Day care - American EducationA widely varying program for tending the physical, emotional and intellectual needs of children two to five years old while their parents work. Day-care programs operate as many as six days a week for up to 12 hours a day, in private homes, churches, social service agencies, independent entrepreneurial “nursery schools,” cooperative, parent-owned centers, public and private schools, university campuses and factories and businesses. Because they do not fall under the jurisdiction of state education authorities in most states, operations and conditions vary widely. Some amount to nothing more than baby-sitting services; others offer comprehensive programs that include carefully planned feeding and nutrition programs, organized play and formal instruction to help each child’s physical, emotional, social and intellectual development. Most states require licensing of day care centers; some require staffers to be trained and certified. Of the nearly 100,000 day-care centers in the United States, fewer than 15% are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Accreditation, however, is of questionable value, because it is based largely on self-analysis. Only about two-thirds of accredited day-care centers were rated as offering high-quality care by outside researchers, with the rest providing only mediocre care. The quality of nonaccredited day-care centers was even worse, with about 30% of the care offered to infants and 15% of the care offered to children two and a half to five years old rated as harmful. In the most definitive study of the effects of day care, the Abecedarian Project in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, found that, regardless of their economic levels, children who received high-quality day care consistently outperformed children who did not, on both cognitive and academic tests. Children who received high-quality day care were also more likely to attend college and hold highskill jobs in adulthood.
The principle of day care goes back to the 18th century, when some two- and three-yearolds were sent to rural common schools with older siblings while their parents worked in the fields. The practice disappeared in the early 19th century, however, in favor of family care, either by mothers themselves or neighborhood women. Day care as we know it today has its roots in the post–Civil War industrial expansion and the population explosion that took place with the arrival of millions of immigrants. To survive, few families could afford to leave a parent at home to care for young children. Children either stayed with neighbors or relatives, at home with older siblings or roamed the streets. Journalist-author Jacob Riis estimated in 1892 that New York City had a population of 200,000 children under five, of whom half could be found on the streets, unattended. Churches and charitable organizations responded by establishing the first organized day-care centers—Riis listed 28—but most limited their activities to what Riis called the “soap cure,” that is, physical care, consisting of feeding and bathing the children and keeping them off the streets.
In 1909, the Conference on the Care of Dependent Children opened with President Theodore Roosevelt’s call for direct financial aid—so-called mothers’ pensions—to widows, to allow them to remain at home to care for their children. In 1911, Missouri and Illinois enacted the first legislation providing for such aid, and over the next seven years, 37 of the 48 states followed suit. To receive such pensions, mothers had to provide proof of poverty and be “a proper person, physically, mentally and morally fit to bring up her children.” By 1931, all but Georgia and South Carolina provided mothers’ pensions, and in 1935, the Aid to Families with Dependent Children portion of the Social Security Act provided federal funds to underwrite state programs.
Although the mothers’ pension movement reduced the need for day care, it also gave rise to its transformation from a physical-care facility to an educative institution—that is, the nursery school. Designed with much wider social, educational and developmental goals, nursery schools not only housed, cared for and fed their charges, they also provided health maintenance services, mental and emotional services, constructive play, lessons in socialization, and such preschool intellectual activities as storytelling, exploring nature, art, music and dance. By 1930, about 300 nursery schools had opened across the United States, and the number increased fivefold after the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) provided funds to establish nursery schools for needy children. Designed to put unemployed teachers back to work, the FERA program and, later, the Works Progress Administration, sponsored nearly 1,500 nursery schools with an enrollment of nearly 40,000 children. In 1942, the program expanded to allow mothers to take jobs in World War II defense plants. By the end of the war, 2,800 federally financed day-care centers were caring for about 1.5 million children. Although most of them closed after federal aid was withdrawn, the day-care movement had grown so strong that private operators stepped into the breach to provide what by then had become an essential service for American families. In 1964, the U.S. government once again involved itself in day-care as part of its “WAR ON POVERTY.” Asserting that, without equal educational opportunities, the poor would never obtain equal economic opportunities, the government launched a comprehensive program to provide day-care to economically disadvantaged children. Called Operation Head Start, or more simply Head Start, the program funded establishment of several thousand day-care centers across the United States to provide preschool education to about 750,000 economically deprived children a year. By 1999, nearly 60% of American children under five years of age, from all economic levels, were attending day-care centers, nursery schools or both.