“quality improvement” is not enough

not good enoughIts time to be honest about the woefully modest success rate of child care quality Improvement efforts.  With the best of intentions, a host of dedicated early childhood advocates (including myself) and policy makers have succeeded in bringing national focus and will to the importance of quality early childhood experiences. At the federal and state levels, everyone now gets that its important.  (ok, except for some).

We have recently made great strides in bringing attention to two of NAEYC’s famous three-legged approach to child care:  accessibility and affordability.  We haven’t solved them by any means but there is a national discussion underway that has made it to the presidential election conversation.  Major shifts in Early Head Start and in the CCDBG indicate the direction the feds are heading.  All of these efforts name high quality, the third leg of the stool, as a tacit given and none of us who know better have spoken up.  It is simply not a given. Second only to fixing compensation, it will be a major, major expense to do it right.  And we haven’t yet reached consensus on how to “get there from here”.

Our well-meaning efforts to describe quality for the child care industry through a high stakes use of an environmental assessment has not worked. I wish it had.  Its contributions are real and important but not at the systemic level needed.  In my opinion, it has not significantly improved the experiences of young children.  We may have even made it worse – now programs focus on their ERS scores instead of on the “continuous quality improvement” that is needed for this field to step up to its professional potential and responsibility.

Putting the early childhood field on track to doing right by American children will take greater systems thinking and complex, individualized implementation.  Awareness is the first step but it is not sufficient to craft solutions.   Honest, deep, clear-eyed analysis, free of conflict of interest considerations, is required for our children to receive the care and education to which they have a right.

PS:  to all my friends and colleagues out there who work every damn day to make child care good for kids, thank you.  My assessment is not for our lack of effort or strength and dedication.  I believe the current system is more complex and more entrenched than we anticipated.  We cannot despair and we cannot blame each other.  Professionals solve problems together.

“quality improvement” is not enough

High Stakes, yes?

niki_edited“It’s in the early years that children…

—First try to understand and master their environment and find those efforts encouraged-

– Or not.

—First attempt to concentrate and find it possible –

– Or not.

—First conclude that the world is orderly and predictable –

– Or not.

—First learn that others are basically supportive and caring –

–  Or not.

—It is in those years that the foundations for later learning are laid down –

– Or not.”

from Heart Start, 2006

The reason this quote is so powerful for me is that the first sentences are EVERYWHERE.  No one contests them.  Subsequent research only makes them more unassailable.  But we aren’t driven to urgent action because we rarely discuss the “or not” outcomes.   I maintain the “or not” outcomes are far more prevalent than the general public knows – especially parents.  Mediocre child care produces the “or nots” every single day throughout the country.   It doesn’t take a horrendous child care program to rob children of their right to grow strong and smart.  It just takes the adults allowing a ho-hum kind of trance to settle  over their thinking.   Done.

High Stakes, yes?

Yelling may be necessary if we are going to improve child care. really.

We aren’t making much progress against “crummy child care”.  Everyone I have spoken with limbic girlover the years who does this work, agrees.  Everyone.  But since no one is really asking us, initiatives keep getting built around unreasonable and ineffective outcomes.  I AM a fan of environmental rating scales but they are literally just a poke into the work needed.

We know the children need responsive warm relationships with their teachers – single best predictor of child success – right?  But because we only get funding for measurable outcomes, like ERS or CLASS scores, we have limited our efforts to the “teach to the test” approach that WE KNOW DOESN’T HELP CHILDREN.   This “do as funders can measure” trance has gone on long enough.  We must start talking about how to actually change the behaviors of teachers. (Forgive the abundance of quotation marks and capitals but I want this to jump off the screen and into the minds and hearts of those of us who KNOW that children are suffering in many child care programs).  If we don’t say what we see, nothing will change.

This week, in a news story from NC, “day care” teachers were caught yelling at a kid who went to the bathroom on the playground “I don’t get paid to clean up your **^%.”  and further shaming and exclamations.  It was not some under the radar, unlicensed family child are home. It was in a high-starred corporate chain.  Was I shocked?  Not at all.  And I bet you aren’t either.  Seen children yelled at?  Seen them yanked up?  Ignored?  Threatened?  I have seen all of these behaviors from some combination of a) stressed b) mean c) uneducated d) bullying women.   Should they be paid more?  Not to yell at kids.  But if we think its ok to leave children in their care then we are part of the problem.  And if we are sympathetic to their stress, then we need to do something.  Not just rate their room arrangement.

This incident particularly irks me because I know it goes on far more often than anyone (else) knows.  Its not just bad behavior by rogue teachers.  Its the state of the industry as a whole and I do mean industry.  A profession would never tolerate that behavior and would have weeded it out long before.   There are thousands of children exposed to these conditions every day, every where.  And we wonder about their behavior?

