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Using and Vetting Data for Better Child Care Journalism

Rachel Cohen of Vox explains why reporters need to maintain their due diligence and skepticism when covering the child care sector. She shares tips to better use data.

Photo credit: Allison Shelley for EDUimages

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Journalists want to cover child care: They know it’s a major financial issue weighing on the minds of parents and prospective parents. Reporters also know about the well-documented low-wage issues for child care staff who are disproportionately women, immigrants and people of color. And journalists know about the critical importance of a child’s earliest years on their cognitive development.

But covering child care gets complicated quickly; there are many different visions and priorities for designing an ideal child care system. For some — and education reporters likely engage with these sources quite a bit — designing a high-quality early education system is paramount. For others, particularly many parents, the educational curriculum piece is less important than the price, the location, and the general feeling of safety the system provides. Child care, early childhood education, preschool and daycare are terms often used interchangeably — but can, in practice, refer to very different models and ideas.

Relatedly, while the phrase “the child care crisis” gets thrown around often by politicians, advocates, families and other stakeholders, a closer look reveals not everyone is always referring to the same child care problems, and the “child-care crisis” slogan often implies more consensus than actually exists. This is important because not all child care proposals would fix all the various issues, and some solutions could make certain issues worse. 

Many education journalists are parents or prospective parents themselves, dealing with some version of their own child care crisis. What this means is that child care access and affordability are issues that reporters tend to bring a lot of sympathy and first-hand personal struggle. Empathy here can be a real asset, but it’s important that reporters also maintain their due diligence and skepticism, especially when courted by advocacy groups and others who have a specific vision and agenda for the future of care.

It’s a complex beat but a critically important one. Here are some tips to keep in mind when reporting out your stories. 

Familiarize Yourself With Existing Data Challenges

There are a lot of anecdotes in child care journalism, and it’s important to try and look beyond those examples, even as figuring out systematic trends can be hard due to existing data gaps. It’s not always easy to answer basic questions: What is the actual shortage of workers for child care? How much does child care cost? Where is child care unavailable? 

Child care researchers admit that they often don’t have very great answers to these questions and are typically trying to stitch together different, incomplete data sources to figure it out. While there are popular advocacy terms like “child care deserts” that purport to provide an objective data-driven metric, journalists should avoid doing so without fully explaining how it’s derived. That term, for example, refers to communities that have more than three kids for every licensed slot, and it presumes parents would want those official slots if they were available, even though survey data suggests that’s not the case.

Anamarie Whitaker, an assistant professor of early care and education policy at the University of Delaware, said one of the big challenges for researchers in her field is the lack of real representative data at the national level for child care programs. “We have to rely a lot on state administrative data as we don’t have really anything on enrollment or staffing trends at the national level,” she told me. Researchers try to piece together various data about funding streams that flow to child care programs, providers, educators and parents from the state and federal government.

“All of that data is not necessarily integrated, so it makes it difficult to understand how many children are being served in the early care and education landscape,” Whitaker said.

 It’s also often challenging to answer basic questions about price.

Much to my frustration, we do not have a good source of information that tracks in a consistent and broad way how much child care costs,” Chris Herbst, a public affairs professor and child care expert at Arizona State University, told me. “If you visit the front-facing websites of child care providers, you can’t get that information. If you are a parent, the only way to get the information is to go in and visit and only then will they disclose how much their services cost. They tend to carefully guard their price information.”

Consult Strong Data Resources

So what are some of the best data sources to turn to? Answering that will depend in large part on which side of the market you are researching. Here are some to keep in mind.

