What Makes a Great Daycare

Why Is Quality So Elusive?

There are lots of daycares with nice teachers and stimulating toys. Unfortunately, these things are only two elements that make a center high-quality. "To me, having that job was a privilege," says Anne Goldstein, a former daycare teacher and current director of state policy initiatives with Zero to Three, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that promotes healthy early-childhood development. "It was an opportunity to make a difference in kids' lives."

According to Marsha Weinraub, PhD, professor of psychology at Temple University, in Philadelphia, "Only about 9 percent of daycares make the cut." Most, she says, are just fair. Why? One reason is that to attain or renew a state license (a requirement for most centers or family daycares), facilities must meet only a very basic level of health and safety standards, such as a certain amount of indoor space, adequate lighting and ventilation, and background-checked employees. Licensing agencies also call for specific child-to-staff ratios and group sizes, as well as caregiver qualifications, but these may be less stringent than child-development experts would like.

Another reason is that caregiving is a low-paying job. Unlike higher education, which the government helps finance through loans and aid packages, daycare is financed principally by families. Your dollars go not only toward caregivers' wages but for cleaning services, maintenance, supplies, and other expenses.

The bottom line: Daycare owners aren't getting rich on your tuition and likely can't afford to pay workers high wages. Because of such low wages (which put some caregivers in the same league as fast-food restaurant workers), the early-childhood field has high turnover and typically does not attract degreed professionals. Even those caregivers who want to get training often become discouraged. Who can afford to go to school when you not only have to pay for it, but you also have to reduce your working hours (and income) to go to class?

Finally, daycare quality remains low because to many people, early-childhood care is not a particularly exciting or entrepreneurial industry. Obtaining a state license can take years, requiring attention to dozens of details and long waits for multiple visits from inspectors. But things may be changing. Organizations like the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) are updating quality standards for daycares, while states like North Carolina have rating systems that indicate which facilities exceed licensing requirements. And some advocacy groups are calling on the government to help daycares improve. In the San Francisco area, for example, a Policy Analysis for California Education initiative successfully used tax dollars to provide financial incentives for childcare workers to participate in training.

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