I know we can’t monitor every playground and classroom.  I know regulations are our best effort to protect children.  But those of us who are in classrooms “improving quality” have seen the experiences of many many children and I think we are morally obliged to raise the alarm. Intelligently, with offerings of suggestions (mine is Quality Design & Build) and caveats for the great teachers and the criminally low pay, I still feel obligated to scream bloody murder until we adapt better strategies to really build quality.  Real Quality.  No, really.


Yelling may be necessary if we are going to improve child care. really.

A proposed Quality Design & Build framing of the skeletal kind

scaffold_editedMy notion of Quality Design and Build starts with a workbook with a wholistic description of “quality” elements including, but not limited to, those elements for which we have evidence that they effect outcomes for children.  Others are included because we see and understand the relevance of, for instance, cultural competence, and while waiting for the research, I include it because we know it is important for the development and learning of young children.

Each element provides a structure for reflection, self assessment and then planning: What are the programs current strengths in this area?  Where do they partially meet best practices, and most important, why?  What are the barriers?  How can we address those barriers? What resources are needed?  How long will it take? Whose responsibility will this be? When will the work get done?

The setting of priorities is another layer.  Are there state standards soon to be met for a QRIS? What are short and long term goals? Does a goal include becoming NAEYC Accredited?  These are the standard processes for strategic planning but applied at the program level where real change is expected and required to happen.  With Quality Design & Build, a child care program takes control of its own identity and goals, even while moving to fulfill QRIS benchmarks.  Teaching staff have the whole picture in front of them to consider, while being asked to alter their daily schedule to meet “substantial portion of the day” – an important feature of the ECERS-R that often isn’t well understood in context by teachers.  All are contributions to the larger whole.

Each of the nine elements come with annotation of what they entail, what the research tells us and examples of what it looks like in practice.  Each element is listed with a known assessment instrument, where I know one exists, that programs may use for further development and understanding.

Quality Design & Build elements:

1.  Effective classroom structure

  • schedule
  • room arrangement
  • materials

2.  Teacher education

  • Credit-bearing courses, certificates and degrees
  • Effective on-going professional development
  • Supports by other professionals (coaching, mentoring)

3.  Salaries  (let’s save this further urgent discussion)

4.  Teachers effectively apply skills and knowledge

  • specific areas of focus: e.g.literacy, outdoor learning environments, Dual Language Learners, math and science, social and emotional development

5.  Content of children’s instructional learning

  • curriculum
  • specific areas of focus: e.g. literacy, outdoor learning environments, Dual Language Learners, math and science, social and emotional development

6.  Authentic, appropriate and useful on-going child assessment

7.  Supportive and effective administration

  • management
  • leadership
  • mentorship

8.  Authentic family engagement

9.  Cultural competence and respect for families, children and staff

I suffer from the same angst that I think has held the field back from feeling comfortable demanding changes in practices.  There is no one perfect list of qualities.  There are arguments to be made for and against the relative importance of each of the elements I list. But in this case, perfection is indeed the enemy of progress and when I look at the years of childhoods that have passed while I thought about it, I am no longer patient.  I think we owe it to children to go faster, deeper and be more willing to risk not being perfect. Now.

What do you think?


A proposed Quality Design & Build framing of the skeletal kind

Re-framing child care quality improvement so that it works better.

Motivation-PinI have thought long and hard and furiously about why our efforts to “improve child care” are less effective than we would like.  We certainly work hard enough at it – we throw everything we can think of at it (except abundant funding for effective coaching) – and yet child care programs remain quite resistant to sustained, deep change.  Years of many children’s lives are spent in crummy child care because we aren’t figuring this part out.  We do not like talking about this. Nonetheless….

Here are some of the obvious obstacles:

  • unconscionably low teacher wages and therefore, high stress, low esteem and high teacher turnover,
  • child care programs are very complex systems of both healthy and contentious relationships,
  • child care programs are made up of people who are attached to strong personal and cultural identities (like the rest of us),
  • there are many different beliefs about raising children,
  • higher education and professional development strategies are of inconsistent quality,
  • management and leadership are considered the same thing (they’re not),
  • the kind of strategies that help professionals change practices take time and money.

