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Rules for Fla. Child Centers Said To Be Beneficial

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Youngsters in child-care centers are more likely to thrive when teacher-student ratios are low and providers have training, says a report on child-care quality in Florida, but regulatory requirements alone won't keep teachers in a field where they're earning little more than the minimum wage.

"The Florida Child Care Quality Improvement Study," released this month, is the latest such project from the Families and Work Institute. The New York City-based advocacy and research organization has been monitoring changes in child-care regulations nationwide.

The Florida study was initiated in 1992, shortly before the state imposed new staff-to-child ratios for infants and toddlers in centers. The ratios are now 1-to-4 for infants and 1-to-6 for toddlers--those children from 1 to 2 years old.

Researchers visited 150 licensed centers in 1992, 148 in 1994, and 150 in 1996 in the counties of Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, and Pinellas. Of those centers, 117 were visited at all three points.

'Complex Play'

While the researchers did not follow the same children in the centers over time--nor, by happenstance, the same teachers--they did observe the interaction between children and providers in those same facilities. Overall, they found that, compared with 1992, children in 1994 were more involved in "complex play" with materials and with other children and spent less time unoccupied. The observers also described the relationships between children and their caregivers as more secure, and noted that children had more-advanced language skills and fewer behavior problems.

When the researchers revisited the centers in 1996, they found that children's intellectual development had continued to improve. But the study team found no improvements in teacher sensitivity between 1994 and 1996. Teachers were also found to be more detached from the children in their care in 1996 than they were two years earlier.

The authors explain the less-than-impressive findings by saying that although Florida made desirable changes, the new standards "were not high enough to continue to effect dramatic change."

In addition, some centers did not meet the state's new ratio standards. The percentage of classrooms out of compliance in fact had nearly tripled, from 5 percent in 1994 to 14 percent in 1996.

The 1996 study was meant to be conducted several months after the state was to enforce its new education requirement that for every 20 children in a child-care facility, there must be at least one staff member with a Child Development Associate credential. The state, however, extended the deadline from July 1995 to July 1996.

As a result, the researchers were unable to determine whether the CDA requirement was making a difference. They did conclude that those who already had a CDA or CDA-equivalent were warmer and more sensitive to children than those who didn't have the credential. Child-care workers need at least 480 hours working with children and 120 hours of postsecondary education to earn a CDA.

High Teacher Turnover

One of the most striking findings is that of all the teachers interviewed, only 2 percent of those at a center in 1992 were still on the job, at least at the same center, in 1996.

"You really have to address staff turnover to affect quality, and the basic, remaining problem is compensation," said Susan Muenchow, the executive director of the Florida Children's Forum, a statewide child-care resource and referral agency based in Tallahassee.

Less than two weeks ago, Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, proposed spending $2 million to bring the TEACH program to Florida. Created in North Carolina, TEACH--for Teacher Education and Compensation Helps--pays a portion of the college-tuition costs for child-care providers and rewards them with salary supplements when they complete coursework. The program has been found to reduce turnover. ("Learning To Care," Feb. 11, 1998.)

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