Special Report

Defining Quality

By Linda Jacobson — January 10, 2002 20 min read
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Education programs for young children have always had standards--standards about the number of children who can be in the care of each adult; standards about locks on doors, gates on stairways, and fences around pools. Most standards for early-childhood programs have focused on health and safety precautions rather than academic knowledge and skills.

But with states spending more on preschool, and policymakers becoming more convinced that children’s early educational experiences will improve later school performance, efforts have increased to describe more explicitly what such programs should include and the progress that children should make before they enter kindergarten.

California, for example, is in the process of phasing in its Desired Results for Children and Families, which consist of four broad goals for children from birth through age 14 and two goals for parents. Within the desired results are such expectations as “children are personally and socially competent.” And under each such statement are more detailed indicators that will let teachers and providers know whether children are reaching those objectives for their ages.

Those standards will apply to children enrolled in child-care and child-development programs that are under contract with the California education department, including family child-care homes. If the programs don’t meet the standards, they could eventually lose their contracts with the state. At present, far more independent providers operate in California than those with state contracts.

To accompany the desired results, the state released in 2000 the “Prekindergarten Learning and Development Guidelines” for 3- to 5-year-olds. That document describes more specifically the steps teachers should take to create appropriate classroom environments, to work with children who have varying abilities, and to foster the development of prereading skills.

Feedback from providers in the field shows that “they feel validated by what’s in there, but they also feel challenged,” says Sharon Hawley, an administrator in the state education department’s child-development division, who also served as a consultant to the department when the guidelines were being written.

‘A Common Language’

At Westwood Presbyterian Church Preschool, a Los Angeles facility accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, director Sylvia Henry says the new guidelines confirmed much of what the school already includes in its program.

But in response to the document, she also looked for ways to integrate more activities that would strengthen the children’s phonemic awareness--the understanding that words are made up of small sounds.

“For us, it’s asking, ‘How do we continue to be developmental when we know that kids are going to face this in kindergarten?’ ” Henry says.

Because the Westwood preschool is a private program instead of state-financed, compliance with the state standards and guidelines is voluntary, as it would be for other private programs in other states.

Nevertheless, the California education department’s child-development division plans to make the documents available to anyone caring for preschoolers. Outreach materials are even being drafted for family childcare providers and those who are exempt from the state licensing system, such as relatives.

California’s guidelines are also helping to connect the early-childhood community to the world of K-12 education by showing how the skills children acquire during prekindergarten relate to what they will be expected to learn once they’re in kindergarten, says Marcia Meyer, the coordinator of child-development programs for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education.

“It has provided us with a common language,” Meyer says. “I think it has taken away from the child-development community the fear of push-down academics.”

Across the country, meanwhile, the Massachusetts education department in 2001 introduced a similar set of draft standards and guidelines for 3- and 4-year-olds, linked to the state’s curriculum for K-12 students.

The standards even include such academic areas as physics and statistics, but on a preschooler’s level. Children, for example, should explore, observe, and describe the physical changes in liquids and solids. And they are expected to experiment with motion and balance by manipulating various objects on different surfaces.

“While the terminology in the guidelines may sound sophisticated for preschool children, we feel it is important for teachers to be able to articulate to parents and to the community the importance of early experiences to later academic achievement,” says a draft of the new Massachusetts standards document.

In the Same Direction?

But even with such activity around standards for programs serving young children, little is known about what states as a whole are doing. That is why a number of researchers have recently gathered or are now collecting information on state standards for preschoolers.

For example, the Erikson Institute for the Advanced Study of Child Development, a graduate school in Chicago, recently collected prekindergarten standards and assessments from as many states as possible. Some states, Erikson researchers found, have more than one set of standards or expectations that apply to preschool-age children.

Another project is being carried out through a collaboration by Serve, a regional education research and training organization in Greensboro, N.C., the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Association for the Education of Young Children, both in Washington.

Beginning last fall, researchers began collecting standards Documents--or whatever name the states use--and will analyze them for similarities and differences. The project will eventually produce a database of state learning standards for children from birth through age 5 and a report that provides conclusions and the implications of the trend across the country.

Catherine Scott-Little, a senior program specialist at Serve, says the intent of the project is not to set national standards, but instead to find out “whether we’re all headed in the same direction.”

