For child-care centers and preschools, accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children sets them apart from the country’s multitude of other early- childhood programs. For parents, choosing an accredited center provides some level of assurance that their child is in a safe and nurturing environment.
But now, with pressure from policymakers and assistance from a variety of organizations to get programs accredited, the NAEYC is struggling to meet the increasing demand. Center directors complain of long delays in the process and inconsistency among those coordinating and performing the on-site visits.
“The question is, are they being swamped by success?” said Sylvia Henry, the director of Westwood Presbyterian Preschool, one of the first programs to earn accreditation in the Los Angeles area. “It’s a system that I don’t want to see fall apart.”
As the Washington-based naeyc opens its annual conference in New Orleans this week, improvements to its sought-after accreditation process will be at the top of the agenda.
Several efforts are already under way. The organization plans this month to appoint a National Commission on Reinventing Accreditation and is applying for grants to support an in-depth review of the program.
“We are looking at every conceivable way to increase the capacity of the program,” said Mark R. Ginsberg, the executive director of the association.
As of August, the NAEYC had accredited 6,671 programs, including some kindergartens. Another 14,000 programs were involved in “self-study"—a process in which a program examines its strengths and weaknesses, conducts staff and parent surveys, and makes improvements in line with the accreditation standards.
| Mark R. Ginsberg hopes to increase the capacity of NAEYC’s accreditation plan. |
--Benjamin Tice Smith
The self-study is also a prelude to an on-site review. All told, the NAEYC estimates it accredits less than 10 percent of the nation’s early-childhood programs.
The NAEYC has already hired additional staff members, increasing the numbers of those who work solely on processing accreditation requests from 30 to 35 people. While there are other organizations that accredit early-childhood education programs, the naeyc’s accreditation is viewed as the most comprehensive and well- respected.
But the association, which founded its National Academy of Early Childhood Programs in 1986 to institute the accreditation process, is also aiming to make more basic changes to the system. The process currently depends on a corps of 6,700 volunteers, known as “validators,” to conduct the on-site reviews of centers.
With more programs becoming accredited, finding validators who have no knowledge of the centers they are visiting and can conduct an objective observation can be difficult. And whether those validators should be paid, beyond reimbursement for their expenses, is one of the biggest issues facing the naeyc.
Some validators, who are themselves directors of early-childhood-education programs, say they should be paid for their time, while others see their role as a contribution to the profession.
“I consider it an extension of my job,” Ms. Henry said, adding that not being paid does not affect the effort she puts into a validation visit. “If you send a validator out for the day, they are going to do the job they were sent to do.”
The frequent inability to get the job done, though, has proved troubling. Many directors complain they’ve had to wait too long, first to get someone to visit their centers, and then to get an answer from the accreditation commission—a three-person team that makes the decision to certify or to defer accreditation until improvements are made.
When a center requests a validator, a visit is supposed to be arranged within 30 days. After the visit, the center is supposed to have an answer within two months.
But some directors say they have waited much longer. Pat Murphy- Chambers, the director of the La Cresenta Presbyterian Center for Children, also in Southern California, said she waited a year for a validator and was twice turned down for reaccreditation.
She agreed with some points the commission made, such as the need for playground improvements, but she also maintains that her program might have had a better shot at being reaccredited if the person who conducted the validation visit had been the same one who interviewed her. Sometimes, she said, questions about what the validator observed in the classrooms can be resolved in the interview.
“But we didn’t get that chance,” Ms. Murphy-Chambers said.
On a much larger scale, a five-year, $25 million project of the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation in Chicago, called the Focus on Quality Initiative, was able to help 103 inner-city programs through the accreditation process. But Denise Carter- Blank, who served as the foundation’s education program director and now works as a consultant, believes many more would have earned accreditation as well if there hadn’t been a backlog at the national office. “Some waited up to four months for results,” she said.
Ms. Carter- Blank said she often thinks the naeyc should hire full-time validators. But, she added, using people no longer in the trenches might harm the accreditation program.
Hiring full-time mentors who would work with teams of validators is one alternative the organization is considering.
In many ways, the challenges facing the association reflect those throughout early-childhood education, said Barbara Willer, the naeyc’s deputy executive director.
“We struggle with the same issues that programs do,” such as trying to maintain quality with limited resources, Ms. Willer said. “Accreditation is not a moneymaker for the organization.”
And raising the fee that centers pay, which ranges from $300 to $700 depending on program size, would probably put accreditation out of reach for many of them.
Despite the frustration many people express, the naeyc accreditation process still enjoys widespread support. “I think they have done an admirable job of protecting the integrity of the system,” Ms. Carter-Blank said.
An Emphasis on Quality
Programs trying to earn accreditation before the end of spring each year often face long delays, but Mr. Ginsberg acknowledged that applications were unusually backed up this year. Phasing in a new set of accreditation standards has added to the problem, he said.
Because of the high level of staff turnover in the early-childhood field, a center or preschool can undergo significant changes between the time it completes the self-study and the time the validator visits.
That’s one reason naeyc accreditation is good only for three years, but it also contributes to the backlog.
Other forces are also driving the increase in programs seeking accreditation:
•Sixteen states now have a two-tiered reimbursement-rate system, meaning that centers serving low-income children can receive a higher subsidy, or some other benefit, if they are accredited.
•As states implement prekindergarten programs, many are requiring centers to be accredited, or to be working toward accreditation.
•Under the Child Care and Development Fund, the federal government’s primary source of child-care subsidies, states are required by the 1996 welfare-reform law to devote 4 percent of their aid to improving the quality of child care. Many states are using that money to help programs earn accreditation.
•Like the Focus on Quality initiative in Chicago, which the city is now building on, dozens of other efforts around the country give resource-starved centers the tools they need to earn accreditation.
A 1997 report on naeyc accreditation by the Washington-based Center for the Child Care Workforce concluded that while child-care centers often need such support to become accredited, paying the fee is probably the least helpful aspect of those initiatives and does not lead to accreditation.
The report, which looked at the effect of accreditation on early-childhood centers’ quality, recently received funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation in Los Altos, Calif., to continue following the group of centers in the study. The goal is to examine what happens to the centers after they’ve been accredited.
Ongoing Support Needed
Leaders of the naeyc acknowledge that they need to move beyond just keeping up with the demand for accreditation. The organization also needs to provide more ongoing support to centers to help them maintain a high level of quality.
The role of technology in improving and streamlining the accreditation process is also under discussion.
But, as with the accreditation fee, use of technology raises issues of equity, Ms. Willer noted. Accreditation could become less accessible if it becomes more automated, she said.
Some observers also stress that validators need more training on how to observe programs that are ethnically and culturally different.
Ms. Carter-Blank said that when she worked in Chicago, the validators, who often came from the suburbs, would sometimes cancel their visits because they were afraid to go to programs in poor, urban neighborhoods.
Wanda Newell, who has replaced Ms. Carter-Blank at the McCormick-Tribune Foundation, said that validators need to look beyond the physical appearance of programs. “Quality is more than the environment,” she said. “It’s the experience in the environment as well.”
In addition to processing accreditation requests more quickly, Deb Flis, the director of the Connecticut Accreditation Facilitation Project, a state-financed effort, said the naeyc needs to improve customer service.
Programs requesting validation visits should be able to find out how long they will have to wait, and those involved in self-study should be able to call the national office and “get a knowledgeable early-childhood expert on the other end of the line,” said Ms. Flis. “Effective responses keep people hooked into the process.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 1999 edition of Education Week as Early-Childhood-Accreditation Demand Overwhelms NAEYC