don’t seem to be generating much more. That’s indicative of the priority we put on very early childhood – or lack thereof.
Based on the evidence I’ve seen, the problem isn’t that too many kids are in day care. It’s that too many kids are in lousy day care.