Lastly, the National Center for Early Development and Learning, a federally financed research center based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, conducted a 50-state survey of state-subsidized prekindergarten. Part of the effort was meant to gather information about standards for children in such programs. Richard M. Clifford, a co-director of the center, says many states have tried to adapt their K-3 standards for preschoolers. But, he adds, “people have made a real effort not to make them just academic.”

A separate project of the national center--a six-state study of state-subsidized preschool programs--should provide some much-needed information on the level of quality those programs are providing.

While information has existed for some years on child care, and more recently on Head Start, little has been known about what state prekindergarten programs are doing. “There is no real study that looks systematically across the pre-K world,” Clifford says.

In general, he says, child-care centers have had lower quality than Head Start and pre-K programs. A landmark, four-state project in 1995--known as the “Cost, Quality, and Outcomes” study, for which Clifford was one of the researchers--found that most care fell in the poor to mediocre range. Child-care-center classrooms for 3- and 4-year-olds, however, were of higher quality than those for infants and toddlers.

A team of researchers in 1999 released findings from the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey that showed the federal preschool program, in general, was providing good-quality services and preparing children for kindergarten. Using the same rating scale that was used in the “Cost, Quality, and Outcomes” study, the researchers found that none of the programs they evaluated scored below “minimum quality.” Past research in his own state of North Carolina, Clifford notes, has confirmed that pattern, with Head Start and preschool programs rating higher than child-care centers.

Meanwhile, scientific research on how young children learn and on the benefits of using certain teaching strategies has advanced in recent years. That’s given people in the field of early-childhood education greater guidance on what makes up a high-quality preschool program.

In 2000, the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, released Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers. While the 443-page book does not advocate one particular curriculum over another, it reviews the research on various methods and points to the types of learning activities that both engage young children and prepare them for success in elementary school.

The authors stressed that while developing social skills should certainly be the goal of teachers working with youngsters, those skills can be built through activities that strengthen children’s cognitive abilities and knowledge. Time for play is also important in the preschool classroom, because it can stretch children’s imaginations and “provide them with the social and self-regulatory skills needed for learning complex information,” according to the book.

At Westwood Presbyterian Church Preschool, a racially and ethnically diverse school not far from the University of California, Los Angeles, children are given “free flow” time during which they can roam among three different classrooms and the outside play yards. Instead of a specific snack time, fruit and crackers are arranged in baskets on a counter so children can grab something to eat when they’re hungry.

That approach, says Henry, the center’s director, helps children learn independence and keeps them from feeling “like they’re being herded.”

“They learn to make lots of choices,” she says. “But if a child really wants to work on riding a two-wheeler bike, he can spend a lot of time doing it.”

Creating an environment that encourages children’s early-literacy skills is one of the most important responsibilities for a preschool teacher or a child-care provider, the NRC authors noted. Reading to children and allowing them to “read” back and verbally expand on the story are seen as two essential activities that should be a routine part of the day. Materials for “pretend writing” and opportunities to see and experiment with various uses of print--such as making a grocery list or a birthday card--should also be available, according to Eager to Learn.

There is no question that if the goal is to have low-Income children ready to learn on a par with middle-class kids, you must use every solid minute between birth and age 5." says Barbara T. Bowman, the past president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study In Child Development, based In Chicago.

At the Westwood preschool, Henry’s office also serves as a library with a wall of books that are rotated in and out of the classrooms. New poetry books have recently been added to the collection because of research showing that children who memorize poems are better readers when they start school than other youngsters are.

The rooms all have book corners and cozy reading areas lined with pillows.

As teacher Carole Barlow gathers her 4- and 5-year-olds for a story, just the title of the book, Milton the Early Riser, a tale about a young panda who wakes up before everyone else, draws the children into excited conversation about their sleeping habits.

And as Barlow leads the children through a simple song about eating apples and bananas, she helps them work on their letter sounds by replacing the vowels and consonants with different letters.

To the children, it’s a silly song about “beating bapples and bananas” that gets them giggling. But to the teachers, it helps the youngsters become familiar with the sounds they’ll need to know when they begin reading.

‘No Magic Bullets’

In addition to writing academic standards for preschoolers, many states are increasingly involved in literacy initiatives directed toward younger children.

States’ strongest literacy efforts in recent years have focused on improving the reading abilities of children in the primary grades. But many states are also implementing programs designed to give children the literacy experiences they need long before they enter school. For the most part, those have been family-literacy programs to improve the skills of both poor children and their parents. But some states are also beginning to target child-care providers and preschool teachers with information and training opportunities.

