Parents searching for safe, nurturing child care often assume that accredited day-care centers rank at the top. In many cases they do. But unless teachers in these facilities receive better-than-average wages, a new study warns, accreditation alone cannot ensure continuing high quality.
The independent 20-month study, released yesterday by the National Center for the Early Childhood Work Force in Washington, is the first large-scale assessment of accreditation for child-care centers.
Only 5,000 of the nation's 97,000 child-care centers are accredited. The process is voluntary.
The study finds that although centers accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) are several times more likely than other centers to be rated high in quality, about 40 percent of accredited facilities still receive only mediocre grades. The group blames high turnover among teaching staff, fueled by insufficient wages, for the lower ratings.
"Accreditation alone is not a consistent guarantee of excellence," says Marcy Whitebook, senior research and policy adviser for the nonprofit group. "Accreditation combined with better compensation is what makes it."
Accreditation by NAEYC, the leading accreditation group, involves rating a center's curriculum, physical environment, interaction among staff and children, health and safety standards, and nutrition and food service. The process is more rigorous than most states' licensing requirements.
The report underscores the critical need to improve child care in the United States:
*About 15 percent of all center-based day care for preschoolers, and at least double that amount for infants, is considered harmful, according to the report.
*Seventy percent of all care is rated mediocre. Only 15 percent is judged good or excellent.
*Among all centers, staff turnover during the 20-month period approached or exceeded 50 percent.
*Highly skilled teachers who stayed on the job during the study earned $2 an hour more than comparably educated workers who left.
Centers that operate on a nonprofit basis, pay higher wages, and reward staff educational achievements are more likely to provide good care, reduce turnover, and receive accreditation, the study says. Help for staff includes paid time off for training and support for directors.
Ms. Whitebook urges parents who use child care to ask: Who are the people caring for the children? Are they trained? Are they staying on the job? Is the program making an effort to keep them?
Her group encourages parents to visit centers before making a decision, rather than relying exclusively on information about a center's accreditation status.
Millions of dollars in public and private funds go toward helping child-care centers get accredited. "That's good," Whitebook says. "But if you just throw a little money at it, say $500, it doesn't help much. We have to make a bigger upfront investment."
Without such investments, she warns, the alternative "is continued mediocre care, with intolerably high levels of staff turnover, at a time in children's lives when skillful, consistent caregiving makes a crucial and lasting contribution to healthy development."