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Defining Quality Child Care Proving Elusive, Experts Say

In light of the growing demand from parents and state legislatures for high-quality early-childhood programs, child-care experts convened here last week to discuss ways of measuring both the readiness of young children for school and the effectiveness of the programs that aim to prepare them.

Part of the two-day workshop, sponsored by the Board on Children, Youth, and Families of the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, focused simply on defining the meaning of quality in child-care settings. The workshop attracted researchers, children’s advocates, policymakers, and practitioners.

State licensing of child-care providers can help create a baseline definition of quality, said Pauline D. Koch, the executive director of the National Association for Regulatory Administration, an organization of human-service caregivers and regulators based in St. Paul, Minn. But it is ineffective without rigorous enforcement and clear rules, she warned.

A second means of defining quality—accreditation—has its own shortcomings, argued Mimi A. Graham, a director of the Center for Prevention and Early Intervention at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Even centers that have obtained accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children—a status that is widely sought after in the field—cannot be considered of the highest quality because of problems with the accrediting system, she said.

"It devalues accreditation for everyone when poor-quality programs get NAEYC accreditation," Ms. Graham said.

Sharon Lynn Kagan, a Yale University researcher and the president of the Washington-based NAEYC, said at the workshop that such problems arise because the accreditation system was never designed to handle as many requests as it now processes. ("Early-Childhood-Accreditation Demand Overwhelms NAEYC," Nov. 10, 1999.)

Another reason that accreditation alone does not go far enough to ensure good care is that "accredited programs are not routinely on-site monitored after they receive their accreditation," said Judy Collins, a state technical-assistance specialist for the National Child Care Information Center, located in Vienna, Va.

For Clara Pratt, the chairwoman of the family-policy program at Oregon State University in Corvallis, quality in child care is defined as "characteristics that lead to positive outcomes in children."

But she cautioned that seeking a uniform definition of quality is "sort of like asking, ‘What is apple pie?’ " because different people have different recipes.

Despite such pitfalls, some states and communities are already using tools that measure program performance and children’s school readiness.

In Oklahoma, for example, the state has a rating system that awards centers one, two, or three stars based on how well they meet licensing requirements, whether they are accredited, and what level of education their staff members have attained.

When it comes to gauging the effectiveness of child-care programs, Ms. Pratt advised against relying too heavily on assessments of individual students’ school readiness.

"It is most appropriate to measure children’s readiness for school at the entire population level, not the individual program level," she said, because of the influence of such factors as home environment and parent involvement.

In addition, Ms. Pratt said it was more important to invest money in the child-care programs themselves than in efforts to evaluate them.

Richard Clifford, a co-director of the National Center for Early Development and Learning, based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, stressed that in the rush to measure programs and children, it is important to make sure that assessment tools are used for their intended purposes.

For example, assessments designed to measure the quality of instruction should not be used to screen for special needs, he said.

It is important to make tests child-friendly in order to get accurate results, he added. "I’ve seen children come out of assessments crying," Mr. Clifford said.

—Michelle Galley

Vol. 19, Issue 26, Page 13

Published in Print: March 8, 2000, as Reporter's Notebook
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