In its annual “State Developments” report on child care and early education, the Washington-based Children’s Defense Fund says “it is critical that, as these initiatives grow, they move beyond efforts that involve solely traditional prekindergarten and Head Start settings and reach out to the broader child-care community.”

“This is at very different stages in different states,” says Adele Robinson, the director of public policy and communications for the National Association for the Education of Young Children. She adds that those efforts are often being provided by a variety of agencies and are often paid for by a mix of state, federal, and private money.

A list of activities in Vermont provides an example of just some of the early-reading programs that are active in the states. With corporate grants and donations, Born to Read--a program initiated by the American Library Association in which babies and young children receive books from their health-care providers--reached 7,000 children in the state last year. Some local libraries present story times for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.

The state receives about $1.2 million in federal money to offer Even Start, a family-literacy effort designed to help both children from low-income families and their parents. And the Vermont Center for the Book, a nonprofit organization, offers early-literacy programs designed to be used by early-childhood teachers and child-care providers. Vermont also has a variety of professional-development efforts aimed at those who work with young children.

While early-literacy skills are a critical foundation for future learning, teachers should also seek to develop young children’s other academic skills as well, Eager to Learn recommended.

Children should have plenty of time to explore mathematic and scientific principles, the book said. Young children, studies show, are capable of grasping more advanced concepts than previously thought, and preschool programs should allow them to experiment with measuring and predicting and with cause-and-effect relationships.

“We are so lucky that we have so many materials,” says Irma Ortiz, a teacher at the Westwood preschool, as she puts plastic coins into a play cash register to get the table ready for a child’s birthday party.

While traditional items such as easels, paint, blocks, puppets, and dress-up clothes are constant fixtures in the preschool’s somewhat cluttered rooms, teachers also have access to cabinets filled with hands-on materials for mathematics and other activities. The children are introduced to new tasks almost every day.

After reviewing the research, the authors of the NRC report concluded that a direct-instruction method was no more effective than allowing children to have more freedom in the classroom. Using a variety of instructional techniques seemed to be the best approach.

“There are no magic bullets, no right curriculum, or best pedagogy,” the authors wrote. “We know that children can learn a great deal in the care of an adult who is tuned into the child’s current level of development and his or her developmental challenges.”

In fact, Barbara T. Bowman, the past president of panel that wrote Eager to Learn, says one finding from the book that she believes is not receiving enough attention is the importance of the relationship between a child and the preschool teacher.

“I think that is such an important part: whether the child wants to please the teacher,” Bowman says. According to the book, “Children with more positive teacher-child relationships appear more able to exploit the learning opportunities available in classrooms, construct positive peer relationships, and adjust to the demands of formal schooling.”

Most states are implementing preschool policies for 4-year-olds and sometimes 3-year-olds, Bowman says, but 2-year-olds--even though they were considered in Eager to Learn--have not received much attention.

“There is no question that if the goal is to have low-income children ready to learn on a par with middle-class kids, you must use every solid minute between birth and age 5,” she says.

The Role of Accreditation

Of course, standards for high-quality early-childhood programs existed long before the U.S. Department of Education gave the National Research Council money to study the issue. The National Association for the Education of Young Children, a professional association for the early-childhood field, has standards for programs that seek to be accredited by the organization.

In fact, seven states require their pre-K programs, or other centers receiving state support, to be accredited or to be working toward accreditation.

The NAEYC standards cover how the environment is prepared for children, such as whether the classrooms are welcoming and the toys and materials are appropriate for the age group. They also stipulate the group sizes and the number of children per adult in the classroom. For example, accredited programs have two teachers for every group of children, and groups of children range from six to eight for infants to 16 to 20 for 4- and 5-year-olds. The standards also emphasize teacher preparation and require staff members to have special training in child development or early education, as well as ongoing access to professional-development opportunities.

“Better-qualified teachers are a proxy for better things happening in the classroom,” says Anne Mitchell, an early-childhood consultant in Climax, N.Y.

Teachers should also have time for planning, by NAEYC standards, and the program should offer a balance of outdoor and indoor activities. Finally, programs are open to parents and value their input about children’s development.

While the NAEYC serves as an authority on designing high-quality programs, the organization--unlike other professional groups in education--has been reluctant to set standards for what children should know and do at certain stages.

