10 December 2009

Measuring Quality in Early Childhood Care and Education: Moving from an “Inputs” Focused Program to an Outcomes Based Model of System Reform

All across the U.S., low income and minority students are consistently less likely to be prepared for kindergarten, less likely to be proficient on achievement tests, more likely to be held back and less likely to graduate from high school; this phenomenon is called the “achievement gap”.

Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke at the annual meeting of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) that was held in Washington D.C. During his remarks, Secretary Duncan commented on the importance and value of early learning systems that span pre-kindergarten to 3rd grade as the best opportunity policymakers have to “get schools out of the catch up business” (Duncan, November 2009, para. 6). In other words, - as NAEYC’s call to action on pre-K to 3rd grade systems states-, “to close the (achievement) gap, we must prevent the (achievement) gap” (Duncan, November 2009, para. 5).

However, the most interesting aspect of Secretary Duncan’s speech is not in recognizing the role of early education in helping to prevent achievement gaps between children from different backgrounds. Instead, his most valuable point is that system reform in early childhood can not have the intended effect of eliminating the achievement gap, unless reform efforts are measured in terms of children’s “outcomes” instead of “inputs” to their early education.

Traditionally, education reform in early childhood has been focused on raising teacher qualifications, lowering staff to child ratios and improving curriculums. While these are all “inputs” which have been linked to better child outcomes in research studies, Duncan’s larger point is that it is ultimately not enough to simply raise the quality of early childhood education. We have to know if reform efforts are leading to better outcomes for children served by the system.

What types of outcomes? Kindergarten readiness has traditionally been thought of as a child’s academic or intellectual preparation for school. Certainly knowing letters of the alphabet, having a large receptive vocabulary and the ability to distinguish beginning and ending sounds of words are all important to the process of becoming literate. Many, if not most, of our current assessments of pre-kindergarten programs are focused on children’s intellectual preparation for kindergarten. However, we also know that social and emotional development, which encompasses the ability to self-regulate and participate in groups, is a key component of school readiness. Therefore, as Secretary Duncan pointed out, effective outcomes measurement must be expanded to include all dimensions of school readiness, not just the ones we actively know how to measure.

There are several valid tests of children’s social and emotional development including:

- Behavioral Skills Rating Scales of the Bayley Scales of Infant Development;

- Ages & Stages Questionnaire on Social and Emotional Development; and

- The Brief Infant Toddler Social Emotional Assessment (BITSEA).

Currently in Shelby County, Head Start and Early Head Start are the only early care and education programs that are required to asses and track children’s social and emotional development. Head Start and Early Head Start are also the only early care and education programs that are required to help children access physical, mental, and developmental health services. Children need to be academically, social/emotionally and physically prepared to participate in school from day one. Effectively expanding and improving our current early care and education system to help eliminate the achievement gap locally should include assessment of the full range of children’s developmental preparation for school.


Duncan, Arne. November 18, 2009. The Early Learning Challenge: Raising the Bar — Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the National Association for the Education of Young Children Annual Conference. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Education. [Accessed December 3, 2009]

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