Why aren't more centers "Going for the Gold" in early care and education?

“Going for the Gold” in the District’s child care system not only means striving for quality in early care and education, it also means getting reimbursed at a higher rate from the government. It’s the name of D.C.’s Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) for child care, which ranks providers as either Gold, Silver or Bronze centers based on their ability to meet specific benchmarks of quality. 

I recently reviewed the data on accredited centers and homes in D.C. and was shocked at what I found. Not only were there very few Gold centers in the city, but there are very few centers that were even accredited at all! Less than a quarter of child care homes and only 38.5% of child care centers in the District were accredited last year. The share of centers that were accredited actually decreased slightly since 2008. On top of that, less than a quarter of home-based centers and only 10% of community-based centers indicated that they have no intention of even applying for accreditation!

For all the rhetoric around the importance of quality in early care and education, what are we doing wrong? There not only seems to be a lack of incentive for a center to become accredited -- there may be a significant disincentive as well!

Having experienced the accreditation process myself, I may be the biggest advocate for the improvement of quality in child care. However I thought I would play a little devil’s advocate for this blog and challenge not only myself, but the basic assumptions of how we define quality in D.C. The big question is: is accreditation necessarily synonymous with quality? Unfortunately, it does not appear to be. 

Firstly, accreditation isn’t easy, or cheap. Accreditation fees alone start at $1275 at NAEYC (the most popular accreditor in the nation). This doesn't include the cost of supplies and extra hours put in by staff, which are necessary components to becoming accredited. The highest-quality programs are vital in children’s development, and providers should be challenged to make their program the best they can possibly be, but for many centers the cost of accreditation is simply too steep in terms of both time and money.

Given the lack of centers “Going for the Gold” in our city, it certainly does appear that the disincentives outweigh any incentive to having a stellar rating. 

Many Bronze sites say that the reimbursement they would receive for making improvements to the quality of their programs is not enough of a motivation for them to endure the painstaking process of accreditation. Other providers may lack staff with the education or English language literacy to sufficiently fill out the applications. And clearly, centers are able to stay in business without being accredited -- there simply isn't the demand from parents. 

So is it time to give up on “Going for the Gold?” No. That’s not the answer, either. In early care and education, quality is paramount. We need to do a better job of defining what it looks like in the classroom and giving providers the support and resources they need to get there. We simply don’t have the resources to completely overhaul the system, so we need to improve what we have. That means asking questions, like: What would reimbursement level would be enough to motivate Bronze providers to step up to Silver? And how do we help Silver centers go for the Gold? 

Lastly, there’s one voice that we’ve yet to hear clearly on this issue and that is the voice of parents. How do parents feel about accreditation for centers? Are they generally satisfied with the level of quality in their children’s centers? If so, is it because they lack of information about quality in early care and education or their particular center’s ratings, or do they have a different definition of quality than the experts who developed the QRIS?  It does appear that many parents in the District have no idea about accreditation, let alone the fact that there are Gold, Silver and Bronze centers.  

We need to change that and give parents the clear information they need to make the best decisions for their children when it comes to early care and education. And even then, until D.C. truly arrives at a broadly accepted definition of quality for child care, measuring it will be extremely difficult.