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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

February 11, 2005

"Engine" of change

She helps drive Iowa debate on early childhood education

by Kevin Brown

Susan Hegland, associate professor of human development and family studies, has something in common with the children's book character, The Little Engine That Could. She, too, is striving to make a difference in an uphill effort. Her work, in part, is the catalyst driving debate in Iowa on early care and education.

And like her storybook counterpart, Hegland is working to navigate steep odds. She and her colleagues hope to focus Iowa's -- and the region's -- view on the importance, funding and quality of early care and education.

"As Iowans look for the cause of declining academic skills in the state's children, attention is being paid increasingly to the impact of preschool experiences on children's readiness for academic success," Hegland said. "Nationally, there is a growing acknowledgment that literacy begins at birth. The preschool child without rich language and literacy experiences enters kindergarten at risk for academic failure."

Hegland said the issue especially is important in Iowa, which ranks second in the nation in the percentage of children younger than 6 (70 percent) who have both parents working.

In her research with the Midwest Child Care Research Consortium, a multi-state (Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska) research group of four state universities and the Gallup Organization, Princeton, N.J., she is working with citizens around the state to develop a child care quality-rating system for infants through pre-school-aged children.

Two years ago, Hegland spoke before an Iowa Senate Appropriations Committee about an Iowa State study that revealed poorer quality child care in Iowa than in the other three states.

"The observed quality of family child care and infant center care was significantly worse in Iowa than in Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas," Hegland said. A key factor in Iowa's poor performance is that the state's early care and education workers:

  • Earn, on average, the lowest wages and have the fewest benefits.
  • Are offered fewer training opportunities.
  • Are most interested in pursuing other types of work.

Guidelines parents can use

Early development, care and education for children is one of the three signature research areas in Hegland's department. She and her colleagues -- faculty members Carla Peterson, Gayle Luze and Kere Hughes, and extension program specialist Lesia Oesterreich -- work with 15 extension specialists throughout the state to gather information on the quality of care provided to Iowa children. They are working with citizens to create guidelines that would help parents determine the quality of care and education their children are receiving.

"In the other states, there are strict licensing requirements that provide necessary industry information and statistics," Hegland said. "But Iowa provides fewer regulations for child care and less oversight than other states. This disparity makes it hard for Iowa parents to judge the quality of early childhood programs. We owe it to parents and children to provide a clear set of guidelines to rank the effectiveness of child care. Care also must be affordable and accessible."

For example, Hegland said that unlike other states, Iowa doesn't regulate group size.

"But our research shows that infants and toddlers in larger groups receive less warm, responsive care. And warm, responsive care is important for the development of children's social, emotional and communication skills. So the quality rating system includes group size as one criterion," she noted.

With Iowa parents paying more for a year of child care than a year of public college, the state has a stake in helping parents judge the overall care and attention these children receive, she added.

Faculty, students, parents, trainers and care providers will share the results of ISU research with legislators in the "First Steps to Iowa's Future" day at the capitol Feb. 24.

The job-family balance

Another piece of research the group is looking at (with Kathlene Larson, Extension program specialist in sociology and Carol Roskey of ISU's Family Policy Center) is how the quality of child care and child care subsidies help working families balance jobs and parenting.

"Businesses are beginning to support this research because they see the link between economic develop-ment in Iowa and the quality of our early care and education system," Hegland said. "They see accessibility of high quality child care linked to the recruitment and productivity of parents in the work force. They also see quality child care as providing the foundation for an educated workforce."

Susan Hegland

Susan Hegland's research on child care quality in Iowa indicates room for improvement -- and has gotten the attention of state leaders, including Gov. Tom Vilsack. Photo by Bob Elbert.


"We can invest early in a child's life at a reasonable level or risk spending tens of thousands of dollars in social-welfare and corrections costs. Prevention costs less than failure."

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, Jan. 30 Des Moines Register editorial