Detroit kids aren’t ready for kindergarten and fourth grade because we haven’t done the work necessary to prepare them. Kindergarten readiness is driven by access to high-quality early care and education (whether within or outside of the home), and third grade success is achieved through high-quality instruction, quick intervention, and any necessary wraparound services.

Across the country, children who attend quality early care and education perform better in reading, math, and core capabilities.101112 On average, participating in Head Start is associated with a positive impact on IQ and achievement in kindergarten.13 Participation in Oklahoma’s universal pre-k is associated with positive impacts on language, literacy, and math skills.14 Participation in early childhood education in Baltimore is associated with a positive impact on kindergarten readiness.15 And in Michigan, participation in the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) increases a child’s likelihood of kindergarten readiness, fourth grade standardized test proficiency, grade promotion, and high school graduation; further, such programs are also associated with long-term social outcomes such as lower likelihoods of incarceration and health problems.16

While we as a society have drastically expanded our knowledge of the benefits of high quality early care and education, a seamless transition to the early elementary grades, and success in third grade, we have not built our early care and education landscape to mirror this understanding. We do not yet choose to supply the inputs necessary to develop kindergarten and third grade readiness.

Low-Income children can fall behind multiple years by third grade171819

The Path to Kindergarten Readiness

Despite a lack of clarity on the extent of kindergarten readiness in Detroit, researchers nationwide know that the achievement gap develops early for underserved children. Several studies identify measurable gaps in children’s development at as early as 18 months, with underserved two year olds as far as six months behind in language acquisition.20 At five years old, when these children enter kindergarten, they may be as far as two years behind in readiness.

An Underdeveloped Landscape

In Detroit’s early education landscape, there are barriers to continuity of high-quality care that stunt long-term outcomes for our kids and our city. The market for early learning meets only a sliver of the city’s demand, with supply of programs of varying quality poorly distributed across a demographically shifting city. Indeed, the service gap for families needing early care and education in Detroit is 28,000 slots (the vast majority of which would serve children ages zero to two), even after recent massive expansions across publicly-funded programs.21 And fully 70% of slots needed to fill the service gap for three to five year old children are located in ten high-need neighborhoods on the city’s edges.22 The process of navigating this landscape is prohibitively burdensome for families, restricting access and contributing to enrollment challenges across programs. To expand equitable access to high quality early care and education, Detroit faces three foundational hurdles: supply of safe facilities; supply of high-quality, stable talent; and a streamlined finance and administration system.

Early care and education service gap for children ages three to five


One of the first challenges faced by an early care and education provider is identifying and securing a safe facility that meets federal and state standards in a neighborhood with sufficient demand for care. The process often requires both a series of permits and costly renovations to ensure the space is safe and welcoming for classrooms of small children. High-quality providers, especially the more stringently-regulated state and federal programs GSRP and Head Start, may avoid some neighborhoods altogether. Due in part to these barriers to acquiring, renovating, licensing, and opening facilities, there are currently nearly 800 unfilled Early Head Start and Head Start seats in Detroit that are in danger of being returned to the federal government due to lack of utilization, a potential loss of over $6 million in funding.23


After securing an acceptable facility, a provider’s next great challenge is to attract high-quality educators. High-quality educators have effective, positive interactions with children and their families, offer richer language and other content experiences, use a variety of appropriate curricula and teaching practices (including play) for individualized and group teaching, and create high-quality learning environments for children.24 These educators have deep knowledge of reading pedagogy and child development across the birth to eight continuum, regardless of the ages of their students.25 However, Detroit’s early care and education landscape faces both a low supply of high-quality early learning educators (current or potential) and a low actionable demand for such educators.

