Young children’s learning happens in a variety of settings. For the purposes of this webpage, early care and education refers to formal settings, including:
- Regulated child care (birth through age five and before- and after-school care)
- Preschool and Head Start (age three through age five)
- Kindergarten through third grade (age five through age eight)
High-quality child care, Head Start and preschool programs (birth through age five) help prepare children for school and life success. Children in high quality programs tend to have:
- More advanced language and pre-math skills
- More advanced social skills
- Warmer relationships with their teachers1
- Fewer behavioral challenges2
- Easier adjustment to kindergarten3
Children from low-income families and those at risk for academic challenges show the biggest gains from high quality early care and education. Those are also the child populations who, on average, start kindergarten behind their peers in literacy and language skills.4
High-quality education in the early grades (kindergarten through third grade) helps children maintain developmental and learning gains,5 while lack of academic progress in the early elementary school years can be predictive of later academic challenges.
- Children who are not reading proficiently by the end of the third grade are four times more likely not to graduate, and for children of color that rate doubles6
- Chronic absences in elementary school predict future academic challenges7
- Reading problems among third to fifth grade students correlate with later learning, life and economic challenges, including lower adult literacy, youth delinquency and later incarcerations, and lifelong economic challenges.8
- Reading challenges in the early elementary school years also impact students’ ability to succeed in middle- and high-school math.9
What Can We Do About It?
What supports high quality early care and education?
- A comprehensive, aligned, equitable birth through third grade education system that includes educator and school leader professional development opportunities
- A focus on social-emotional learning
- Increasing affordability of and access to high quality birth-through-age-five early care and education
Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Design Teams co-created the Pathways Action Framework, focusing in on three areas that directly impact third grade reading proficiency:
- Social-emotional health
- High quality birth through age eight care and education
- Regular school attendance
Together with parents and teachers, we are reimagining an early childhood education system that truly meets the needs of the families it serves. Click here to learn about the Care and Learning (CandL) coalition and its work to reimagine and rebuild early care and education for all North Carolina children while ensuring that childcare providers earn enough to be sustainable in every community.
May 2018 Presentation to Birth to 3rd Grade Interagency Council
NCECF Policy and Practice Leader Mandy Ableidinger shared information about NC's early learning system and the NC Pathways to Grade-Level Reading.
What is Chronic Absence (Video)
AttendaNCe Counts: What North Carolina School Districts are Doing to Reduce Chronic Absence
AttendaNCe Counts: What North Carolina School Districts are Doing to Reduce Chronic Absence provides results of a self-assessment that asked school districts to share which of their attendance policies and practices are strong, and where there are opportunities for improvement. The assessment responses are the self-reported impressions of school district superintendent office staff. Fifty-five out of 115 school districts responded.
Pathways Design Team Meeting 5 Summary Report
Summary of process and decisions from Meeting 5 of the Pathways Design Teams.
Related News Posts
More About High Quality Early Care and Education
Enrollment in High Quality Early Care and Education (birth through age five)
Of the more than 188,000 North Carolina children, birth through age five, in licensed child care centers and family homes in 2020:
- 72 percent of those enrolled in centers are enrolled in center rated 4 or 5 stars, out of five.
- 52 percent of those enrolled in child care family homes are enrolled in 4- and 5-star homes1
As of March 2020, there were more than 455,000 North Carolina children under age six living in households where the sole parent or both parents were working — 62 percent of young children in NC. However, only about 26 percent of NC children under age 6 (about 188,000) are enrolled in licensed child care, suggesting that at least 267,000 young children are in some form of informal care—either at home with caregivers or attending unregulated care.2 Of the children in licensed childcare, 97 percent of them are in center-based care, while three percent are in licensed family child care homes.
