February 9, 2005
By Linda Jacobson
Hoping that child-care centers and preschools in their states will respond to higher expectations, more governors are proposing rating systems both to encourage providers to improve their services and to give parents the information they need to choose a high-quality environment.
Govs. James E. Doyle of Wisconsin, Janet Napolitano of Arizona, and Tom Vilsack of Iowa have all made rating systems—similar to the methods used to evaluate hotels or restaurants—part of their legislative agendas this year. The three are Democrats.
“Right now, we pay the worst child-care facility and the best child-care facility the same amount, and that’s wrong,” Gov. Doyle said during his State of the State Address last month. “My plan will reward quality, encourage improvement, and give parents the information they need to choose the right child-care center.”
Meanwhile, Gov. Napolitano is recommending a rating system as part of a package of improvements designed to better prepare Arizona’s children for school and to help parents make decisions about care.
“Parents need to be able to go to work knowing their children are safe and nurtured,” Gov. Napolitano said during her speech to the legislature in January.
Rating systems—which measure such indicators as staff-child ratio and the educational level of the teachers at a center—are useful as consumer guides.
Equally important, experts say, is that such ratings can be used to reward programs for improving quality. Under the systems proposed in Arizona, Iowa, and Wisconsin, centers with higher ratings would receive more state child-care money to serve children from low-income families than would centers with lower ratings. In addition, highly rated centers or preschools would be more likely to be chosen to take part in the states’ preschool programs.
Representatives of child-care centers and preschool providers, however, say that any financial incentives tied to ratings need to be based on what it truly costs to provide high-quality care—and that technical assistance must be part of the system to help programs improve.
According to the National Child Care Information Center, a federally financed clearinghouse and technical-assistance center based in Vienna, Va., 16 states have some form of quality-rating system, with some of them still implementing the programs on a pilot basis.
For example, in Colorado, programs serving children from birth through kindergarten can volunteer to have their programs evaluated on a five-level scale by Qualistar, a Denver-based nonprofit organization that rates programs and helps refer parents to centers that meet their needs.
Under that state’s program, which started in 2002, centers earning no stars are considered substandard, in large part because health and safety guidelines are often neglected and the centers require no teacher training.
In a two-star center in Colorado, toys are available, children are read to regularly, and their basic needs are met, but efforts to reduce staff turnover, adopt daily routines, and improve staff development are still considered by evaluators to be in need of improvement.
In a four-star program, teachers have training in early-childhood development and provide a curriculum that addresses the social, emotional, physical, and academic needs of young children. In addition, activities for fun are provided every day and frequent communication with parents is part of the school’s culture.
The RAND Corp., a research organization based in Santa Monica, Calif., is evaluating Colorado’s rating system to determine whether the program is raising quality and whether the changes are improving outcomes for children.
Experts say rating systems, to some degree, are state versions of the accreditation offered by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
In fact, most states that rate centers use the NAEYC’s detailed criteria for accreditation to design their tiered ratings, said Mark Ginsberg, the executive director of the Washington-based professional association.
“I think [rating systems and accreditation] are not only compatible, but complementary,” Mr Ginsberg said, pointing out that in many cases, the NAEYC standards for accredited programs mirror the highest rating a state will give a center.
He also credited state rating systems for contributing to an increase in both the number of applications for NAEYC accreditation and the number of centers earning the credential.
But Lynn White, the policy director for the National Child Care Association, based in Conyers, Ga., said requiring national accreditation in order to receive a top state rating poses problems for centers, because it can take a year to complete the accreditation process.
Only one state—North Carolina—has taken the ratings concept a bit further by implementing a rated licensing system, meaning that the various levels of quality are actually written into the state’s licensing regulations, and each child-care program receives a rating, depending on its level of quality.
Sue Russell, the president of Child Care Services Association, a research and advocacy organization in Chapel Hill, N.C., said the system has made more providers aware of the components of quality and given them an incentive to make improvements.
The association has tracked North Carolina’s center ratings, which have been based on a five-star system since the program began in 2000.
The group has data showing a steady decline in the proportion of centers in the state with just one star—from almost 40 percent the first year to less than 10 percent in 2004. At the top of the scale, the percentage of centers with four-star licenses has quintupled, from about 6 percent to 30 percent over those years.
“I think we have really seen a tremendous growth in high-quality programs—those with four and five stars,” Ms. Russell said. “We have seen gains in education of the workforce and a drop in [staff] turnover as well.
“Quality matters to parents, children, and teachers who work every day in those settings.”
Vol. 24, Issue 22, Page 17