Of course these are all interrelated, so we shouldn’t be surprised when they are resistant to single targeted fixes.  This is truly a classic system – each program is a microsystem onto itself, embedded within larger child care systems.  Because this program-level system is more expressed in relationships than in policy, I think it’s an even more complex one! Sometimes I think our systems thinkers believe that once they have designed the QRIS, the systems work is done.  I think it is actually just beginning with a necessary shift in focus to individualization and relationships.  But we are given limited funds, unrealistic timelines and unmeasurable outcomes that direct us to tinker around the edges of the child care program-level system with ERS, classroom layout and materials, knowing that the changes we can inspire are are usually temporary and superficial. We try guiding with assessment scores, mandating with regulations and we hope that teacher education requirements will be accurate proxies for teachers’ knowledge and skills.  (they are not, yet.)

Let’s re-frame this.  Instead of “improving” someone’s practices, what if we join with them, empower and collaborate with teachers and administrators in each program to help them consider quality themselves? It’s their system. They created it, they care more about it than we do, for good or ill.  They surely do care when, from the outside, we figuratively shake our heads and wag fingers. No matter how sweetly we deliver a top-down approach, it is my opinion that it doesn’t work.  It isn’t working and it won’t work.  It’s time for a different approach.  One that is wholistic, people-centered and respectful.

What if we shift the frame to Child Care Quality Design and Build?  A frame that is collaborative, not rigid with expertise, open to dialogue, respectful of time and effort and ultimately dependent upon the relationships?  Then standards can  be met as both understanding and trust grows.  There are places where this is the expected process (NAEYC Accreditation for instance) and we can see that it works.  But the vast number of child care programs are only experiencing quality improvement as regulatory and corrective.  No wonder that programs don’t really make changes.

I am writing a workbook for directors to use independently, or for teachers to use in just their classroom and/or for coaches and quality improvement “builders” to help centers make plans and implement them.  In many ways this is quality improvement 101 – this is where we started – with collaborative consulting using the Environmental Rating Scales as a self-assessment starting point.  (see Frank Porter Graham’s Partnerships for Inclusion) But with the high stakes of QRIS systems and rankings, limited time and resources have been high jacked to respond to those pressures.  I suggest that while QRIS systems are excellent for setting standards for quality and connecting those standards to other related systems, they are not yet so great at building child care quality capacity at the program level, where the teachers and children are.  They may reward higher quality with higher subsidy rates but that is not the same as getting teachers and directors in programs to authentically implement quality practices. Frankly, if it was as easy as mandating or suggesting quality practices, we would already have them.  Like Denmark.

As is often noted very quietly in our circles, we just can’t make teachers and directors do what we think they should.  Until we engage them as the Implementation Drivers they are, we are not going to see the experiences for children, the environments for learning and growing for either children and adults, rise to the standards that we know they all deserve.

I like the frame Design and Build because it is for starting where you are, without the judgment implied in “improvement” which sabotages the trust needed in a change process.  It implies choice and active participation.  There is a recognition that we will need some space for reflection and thinking and then an implementation stage for concrete measurable actions.  These are all familiar at the Big System level.  It’s only a matter of following through to the program level with the same respect for the complexity.

I also like Design and Build because it matches my instincts that this is related to righting the social construct/craft we created for America’s children when their parents are working.  We are getting closer to a climate where we can bring more resources to bear, but we have yet to crack this “getting to quality” part. If we only throw money into the Big System without figuring out how to change the little systems where the children are, we will waste it.  We know a lot but not yet enough.  And too many children are in crummy child care while we try to figure out how to get this right.

More to come….   What do you think?


Re-framing child care quality improvement so that it works better.

Tis the eve of Worthy Wage Day

“Worthy Work – Worthy Wages”

When Worthy Wage Day was born, I was teaching and directing a child care program and since I was stumped as to how pay any of us teachers a  remotely living wage, I found Marcy Whitebook’s work which confirmed what I suspected.  The system is rigged against fair teacher wages – and not by anyone who was making money off of them.  (Except I still can’t see how corporate programs pay stockholders when they should be paying teachers).  The free market system doesnt work in the child care ‘business’ because the only source of revenue is from parents who dont have the resources to pay for the services they receive, the “full cost of quality” is a secret, paid for by teachers.

I like to imagine what life would be like if I went to my doctor and he said I needed XYZ and it would cost $5000.00.  And I looked at him pitifully and invoking his love of my general well being I said plaintively “but I only have $2000.00.  please, sir, could you just take what I can offer?  its for something so important and you care about it too – please?  pretty please?” And I can hear the doctor saying with a sigh,  “Okay”.       Ain’t gonna happen, right?  But that is precisely what the dynamics are in the child care “industry”.  And who is it that pays for the missing $3000.00?  The doctor/teacher who provides the service for less than it cost the doctor/teacher.  Its a loss.  I know a child care teacher who provides the parents of the children in her class a receipt for the thousands of dollars of her “forgone wages” that she has essentially donated to the families.