Detroit’s shallow pool of high-quality talent restricts program expansion below the level necessary to meet citywide demand. The workforce is graying (Detroit Head Start classroom teachers are over 40 years old on average), but the pipeline for new talent remains insufficient.26 Citywide college and career readiness is in the single digits, Bachelor’s Degree attainment is only 14%, there has been a decades-long brain drain of the city’s most educated residents, and the poverty rate is 40%.2728 With local early childhood Bachelor’s Degrees costing tens of thousands of dollars and average Detroit Head Start wages upon graduation between $19.25–$20.88 per hour, a career as a high-quality early learning educator isn’t very attractive.29

In fact, nearly one third of early care and education professionals who have left the field do so because of inadequate compensation.30 Detroit providers’ thin budgets for recruitment and compensation artificially lower the demand for high-quality educators and increase educator mobility as teachers seek out higher wages. On average, early care and education teachers in Michigan earn between $19,620–$27,613 (down 10% in the past five years). Those wages can fall below the poverty line and qualify them and their families for food stamps. Such earnings are lower than those of manicurists and typists and are on par with parking lot attendants. They are not only associated with mental health issues that can harm job performance, they also mean taxpayers must pay $44.5 million annually for public assistance programs to support Michigan child care workers alone.3132

“We have 20th century earnings for our 21st century hopes. [...] Right now if you graduate from college with a degree in early-childhood education, you have the lowest projected earnings of all college graduates. This is not a recruitment strategy.”


State and federal regulations do little to raise demand for high-quality educators. While lead teacher roles in Early Head Start, Head Start, and GSRP settings require a specialized Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degree, these credentials alone are not always a sure sign of high-quality instruction.3435 When it comes to private providers, state licensure requires little more than basic safety and neither requires nor incentivizes quality measures. Private home child care providers need only to be 18 years old, possess a high school diploma or GED, and complete 10 clock hours of training to accept public child care subsidies.

With low barriers to becoming an early childhood educator and high costs to gaining the knowledge and experience necessary to develop quality, Detroit is left with a low supply of high-quality talent. This reality is met by equally low provider demand for such talent, given their inability to increase educator compensation. Razor thin margins suppress wages (even in the face of incentives for additional education, such as the T.E.A.C.H. Scholarship), which in turn disincentivizes high-quality teachers from entering the field. As a result, early childhood educator quality varies wildly across providers.


If a provider is successful at securing a facility and attracting high-quality talent, she may still struggle to reach full enrollment due to the complicated registration and enrollment process that both providers and families must endure. Providers offering a combination of Early Head Start, Head Start, GSRP, subsidy, or tuition slots must comply with both federal and state regulations, subjected to audits as frequently as 2–4 times each year. These regulations can be so restrictive that, without adequate finance and administrative capacity, providers resort to segregating students by funding stream (and therefore, most commonly, family income). Indeed, only a few providers in Detroit currently blend and braid funding at some level in an attempt to offer more cohesive care.36

For families, this disjointed system means application timelines and processes that vary from center to center (and even from room to room within centers) and must be repeated anytime a family moves or is placed on a wait list and applies elsewhere. This cost of time and energy can be prohibitively high for our most vulnerable families, who fall through the cracks and, oftentimes, into lower-quality care. The process can be equally burdensome for families who do not qualify for publicly-funded programs or do not complete their application processes. Private infant care in Michigan costs more than housing expenses for the average family, and a family must earn near-poverty wages (below the income level necessary to qualify for GSRP) to qualify for a private provider subsidy that rarely covers the full cost of care.37

The early care and education workforce is at risk financially, emotionally, and physically, subject to a vicious cycle of inadequate resources, low qualification expectations, low education levels, and low wages that is difficult to break.

Institute of Medicine and National Research Council38

A Disconnected Transition

Detroit’s underdeveloped early care and education landscape operates largely in a vacuum, disconnected in any meaningful way from students’ subsequent educational opportunities in early elementary. Today’s kindergarten transition in Detroit focuses on the logistical as early learning providers, at best, help families to navigate the chaotic K-12 educational landscape in and around the city. Indeed, any given kindergarten class in Metro Detroit may contain students spread across 140+ square miles of the city.

Data and Communication

This scramble de-emphasizes any benchmarking across the early learning to early elementary transition, which does a disservice to both incoming kindergarteners and their teachers and may accelerate the fade out of any gains made before kindergarten. As any teacher knows, each class of students is different; a baseline knowledge of students’ strengths and weaknesses across academic and core capabilities helps teachers to hit the ground running with students and maximize learning time. However, without specific data sharing and communication between a kindergarten teacher and the myriad early learning providers of her incoming students, and absent any benchmarking or diagnostic assessment to discern specific delays in literacy, numeracy, and social-emotional development, the blind are leading the blind each September and children are falling farther behind from the start.

