CDA program helps raise standards for day care instructors

Ten years ago, Anne Schmitz drove a truck for a living. Today, she's director of the child care center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., which cares for some 220 children of employees and from the community. ``I was definitely working-class,'' says Ms. Schmitz, who now holds a master's degree in developmental psychology. ``I am definitely a professional today.'' Anne Schmitz's rise from truck driver to professional illustrates a promising response to a growing problem: how to find qualified people to care for children while their parents are at work.

As more American couples take on two careers -- and as more households include single parents -- the day care crunch is becoming enormous. According to economist Howard Hayghe of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the total percentage of mothers of preschool children in the labor force is growing ``very rapidly'' -- from 39 percent in 1975 to close to 55 percent ten years later.

``We're at a crisis point,'' says Gwen Morgan, a lecturer at Wheelock College in Boston, an institution specializing in early childhood education.'' The problem, Ms. Morgan says, is wages. ``I know some of the best people, people who would be wonderful with children, who are selling jewelry in department stores because you can't pay your rent and heat on the wages that you get [in preschool].''

``In some states you can earn more money on welfare than working with young children,'' adds Lillian Katz of the nationally-funded Office of Education Research and Improvement.

Given the demand for qualified people and the high burnout rate due to low wages, one might expect the child care field to open its arms to any and all interested parties. But up until 15 years ago, that wasn't the case.

In 1971, the federal government and early childhood professionals set out to tap the large pool of people who lacked formal training but who might have an intuitive gift for working with children. The ``Child Development Associate'' (CDA) program which they established trains, assesses, and certifies low-income people to be preschool child care providers, based on their ability with children rather than upon classroom theory.

``We've got a field in which the wages are low, and therefore you tend to attract people with very low skills, and because they have low skills people don't want to pay them. . . . CDA is about the best effort going to break the cycle,'' says Ms. Katz.

The CDA program, adds Wheelock's Ms. Morgan, is ``a good competency-based way of recognizing abilities that [people] learn on the job, and also training for those abilities.''

CDA training includes course work, workshops, and supervised on-the-job training, and usually takes at least a year to complete. The candidate's abilities are then assessed by a four-person team, which includes a parent from the community whose child has, in the past, received care from that worker. Peggy Harrel of the Council for Early Childhood Professional Recognition, the Washington-based agency which administers the CDA program, calls the preparation ``rigorous.''

For many, the credential is a ticket to a raise, a better position, and more responsibility. Although CDAs work in a wide range of preschool settings, a high proportion (some 80 percent) work for Head Start. Many began as parent volunteers and now hold full-time, paying jobs in their local Head Start classrooms. For others, the CDA opens the door to further education and a career in supervision and management. Schmitz, who began work toward her CDA while she was starting on a bachelor's degree, credited the program with helping to catapult her into ``a whole different economic class.''

Initially, the CDA met with resistance from early childhood educators, many of whom felt it was an ``invasion of their turf,'' as one former Head Start official put it. Today, however, there are over 17,000 trained CDAs around the country, and the program is well-established. But it is only a partial answer to the supply/demand gap in preschool child care. Attracting qualified people is only the first step. The second is keeping them.

Salaries at most day care centers hover a notch or two above minimum wage (in Massachusetts, that's currently $3.55 per hour). And centers that provide exceptionally good programs and employ a professional, well-paid staff must in turn charge parents more. As Gwen Morgan points out, most parents ```simply can't afford the price of a program that pays good wages and also has low [teacher/child] ratios.''

The growth of national chains does not figure to be a solution. Deborah Fallows, whose book ``A Mother's Work'' is, in part, a well-researched look at preschool child care, points to a distinction between the nonprofit centers on the one hand and the larger national chains on the other. At the former, she says, returns go ``directly into the care of the children'' -- including staff wages -- while at the chains the profits must support executive salaries at company headquarters and shareholder dividends. Generally, Fallows told the Monitor, the for-profit child care facilities ``pay the lowest wages -- [because] the biggest part of their budget is staff wages. . . .''

The answer to low wages and high turnover is not yet in sight. Initiatives like the CDA program will continue to bring people into the field. But until the wage issue is addressed, it will be increasingly difficult to keep those people where they are most needed -- caring for young children day in and day out while their parents are at work.

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