I 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?