A daycare employee watches children in carts at a park in downtown Washington, DC on April 11, 2013. National Journal

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

Early-childhood development is the rare issue that unites liberals and conservatives, nearly all of whom agree that the first few years of a child's life are a time of crucial social and intellectual formation. Yet policymakers and educators rarely pay much attention to the adults who spend their days with young children, particularly child-care workers.

Day care is typically thought of simply as a place where young children play, nap, and eat. But a growing body of research shows the importance of this time period to children's brain development. "So much of what happens in that time is governed by the quality of experience that children have, and that experience is largely shaped by adults," says Meera Mani, director of the Children, Families, and Communities Program at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

That's why the California-based Packard Foundation has decided to focus some of its financial power on the training and professional development of early-child-care workers. California alone has about 5 million children age 5 and under; 85 percent of those kids are under the age of 2, primarily cared for by parents or informal care givers. There are roughly 130,000 licensed child-care providers throughout the state, to say nothing of the unlicensed providers. Focusing on caregivers' professional development potentially could have a huge impact for kids not just in California but across the country.

The foundation plans to put this idea into practice at a new facility called Educare of California at Silicon Valley, a new branch of the Educare model. Funded by various foundations, nonprofits, local governments, and school districts, the facility will care for roughly 168 children, from infancy to 5 years. It will be located on an elementary-school campus in the Santee neighborhood of San Jose, and is scheduled to open in August 2015.

In addition to providing high-quality child care to at-risk kids, the facility will also offer a training institute to coach day-care workers in child development and best teaching practices. Mani likens it to the concept of a teaching hospital, only for the day care set. "Day care is often thought of as changing diapers and making sure young kids are safe," says Lisa Kaufmann, director of early learning services at the Santa Clara County Office of Education and one of the founders of this day-care center. "How do we make sure that training is as important as what is taught in the 12 grade or calculus?"

Currently, day-care workers do not have to hold bachelor's or even associate degrees. Instead, in the state of California, they receive permits as a form of credentialing and must spend a certain number of hours working in supervised day-care settings. A child-development assistant, the lowest level worker in a classroom, for instance, must complete six semesters of coursework in child development or early-childhood education, and must accumulate at least 105 hours of professional work in order to receive a five-year permit. As the teachers rise up the ranks from assistant teacher, to teacher, to master teacher, to supervisor, the state requirements become more stringent.

The training at the Educare of California at Silicon Valley will go beyond these basic requirements to hone a teacher's individual classroom style. The teachers will receive one-on-one coaching to help them run a classroom in a more dynamic way, create lesson plans for a particular subject, or boost the skills of individual children while still paying attention to the whole classroom.

Part of the inspiration for this branch of Educare in Silicon Valley comes from the Colorado, where Mani once worked and where she helped to found the Institute at Clayton Early Learning in Denver. There, professional coaches work with teachers both at on-site daycare facilities as well as in the community. They observe teachers in classrooms and offer one-on-one feedback to improve teacher effectiveness. The in-house coaches often work with the lead teachers in each room, who then, in turn, coach the more junior day-care workers.

This level of training matters, Mani says, because it can transform a routine activity, like eating lunch, into an opportunity to learn. In the hands of a skilled worker, for instance, a family-style meal can turn into a conversation about food or texture. Children and their caregivers can talk about the expectations of how to behave at mealtime, and kids can practice holding cups, utensils, and pitchers. "If I do not have knowledge of child development [as a day-care worker]," Mani says, "than that just becomes another activity that I have to manage."

Transforming seemingly basic interactions into opportunities for learning is a major goal of this facility: an attempt to professionalize the early-child-care workforce. Right now, those in the profession are not particularly well paid or well educated. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, child-care workers need to have only a high school diploma to enter the field. The average wage clocks in at $9.38 per hour, or roughly $19,500 a year. Although the BLS estimates that the employment of child-care workers will grow by 14 percent through 2022, it's not a field with uniform standards across states.

"Most of the programs that serve kids from birth to 5 years old have not had the same formal educational requirements as teachers who teach in elementary schools," says Lynn Andrews, the senior director of professional development at the Institute at Clayton Early Learning. "People come into this field without a lot of knowledge about child development."

The hope for the training center at the Educare California at Silicon Valley is to impart more training to the day-care field in order to boost the development of at-risk kids. Then they want to replicate that success to train not just the Educare of California at Silicon Valley staff but to work with as many as 600 other local teachers. "Can you scale this across thousands of kids?" Mani asks. "That's what the institute will do—figure out what is working and what is not." That's not a bad mandate for an industry to which people entrust their kids.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal and part of our Next Economy coverage.

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