Accreditation Of Child Care No Guarantee, Study Asserts

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Child-care centers that win accreditation offer higher-quality care than those that don't, but accreditation alone does not guarantee excellence, a new report concludes.

Until day-care teachers earn better pay, the report warns, high-quality care throughout the nation's child-care system will remain an elusive goal.

The report by the National Center for the Early Childhood Work Force, a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in Washington, says accreditation falls short mainly because it does not adequately address the negative effects of rapid teacher turnover. Taken along with accreditation, however, stability of teachers, higher pay, and nonprofit status predict high-quality programs, the report scheduled for release this week says.

Those factors are linked because nonprofit centers are more likely to pay higher-than-average wages than those run as commercial enterprises, and better-paid teachers are less likely to leave.

"Accreditation makes a really important contribution to centers which are trying to improve their services," said Marcy Whitebook, an author of the report. "But in order to ensure high-quality care and sustain improvement in care, it's necessary to address the compensation of staff."

Ultimately, Ms. Whitebook said, that means the child-care system will be hard pressed to make a leap of quality as long as parents' fees pay the way with little help from government, business, or philanthropy.

The study gauged the quality of 92 child-care programs in three Northern California communities between 1994 and 1996. The sample included programs from several categories: those that did not seek accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the leading accreditation system for child-care centers in this country; programs that sought accreditation but did not win it; and programs that did not seek accreditation at all.

Quality of Care Rated

AEYC's accreditation has been growing in popularity. About 5,200 programs across the country are currently accredited by the Washington-based association, and 10,000 are working toward the stamp of approval. Many parents, policymakers, and state legislators see accreditation as a tool that can boost child-care quality, although some also agree with the study's findings that better wages will be needed as well to do the job.

The study is the first to follow programs through the accreditation process and to focus on the overall quality of a fairly large sample of centers. The researchers used observation of day-to-day classroom activities to measure program quality, ranking centers on such factors as whether their teachers encourage higher-level thinking and their equipment promotes age-appropriate play.

They found that accredited centers are several times more likely than other centers to rate high in quality. Centers that won accreditation started out offering better care than either centers that failed to complete the process or those that did not apply. The accredited centers also improved more during the time period of the study than centers in the other two categories.

Nonetheless, the researchers said, nearly 40 percent of the accredited centers in the study earned mediocre ratings. The study attributes much of the lackluster performance to high turnover among teachers, fueled by low wages.

50 Percent Attrition

Among the study's other findings were that:

  • Accredited centers were no more likely than nonaccredited ones to meet the linguistic needs of children who speak languages other than English.
  • All centers lost nearly 50 percent or more of their teachers during the study, and accredited centers did no better in keeping skilled teachers.
  • Skilled teachers were more likely to stay if they earned higher-than-average wages and worked with others who were well-trained.
  • Centers were more likely to become accredited if they received intensive support.

The report makes numerous recommendations, notably that the NAEYC should overhaul its accreditation process and strengthen its criteria on teacher stability and compensation. High quality and accreditation should be more closely linked, the researchers argue.

Barbara Willer, a spokeswoman for the NAEYC, said setting compensation standards may not be simple because of antitrust laws.

She added that "the good news from this study is that more than 60 percent of the accredited programs rate at the high end of a scale for measuring classroom quality."

Few Surprises

The report also advises public and private agencies that finance accreditation attempts to invest in intensive support for centers that apply. And it suggests that parents "view NAEYC accreditation as a sign that a program seeks to offer the best quality care, but not as a guarantee of excellence."

When choosing a program, parents should ask how long teachers have been at the center and what their background is, the report says.

The findings appeared to hold few surprises for people in the field, said Bruce Hershfield, the program director of child day-care services for the Washington-based Child Welfare League of America.

"I think a lot of people know that accreditation does help, but quality is also tied to the workforce," he said. "There's not just one silver bullet for overcoming the problem."

Aletha Huston, a professor of child development at the University of Texas at Austin, said she hoped people would note the study's conclusion that nonprofit status is associated with high-quality care. "Child care is a wonderful example of the fact that the marketplace does not necessarily produce the best quality of services," she said.

Gina Adams of the Children's Defense Fund, an advocacy group based in Washington, echoed the conclusion that policymakers and others must face up to the need for more financial support if child-care quality is to improve, especially as demand for service increases.

"We don't have enough good-quality care to begin with," she said, "and now with welfare reform, states will be tempted to take scarce resources and spread them even more thinly."

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