The story is similar nationally: six in ten young children are reported to regularly spend time in unlicensed family care, many in the care of relatives who are often grandparents.3 The use of family, friend and neighbor care is more common:
- For infants and toddlers than older children
- Among lower-income mothers
- Among families of color4
Informal care is also more frequently used to cover non-standard working hours and school vacations.5
Informal caregivers tend to:
- Have lower educational levels than providers in licensed early care and education
- Have gained their experience from caring for their own children
- Care for children over longer periods of time with fewer disruptions than in other settings
Nationally, among informal caregiver homes rated using assessment tools, reports of quality range from inadequate to minimal. The relationship between the caregiver and parent are, however, very positive.6
Impact of High Quality Early Care and Education (birth through age five)
The benefits of early care and education outweigh the costs for all children. Children from low-income backgrounds benefit the most.1 Public investment in early care and education for low-income children (Smart Start and state preschool) improves outcomes for all children in care, sometimes called the spillover effect.2
The positive impact of high quality early care and education lasts into the elementary school years. Studies of North Carolina’s early childhood programs – Smart Start and NC Pre-K, find the programs produce lasting benefits for children, including higher test scores, less grade retention and fewer special education placement through fifth grade.
Early educators may also be the first to notice developmental delays and social-emotional challenges and make recommendations for intervention. In North Carolina, access to Smart Start and NC Pre-K reduced the likelihood of a child being placed in special education by about 39 percent. The cost of special education is generally accepted to be about twice the cost of regular public education.3
High quality early care and education environments also give children and their families consistency and the opportunity to practice regular school attendance. Chronic absences in early care and education predict absences in elementary school.4
High Quality Teachers
The quality of teachers and leaders in birth through third grade is a major contributor to children’s school success.1
Good teaching advances children’s learning, while poor or mediocre teaching hinders learning and development.2 Even in low performing schools, students see gains when schools intentionally retain the most effective teachers and improve supports for teachers.3 Characteristics of effective educators include:
- Trusting and responsive relationships with children and families
- Individualized teaching
- Effective balancing of teacher-guided activities and child-initiated play
- Daily focus on language, literacy and communication
- Providing home supports for dual-language learners
- Ongoing reflection and personal growth4
Relationships with students and families are particularly important.
- High quality teacher-child interactions result in academic and social benefits for all children. Teachers maximize learning when they:
- Emphasize understanding of concepts
- Give feedback that extends students’ skills
- Engage children in conversation throughout the day5
Children in these classrooms exhibit fewer behavioral problems and better academic outcomes than children in classrooms with fewer high quality interactions. Children with socioeconomic, academic or behavioral disadvantages benefit most from high quality interactions.6
- High quality educators work with families to:
- Educate parents on age-appropriate child development
- Connect families to social supports7
High quality comprehensive early childhood initiatives, like Smart Start, link families with an integrated system of early education, health services and family services to support children and their families in a multi-generational context.8
Both birth-through-age-five and elementary school settings need high quality educators. There are currently significant workforce differences among elementary school teachers, Head Start/Preschool teachers, and infant and toddler teachers.9
The chart below outlines national findings, including:
- Gaps in licensure and certification requirements between K-12 educators and early care and education teachers (birth through age five)
- Nearly all K-12 teachers have attained a bachelor’s degree and more than half hold a master’s degree as well
- Only 60 percent of teachers in public preschool classrooms and in Head Start programs have attained a bachelor’s degree. In North Carolina, NC Pre-K requires teachers to hold bachelor’s degrees.
- In private child care centers and non-public preschool, only one in three have attained a bachelor’s degree10
K-12 Teachers (Public School)
Early Educators (birth through age five)
Licensure and certification
Must be licensed or certified through traditional or alternative programs recognized by the state.
Licensure and certification requirements vary widely based on placement (Head Start, public PreK, or other center-based care) and by state.
96% of K-12 teachers hold at least a Bachelor’s degree, and 56% hold at least a Master’s degree
Education varies widely, ranging from 62% of Head Start teachers holding a Bachelor’s degree, to only 34% of teachers in other center-based care (outside of public PreK and Head Start). Very few hold Master’s degrees.
