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February 4, 2004

Poor children blossom in quality child care, new study shows

By Lisa Trei

Poor preschool children enrolled in high-quality child care centers develop early reading skills faster than those placed in home-based care, a new study reveals.

The research is based on a multi-year study of the children of single mothers who entered the workforce after the welfare reforms of 1996. It will be published Feb. 10 in the journal Child Development.

"The differences in cognitive development were pretty dramatic," said Susanna Loeb, an assistant professor in Stanford's School of Education and the report's lead author.

The results, collected from interviews with 451 families in California and Florida, showed that the cognitive growth and school-readiness skills of preschoolers who attended child care centers accelerated up to six months ahead of children who remained in home-based care. This positive trend increased an additional two months among children sent to high-quality centers with a stable, college-educated staff.

"The findings suggest remarkable returns for the lucky children who were able to enter centers and preschools," said study co-author Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California-Berkeley. "Public investments to improve access to quality child care appear to be paying off in spades."


Policy ramifications

The findings from "Child Care in Poor Communities: Early Learning Effects of Type, Quality and Stability" are being released following California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed $148 million cut in child care programs last month, on top of $130 million in cuts passed by the state legislature last year.

"Our findings suggest that these cuts are penny-wise and pound foolish," Fuller said. "If the governor is serious about raising kids' school achievement, it's simply short-sighted to cut access to preschool. It's a crucial ingredient in education."

At the federal level, meanwhile, the study's encouraging results may fuel debate over part of President George W. Bush's recently released budget, which would eliminate child care support for 300,000 low- and moderate-income working families nationwide by 2009.

Furthermore, the U.S. Senate is expected to consider legislation this month that would lengthen the work week for mothers on welfare. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has said she will push to add as much as $6 billion over five years to pay for the additional child care that will be required as poor mothers work longer hours, an increase the White House opposes.


Behavior problem findings not replicated

In a separate but significant finding, the paper refutes two controversial studies published last July in Child Development linking longer hours some children spend in center care to increased behavior problems.

One of last year's studies, undertaken by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, found that the longer children spent in child care, the more likely they were to be disobedient and have trouble getting along with others. The second study, by researchers from the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, found that in children under three years old, levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, rose in the afternoons when the toddlers were in care all day, but fell on days when they were at home.

Loeb said her research was not able to replicate these results. "We looked at social and cognitive development because of the previous findings linked to children's aggression," she said. "We didn't find this negative effect from center care on social development." Fuller added, "Our findings should soothe parents' worries over whether more time spent in child care is OK for their young kids."

Loeb noted, however, that the new study is based on poor children while last year's reports focused on a middle-class population. Part of the difference in results, she said, might be explained because the low-income children were being raised in less cognitively stimulating households with fewer pre-literacy activities, such as having books read to them at home.


The study

Following the welfare reforms of 1996, Loeb explained, increased public support for women in welfare-to-work programs resulted in an additional one million children entering child care.

"The Growing up in Poverty Project," a collaboration between Stanford, UC-Berkeley and Columbia University, initially followed 947 single mothers for up to four years after they entered new welfare programs in California, Florida and Connecticut. The project's initial findings, released in April 2002, confirmed that welfare reform had successfully moved millions of mothers into the workforce but had failed to improve living conditions for their young children.

In 1998 and 2000, Loeb and other researchers conducted two rounds of interviews with 451 families with young children in San Francisco, San Jose and Tampa, Fla. The researchers assessed the children's behavior and cognitive abilities in their day care settings and at home. By 2000, when the children were about 4 years old, 83 percent were in child care settings outside the home.

Test results for language and cognitive proficiency and school readiness were highest among children who attended child care centers, Loeb said. These positive effects were also found for children who moved from home- to center-based care between the two rounds of interviews. The children in Connecticut were not included in the new analysis because access to center care was limited.

In addition to Loeb and Fuller, the paper was written by Professor Sharon Lynn Kagan of Teacher's College, Columbia University, and Stanford graduate student Bidemi Carrol. The U.S. departments of education and health and human services, and several national foundations, have funded the project.

Editor Note:

"Child Care in Poor Communities: Early Learning Effects of Type, Quality and Stability" is available from



Lisa Trei, News Service: (650) 725-0224,


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