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Child-Care Trends Debated

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Washington

More than 25,000 early-childhood educators met here last week under a cloud of federal child-care proposals that many here said would be disastrous to children and families. The National Association for the Education of Young Children gathered for its annual meeting in the shadow of the Capitol as Congress sent President Clinton welfare-reform legislation, part of a massive budget bill, that would combine several federal child-care programs into a block grant to states. (See story, page 18.)

Participants discussed research and trends in their field, and they pledged to continue to fight for more dollars, guarantees, and equity for the youngest Americans. The Washington-based NAEYC is the nation's largest advocacy group for children from birth through age 8.

Donna E. Shalala, the secretary of health and human services, galvanized conferees with an opening address that blasted Republican leaders for their conception of welfare reform and urged participants to make themselves heard on the child-care provisions.

"No matter how many want ads they scan or interviews they go on, single parents in this country can't move to independence without a safe place to leave their children," Ms. Shalala said.

Be proactive and think creatively, and your professional-development problems can largely disappear, several early-childhood specialists told conference attendees. A seminar on how to pay for training offered early-childhood providers suggestions for how to boost the preparation of their staffs.

Beyond state, federal, philanthropic, and the other usual sources, providers can look toward crisis centers, accounting groups, vendors, and other unusual places for guidance on how to handle drug and alcohol abuse, do bookkeeping, and use developmentally appropriate teaching materials.

In Washington, for example, the public library system hired a full-time professional to go into family child-care centers and read aloud to children--providing a model to the staff and engaging children at the same time. The money to hire the reader came from a federal program, said Barbara Ferguson Kamara, a director of the city's Office of Early Childhood Development. "Remember that there's no money problem in this country, just an idea problem," Ms. Kamara said.

At a seminar on the pros and cons of child-care accreditation, Sue Bredekamp, the director of professional development for the NAEYC, said jokingly that the meeting originally was titled "Accreditation: Seal of Approval or Kiss of Death?"

While more child-care groups are moving in the direction of accreditation as a way for members to improve their programs, a panel of experts acknowledged that it is a costly and debatable enterprise.

One risk with standards for accreditation is that they say you have to be good but never that you have to keep getting better, said Gwen Morgan, the founding director of the Center for Career Development in Early Care and Education at Wheelock College in Boston. "Is it in the nature of standards themselves that inhibit the pursuit of excellence?" Ms. Morgan asked.

Ms. Morgan and others also questioned whether standards inhibit change and creativity and whether accreditation could widen the divide between programs in wealthy neighborhoods and poor ones. One audience member cautioned that only those centers with enough money to go through the accreditation process would be recognized as high-quality programs.

Despite their concerns, the panelists agreed that accreditation is the best tool available to raise the quality of programs from "good enough" to "good." The licensing of child-care centers can only ensure that children's basic health and safety needs are being met, not that the program itself reflects quality. In addition, Ms. Morgan said, some states are beginning to give higher subsidies to accredited programs, parents are starting to be able to discriminate between programs, and centers are improving through self-study.

Because accreditation in the field is still in its infancy, participants urged their colleagues to help shape the system by sharing their experiences and concerns.

NAEYC officials also announced the adoption of a position statement on responding to linguistic and cultural diversity. It is available in both English and Spanish from the NAEYC at (202) 232-8777.

--Laura Miller

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