  • The National Household Education Survey: This survey, from the National Center for Education Statistics, provides some of the best nationally representative, descriptive data on child care demand in the United States. It comes out every few years, and it surveys families on their child care arrangements, how often those arrangements are used, and what families are paying for care. Based on large samples, Herbst says he thinks the data is among the very best available, and what he uses for his own academic research to track trends over time. The most recent child care data came out in 2019.
  • The National Survey of Early Care and Education: This survey, from the federal Office of the Administration for Children & Families, is also a high-quality resource for reporters. It provides extremely detailed information on the provider side, and it can help answer some basic questions, such as how many child care providers there are, how many center-based businesses there are, how many people are employed, what child care prices are like. This survey also has done some of the best existing research on the informal care market and generally is considered a very important resource for providing a rigorous descriptive picture of the supply side.
  • The U.S. Census: Via the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) and the agency’ Household Pulse Survey, the Census puts out regular information that reporters should track to understand child care use, cost, and receipt of government aid. In November 2023, for example, the Census reported that roughly 61% of parents living with at least one child aged 17 or younger said they did not have any formal child care arrangements. The data also looks at how child care affects parental employment.
  • Child Trends: This organization is focused on the well-being of children and youth through applied research, and it puts out high-quality, rigorous datasets that are regularly used by policymakers and academics studying the field. In the child care space, the organization has data on access to care, workforce issues, program quality, among other subtopics.
  • Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC): This Washington, D.C.-based think tank has been doing a lot of great work over the last few years to try and fill in some of the gaps in public understanding, particularly between the supply of available care versus potential need for it. They’ve also been partnering with the polling firm Morning Consult to get a better picture of parent preferences on child care. Some of their findings may strike journalists as a little counterintuitive: For example, most parents currently using informal care told pollsters they’d prefer doing so even if a free and convenient formal option were available to them. This kind of information suggests that there may be multiple policy solutions necessary to address child care needs. 

What about data sources like

Herbst says, an online marketplace for families to find child care, is the next best thing after federal surveys but generally should be understood as a “distant second” in terms of reliability. 

“I think they’ve gotten a lot better over time, but it’s still not entirely clear to me what their methodology is, how much of the market their data covers, how outdated or contemporary the price data is,” he told me. “For a lot of providers, they don’t get regular updates. I think they employ people with serious research backgrounds, but I would also be a bit skeptical.”

Be Specific, and Don’t Assume Everyone Agrees on the Problems or Solutions (Because They Don’t!)

When covering this issue, it helps to be very specific about what the exact problems being discussed are and how various solutions might help or negatively impact different groups of people. 

Do not assume everyone is on the same page. For example, is it a crisis that the number of licensed child care businesses run out of homes has declined by almost 50% since 2005? Some people would say “definitely yes” since those options are typically cheaper for parents. Others might disagree because they prefer the type of programmatic quality offered by center-based care. People also have different opinions on the tradeoffs of private equity entering the field and on the decline of church-based daycare offerings. Should the government provide financial assistance to parents who want to stay home with their kids, or should policy be incentivizing employment, particularly among mothers? 

“What parents are looking for and what I think the early childhood community is selling are often different things,” Linda Smith, the director of BPC’s Early Child Development Initiative, told me. “Parents want something they can trust. Things like curriculum, cultural stuff, degreed teachers are not at the top of the list of what parents are looking for.” 

That doesn’t mean advocating for credentialed teachers is necessarily wrong or misguided policy. But it does mean reporters should not treat that vision and perspective as objectively correct or inherently optimal. Reporters need to learn the different points of view and come to their interviews ready to ask their sources about competing ideas.

Other General Tips and Child Care Sources

  • Keep an eye on the local story, where the most child care innovation is happening right now. And consider reaching out to academic experts who have built research partnerships with agencies at the state and local level.

    Whitaker of University of Delaware highlighted the work of researchers, such as Christina Weiland at the University of Michigan and Daphna Bassok at the University of Virginia, as examples of scholars with such relationships that have helped inform their data analysis.
  • Be wary of popular apples-to-oranges comparisons, such as “child care in this state costs more than public college,” which can muddy the sticker prices of both and can paint a picture that child care has less of a value proposition than higher education.

    Herbst told me he actually thinks the comparison is “one of the most destructive” he sees in the media and wishes it would “disappear from all popular press discussions of child care.”

    You may disagree and want to include it, but consider putting additional context in your story to help readers better digest the idea and what it’s saying.