To those of us in early childhood, there is nothing new here – we have been singing this sad song for well over 30 years.  The stunning part is that absolutely nothing has changed.  We saw early childhood rise from “day care” to the President’s budget.  We have learned to appreciate the seriousness of very young children’s experiences and their effect over their lifetimes.  We have state early learning standards and QRIS systems and conferences at the White House and national gatherings of the experts and we have learned important things that help us serve our children better – we are better teachers of literacy and language, of dual language learners, of the importance of play and the role of instruction, of outdoor learning and social emotional self regulation.  We understand better the role of teacher child interactions, of authentic parent engagement, of cultural and linguistically competent responsive teaching – have I missed anything?  We now do all this and early childhood teachers are not making any more than they did 30 odd years ago.  http://www.irle.berkeley.edu/cscce/2014/report-worthy-work-still-unlivable-wages/    What a deal!!!   What a disgrace.

How is this possible?  What the hell is the problem? Ok, well we know what the problem is.  Why the hell have we not addressed it?!  We have tinkered around the edges of the child care system trying to improve quality, measure quality, motivate quality, bribe quality education for children and on the backs of teachers making $9.57/hour in my state.  That is $19, 140 a year for teachers of infants through three year olds.  If the teacher has 2 children or a husband and 1 child she is below the federal poverty guidlines. The mean income in my state is $46,000/year.  If this teacher teaches four yr olds in a place that calls them preschoolers, she may make $12.27 an hour.  A teacher of five yr olds (aka kindergarten teacher) makes $19.96/hour, over $40,000 a year.  And SHE deserves more!

This is the definition of cognitive dissonance.  It is a social and economic justice issue.  It is about gender, race, class and a perfect storm of isms to marginalize.  We have doomed teachers to two paths – follow their commitment to young children and live in poverty or leave the field and go almost anywhere else.  Like groom dogs.  or park cars.  If we dont care about the teachers, where is our responsibility to the children these teachers are “raising” in full day programs?

So while this is a familiar rant, my outrage, wrath and anger increase every year.   The answer is a public will to commit federal and state dollars to adequately fund a system that properly cares and educates all children, doesnt reduce their teachers to a life in poverty and doesnt rob young parents of their economic security.   This is not rocket science.  This is about rights and justice.

Thank you to my sheroes Rosemarie and Peggy and Deb and Deb and Margie and Marcy and Peg and Gretchen and Angie and Lori and Ann and the hundreds of Worthy Wagers around the country who have been fighting for this for years.  Lets drum up even more momentum with a Twitter Storm /http://www.irle.berkeley.edu/cscce/2015/worthy-wage-day-twitter-storm/ this May 1st – the 22nd Worthy Wage Day!  I will be marching with my sisters (and few brothers!) again!

If this doesnt do it, then all we can do is…..strike!?


Tis the eve of Worthy Wage Day

Why people don’t change – even when we ask nicely.

A common vexing theme emerged from a recent conversation with TA (technical assistance) colleagues.

(A side bar about our fields’ ridiculous – or telling –  inability to hone in on a common-sense descriptive job title. Last I counted there were 17 names for people who were doing the same job – “improving” child care. I propose Mediaries – “those who bring help and knowledge to others”. Prometheus brought fire to mankind as a mediary.)

Sometimes its hard to just pick one soapbox at a time.

So we were talking about how fruitless it is when people assume we can make child care teachers and/or directors change their behavior.  Non-field people are perplexed when we cannot produce the results that are expected.  It seems so much easier than it is.   It reminded me of what we already know about behavior being an expression of values, identity and emotions. If a child care provider is doing just fine – by her definition – then why on earth is she going to subject herself to the stress and work of making changes? I love using the medical pain chart as my change-o-meter.

here is how to read this chart for medical purposes, italics are for righting child care purposes.

—0-1: Very little or barely noticeable pain.

I love my kids and my kids love me.

—2-3: Pain is present, but you may have to stop and think about it to really tell if it is there or gone. You seem just fairly comfortable.

If someone asks me I remember how hard my job is and how little I get paid.

—4-5: You now notice your pain, perhaps at rest or during activity. It may interfere with your activities. Level “4“ is the level at which it is a good idea to start introducing some avenues of relief.

Now my children are sick and I dont have paid sick days. How in the world will I pay my bills?

6-7: Your pain is distracting you, but you may —be able to focus on something else rather than the pain for a short period of time. You may be “gritting your teeth” to carry out activities.