Curriculum and Instruction

Limited communication across the transitions prevents curricular and instructional alignment as well. When students move to kindergarten, an aggressive focus on literacy and numeracy crowds out any focus on core capabilities. This replays at the end of third grade, when many classrooms shift from learning to read to reading to learn. Without targeted funding for high-quality instruction and interventions beginning in early learning and continuing consistently through early elementary, students will not be prepared to make these transitions. This must include both curricular alignment (across literacy, numeracy, and social-emotional development) and shared, aligned professional development across the early learning to early elementary continuum to ensure that educators are familiar with preceding and succeeding educational standards and developmental benchmarks and skilled in how to intervene before students fall behind.

  1. Rathbun, A., and Zhang, A. (2016). Primary early care and education arrangements and achievement at kindergarten entry (NCES 2016-070). National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC.

  2. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2016). Building core capabilities for life: The science behind the skills adults need to succeed in parenting and in the workplace.

  3. According to the Center on the Developing Child, core capabilities include self regulation, executive function, attention, and physiological effort.

  4. Elango, S., García, J. L., Heckman, J. J., & Hojman, A. (2015). Early childhood education (No. w21766). National Bureau of Economic Research.

  5. Yoshikawa, H., Weiland, C., Brooks-Gunn, J., Burchinal, M. R., Espinosa, L. M., Gormley, W. T., ... & Zaslow, M. J. (2013). Investing in our future: The evidence base on preschool education. Ann Arbor, MI: Society for Research in Child Development.

  6. Grigg, J., Connolly, F., D’Souza, S., & Mitchell, C. (2016). Kindergarten attendance and readiness for Baltimore’s class of 2027. Baltimore Education Research Consortium.

  7. Schweinhart, L. J., Xiang, Z., Daniel-Echols, M., Browning, K., & Wakabayashi, T. (2012). Michigan Great Start Readiness Program evaluation 2012: High school graduation and grade retention findings. HighScope Educational Research Foundation.

  8. Fernald, A., Marchman, V.A., & Weisleder, A. (2013). SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months. Developmental Science, 16(2), 234-248.

  9. Loeb, S. & Bassok, D. (2007).

  10. Cooper, H., Borman, G., & Fairchild, R. (2010). School calendars and academic achievement. In J. Meece & J. Eccles (Eds.), Handbook of research on schools, schooling, and human development (p. 342-355). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

  11. Fernald, A., Marchman, V. A., & Weisleder, A. (2013).

  12. The system we need: A neighborhood snapshot of early childhood education in Detroit. (2015). IFF.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Einhorn, E. (2016). Money’s not enough: The unconventional way Detroit is filling Head Start classrooms. Chalkbeat Detroit.

  15. NAEYC. High-quality early childhood educators are the key to quality programs for children.

  16. Bornfreund, L., Cook, S., Lieberman, A., & Loewenberg, A. (2015). From crawling to walking: Ranking states on birth - 3rd grade policies that support strong readers. New America.

  17. Bradley, B., de Beaufort, N., Harris, A., Rueble, B., & Vander Laan, M. (2016). “I am an early educator.” Insights on talent attraction for Detroit Head Start agencies. EarlyWorks, LLC.

  18. Excellent Schools Detroit, 2016. Detroit Schools Scorecard.

  19. U.S. Census Bureau. (2014). American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates.

  20. Bradley, B., de Beaufort, N., Harris, A., Rueble, B., & Vander Laan, M. (2016).

  21. Institute of Medicine (IOM) and National Research Council (NRC). (2015). Transforming the workforce for children birth through age 8: A unifying foundation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

  22. Whitebook, M., McLean, C., and Austin, L.J.E. (2016). Early Childhood Workforce Index - 2016. Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

  23. U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Education. (2016). High quality early learning settings depend on a high-quality workforce: Low compensation undermines quality.

  24. Nadworny, E. (2016). It doesn’t pay to be an early-childhood teacher. NPR.

  25. Great Start Collaboratives for Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties. A guide for early care and education career opportunities: STEPS.

  26. Institute of Medicine (IOM) and National Research Council (NRC). (2015).

  27. IFF. (2015).

  28. Bivens, J., Garcia, E., Gould, E., Weiss, E., & Wilson, V. (2016).

  29. Institute of Medicine (IOM) and National Research Council (NRC). (2015).

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