There are also disparities in education, certification, and experience between preschool teachers (of three- and four-year-olds) and infant and toddler teachers (of birth through three year olds). In North Carolina, preschool teachers on average are more likely than infant and toddler teachers to:
- Hold a two- or four-year degree
- Hold a B-K license
- Have taken a class specifically in the early childhood field
- Have as much experience in the classroom11
High Quality School Leaders
Strong leadership in child care centers and elementary schools can also improve student achievement.1 Early education leadership requires specific skills and competencies to establish a developmentally-informed, positive school climate that supports teachers’ and students’ success.2 Elementary school principals and child care center directors are responsible for guiding improvement of the many variables that, together, impact achievement.3
The following options could make North Carolina elementary school principals more effective in leading on early literacy:
- Principal preparation programs to offer specific coursework around early learning and/or child development
- Elementary school principals to have clinical experience in elementary schools during preparation
- Offering a credential for a targeted age range for elementary principals rather than only a license for leading PreK-12
- Professional learning (such as training, mentoring, or coaching) around early childhood education or PreK–3rd alignment for elementary principals4
A national survey of elementary school principals found that, even though half of the respondents had Pre-K classrooms in their schools, only one in five felt they were well-trained in “instructional methods and developmentally-appropriate perspectives for early education.”5
Nationwide, standards for early childhood program directors are much lower than those of elementary school principals, even though the requirements for their jobs are similar. The chart below shows some of the discrepancies in North Carolina’s policies for the two types of administrators.
Elementary School Principals
Center Directors (birth through age five)
Minimum education requirement
No higher education or specific training is required*
Prior teaching experience required?
Formal evaluation required?
*NC offers a Center Director credential, but it is not required for licensure.
NC is an outlier compared with the rest of the nation. Forty-three states require higher education for child care directors.
Education, experience and consistency impact early childhood educators’ ability to create high quality early learning experiences.1 Low wages can drive low performance by making it difficult to hire and retain more experienced teachers and school leaders.2
Early care and education teachers and child care center directors earn much less than elementary school teachers and principals. The chart below illustrates the discrepancies in North Carolina between teacher and school leader salaries in the birth-through-age-five system and elementary schools.
K-12 (Public School)
Early Care and Education (birth through age five)
Elementary school: $42,170
Child care: $19,500
Head Start: $26,140
North Carolina’s average salaries for child care center directors and early care and education teachers are below the national averages. Before 2017, North Carolina’s average salaries for principals were near the bottom of the Southeast region, and elementary school teacher salaries were sixth from the bottom. Since 2017, NC has restructured the salary schedule for principals, causing average principal pay to increase from around $76,000 in 2016-17 to around $95,000 for the 2019-20 school year. This places NC at #3 in the Southeast for principal pay.5
Nationally, across birth-through-age-five early care and education settings (public and private) and types of positions (e.g., lead teacher, teacher or assistant teacher):
- 75 percent of teachers earn less than $30,000 per year for full-time work6
- Fewer than 40 percent of staff have access to health insurance through their employers
- Fewer than 33 percent have retirement plans7
- 40 percent are enrolled in public assistance programs based on their income eligibility8
Infant and toddler teachers are less well compensated than preschool and Head Start teachers, are less likely to have health insurance, and are more likely to qualify for public assistance.9
The same health and mental health challenges that face low-income families in general (including high stress and depression) can also occur for low-wage early care and education staff when their salaries do not allow them to care adequately for their own children.10
Nationally, K-12 education is almost exclusively publicly funded and employs nearly four million teachers. Birth-through-age-five early care and education is largely privately funded, mostly through parent fees, and employs about two million teachers.1
Without additional public investment, the basic business model for early care and education drives low salaries, which can negatively impact quality. In the private market, high fees for parents make child care out of reach for many families, while at the same time not meeting the actual costs to providers of high quality care, including wages, benefits, and support of teachers’ professional development. The result is low wages and higher levels of teacher stress, which lower classroom quality. The gap between revenues and the cost of high quality environments is even greater for programs that serve predominantly low-income children, which means that the children who most need stable, high quality early learning environments are often the least likely to have them.2
Critical public investments in child care subsidies, NC Pre-K, Smart Start, Head Start and Early Head Start help fill these gaps by raising classroom quality, providing additional slots and ensuring that children from low-income families can attend high quality care that would otherwise be unaffordable for their families. However, at current funding levels, these critical public investments do not reach all eligible children.
Costs and Reimbursement for NC Pre-K Slots. In 2016, just over 27,000 four-year-old children were enrolled in NC Pre-K. The average annual cost of an NC Pre-K slot is $9,112, of which the state reimburses on average 61 percent, or about $5,535.3 Costs and reimbursement vary based on whether the slot is in a Head Start, public school or private child care classroom. Those varying reimbursement rates are determined based on factors specific to each setting, such as the additional costs needed to meet NC Pre-K requirements, average salaries of teachers, and administrative overhead costs. These costs and funding levels are outlined in our fact sheet on the cost of NC Pre-K.