Back at work pretending those three unpaid days at home with my children didnt happen because I cant do anything about it. But Johnnny is on my last nerve in this class today. I am going to tell his mother she has to start having consequences at home for his bad behavior! And these kids dont listen at clean up anymore and I dont get paid enough to clean up this mess. (This would be a very good time to call in a TA – I mean, a mediary.)

8-9: Your pain may be severe enough that it makes you stop in the middle of an activity, or not be able to complete it at all. It is difficult to think of anything else but your pain at this level. You may be uncomfortable even during rest or quiet times

I am so frustrated with my co-workers and director – we need to talk! I think I will bring this up with my assistant at naptime and on the playground. And maybe on Facebook.  This place is just unfair.

—10: Your pain is now the worst you can imagine. It is important to remember that the best way to treat the pain is to stay ahead of its increasing intensity, and to maintain a regular schedule of pain relief. Do not wait for Level “10” before you discuss options with your healthcare provider.

Quitting or firing is imminent.

Final thought – what stage of pain do you want YOUR child’s teacher to be in?  This is about the professional adult work environment, social and economic justice AND the welfare of young children.


Basically, if we show up at the child care home or center and they are at a pain level of 3-5 they have no reason to let us in the door. Unless we are bringing incentives or a threat, we cannot be surprised when they are not enthusiastic about our advice! What’s a mediary to do? Look for the underlying stress/discomfort and target our initial efforts to relieve that. Thats how we build those relationships that move the rest of the “righting” forward. If we are lucky and the stars and planets are aligned

Why people don’t change – even when we ask nicely.

another metaphor: Quality Soup

One of the mistakes that we have been forced to make has been the application of only some strategies that we were able to resource or were the current fad of a focus of policy. This, of course, at the expense of a systemic approach that acknowledges the complex and multi-dimensional nature of child care.  Thus the results have been often superficial, tinkering, fleeting and unsustainable changes, though sometimes they succeeded as first steps.  But as long as we refuse to face and tackle the complexity, we will not right the child care system.  The somewhat silly metaphor of a quality “soup” speaks to the necessary variety of the ingredients and the adjustments that reflect local resources and priorities – but “low hanging fruit” does not make a hearty soup.  Children need the real thing to thrive. And we have a lot of hungry American children.

quality soup v3 - New PageImpossibly complicated to visualize, here is the recipe for Quality Soup.  You can tinker with the amounts but all the basic ingredients have to be there in some measure.

  • Teacher Compensation commensurate with public school teachers
  • High quality Teacher Education
  • Cultural Competence
  • Authentic Child Assessment
  • Curriculum
  • Applying knowledge to Practice through Coaching and Communities of Practice
    • Generalist or child development
    • Specific content knowledge (infant-toddler, DLLs)
  • Classroom Structure  (e.g. ratio, group sizes)
  • Skilled and supportive adminstrators
    • leadership
    • management
    • supports for a professional working environment (e,g, sick leave, paid planning time, health insurance)
  • Family Engagement




Connecting new dots – that are really obvious.

Two science articles caught my eye yesterday.  The first tells us that scientists have learned that children in poverty have 6% lesser brain surface mass than children who live in affluence.   (As aside – the “framing” of this article is so offensive to me with the use of the word “sad” speaking volumes about the author isnt thinking about any children they actually KNOW).  If this is the case – along with the evidence that children experiencing the toxic stress of poverty develop less than their potential working memory (as in what they most need to get good grades in school) then we are seeing the emergence of compelling scientific evidence that should transcend any American meme about how people get what they earn and that people just need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps.  Now those arguments must be silenced because – of course! – no one will knowingly place little children in situations that effect their brain development, condemning them for all time to a less-than status in our society.  No one would do that knowing what we know.  Right?   Stay tuned!

Brain development and poverty

But wait! There is hope! The second article is how -even when children are living in toxic stress poverty – their outcomes are greatly improved with the care and attention of at least one nurturing adult – say, like a child care teacher????    Science of Resilience

So knowing this, we would want to optimize the potential for that adult “rescue” relationship to be available for children in poverty, right?  We would make sure that that adult wasnt also drowning in the toxic stress of poverty and a high stakes, high demand job.  We would ensure that children had reasonable access to one-on-one time with such a powerful intervention so the ratios and group sizes of child care classes would be predicated on optimizing that relationship.  And when we had to weigh the costs of such high quality child care with the social costs of  lives cast by poverty, then we would see what Heckman and others have been patiently explaining.   If you do not sow in the spring, you will not reap in the autumn” – a profound Irish proverb (!)  I joke about profound but apparently we can’t connect these simple cause and effects.  Maybe we really do need the simplistic framing of common sense to wake us up to the Law of the Harvest.


Connecting new dots – that are really obvious.