Quality in early childhood education–bean counting or best practice?
Quality in early education and childcare is indisputably important. Some regulation of these facilities is essential in order to ensure safe and enriching environments for young children, whether they are based in a home, community-based site, or school setting. However, there is a point where regulation can become a mishmash of silly mandates and hoops to jump through, if not an outright intrusion on educator practices. Colorado’s Early Childcare Division in its Department of Human Services has proposed changes in its Rules and Regulations to enable providers to obtain a license. This 98 page document, still in draft form, is definitely drawing attention. However, it has some people questioning the apparent fussiness of some of its parameters, and certain others worried about practicalities and costs of the proposals. Cost of compliance with new regulations may force some smaller care-providers out of business, as well as raise fees for parents who can ill afford further strains on their budgets. On the other hand, it does have people discussing the meaning of quality in early education, and maybe the current attention, even if negative, is better than the dismissive attitude many seem hold when it comes to preschool programs.
I looked through the document. At first glance, the 8 pages of definitions are daunting, perhaps even a bit insulting, such as the following sentence: “CLEAN” MEANS TO BE FREE OF VISIBLE DIRT OR DEBRIS OR TO REMOVE DIRT BY VACUUMING OR SCRUBBING AND WASHING WITH SOAP AND WATER. Okay, thanks for that, I guess. There’s also a definition for “INTOXICATED”, a troubling inclusion. The proposal addresses a number of other topics that I can’t imagine being of concern for me, such as how exactly to prevent children from second-hand smoke during the school/care day, and a exhortation that children should not knowingly be left to sleep in beds wet with urine. While it seems incredible, it’s possible that some people working in licensed facilities don’t already know these things. (Albeit really, and truly, disturbing.)
A number of the recommendations seemed to come from the ECERS (Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale) and its infant-toddler counterpart the ITERS, which are used throughout the country to rate multiple aspects of a program’s quality. These scales help to provide guidelines on health, safety, quality of social interactions and of learning environment, all using detailed rubrics. Many Colorado facilities currently participate in a rating process on these indicators (through an agency called Qualistar) and therefore have more than a passing acquaintance with either ECERS or ITERS. It would be fair to say that sometimes ECE providers and caregivers view certain aspects of these meticulous scales (and the Qualistar raters) with a jaundiced eye. Perfection is difficult to obtain, often due to factors we can’t control (such as, say, features of our buildings or our students’ attentiveness to hand-washing) and we find ourselves doing the best we can. Sometimes attention to fulfill one area of the ECERS/Qualistar rating can detract from another of our priorities and so we may find ourselves weighing them and being selective with our battles.
Like the ECERS, the Colorado proposal includes recommendations on materials we should have on hand in classrooms–such as how many books to have per child, and what types of blocks are appropriate, and which art materials a center should provide. We are asked to consider how and where the children use the materials and are measured on how we facilitate their use. There are also proposals on materials promoting diversity. It seems a bit silly to be told that my attention to diversity may be determined by whether or not I have images or toys representing a broad range of human differences among my materials (which, by the way, I do). I am, as a rule, generally dubious of the value of appearances over well-considered actions. A classroom can display pictures or have the recommended number of books or dolls representing at least three different ethnic groups and people with disabilities without providing in-depth conversations or lessons demonstrating that we are aware of and appreciate human diversity and strive to share these values with our students. I find it more meaningful to have the conversations, with or without the window-dressing. I am certain that there are plenty of things that I do with my students that a person might not be able to observe during a one-day visit to my room yet I trust that one can see that I am striving to provide quality instruction.
Still, I felt unsettled by the Colorado proposals and spoke with some other local early educators to address my conflicting emotions. On the surface there is reason for concern regarding a tendency toward micromanaging as well as an effect on cost to providers and families. However, one of my friends and former colleagues has had experience observing numerous in-home and community site childcare facilities and she told me that she has seen some really worrisome examples of licensed facilities with ample room for improvement in both safety and quality of instruction. So while I initially scoffed at some of the proposed items, I found myself seriously considering a series of questions that this friend rhetorically posed. What kind of care is ‘good enough’? And shouldn’t ‘good enough’ really demonstrate some measure of quality? I considered as well that many children of lower income backgrounds will be spending long days in settings that are state-licensed. And given the correlation found between levels of family income and school readiness, it makes sense to ensure that kids who are potentially at risk have the best possible early childhood educational experiences. However, from what I understand, there are plenty of sites currently holding licenses that don’t demonstrate a firm grasp on the concept of best practices. The conundrum, therefore, is addressing very necessary issues of quality in childcare and Early Childhood Education and balancing them with what is sensible, realistic and what is cost-effective for parents and childcare providers in a stressed economy. Can we find a way to do that in less than 98 pages?