“The standards discussion is not going to go away,” says Barbara A. Willer, the deputy executive director of the organization. “But a number of people are still rightfully concerned about how standards will be used.”

Meyer, from California’s Santa Cruz County Office of Education, says she understands that position. To people who work in the preschool field, she says, standards communicate the “assumption that all children progress at the same rate, while there actually is a wide range of what is normal.”

Other State Efforts

Aside from setting standards and writing curricula, states are also using a variety of other tools to encourage child-care and preschool programs to improve and even to achieve accreditation.

“People are coming at this from different points of view,” the University of North Carolina’s Clifford says. “This is all part of an evolution of getting toward some system that we have been totally lacking.”

Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia have instituted what are known as tiered or differential reimbursement rates. That means a center that goes above and beyond state licensing standards or earns accreditation will receive more money from the state for the children it serves whose tuition is at least partly covered by child-care subsidies. Under those programs, centers can receive anywhere from 5 percent to about 40 percent above the market rate.

Research on such policies, conducted by William T. Gormley Jr., a professor of public policy at Georgetown University, shows that they can encourage program directors to seek accreditation. For example, differential reimbursement boosted the number of accredited centers in New Jersey by 33 percent in a single year.

“Clearly, they have the ability to influence the behavior of day-care-center directors, especially when the monetary reward to child-care providers equals or exceeds 15 percent,” Gormley writes in a recent paper. Such policies, he adds, are a more effective way to encourage accreditation than requiring programs to meet those standards.

“A mandate to seek accreditation could result in halfhearted efforts that ultimately fizzle.” he writes.

Gormley also points out, however, that it is the better centers that seek accreditation, and that tiered reimbursement rates should not be considered a replacement for stricter licensing standards and stronger monitoring systems for centers. “Differential reimbursement may do little to improve the quality of centers that need improvement the most,” according to his study.

‘Rooted in the Marketplace’

A related trend that has emerged in recent years is that of rating systems for early-childhood programs.

Borrowing from the common practice of making school report cards available to the public, the ratings are meant to inform parents about quality and ultimately put pressure on child-care centers to improve.

“It’s rooted in the marketplace metaphor, recognizing that parents are severely handicapped when making child-care choices,” Gormley says.

New findings from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s ongoing “Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development” show that parents often make decisions about child care based on the convenience of the site or the provider, rather than quality factors. Mothers experiencing stress over such matters as income, work hours, or family situations were even more likely to choose child care that was the most convenient, but was also often of low quality.

One of the first states to implement such a rating system was North Carolina, but it offered only two ratings: A and AA. In 1999, the state legislature replaced that program with a five-star rating system for both center-based and family child care. Programs with one star meet the minimum licensing standards set by the state; stars are added as the educational level of the staff increases, as classroom environments receive higher ratings, and as the staff-to-child ratio improves.

“This allows programs to make incremental steps, to work on one dimension at a time,” says Susan Russell, the executive director of the Child Care Services Association, a nonprofit child-care agency in Chapel Hill, N.C.

A study on the rating system, conducted by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that the ratings were an accurate indication of the quality of an early-childhood program. A center with a three-star rating, for example, reported higher staff turnover and lower wages for teachers than those with four- and five-star ratings. Ratings not only serve as a guide to parents; they are also tied to the reimbursement level providers receive for subsidized children.

Colorado and Kentucky are using similar programs to give centers and providers the incentive to improve.

“The state of the industry has been so poor that a disciplined and concentrated effort to improve a setting is bound to be successful,” says Douglas Price, a former bank president who founded Educare Colorado, an initiative to raise the quality of early-childhood programs that is now operating in four counties and reaching about 1,500 children. Through Educare, centers receive technical assistance with the aid of “site coaches,” who help them work on weaker areas of their programs.

The effort, which is being evaluated by the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp., has already led to lower turnover rates and higher morale among teachers, Price says. “You get this culture of performance,” he says. “Training itself has a positive benefit.”

The hope among experts and advocates of early-childhood education is that through such improvements, the public will eventually demand excellent early-learning experiences for all children.

Talking about North Carolina’s five-star system, Russell says people are beginning to pay attention to the ratings of centers in their communities. ''This is another way to raise the bar;' she says. “As you see the scores improve, you begin to ask, ‘If 95 percent of the state is at a two-star level, why can’t we move to a three?’'

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2002 edition of Education Week


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